Is there any truth in the tale of Troy?

Homer’s epic accounts of the Trojan War are among the most influential narratives in world history. But are they rooted in reality – or mere myth? By Paul Cartledge

Accounts of the Trojan War ascribed to Homer were the most revered chronicles in the Ancient Greek historical canon – but, Paul Cartledge suggests, they may be entirely fictional. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

In ancient times, the pre-Christian Greeks had no Bible equivalent. The nearest they had – and it was not very near – was ‘Homer’: a one-word catch-all representing both the supposed author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and his canon. These epic poems, composed in hexameter verse, have had an awesome impact on world culture.

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It is no exaggeration to describe them as the two foundational works of Greek and European literature. But who exactly was Homer? The Greeks disagreed vehemently – typically on patriotic grounds. No fewer than seven cities claimed him as their own favourite son. When did he live, though, and for whom did he compose? Again, there was no agreement or certainty – mainly for lack of decisive evidence.

Dating the epics and their subject is a matter of debate. The ancient Greeks, discussing the works from the sixth century BC onwards, held that the Trojan War was fought 1194–1184 BC – a dating broadly accepted by some modern scholars – and that ‘Homer’ lived around the late eighth century BC.

On two points all – or almost all – ancient Greeks did agree: that ‘Homer’ was somehow responsible for both epic poems, and that the conflict at the heart of them, the Trojan War, was historically authentic – it had really happened. But that latter belief bears reanalysing and re-evaluating in the light of the latest linguistic, historical and, above all, archaeological research.

First, though, let me tell you about one of my first encounters with ‘Homer’. When I was just eight years old, I discovered that William Heath Robinson, famed for his drawings of fantastic imaginary contraptions, had memorably, beautifully and captivatingly illustrated children’s versions of the Iliad and Odyssey. His images of Achilles, resplendent in his shiny new, divinely forged arms and armour, and his drawings of Odysseus hurling insults at the gigantic, cruelly blinded Cyclops Polyphemus, stand out for me more than 60 years later.

The point of telling you this autobiographical story is that these epics have survived to be read and reread, translated and retranslated, re-visioned and repurposed to this day because they are blazingly great stories. They are what the Greeks called ‘myths’ in the original sense of the word: traditional tales handed down from generation to generation, at first orally, later in written form.

In ancient Greece, an entire profession of rhapsodes (literally ‘stitchers of songs’) sprang up to perform ‘Homer’ in competition at festivals. It was considered an admirable personal feat to be able to learn and recite all Homer (a feat that would have taken several days), and it was among the first achievements of ancient Greek literary critics based at the great Library at Alexandria in Egypt to redact and re-present (on papyrus) a ‘standard’ scholarly text of both poems.

A key part of the genius of the author – or, perhaps, authors – of these two epics was selectivity. From the mass of traditional stories handed down orally over many centuries describing the derringdo deeds and adventures of a golden age of heroes, ‘Homer’ focused on just two: Achilles and Odysseus. The Iliad is really about the anger of Achilles vented and satiated in a heroic duel with Troy’s champion defender, Hector. The Odyssey chronicles the travels and travails of the eponymous hero as he struggled over 10 years to return from Troy to his native kingdom of Ithaca.

What were Achilles and Odysseus doing in Troy in the first place? Homer is economical with the background, partly because it was widely known among his audiences. In summary, the story preceding the epics begins with Paris, the prince of Troy in north-west Asia Minor, seducing and stealing away the most beautiful woman in the world: Helen, queen of Sparta. Helen happened to be married to Paris’s host, King Menelaus, who moved heaven and earth to avenge this gross breach of hospitality and etiquette, and even grosser insult to his masculine pride. That meant persuading his older brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, to gather together and, after some difficulty obtaining a favourable wind, lead by sea a multi-Greek expedition of invasion and recapture. This expedition took rather longer than expected – 10 years in all – but the expedition’s objectives were eventually gained through a combination of Achilles’ martial heroism on the battlefield (killing Hector in a spectacular duel) and Odysseus’s cunning ingenuity (the Trojan Horse has become a universal metaphor for succeeding by stealth).

But was the tale – any of it – true? Had there really been a Trojan War such as Homer described – or at any rate a Trojan War, not necessarily correctly represented in all its manifold details by the (much later) poet or poets labelled ‘Homer’?

It wasn’t long before critics were casting doubt on one of the fundamental presuppositions of the Troy tale. According to the sixth-century BC Sicilian-Greek poet Stesichorus, Helen queen of Sparta had not in fact gone to Troy with her alleged abductor, Prince Paris. Instead, she had sat out the Trojan War in Egypt; an eidolon (spirit image) was all that was visible of her in Troy. So the revanchist Greeks were fighting literally over an image, a mirage, a phantom.

Worse still, according to the fifth-century BC historian Herodotus, who agreed with Stesichorus on the above, Helen had probably not been abducted in the first place, but had abandoned her Spartan husband Menelaus to run off with her Trojan lover of her own free will. This was scandalous – but at least the basic framework of the war’s historical authenticity was left intact. Should it be, however?

Heinrich Schliemann, a vastly wealthy 19th-century Prussian businessman and ultra-romantic, was in no doubt. Not only was Homer a great poet, he was also a great historian, and what was needed above all was to excavate (or at any rate, unearth) the original sites of King Agamemnon’s capital Mycenae and, of course, Troy. And that’s what Schliemann, following clues left by the ancient Greeks themselves, duly – and controversially – did. Unfortunately, at Hisarlık in today’s north-west Turkey – which we all agree must have been Homer’s Troy, if there was a real historical Troy – he made a serious botch of things, leaving an archaeological disaster area that has had to be cleared and cleaned up by successive, properly scientific American and German dig campaigns.

