Sea Peoples

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.

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The Battle of the Nile Delta, 1178 B.C.

This is the first in a monthly series which will examine battles in the history of the ancient Near East.

Egypt in the early 12th century BC was still one of the most powerful countries in the world. But Egypt’s power was falling from its height 50 years earlier under Rameses II. After Rameses II died in 1212 BC, his son Merneptah had to contend with a Libyan invasion in 1207. Civil war came to Egypt in 1204 as Amenmesse and Seti II fought over who would succeed Merneptah. Seti II emerged the victor two years later, but within the next decade the kingdom was plunged into war again between Sethnakhte and Queen Tewosret. This conflict ended with Sethnakhte’s victory, and ended Egypt’s 19th dynasty and ushered in the 20th.[1]

When Sethnakhte’s son Rameses III took the throne in 1186, Egypt was clearly weakened by the internal and foreign wars. Yet, Egypt’s condition was enviable compared to the rest of the eastern Mediterranean world. In a series of events which marked the end of the Bronze Age in ancient history and ushered in the Iron Age, most of the other powerful empires of the time were going up in flames. The Hittite capital of Hattushas had been sacked and burned. Troy was destroyed, Ugarit sacked, most of the Mycenean cities in Greece were obliterated. Dozens of cities all along the Anatolian coast were wiped out.

The culprits were a disparate group of maritime-inclined cultures known as the Sea Peoples. Who the Sea Peoples were and where they came from has been much discussed. Each ancient writer who listed the names of their peoples listed different but overlapping names. Generally, they seem to have come from the Aegean, the southern coast of Anatolia, Crete and possibly Greece. Like the Viking raiders of early medieval Europe, they first took to the sea to engage in piratical raiding, possibly due to harsh economic times at home and the abundance of readily available loot abroad. Again like the Vikings, their focus soon changed from raiding to finding new places to settle their populations.

The Sea Peoples first attacked Egypt in 1181 BC, during the reign of Rameses III. A few tribes of the Sea Peoples aided a large force of Libyans in attacking Egypt from the western desert. The result was a disaster for the Libyans, as their force was defeated, scattered and many of its members sold into slavery in Egypt. Despite the disaster, a different and much larger coalition of Sea Peoples planned another invasion.[2]

Countdown to Invasion

Rameses III’s inscription at the temple at Medinet Habu describe the beginnings of the war:

The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands. All at once the lands were removed and scattered into the fray. No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, and Alashiya on, being cut off at one time. A camp was set up at one place in Amor. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming forward to Egypt while the flame was being prepared before them. Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, lands united. They laid their hands upon the lands as far as the circuit of the earth, their hearts confident and trusting: “Our plans will succeed!”[3]

The Sea Peoples had already, according to Rameses, destroyed Hatti (the Hittite empire), Kode (Cilicia), Arzawa (in southwestern Anatolia), and Alashiya (Cyprus). They gathered in Amor in Syria to plan the combined attack on Egypt.

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