The Trojan War in Greek Historical Sources

The first modern ancient historians often took a harshly critical view of Homer. By the beginning of the modern era, western scholars generally held that the Iliad and Odyssey were myth, that the Trojan war was not an actual event and that the characters of Homer’s poems were not real people. Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées that Homer “did not think of making a history, but solely a book to amuse; he is the only writer of his time; the beauty of the work has made it last.” He went on to write that “Every history which is not contemporaneous…[is] false, and found to be false in the course of time. It is not so with contemporaneous writers,”[1] which, if taken literally, would mean that this website is in fact a web of falsehood and the practice of studying history should cease. In his massive 11-volume History of Greece (published between 1846 and 1856), George Grote wrote that the only real Trojan War occurred in the minds of the poets, summarized it in a few pages, and then excused himself to move on to “the real history of the Greeks.”[2]

All of this changed in 1871, when German amateur archaeologist and ardent proponent of Homeric historicity Heinrich Schliemann began excavations of the mound of Hissarlik. In a few years of whirlwind excavations, Schliemann destroyed most of the parts of Troy that were actually from the time of the Trojan War, lost his dig license, founded the field of Anatolian archaeology, and despite it all definitively proved that there had been a Bronze Age city at the region that ancient geographers identified as the location of Troy.

Fortunately, further excavations by actually competent people have rescued our knowledge of the Hissarlik site. We now know that ancient Troy had 9 principal levels corresponding to different historical periods. Most importantly, Troy VIIa was violently destroyed by fire at around 1190 BC, at about the time the Greeks report that the Trojan war happened.[3] Whereas earlier writers had only ancient texts to work with, we now had hard evidence to back up the texts. As a result, views of the Iliad swung back towards the side of historicity.

The gate of the citadel of Troy VII. This level was destroyed by fire and corresponds with the traditional date of the Trojan War.

This changed again in 1954 with the publication of M.I. Finley’s book The World of Odysseus. Drawing upon the previous 75 years of excavations of Greek Bronze Age sites, Finley showed that the societies described in Homer’s poems looked nothing like the highly bureaucratic city-states of the Bronze Age. Rather, they looked like the societies of Homer’s own time in the 8th century BC, where towns were ruled by local strongmen.[4] As a result, opinions shifted again. There may have been a Troy, and it may have been destroyed, possibly even by Greeks, but Homer knew hardly anything about it.

However, in this great debate it is sometimes overlooked that the ancient Greeks themselves knew that Homer was writing fiction. The historians of ancient Greece did not accept Homer as a historical source for Trojan War. Instead, they tried to write their own, more accurate and historically based accounts.

The biggest problem with accepting their accounts as historical is that writing disappeared from ancient Greece from about the 12th century BC to the 9th century. What’s more, the Mycenaeans do not seem to have written anything that is very interesting to read. They used writing primarily for administrative and record keeping purposes, not as an art form. Since the Greek historians could not have used written sources outside of Homer, they were reliant on local oral tradition, foreign historical sources, textual criticism of Homer, and even some early attempts at archaeology.

The first Greek historian to give us an account of the Trojan War is also the first Greek historian whose work survives. Herodotus discusses the Trojan War at several points in his Histories.

At the beginning of his history, he put the Trojan War in the context of escalating conflicts between the East and the Greek West that eventually led to the Persian invasions of Greece. The conflicts began with the abduction of Io by the Phoenicians, the abduction of Europa of Tyre and Medea of Colchis by the Greeks, and the abduction of Helen by Alexandros (more famously called Paris). In response, Herodotus asserts, the Greeks launched their first invasion of Asia by attacking Troy. The Persians, Herodotus wrote, “assume Asia and the  barbarian tribes living there as their own” and therefore “they find in the sack of Troy the origin of their hostility toward the Hellenes.” He then adds that “I myself have no intention of affirming that these events occurred thus or otherwise.”[5]

Herodotus revisits the topic in his section on Egypt. Herodotus traveled to Egypt and in city of Memphis he noticed a temple dedicated to “Foreign Aphrodite.” Since no other temples in Egypt were built for foreign deities, Herodotus inquired about the shrine with the local priests. The priests told him that after Alexandros abducted Helen from Menelaus, his ship was blown off course in a storm and ended up in the western Nile Delta. Here, Alexandros’ men abandoned him, went straight to the nearest Egyptian authorities and reported that Alexandros was a kidnapper, a thief and an adulterer who was on the run. The local authorities sent messages to Pharaoh asking what to do, and he wrote back requesting that Alexandros be brought before him.