Successive layers of habitation here have been excavated and studied. Notably, although there’s no doubting that this massively fortified hilltop site, with a considerable lower town spreading out beneath, was of great significance in the appropriate period (roughly the 13th to 12th centuries BC), experts can’t agree which of the layers is the Homeric one. That’s because there’s little or no archaeological evidence, let alone proof, of Greek presence at the site, nor of Greek aggressive action of the 10-year-long siege variety postulated by Homer.

All of which is grist to the mill of those nasty sceptics (spoiler alert: I am one of them) who doubt the fundamental veracity of the entire Trojan War myth. Consider some of the other evidence for the prosecution – apart from the lack of objective, confirmatory, probative, contemporary archaeological data. Did the post-Trojan War Greeks have a good reason to invent and embellish such a tale? Comparative socio-historical study of the epic as a genre of communal literature suggests two relevant things: first, that sagas such as the Iliad presuppose ruins; and second that, in the hallowed sphere of epic poetry, defeats can be turned into victories – and victories can be invented, based airily on nothing factual whatsoever.

It is a well documented fact that, some time during the decades around 1200 BC, the ancient Greek eastern Mediterranean world suffered a raft of major catastrophes. (We know that domain was Greek, thanks to the decipherment of the contemporary ‘Linear B’ records scratched on clay.) These calamities included the physical destruction of cities and citadels, followed by severe depopulation, mass internal transmigration, and near-total cultural degradation.

We do not know for sure what or who caused the catastrophes. We can, however, identify their negative consequences – economic, political, social, psychological. There ensued an illiterate ‘dark’ age lasting in some areas up to four centuries, ending only with the renaissance of the eighth century BC. Only then did the Greeks rediscover writing and invent a new alphabet, and begin to trade once more with their near eastern neighbours on a substantial scale. Only then did the population increase notably and settlements grow in size and complexity. Only then was a rudimentary notion of political citizenship first forged. Only then did Greeks begin to emigrate out of the Aegean heartland to points both farther east and much farther west – not least to the places they called Ilion and Corfu, Homer’s Phaeacia.

We have, therefore, a prime candidate for the impulse to create or fabricate the Trojan War myth: the compelling need in the dark night of the soul to postulate a ‘once upon a time’ golden age of pan-Greek solidarity and power, when the Greeks were able to muster collectively an expeditionary force of more than 1,000 ships and their crews. This force, led by heroic kings and aristocrats, would wallop a pesky foreign city that had dared to steal and hang on to one of their most important and iconic (I use that much abused word advisedly) women.

Meanwhile, one of the great scientific advances of recent times has been the decipherment of Hittite cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts from, especially, Bogazkoy or ancient Hattusas, about 200km west of Ankara. The Hittites and their late Bronze Age empire, which spanned much of Asia Minor till around the time of the purported Trojan War, emerged as potential providers of the real, gritty Anatolian political-diplomatic background to the Greeks’ rather free-floating Trojan saga. Both toponyms and personal names that sound uncannily Greek have been found in the Hittite records. These include the city name Wilusa, which when spoken sounds a bit like ‘Ilion’ (the Greeks’ term for Troy – whence ‘Iliad’), and the name Ahhijawa for ‘Achaea(ns)’. (Homer notoriously never calls Greeks what the historical Greeks actually called themselves, ‘Hellenes’. Instead the epics refer to them as Achaeans – and Danaans and Argives.)

However, for all those linguistic similarities – or coincidences – the Hittite records that have so far been discovered and published contain no reference to anything approaching a Homeric Trojan War. Likewise, although they do contain evidence that royal women could be involved in diplomatic exchanges between the great powers of the then Middle East, they have not as yet yielded a Greek Helen of Troy or her equivalent.

There are, besides, reasons for us to be sceptical about the assertion that the Homeric epics are historical documents, and to doubt the idea that they imply historically authentic backgrounds for the late Bronze Age Greek world – what scholars conventionally refer to as the ‘Mycenaean’ world after its most wealthy and powerful city. One example is the issue of slavery. Though the institution and importance of slavery are recognised in the Homeric epics, their author(s) had absolutely no idea of the scale of slaveholding that was practised in the great Mycenaean palace economies of the 14th or 13th centuries BC. They thought 50 was an appropriately sizeable holding for a great king, whereas in reality a Bronze Age Agamemnon could command the unfree labour of thousands. Such an error of scale suggests a major frailty in the account’s historical rigour.

In short, I am with those who believe that the world of Homer is immortal precisely because it never existed outside the framework of the Homeric epic poems, their repeated oral performance and eventual transcription and dissemination. And thank goodness for that. Without the ancient Greeks’ belief in a Trojan War, they – and, by extension, we – would not have had the genre of tragic drama, one of the ancient Greeks’ most fertile and inspirational inventions, to delight, caution and instruct us. (The great Athenian tragedian Aeschylus is said to have referred to his plays, over-modestly, as mere offcuts from the banquet of Homer.)

There is a world in Homer: a world of literary reception, allusion and collusion. Without it, we should all be very much the poorer – spiritually, artistically and culturally speaking. Homer lives – and long live Homer. But the Trojan War? Lost, most probably.

Paul Cartledge is the former AG Leventis professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge. His books include The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others (OUP, 2002) and Democracy: A Life (OUP, 2017)

Television The drama series Troy: Fall of a City will be airing on BBC One soon

Book Homer by Barbara Graziosi (OUP, 2016)

Special edition Read more about ancient Greece in our special edition The Story of the Ancient World. For more details, go to buysubscriptions.com/ancientworld

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This article was first published in the February 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine