It’s the age-old question: did the Trojan War really happen? And if it did, did it happen as Homer wrote in his Iliad?
Of course, it is near-impossible to come to a definite conclusion. With over 3000 years between us and the Mycenaeans (the Greek peoples described by Homer) time has wiped out much of the evidence we need to understand the events. That said, by combining recent archeological discoveries with what we know of Homer’s epic, we have been able to answer some of the questions about Troy and its legendary war.
PART I: MYCENAEAN ARCHEOLOGY
Question 1: was Troy a real city?
Clearly, Homer thinks so. As for the Mycenaeans, they don’t say much about a city named Troy; but thanks to archeology, we know that there was indeed a large settlement in Asia Minor that corresponds to Homer’s description. The city was built in nine layers, each corresponding to a certain time period. But archeologists made a disappointing discovery: Troy VII, which existed during the estimated time period for the Trojan War (1250 – 1200 B.C.), was too small to have been the glorious hub of civilisation described by Homer.
However, recently, excavations have revealed that Troy VII was in fact larger than previously thought – about fifteen times larger. A second wall was discovered around the city, encompassing an area of about seventy-five acres. So it appears that Troy VII could have been Homer’s Troy after all.
Question 2: was a war fought between Trojans and Mycenaeans?
While Homer believed so, archeologists’ opinions are divided on the subject. No written evidence survives from the Mycenaeans mentioning a Trojan War. We do know that Mycenaeans had contact with Troy, and a Mycenaean cemetery has been excavated on the coast near the settlement; however, the men buried were likely sailors, not soldiers.
Troy VII was indeed besieged and burnt, as arrowheads and charred human remains found on the site testify, but the identity of the attackers is unknown. Our best evidence comes from another source: the Hittites, a civilisation of Asia Minor of which Troy was probably a vassal state. Letters dating to the late Bronze Age describe a conflict over “Wilusa”, a city in north-eastern Asia Minor, with a people named “Ahhiyawa”. Wilusa has been identified with Troy, also known as Ilios or Ilium; but besides the phonetic similarities between Ahhiyawa and Achaeans (the name Homer gives to the Greek peoples), and the fact that they came over the sea from the East, there is little evidence pointing to these people being Mycenaeans.
So was a war fought at Troy? Yes. Were the attackers from Greece? Possibly – but definite proof is yet to be found.
Question 3: did Akhilleus, Hektor, Paris and Agamemnon exist?
Without clear evidence, it’s almost impossible to determine whether a certain figure is historical or mythical. Take Jesus, for example – people have trouble agreeing how much of his life as described by the Bible is factual, and his timeframe was only 2000 years ago.
But to get back to the Trojan heroes, we do have some clues. The most conclusive is probably a treaty between a Hittite king and a king of Wilusa named Alaksandu; another name for Paris, prince of Troy, was Alexander. However, this Alaksandu lived almost a century before the Trojan War, so if Paris did exist, they were probably not the same person. Similarly, there is evidence of a ruler of Ahhiyawa called Akagamunas, a name similar to Agamemnon, but like Alaksandu, he lived a century before his people attacked Troy.
Hektor, on the other hand, is almost certainly fictional. His name has Greek origins, which suggests that he was a Homeric invention, the archetypical loyal defender of his city. In that sense, while Hektor himself didn’t exist, he represents the many men like him who fought for Troy.
As for Akhilleus, there is no mention of him as a noble hero. His name, A-ki-re-u, is attested in a Linear B tablet dating to the Mycenaean Era, but the person referred to was a fisherman, not a prince.
What conclusion can be drawn of this? Apart from Hector, many names belonging to Trojan and Achaean heroes are mentioned in Hittite archives or Mycenaean tablets, suggesting that they were in common use at the time – so there could well have been people named Akhilleus or Agamemnon fighting under the walls of Troy. But whether they were the heroes we know them as, is unlikely.
PART II: HOMERIC CULTURE
Question 1: did the Mycenaeans worship the same Gods as the Ancient Greeks?
In his epic, Homer mentions many of the Gods we are familiar with: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Apollon, Artemis, Ares, Hermes, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Iris, Thetis all appear in the Iliad. But did the Mycenaeans really worship them?
The answer is yes – mostly. Poseidon (Po-se-da-o in Linear B) was widely revered as a chthonic deity connected with horses and earthquakes, and possible references to Demeter and Persephone (Pe-re-swa) are also found. Artemis (A-te-mi-to or A-te-mi-te), Athena (A-ta-na), Hephaistos (A-pa-i-ti-jo) and Dionysos (Di-wo-nu-so) are all attested, along with many other Gods and Goddesses – except Aphrodite. Interestingly, there are no mentions of her.
Many of the Gods were worshipped in a different way, albeit with some similar aspects, from that of Classical Greece. As a Hellenic polytheist, I find this fascinating: it shows that the Gods have been known to us mortals for a long time, and that we have changed and adapted to each other over millennia. It’s a beautiful thought.
Question 2: are Homer’s funerals historically accurate?
Some of the most famous scenes in the Iliad are funerals: Patroklos’s is the first, followed by Hektor’s. Both involve ceremonies held over the course of several days, and that end with flames devouring a funeral pyre.
One common argument against Homer’s historicity is that Mycenaeans did not cremate but inhume their Dead. While this is true, burning bodies was a common practise in Asia Minor at the time of the Trojan War, and remains excavated at a Mycenaean burial site near Troy show evidence of cremation.
It’s also important to remember that the Iliad‘s heroes lived on the cusp of the Iron Age and burials were indeed being gradually replaced by cremations. So mightn’t the Achaeans have been influenced, in that respect, by the Trojans, and begun burning their Dead? While still unconfirmed, it’s possible.
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Ultimately, the question of the Iliad‘s historicity doesn’t have a simple yes or no answer. There are many aspects to it, some of which have been confirmed by archeology and by Mycenaean or Hittite records; others are inventions of Homer. But whether or not the Iliad‘s events are true, they make for a good story; and even after three thousand years, it is still powerful, and there is still much to learn from it.