Pharaoh questioned Alexandros as to his journey and what actually happened at Sparta. He also questioned his crew, and when their stories did not match Pharaoh determined that Alexandros was lying and ordered him and his men to leave Egypt within three days. The catch was that Helen and the plunder which Alexandros stole from Menelaus would remain in Egypt to be kept safe until they could be returned to Menelaus.[6]

The real kicker came when the Greeks put together an army to attack Troy on behalf of Menelaus. The Greeks arrived at Troy and demanded the return of Helen and the plunder. The Trojans replied that they didn’t have either and that both were in Egypt. The Greeks did not believe a word of this and sacked Troy anyways, plundered it, and then couldn’t find Helen anywhere. Menelaus realized that the Trojans had been telling the truth all along, and sailed to Egypt where Pharaoh returned his wife and possessions to him. Menelaus was, however, a terrible guest, because when storms prevented his ships from departing he killed two Egyptian children as human sacrifices to calm the storm. This caused the enraged Egyptians to come after him, and he escaped to Libya never to be seen again in Egypt.[7]

Herodotus argued that the Egyptian version of the Trojan War was probably correct. First, he said the Egyptian priests’ source of information was Menelaus himself when he visited Egypt. Second, he argues that if the Trojans really had Helen, they would have given her back rather than risk the destruction of their entire civilization just so that Alexandros could take a Spartan wife. Finally, he cites a few passages in the Iliad and Odyssey which he argues indicate that Homer knew of the Egyptian version of the story. The reason Homer changed it to his own version is because, as you may have already noticed, it’s kind of a terrible story.[8]

The problem for the rest of us is that Herodotus tended to try and shoehorn the history of other nations into the interpretive framework of Greek history. This may be understandable from Herodotus’ point of view, as Greek history was what he was familiar with and what his readers would have been familiar with, but it leaves us with some confused partly right and partly mangled accounts of the history of other nations. And since most of what Herodotus writes about isn’t found in other sources, well, we’re left to wonder at what might have been.

Some light could be shed on this by Hellanicus of Mytilene, a historian who wrote at the time of Herodotus. All of his works have been lost, and all of them have tantalizing titles that make one wonder if they hold all the answers to some ancient mystery when in fact we have no idea what they say. One of his lost works was titled Troica, apparently a history of Troy. Another was a history of the Persian Wars, titled Persica. And still another is mysteriously titled Atlantis.[9]

A different and more analytical view of the Trojan War is found in Thucydides’ The Peoloponnesian War. First, Thucydides openly admits that reconstructing the early history of Greece is extremely difficult, saying that “I have found it impossible, because of its remoteness in time, to acquire a really precise knowledge of the distant past or even of the history preceding our own period.”[10]

According to Thucydides, early Greece had no settled populations or civilization. The people were very poor and subsisted off of agriculture. Small communities developed around certain strongmen leaders. Because good farming land was rare, it was often fought over. Greek communities turned to piracy and raiding as a way of survival.[11] “The leading pirates were powerful menwrote Thucydides, “acting both out of self-interest and in order to support the weak among their own people. They would descend upon cities which were unprotected by walls…and by plundering such places they would gain most of their livelihood. At this time, such a profession, so far from being regarded as disgraceful, was considered quite honorable.”[12]

It was not only the Greeks who were sea raiders. Thucydides mentions the Phoenicians and Carians as well, and says they colonized many of the Aegean islands. He mentions an incident during his own time where graves on Delos were excavated and found to contain Carian weapons and be buried according to Carian burial practice.[13]

Greek ruins from the sacred island of Delos. While disinterring cemeteries on this island, Thucydides reports that the Greeks found numerous Carian graves.

The Trojan War, Thucydides argued, was the first war in which all of Greece united against a common foe. He argues this based on the fact that Homer never uses the term “Hellenes” to describe the Greek side. Instead, he refers to different groups of Greeks as “Argives,” “Danaans” and “Achaeans.” He also never uses barbaroi (from whence we get “barbarian) to describe the other side. This, Thucydides argues, shows that there was no unified sense of Greek cultural identity in Homer’s time. There was no sense of Greeks versus Barbarians, there were only Argives, Danaans and Achaeans fighting Trojans and their allies. And since Homer lived far later than the Trojan War, since Greek cultural unity didn’t exist in Homer’s day it definitely cannot have existed before him.[14]

Thucydides discounts the idea that Helen had anything to do with the outbreak of the war. Agammenon, he writes, wanted to attack Troy out of a desire for conquest. The other Greek states followed him not because of an oath but because he was powerful. The army sent to Troy had to have been small. It had to be, because there were no logistics in those days. Armies had to live off the land, and therefore they could not be larger than what the land could support.

