Iliad Files:
0. Introduction
1. Before the Iliad
2. Iliad Synopsis
3. After the Iliad
4. What Really Happened?
5. Character List
6. Queries

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A Beginner’s Guide to the Iliad & the Trojan War

4. What Really Happened?

Explaining “the Collapse”

We shall probably never know what actually happened or quite how the Trojan war fit into it, but we do know (and later Greeks knew) that Agamemnon’s city, Mycenae, and most of its allies disintegrated by about 1200 BC or a bit later in a gradual, mysterious, political and economic collapse that shook the whole eastern Mediterranean and that may, in fact, have played a critical role in the fall of Troy, unbeknownst to Homer. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of settlements were destroyed or simply abandoned, populations plummeted, and there were apparently massive migrations of refugees.

Many “causes” of the collapse have been proposed. For example:

The Site of Troy

Excavations at Hissarlik, the site of Troy, were begun again in 1988, and they have clarified the various levels of the site. Before the latest excavations began, it had been possible to distinguish nine occupation layers in Troy, and to demonstrate that the site was occupied over and over between about 3000 BC and AD 400. New finds go much further and strongly hint at the existence of both earlier and later material (levels “Troy 0” and “Troy X”).

The “Trojan War” layer is now identified as “Troy VIIa.” One remodeled gate from the VIIa level has suggested to some romantics that it was enlarged to admit the famous Trojan Horse and later blocked up.

Troy VIIa was not the only occupation to come to a violent end; Troy had been destroyed in earlier times as well. Troy VI seems to have been destroyed by earthquake and Troy VIIa was built on its same walls, so the distinction between the two layers is difficult. Some scholars identify Troy VI as Priam’s city, a possible implication being that the Greeks conquered it only because they were assisted by the earthquake. Troy VIIb, it seems likely, could have been founded by survivors of the Trojan War moving back into the rubble of their city to try to carry on with life, despite later Greek claims that everybody who might have been tempted to try that had been slain.

The Plain of Ilium, where all the action of the Iliad takes place, is cut through by several rivers —Homer mentions the Scamandros and Simoeis— which carry soil to the sea and contribute to a gradually changing coastline. Studies undertaken in the early 1990s on the changes in the coastal morphology suggested that Troy VIIa perhaps had its harbor nearly eight kilometers distant because the adjacent bit of coast at that time would probably not have been suitable for anchoring ships. (Archaeological evidence for the harbor has yet to be located.) If so, the action of the Trojan War would have taken place on a larger geographical stage than the Iliad suggests.

In 1995 a large area of settlement was discovered just outside the citadel walls. It was fortified with a chariot-proof ditch and, 300 feet further back, what may have been a rampart and palisade. Based on earlier knowledge of the site, Troy had always seemed oddly puny for the mighty enemy of the Greeks in the Iliad. The discovery of additional settlement outside the main walls has now made the site “feel” more like the formidable city that Homer tells us it was.

How Greek Was Troy?

The underlying conflict between Trojans and Greeks is represented by Homer as Paris’ offence to Menelaus’ honor through the theft of his wife Helen. Scholars have long suspected that long-standing commercial competition would have been far more important, particularly since Troy was located geographically in a way that would have allowed it to control the passage of ships between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. (A critically important trade good produced on the coast of the Black Sea was horses, certainly prime tools for making war.) Aside from its strategic location, however, Troy did not seem to be very different from other Mycenaean cities, especially as it was described by Homer.

But not all readers have agreed. For example, Nurten Sevinç, curator of Turkey’s Çanakkale Museum, argued in 1992 that Homer’s Greek poem was actually based on earlier Turkish works, and that one can see a kind of “pro-Turkish” slant in Homer’s account. He writes, “… when the texts of the books are closely examined, the Anatolian [Turkish] character of the bard [Homer] comes to the surface. To sum it up, while hypocrisy, lying and deceit underline the actions of most of the Achaean [Greek] rulers, the Trojans are characterized by a sort of honesty and integrity.” (Sevinç 1992: 58)

The new excavations have made Troy very much more Turkish than Greek. Here are some of the relevant findings (based on Brandau 1998, Thomas 1998).

