Historicity of Troy

“If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy, my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies. If I voyage back to the fatherland I love, my pride, my glory dies…true, but the life that’s left me will be long.” This quote from Homer’s The Iliad evokes images of the glory, power, and honor that are prevalent throughout the legends of Ancient Greece. Homer’s stories of heroes such as Odysseus, Ajax, and Achilles have been retold for over two thousand years and have filled even modern language and culture. The retelling of Homer’s poems have been credited as truth and dismissed fully as myth. Through the eyes of historians throughout the centuries, the embellished stories of a romanticized Ancient Greece came from a place of fiction as ancient writers longed to give glory to their heritage. Although this was scholars’ opinions for much of the stories’ lifetime, historians have unearthed new evidence that shows the stories of Troy may depict some historical reality. Historians must look at the retellings of the story of ancient Troy, examine the archeology and works of past historians, put together a possible history of the ancient city, and analyze the impact such a city may have had on the surrounding region.
History is often re-examined over time so that many different versions of the same story make an appearance. The stories of Troy are no different. With the discoveries of new sources and advances in archeology, many historical events are often put in a new light. Homer’s The Iliad is not the only source mentioning the Trojan War, but many people forget to look at those as potential evidence for Troy. The Iliad is one major work, but there are other works such as The Aeneid, Herodotus’ writings, and correspondences between world powers of the time. Homer had the first recorded version of the Trojan War and although many speculate about the time of his life and even his existence, The Iliad is an important piece in the story of Troy.
Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey may include fictitious gods and fantastic beasts, but these poems give valuable, authentic information about the era of the Trojan War. According to Joachim Latacz, a leading German expert on Homer, the ancient city mentioned in The Iliad was called Ilios or Wilios in the Greek of Homer’s time. Latacz writes that Wilios is very similar to the ancient city called Wilusa that is mentioned in writings by both the Hittites and Egyptians. Homer may not have had the exact name, but as languages change, names change as well. Historians will often look at subtle name differences while analyzing past civilizations because through translations and over time, it can be more difficult to discern the original name of a city or people. Homer’s version of the name for Troy is reasonably close to Hittite and Egyptian sources. The name alone does not prove the existence of the ancient city of Troy, but it helps give some credibility to Homer’s works.
Homer not only has a similar name to a known city, he seems to be accurate in regards to the style of warfare that may have been waged at that time. Mark Rose writes “[Homer] mentions helmets made of boar’s tusks that were not used in his day. But that type of helmet has been found in Late Bronze Age burials and is worn by warriors shown in artistic works from that period.” Many historical authors embellished stories to match the customs they were used to, so Homer mentioning equipment that was not in use in his day is significant. Many scholars and archeologists use a Late Bronze Age Troy, so discovering weapons and equipment from the period mentioned in The Iliad seems to give more evidence for a historical Trojan War. Homer may have had some form of records or primitive archeology to uncover the practices of Ancient Troy. An accurate name and accurate equipment is very important in determining the historicity of Homer’s work, but location is also a valuable piece of information. In The Iliad, Troy is said to be on top of a slight hill with a nearby bay where the Greeks under Menelaus landed. Archeologists have discovered a city they believe could be Troy, but many use the location to prove Homer was incorrect as it is currently situated miles from the coast. Best-selling author Caroline Alexander writes that though the current location of the supposed city of Troy is located three miles from the nearest bay, evidence exists of silt build up in the bay. Measuring the amount of silt build up that would have occurred over the many centuries since Homer shows that the current city of Troy would have been less than half a mile away from the bay during the time of the war. That is a very accurate image for a coastal city in that day and Homer may have heard accounts or even visited the ruins of Troy. It is important to remember that Homer may have had fairly accurate evidence for the war, but he was still a poet and entertainer. Therefore, not all of what he wrote can be used as a credible source; however, there are other sources at the time that may help give a better picture of the fabled Trojan War.
Another source scholars use to help understand Troy is The Aeneid by Virgil. Many historians criticize Homer’s works for being too distant from the conflict to be accurate. Unfortunately, Virgil wrote centuries after Homer in about 29-19 B.C. In his poem, Virgil writes what appears to be a sequel to the writings of Homer. Virgil uses many of the same characters, except his story is from the viewpoint of the surviving Trojans. In the poem, it is very clear Virgil is writing with heavy influence from Homer. Seeing the connection between the two works makes it very difficult to claim Virgil as a source, but it at least shows the influence the story of Troy had on future generations of Greeks and Romans. Although Virgil’s account is not a reliable source, there are still other accounts to be looked at.
