Monday, 1 August 2016

The Trojan War #1: the consensus

...there is a general consensus that the story is based upon a Greek attack against Troy. However, the details of this attack are unknown.
A general consensus has emerged among modern scholars. There does seem to have been some great conflict circa 1200 BCE that pitted Greeks against Anatolians.
When Schliemann ‘discovered’ the remains of Troy -- actually he didn’t, he was just the first to do major excavation there -- that wasn’t any kind of proof of the reality of the Trojan War. If that logic made any sense then the existence of Thebes would prove the reality of Oedipus, Nottingham would prove the reality of Robin Hood, and New York would prove the reality of The Avengers.

But what I want to stress today isn’t that there was no Trojan War -- or, conversely, that there was -- or that ‘it’s more complicated than that’, or that the question needs to be fine-tuned, or anything like that. No, the important thing is this: there is no consensus.

Rafael Tejeo, ‘Achilles defeating Hector’ (ca. 1825, Rome?):
Achilles takes Hector from behind with his short sword

It isn’t by any means crazy to believe it was a historical event. Doubts resulting from a lack of evidence, or disagreements about how to interpret the evidence, are fine and good. That isn’t a modern myth, it’s just a good old argument. But if someone claims that ‘there is a general consensus’, then that is most definitely a false understanding.

It’s easy to see why someone would think that, mind. There are several semi-popular treatments out there which do come down firmly in favour of a historical Trojan War: the best examples are Michael Wood’s In search of the Trojan War (1985; the TV documentary it’s based on is on YouTube); Joachim Latacz’ Troy and Homer (2001, English translation 2004); various lectures and interviews by Manfred Korfmann; Eric Cline’s The Trojan War: a very short introduction (2013).

Latacz is the most cheerily optimistic:
However, the possibility that a historical event could underlie the tale of Troy/Wilios... has grown ever stronger. The abundance of evidence pointing precisely in this direction is already almost overwhelming. And it grows with every month... So we can look forward today to the continuation of research with keen anticipation. The earlier uncertainty dissolves and the solution seems nearer than ever.
Cline doesn’t get carried away but is still positive. Here’s his summing-up:
Were the events and plot of the Iliad and Epic Cycle believable? Is it plausible that what Homer and the other epic poets describe actually took place and in the way that they say it did? Would an entire nation (or its ancient equivalent) really have gone to war over one person?... [more questions omitted here]
The answer to all of the above questions is yes. For instance, Homer’s descriptions of the action, travels, battles, and other minutiae all ring true and the events depicted in the Iliad are believable, even if the arms, weaponry, and tactics come from a broad span of time...
In favour of historicity: Wood (1985), Latacz (2001), Cline (2013)

Discussions that argue against historicity aren’t nearly so visible. That doesn’t mean there’s a consensus. Books that confirm the historical reality of a beloved story are the ones that sell. Just like in the natural sciences, no one wants to hear about negative results. No one writes entire books about how the evidence doesn’t support a Trojan War -- they’re too busy looking at what the evidence does show.

There’s one important exception: in Germany, this topic has been heated enough over the last 15 years that there have actually been several partisan publications arguing that the Trojan War is pure myth. See some of the essays in C. Ulf (ed.), Der neue Streit um Troia: eine Bilanz (2003); three books by Dieter Hertel (2001-2008); and Frank Kolb’s Tatort ‘Troia’ (2010). But even there, these stern books don’t sell as well as the upbeat pro-historicity ones. Go check their bestseller ranks on, and then compare them with Latacz’ Troia und Homer -- and then bear in mind that the latter went through six German editions from 2001 to 2010.

Against historicity: Hertel (2001), some chapters in Ulf (2003), Kolb (2010)

As an Oxford doctoral student recently argued, in a superbly written blog post,
So, did the Trojan War actually happen? I think the case is far from proven. Those who believe it has been are exercising an extreme form of the Positivist Fallacy, which is usually understood as assuming what is archaeologically visible is historically significant... Ultimately, ‘did the Trojan War actually happen?’ sounds like an interesting question, but it obscures the much more fascinating histories of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean and the development of the Epic Cycle from the sixteenth to the seventh century and beyond.
Nearly-anonymous is quite right. The Trojan War legend is and always has been extraordinarily popular, so it has a kind of inherent importance -- it sometimes even has a certain minor impact on the construction of modern Greek-Turkish international relations and national identity -- but strictly in terms of Late Bronze Age history, the question over its historicity is not really significant.

Now, the Bronze Age Collapse -- that’s important. This refers to a drastic economic, political, and demographic transformation of the Greek and Anatolian mainlands in the decades after 1200 BCE. In that story Troy is a tiny plot-point, however significant it was within its own region.

(No, Troy wasn’t a world power with a strategic stranglehold on access to the Black Sea. That was invented for the movie! The real Troy didn’t even have a decent harbour, just a silty inlet with no infrastructure. Troy was a sizeable city throughout classical antiquity, but it never had the remotest chance of controlling the Hellespont the way that Byzantium dominated the Bosporos. That’s what a real superpower looks like.)

So, if there’s no consensus, what are the arguments? I’d say the following points represent the most directly relevant problems that need to be fought out:
  1. Early Greek epic, especially Homer: how well does Homer preserve information about the Late Bronze Age?
  2. How to interpret Late Bronze Age evidence -- archaeological evidence, and Hittite documentary evidence -- concerning
    1. the ‘Bronze Age Collapse’;
    2. the cultural and political context of the real Troy; and
    3. relations between the Hittite and Greek worlds.
It turns out that when historians and other scholars comment on these subjects, they usually aren’t arguments in favour, or against, the Trojan War. More often we find them expressing a much more cautious view: that while a historical Trojan War is possible, there’s no actual evidence in favour of it; and that Homer is not a depiction of the Late Bronze Age, but nearly completely based on late Iron Age geopolitics and society (ca. 8th century BCE).

(Examples: a 1998 article by Kurt Raaflaub, and his chapter in the Blackwell Companion to ancient epic (2005); Michael Siebler, Troia: Mythos und Wirklichkeit (2001); Wolfgang Kullmann’s review of Latacz, and his own book Realität, Imagination und Theorie (2002; chapter 3 is in English); a 2002 article by J. Cobet and H.-J. Gehrke; J. V. Luce’s chapter in Troia and the Troad (2003); Trevor Bryce, The Trojans and their neighbours (2006), pp. 182-6; Jonas Grethlein’s chapter in Epic and history (2010).)

Within that position there’s still a lot of leeway for different opinions. And there are an awful lot of secondary questions. What do we make of Bronze Age Hittite documents apparently referring to Troy and Greece as Wilusa and Ahhiyawa? What did the relationship between Troy, the Hittites, and the Greeks look like in the Late Bronze Age? Does it make sense to interpret Homer as depicting Bronze Age events with the trappings of near-contemporary culture, as Cline argues? What kinds of myths and legends existed in the 12th century Greek and Hittite worlds? What kind of oral tradition existed between the 1100s and 600s BCE? When were the Iliad and Odyssey composed? How did their stories come into being, and how much did they change in transmission? How much did the Classical-era Greeks know about the Bronze Age?

Having a strong opinion about the historicity of the Trojan War is going to mean having an opinion on most of these questions too.

For some of them there is a broad agreement. For example, we can confidently state that the Classical-era Greeks knew absolutely nothing at all about the Bronze Age Collapse, since they had no access to documentary evidence from that period, and did not practise archaeology in anything like the modern sense. On the other side, most scholars do now accept the equations Troy = Wilusa and Achaia = Ahhiyawa (though there are dissenting voices). But other questions, like the prehistory of the Homeric oral tradition, or the political landscape of the Aegean-Hittite interface ca. 1200 BCE, are much more difficult.

To finish, and as a taster for looking at the relationship between Homer and history next time, let’s just remember that there were disagreements in antiquity too. Ancient historians measured time from the end of the Trojan War, starting with Ephorus of Cyme (ca. 350 BCE). So determining which year Troy fell was a key question.