Pottery. The new excavations offered the opportunity for a thorough statistical analysis of proportions of broken pottery fragments made locally or imported, and made in Mycenaean or Hittite styles. Although there was a good deal of Mycenaean pottery, both locally made and imported, the analysis found far more Hittite-style material than had previously been realized. This suggests substantial contacts with the interior of Turkey (the realm of the Hittites in that era). Such trade would have contrasted with the sea lanes of interest to the Greek cities and would have involved different commodities.

Alliances. There is no evidence for trade with the fabled Amazons —unless they were in fact Mitannians or other known peoples— or with Ethiopia. But those legends may correctly point to the fact that the “Trojan” alliance was seen by the Greeks as involving different peoples from the Greek allies, peoples whose customs and languages the Greeks apparently found quite exotic. As we learn more about the peoples living around the Black Sea, this picture seems more and more credible.

Luwian Ethnicity? The new “best guess” about the Trojans is that they were probably not speakers of Greek, but rather of a dialect of Hittite called Luwian. The argument that supports this conclusion provides a good example of how different lines of evidence must be triangulated to draw conclusions about ancient peoples. It is only indirectly relevant to the text of the Iliad, but for a brief excursus on this new view click here.

At the same time that we know more and more about the archaeological site of Troy and thus about what "really" happened in the Iliad, the ancient and wonderful mythological account continues to inspire new retellings. One of the most influential in recent years was the 2004 movie Troy, starring the popular actor Brad Pitt. (More)

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Conclusion: Why We Need Homer

Homer’s Iliad is the oldest written source that discusses anything at all about the last days of Mycenaean civilization. Whatever its flaws as an historical document, it cannot be ignored as we seek to understand what happened. To use it, we need to educate ourselves in how to identify where it is most likely to be right and where it is most likely to be untrustworthy. This involves taking account of Homer’s own situation, including his probable knowledge, his artistic goals, and the audience he was aiming at.

Whatever actually happened at Troy, disaster seems to have been very widespread, even though Homer’s much later poetic purposes were served by focusing on the heroics of Troy alone. The disintegration of the Mycenaean world was followed by the so-called “Greek Dark Ages.” Among other things, the art of writing was lost. By the time Homer was singing the Iliad to his listeners, probably slightly after 800 BC, as many years had passed as have now passed since Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. Homer, a poet, not an historian, possibly blind and almost certainly illiterate, had to “wing it” on a lot of the historical details or, for all we know, even on the main points. On the other hand, oral traditions were available to him that died out afterward, for he tells us much that we learn from no other source.

He is probably a better source for small details of daily life than for values. The “heroic” values that Homer represents as driving his characters were values to which a Dark Ages audience were sympathetic, just as Hollywood paints historical heroes (usually including the heroes of the Iliad) as articulate spokesmen for modern American values. The values endorsed by Homer’s players may or may not have had much to do with Mycenaean values.

A new writing system, the parent of modern Greek, appeared about the same time as the Iliad. We do not know whether Homer was familiar with it or not. The strongest evidence suggests that he was not. We can be pretty sure in any case that he never imagined that 2800 years later college students in California, most of whose ancestors came from lands he would never have heard of, would be concerned with the historical accuracy of his poem in an English version, or would be discussing how well the poem itself was represented by talking pictures on a silver screen.

An interactive quiz is available covering this page. (Link)

Cited Sources

1998 Can archaeology discover Homer’s Troy? Archaeology Odyssey 1(1): 14-25.
SEVINÇ, Nurten
1992 Troia. Istanbul: A Turizm Yayinlari. 1992. P. 58.
THOMAS, Carol G.
1998 Searching for the historical Homer. Archaeology Odyssey 1(1): 26-33.
Iliad Files:
0. Introduction
1. Before the Iliad
2. Iliad Synopsis
3. After the Iliad
4. What Really Happened?
5. Character List Next file
6. Queries

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Go to Greek Chronology.