Troy was situated along the coast of the Aegean Sea in Modern day Turkey. This placed it near the powerful empire of the Hittites of the Late Bronze Age. This proximity makes it very likely Troy would have been in contact with the Hittites. Mark Rose writes that the Hittites recorded a long struggle over Wilusa/Troy because of its strategic location for trade. In his article, Rose says “Around 1280B.C, the Hittites and Wilusa were at odds, but patched things up with a treaty. In the reign of Hattusili III (1267-37 B.C.), a conflict with the Ahhiyawa over Wilusa land was resolved in favor of the Hittites.” The Hittite source shows that, not only did a valuable city named Wilusa exist, but it was large enough to warrant fighting over. Throughout history, important trade routes were continuously fought over due to the power they gave to the controlling empires. Homer and the Hittites have similar records of the city of Troy that help solidify the city as a historically relevant place. Another historical source for the Trojan War is the father of history, Herodotus.
During his travels, Herodotus arrived in Egypt in order to record the Egyptian accounts of history. According to Christopher Jones, Herodotus came across a temple dedicated to a “foreign Aphrodite.” After finding such an out of place temple, Herodotus recorded the history of the Trojan War from the Egyptian viewpoint. The Egyptians recorded that Helen, Alexandros (Paris), and a large amount of treasure arrived in Egypt after a wind storm blew them off course. Since Paris never arrived in Troy with Helen or the supposedly stolen treasure, Herodotus writes that the Trojan War really occurred due to a misunderstanding. In the Egyptian account, they do not regard the story as entertainment or legend, rather it was regarded as a factual event in history. James Neville writes this account not only gives more evidence of the war, but it also gives a better motivation for war than a woman: treasure. A war over a considerable amount of gold or treasure is an event repeated in history and adds a new, believable element to the story of the Trojan War. However, this version of events is much less interesting and it would be understandable for Homer to add embellishments, but this does not necessarily conflict with the versions given by Homer or the Hittites. In all three retellings, invaders attacked Troy due to valuable treasures (female or gold). These historical documents give basic evidence for a war at the ancient city of Troy. A large scale war would need to leave evidence its occurance, so archeologists have also begun to contribute to the story of Troy.
Within the past 150 years, archeologists have made great progress in unearthing the ancient city believed to be Troy. Caroline Alexander writes that before the 1800’s, scholars believed Troy a fully mythical city invented by Homer. They reasoned that people should have easily found such an important city and, up to that point it remained hidden. They argued it would be too expensive and time-consuming to excavate a previously unknown ancient city. Time and funding arrived when a German entrepreneur, Heinrich Schliemann amassed a fortune through the indigo trade and later through banking. Bored with his current occupation, he grew passionate about the stories told by Homer, Herodotus, and Virgil. In 1868, Heinrich Schliemann funded an archeology dig to find Troy and the city was discovered in 1873. Schliemann’s discovery made a huge impact on the view of history. Prior to the discovery, Homer and other sources were given very little credence. During his original excavations, Schliemann discovered a large amount of gold items in the city that has become known as “Priam’s treasure.” This treasure was stored in a Berlin museum until it was lost when Berlin was looted during the two World Wars. Several decades later, the treasure was rediscovered in the storage rooms of the Russian Pushkin State museum. The items were put on display in 1993 and historians can now analyze and study items from the Late Bronze Age Troy. Archeologists can match the shields and weapons to the stories of Homer and help prove the reliability of his poems as a source.
Having discovered that Homer was at least partially accurate, historians can now use his works as a more reliable source concerning the way of life in the Late Bronze Age. Schliemann began a wave of archeological digs and discoveries of the famous story thought to be a myth. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports there have been 24 separate excavations of the city since the original discovery. The report also states Troy is well-preserved because all the excavations have followed strict protocols to protect the find. Treasure hunters, inexperienced archeologists, and, recently, terrorist organizations tamper with any historical sites. It is remarkable to have a 3,000 year old site in pristine condition. Such a preserved site can produce many new discoveries and insights about the past and in particular, the Trojan War.
Using archeology and ancient sources, historians can now begin to piece together what might have happened to the city of Troy. Schliemann uncovered the first level of Troy and eight more levels were discovered in later excavations. A city with successive levels indicates that the city was fairly important to people at the time either for trade, strategic value, or sentimental value. This gives a new level of importance and adds even more value to the city of Troy. According to the most recent site director Manfred Korfmann, the seventh level of Troy was destroyed in about 1180B.C matching the timeline for the Trojan War. In addition, Manfred Korfmann writes level VIIa Troy is fifteen times larger than the original site Schliemann discovered. The original site discovered by Schliemann appeared much too small to be the powerful city written about in Homer’s epic. Many scholars argued this and used it as evidence against the historicity of Troy. Korfmann’s new assessment of the size of Troy corresponds much better with a city that was large enough to be known around the world from the Hittites to the Egyptians. Not only was Troy a large city, it was a fairly advanced city and seemed to be important. According to UNESCO, Troy level VIIa contains “fortifications, palaces, and administrative buildings.” Evidence of a powerful city filled with defenses and administration nicely correlates with the narrative given in the writings of ancient scholars. Troy VIIa seems to be the Troy written about in those ancient stories. Not only does it fit well, it was destroyed in a war as well. Korfmann discovered a burn level in Troy VIIa from approximately 1180B.C. He writes
“There is evidence of a conflagration, some skeletons, and heaps of sling bullets. People who have successfully defended their city would have gathered their sling bullets and put them away for another event, but a victorious conqueror would have done nothing with them.”
This evidence does not guarantee there was a war or that it was the Trojan War of The Iliad, but it gives a new insight into how the city could have been destroyed. It also proves that Troy was indeed destroyed in the right time frame to match the fabled war. Archeology has given a whole new look at the possibility of a Trojan War and it has revealed massive evidences for the war. According to Caroline Alexander, Troy was in such a strategic location that it is not surprising it was fought over and there were likely numerous Trojan Wars. Homer does not mention multiple Trojan Wars, but it shows that there was likely at least one major conflict to which Homer may have been referring to. The ruins of Troy give the stories passed down through history new credibility. The archeology has given evidence of Troy, but Homer and others wrote that Troy was also an incredibly important city for the area.
The Late Bronze age was renowned for its global connections and large trade routes. Such an important city would likely have been in contact with empires around the area. Korfmann writes that Troy was in contact with the major powerhouse of the Hittite empire and with the Egyptian empire hundreds of miles away. Late Bronze Age civilizations were grouped into eight major alliances or empires. The Egyptians and Hittites were both among these eight powerful civilizations. Not only was Troy connected with major civilizations, as mentioned previously, the Hittites expended energy and troops to keep and protect Troy as part of their empire. A minor city would not attract the attention of a giant world player. UNESCO describes why Troy may have been important by saying “[Troy] acted as a cultural bridge… through migration, occupation, trade, and the transmission of knowledge.” Situated near the coast of the Aegean Sea made Troy the perfect location for trade between the major powers of the near east and any civilization connected to the Aegean or Mediterranean Seas. Troy was desired because with trade comes power. One problem with the globalization of the Late Bronze Age was the eventual collapse of many empires. Due to the dependence on other civilizations, many major powers were destroyed or disappeared.
Troy VIIa was destroyed approximately 1180 B.C. and this was the beginning of waves of destruction and abandonment of surrounding areas. Bernard A. Knapp of the University of Glasgow writes that many cities around Troy were merely abandoned, whereas Troy was destroyed with fire and weapons. Many cities were abandoned due to famine, internal revolt, and many other reasons, yet Troy was not one of them. Troy was destroyed by some type of war rather than becoming abandoned. Following the collapse of Troy, the Hittites also collapsed and the massive empire ceased to exist. Knapp writes that the ensuing vacuum caused several other civilizations to follow suit. This shows Troy had a major part to play in the Late Bronze Age. Many scholars believed Troy itself was a myth, but ancient sources and archeology have shown that Troy not only existed but had a large impact on the areas surrounding it. UNESCO reports Troy, unlike many other Bronze Age cities, was resettled time and time again over a period of 3000 years. For any city, would be an incredible testament to their importance and value. For perspective, the city of Rome itself has not been settled as long as Troy, as it has only been settled for roughly 2700 years. Homer and Herodotus not only told of what may have been an important battle, but of a long-lasting, important city known by at least two of the major powers of the time.
The Trojan War has been immortalized in literature classes, software, school mascots, anatomy, cleaning supplies, and countless other ways around the world. Many regarded the War as a myth or a fun story to tell little kids. It is a compelling story of bravery, honor, and chivalry as a man fought for his wife, but not many people are aware there is some truth behind the legend. Historical sources throughout the ages have written about the war, recent archeology has uncovered an ancient city fitting the legend, and the impact Troy may have had on surrounding empires has been increasingly researched. There may not have been gods and goddesses fighting over the city of Troy, but there is increasing evidence that there was indeed someone fighting over the city. The Trojan War may have gone down in history as the romanticizing of Greek life, but now it can go down in history as a major event that truly happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography
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Rose, Mark. “Was there a Trojan War? Yes, but…” Dig 17, no. 7 (09, 2015): 46-48. http://ezproxy.unwsp.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1776675984?accountid=12915.
Jones, Christopher. “The Trojan War in Greek Historical Sources.” Gates of Nineveh: An Experiment in Blogging Assyriology. 2014. Accessed December 01, 2016. https://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/the-trojan-war-in-greek-historical-sources/.
Virgil. “The Internet Classics Archive | the Aeneid by Virgil.” The Internet Classics Archive | The Aeneid by Virgil. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/aeneid.html.