The Trojan War: History or Myth?

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Achilles dragging the body of Hector around Troy by Franz Matsch. Public domain

The Trojan War, as beautifully described in Homer’s “The Iliad”, is so vivid that it is considered by many to be a historical fact and not just an epic poem.

Troy, a wealthy ancient city in Asia Minor, was ruled by King Priam whose son Paris was invited to judge which of the goddesses – Aphrodite, Hera or Athena – had the right to be called the most beautiful.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

Aphrodite promised in Paris to grant him the most beautiful woman in the world, which was Helena, wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Paris stole Helen and they fled to Troy.

To recover Helen, the Greeks launched a great expedition under the general command of Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae.

The Greek army under the command of the charismatic Achilles besieged Troy for 10 years and ultimately sacked the city with the astute use of the Trojan horse.

The account of the Trojan War in “The Iliad” is an epic poem written five centuries after the alleged war; over the following centuries, it aroused long discourses among historians and scholars.

The question was whether the Trojan War was real or a myth loosely based on historical facts.

Myth and reality of Troy

In the history of ancient Greece, myth is often mixed with reality, as much as the gods interfere with the mortal world in everyday life.

It is difficult to see the Trojan War in historical terms. Some of the war heroes depicted in “The Iliad” are demigods, not mere mortals with divine qualities.

Helen, the most beautiful woman, for example, is the daughter of Zeus who disguised himself as a swan and raped her mother, Leda. Achilles and Paris are directly guided by the gods throughout the epic poem.

The gods were equally divided on the two sides: Hera, Athena and Poseidon were for the Greeks, while Aphrodite, Apollo and Ares sided with the Trojans.

Then there is the siege of Troy for 10 years. Back then, 1200-1100 BC, even the strongest cities could only hold out for a few months, much less a decade.

Recent excavations have shown that ancient Troy was indeed an important Bronze Age city dating back to the 12th century BC.

Charred debris and scattered skeletons are evidence that the city was destroyed during the war. Most likely, Homer used the destroyed city as the setting for his epic poem.

Barry Strauss, professor of history and classical studies at Cornell University and author of “The Trojan War: A New History” challenges the original myth of Troy.

Specifically, Strauss wondered if the ruined city was the splendid city Homer described, if it was the setting for the Trojan War, and if the Greeks were actually besieging the city.

New excavations since 1988 have proven that Troy did exist and was indeed a large city, about 75 acres, surrounded by wheat fields. Additionally, they provided evidence that in 1200 BC the city was at its peak.

There is more evidence of the above from Hittite texts. In these documents, the city which Homer calls Troy, or Ilion, is called Taruisa or Wilusa, and in the first form of the Greek language, “Ilion” was translated as “Wilion”.

Iliad of the Trojan War
Achilles treating Patroclus’ wound, as described in the Iliad. Attic Kylix from around 500 BC. Public domain

Were the Trojans Greek?

Early scholars thought the Trojans were Greeks, like the men who besieged their city. The names of Patroclus, Hector, Helena and others in “The Iliad” suggest this.

However, new evidence suggests that Troy’s urban plan looks less like that of a Greek city than that of an Anatolian city.

The combination of Troy between citadel and lower town, its house and wall architecture, and its religious and funeral practices are all typically Anatolian. The same goes for a large part of his discovered pottery.

Additionally, new documents suggest that most Trojans spoke a language closely related to Hittite and that Troy was a Hittite ally. And the Hittites were the enemies of the Greeks.

The Greeks wanted to expand their territory and, as a people surrounded by water, they built some of the first warships in history.

They explored the land across the Aegean Sea in search of new territories, either as traders or as potential conquerors.

Around 1400, they conquered Crete, homeland of the Minoan civilization. They also conquered the islands in the southwestern Aegean Sea and the city of Miletus on the Anatolian coast.

In the 13th century, they sparked a rebellion against the Hittites in western Anatolia. In the 12th century, they captured the islands in the northeastern Aegean Sea, opposite Troy.

In the 11th century, they joined with the “Peoples of the Sea,” who first descended to Cyprus, then to the Levant and Egypt, and settled in the Philistine country, present-day coastal Israel.

According to Strauss, the Trojan War probably took place between 1230 and 1180 BC, more likely between 1210 and 1180.

On this last date, the city of Troy was destroyed by a violent fire. The finds of arrowheads, spearheads and sling stones – as well as unburied human bones – suggest that the city was sacked with great violence.

In addition, the cities around Troy appear to have been abandoned around 1200 BC, which corresponds to an invasion, as recent archaeological finds indicate.

Further indications of the importance of Troy are the exploration of the site by later ancient figures such as Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Augustus.

The citadel was also later enlarged for the erection of Greek and Roman temples, a process which tragically destroyed layers of remains from the Bronze Age. The destruction continued over the following centuries by tourists and looters.

Strauss also argues against historians who claim that since the great ancient Greek palaces like Mycenae and Pylos were destroyed around 1180 BC, how could the Greeks attack Troy between 1210 and 1180?

The professor retorts that the story is full of sudden turns. In addition, the Trojan War was followed by wars and chaos in the Greek homeland.

Was the Trojan War real?

University of Queensland researcher Trevor Bryce in his book “Trojans and Their Neighbors” (Routledge, 2006) attempts to answer the question of whether there really was a Trojan War and a War. of Troy.

The only written remains found on the site where Troy would date from before the 8th century BC.

The topography of the city as told in legend matches that of an actual city and people in Homer’s time also believed it was Troy.

Some archaeologists argue that the city was destroyed by earthquakes during the time of the Trojan War and that it may have later taken in people from southeastern Europe rather than Greece.

“At one end of the spectrum of opinion is the belief that there was indeed a war and that it was pretty much as the poet described it,” Bryce wrote.

“From there we go through varying degrees of skepticism and agnosticism to the other end of the spectrum where tradition is entirely relegated to the realm of fantasy.”

The ancient Greeks needed the Trojan War to be real

For author, clacissist and critic Daisy Dunn, Homer’s Iliad was a living tale of a real war because the Greeks of the time needed it. In the grim world they lived in, they needed to escape to a world of heroes and great deeds.

Dun wrote on BBC.com (Culture):

“The Greeks found in the legacy of the Trojan War an explanation for the bloody and inferior world in which they lived. Achilles and Ulysses had lived in a time of heroes.

“Their age was now dead, leaving behind all the bloodlust, but none of the heroism or martial excellence of the Trojan War. Even the day after the war was full of violence.

Whether or not the Trojan War actually took place is a moot point thirty-three centuries later. What is important is that the legend of the brave Greeks who besieged Troy and conquered it using the Trojan horse inspired from generation to generation.

Homer’s Iliad too, which remains one of the greatest works of world literature, a masterpiece of our intangible cultural heritage.


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