Thucydides’ reconstruction of the course of the war is speculative, based primarily on military common sense. The Greeks likely won a battle after landing, which allowed them to set up a base camp. From then on, most of the Greek force had to be sent into the countryside to forage for food, leaving the outnumbered Trojans to fight only a small portion of the Greek force at a time. As a result, the siege lasted 10 years.[15]

Once Troy had been captured and destroyed, the Greeks returned to their homes only to face political turmoil, strife an warfare. Many leaders were driven into exile and peoples were driven from their lands by invaders. 60 years after the Trojan War ended, the Thessalians invaded and drove the Boetians into what is now Boetia. 80 years after the fall of Troy the Dorians invaded and occupied the Peloponnese. As a result, “many years passed by and many difficulties were encountered before Hellas could enjoy any peace or stability, and before the period of shifting populations ended. Then came the period of colonization.”[16]

While Thucydides’ sources were limited, his reconstruction of early Greek history is remarkably close to what has been reconstructed by modern archaeology. The Greeks lived in small agrarian settlements in the Early Helladic period and slowly took to the sea. By the Mycenaean period, powerful city-states ruled Greece. At around the same time as the destruction of Troy VIIa, there was widespread unrest in Greece, major urban centers were burned and Mycenaean civilization collapsed. In the Aegean, maritime raiding by groups of  ‘sea peoples’ (often linked with southern coastal regions of Asia Minor, like Caria) destroyed numerous urban centers in the eastern Mediterranean. Greek civilization built itself up again over the next several centuries before colonization of Italy, Sicily and the coast of Asia Minor began in the 8th century.

In the 1st century BC, Diodorus Siculus gave us another account of the Trojan War. Unfortunately, the portions of his work which deal directly with the Trojan War have been lost. What we have are tangential comments made during discussions of other countries. Priam of Troy, according to Diodorus, was a vassal of the Assyrians. When the Greeks attacked Troy, the Assyrians sent an army of 20,000 infantry and 200 chariots to relieve the siege. The army was initially successful, but its commanding general was killed in an ambush. After the Assyrian defeat, Penthesileia, queen of the Amazons, sent a force to relieve Troy which was also defeated and Penthesileia was killed. In the closing days of the siege, Aeneas and his followers seized the citadel of Troy and held off attackers until they were allowed to leave under truce while the rest of the city was destroyed.[17]

After the Trojan War, the Carians seized the island of Symê north of Rhodes and became masters of the Aegean Sea. They expanded their control to some of the Cyclades, before being driven out by the Greeks. Aeneas traveled to Italy where 3 years after the fall of Troy he was made “king of the Latins.” His son would found a city there called Alba Longa. Diodorus agrees with Herodotus that Menelaus visited Egypt on his return from Troy. While in Egypt, Trojan prisoners kept by Menelaus revolted, seized Egyptian territory and settled down. Diodorus notes that “on such matters as these it is not easy to set forth the precise truth.”[18]

Diodorus’ magnificently mangled history appears at first glance to bear little resemblance to what we know about the ancient Near East from more contemporary sources. It seems Diodorus was writing about events which occurred 1,000 years before his time based on traditions from various parts of the world.

Tjekker warriors shown fighting the Egyptians. They may be linked with the Teukrians, Herodotus' name for the Trojans. Groups of Sea Peoples settled in the Gaza area after their failed invaison of Egypt.

In the process, he seems to have become rather chronologically confused. Assyria in 1200 BC (at the generally accepted time of the Trojan War) did not control or have contact with western Anatolia. However, if we substitute the word Hittite for Assyria in Diodorus’ account, the basic outline of Troy being a Hittite vassal state and the Hittite empire sending a relief force to Troy becomes at least plausible. The intervention of the Amazons seems rather silly. The story about a Trojan colony in Egypt could be a mangled retelling of the Sea People’s settlement of the Gaza area in the early 12th century (see The Battle of the Nile Delta).

The 1st century BC geographer Strabo also touched upon the history of the locations whose geography he described. He wrote that the Trojan War was a “Cadmean Victory” for the Greeks (the term Pyrrhic victory had not yet come into use). In the aftermath, both peoples turned to acts of piracy. The Trojans became sea raiders because they had nowhere else to go. The Greeks became sea raiders because Troy didn’t have the level of plunder they had been expecting. As a result, Trojan and Greek seafarers wandered across the Mediterranean.[19]

Strabo agreed with Diodorus that Trojan refugees settled in Egypt, and that in the aftermath of the Trojan War the Carians became feared sea raiders. He disagreed that Aeneas had anything to with Italy or Romans, noting that some people edited Homer’s text to make it sound plausible that Aeneas was the ancestor of the Romans.[19] Of sea raiding and migrations, Strabo writes that “Now it was particularly in the time of the Trojan War and after that time that invasions and migrations took place, since at the same time both the barbarians and the Greeks felt an impulse to acquire possession of the countries of others.”[20]

Strabo also compared Trojan names from the Iliad with Thracian names from his own time, and argued based on their similarity that the Trojans and Thracians had been linked in ancient times.[21] We don’t know for sure what language was spoken in ancient Troy, but it’s highly unlikely that Homer knew it. It’s much more likely that he copied his Trojan names from the language of some people group of his own time that lived near Troy, like Thrace.

All four of these authors seem to indicate a knowledge of some broad trends that align with modern scholarship. The first is that there was a Greek expedition to Troy which destroyed the city. The dates given for this expedition roughly match the date of TroyVIIa’s destruction. The second is that the expedition was followed by unrest and social upheaval in Greece, which compares to the collapse of the Mycenaean state. The third trend is the turn towards sea raiding by various peoples of the Aegean. This compares to the Sea Peoples’ invasions at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

The Greek historians can therefore be said to provide support for the theories of a Greek or Aegean origin for many of the Sea Peoples. The Danyen from the Medinet Habu relief of Rameses III in Egypt have been linked with the Danaans of Homer. Interestingly, Herodotus never uses the term Trojan in his work, instead using “Teukrian” to describe the people of Troy. The similarities between Teukrian and the Tjekker people mentioned on the Medinet Habu relief have been noted.[22]

Map showing major destructions of urban centers and people migrations during the Late Bronze Age collapse.

It is a great puzzle as to why the destruction of one city in Asia Minor warranted the prime place in ancient Greek culture while numerous other cities were destroyed in the same time period without being recorded in anyone’s history. Thucydides noted this, opining that “we shall find that if we look at the evidence of what was actually done, that it was not so important as it was made out to be, and as it is still, through the influence of the poets, believed to have been.”[23] Thucydides’ assertion that the Trojan War was the first time that the Greeks had come together as one nation is  significant. War is often a crucible for nationalist sentiments. The birth of Australian national identity is often traced to the experiences of Australian soldiers in Gallipoli, just across the Hellespont from Troy. Likewise, the birth of Canadian national identity is often traced to the battlefield of Vimy Ridge in 1917. This hints at a reason why the expedition against Troy had a long-lasting effect on Greek cultural identity. Later Greeks seem to have seen the Trojan War as  marking the beginning of a sense of pan-Greek identity. In short, it may have been the first time in history where the inhabitants of Greece became Greeks.

References:

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. by William Finlayson Trotter (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Pens%C3%A9es, 1669), 9.627.

[2] George Grote, History of Greece, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1853), 320-322.

[3] Hans Günter Jansen, “Troy: Legend and Reality,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Vol. II, ed. by Jack Sasson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 1126-1127; “Troy VII and the Historicity of the Trojan War,” http://projectsx.dartmouth.edu/history/bronze_age/lessons/les/27.html (accessed August 28, 2011).

Ancient Greek historians give a wide variety of dates for the Trojan War ranging from 1334 to 1135 BC. Most of the dates, however, cluster around the 1200-1170 range. The most commonly cited date in both modern and ancient sources is from Apollodorus, who dates the fall of Troy to 408 years before the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, which would date the end of the war to 1184 BC.

[4] M.I. Finley, The World of Odysseus (New York: New York Review of Books, 2002 reprint).

[5] Herodotus, The Histories, trans. by Andrea L. Purvis (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), 1.3-5.

[6] Herodotus, The Histories, 2.112-115.

[7] Herodotus, The Histories, 2.118-120.

[8] Herodotus, The Histories, 2.116, 118, 120.

The passages of Homer that Herodotus cites are Iliad, 6.289-292 and Odyssey, 4.227-230, 4.351-352.

[9] Harold North Fowler, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1902), 168.

[10] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), 1.1.

[11] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.2-5.

[12] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.5.

[13] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.8.

[14] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.3.

[15] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.9-11.

[16] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.12.

[17] Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, trans. by C.H. Oldfather, LacusCurtius, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/ (accessed August 29, 2011), 2.22.1-5, 2.46.46, 7.4.1-4.

[18] Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 1.56.4-6, 5.84.4, 7.5.2-6.

[19] Strabo, Geography, trans. by H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer, Perseus, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0198&redirect=true (accessed August 29, 2011), 3.2.13.

[20] Strabo, Geography, 12.8.5, 13.1.53, 17.1.34.

[21] Strabo, Geography, 12.8.4.

[22] Donald Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 251-252.

[23] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 1.12.

Image Sources: (Banner) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ilioupersis_Louvre_G152.jpg; (Body) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Troy1.jpg; Konstantinos Stampoulis, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Delos_3070.jpg; http://www.salimbeti.com/micenei/sea.htm; http://explorethemed.com/BACollapse.asp?c=1

Article © Christopher Jones 2011.

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