Historians in antiquity had no unified year-numbering system to work with -- every major city had its own way of referring to years -- so some historians specialised in chronography, the job of synthesising the histories of different places into a single timeline. One key figure is Hellanicus, a contemporary of Herodotus. He adopted a year-numbering system based on who was high priestess of Hera at Argos at the time: so for example the Peloponnesian War began in the 48th year of the priestess-ship of Chrysis. That was still laborious: you still needed a list of priestesses, and how long each one’s tenure was. So it was a big advance when Timaeus, ca. 130 years later, instead chose to specify years by counting Olympiads (4-year periods since 776 BCE).

Eratosthenes came up with the most influential general chronography by combining Ephorus’ general timeline with Timaeus’ Olympiad system. As in Ephorus, the fall of Troy was the beginning of history; and Timaeus’ system began 407 years after that landmark. So Eratosthenes is responsible for the traditional date for the fall of Troy: 1184 BCE.

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that if we look to other records from around that time, we find an awful lot of disagreement on the date. Here are some alternate datings (NB: most of the links require a subscription):
1 Clement of Alexandria is our source for Ephorus, Phanias, Timaeus F 126, and Cleitarchus. He reports their dates for the return of the Heracleids, but also states that his sources put that event either 120 or 80 years after the fall of Troy: ἔτη ἑκατὸν εἴκοσι ἢ {ἑκατὸν} ὀγδοήκοντα, Clem. Al. Strom. (If
ἑκατὸν were retained in the text, it would mean ‘120 or 180 years’. But there is no doubt about the deletion: 80 years is the usual period given in other sources, and ‘120 or 80 years’ corresponds to a period of either three or two 40-year generations. Those figures must certainly be based on king lists with either two or three names given between the Trojan War and the return of the Heracleids.)
2 In F 125 Timaeus’ date for the fall of Troy is given as 1194/3. This would leave a 40-year gap between the fall of Troy and the return of the Heracleids. But see n. 1 above: this looks like a contradiction between F 125 and F 126.
And this is just looking at historians up to the end of the Hellenistic period. These dates range from Douris’ 1335 to Phanias’ 1130 -- a range of 205 years. Does that lack of precision give cause for doubt? After all they’re talking about events that supposedly happened 800-1000 years before their lifetimes, and on that scale 205 years is only +/-10%.

More about that next time. In part 2 we’ll be looking at what kinds of connections we can draw between the Late Bronze Age and classical-era Greek documentary evidence; and in part 3 we’ll turn to Bronze Age evidence.


  1. "(No, Troy wasn’t a world power with a strategic stranglehold on access to the Black Sea. That was invented for the movie! The real Troy didn’t even have a decent harbour, just a silty inlet with no infrastructure. Troy was a sizeable city throughout classical antiquity, but it never had the remotest chance of controlling the Hellespont the way that Byzantium dominated the Bosporos. That’s what a real superpower looks like.)"

    On these lines, I'd point you towards Korfmann's chapter in the Bryn Mawr symposium on Troy and the Trojan War (available online here: While the port may not have been developed, odds are they did have a great deal of control over the Hellespont, controlling as they did the nearest safe harbourage where ships could wait for the favourable winds necessary to navigate the strait.

    1. I certainly didn't want to suggest Troy had no role in trade at all! Your point is a fair one: I should have made it clear that there's no consensus on that subject either, even on whether Besik Bay was a decent harbour or not.

      Still, even Korfmann didn't believe (at that time, at least) that Troy's naval influence didn't extend further than the Propontis. Documentary evidence suggests they didn't have much leverage against Lesbos. Korfmann talks up Besik Bay, but it's all speculative. We know goods were (occasionally) traded between the Black Sea and the Aegean -- or at least between Thrace and the Danube -- but if Troy had more than its little finger in that pie, the traded materials that have been found there sure don't show it. I'm sceptical.

    2. I find the argument of things missing in the archaeological record more problematic at Troy than elsewhere, just because we know that so much was lost in the Hellenistic (?) leveling of the mound. There's no Bronze Age site where we could just cut out the administrative centre and not lose a massive amount of information about international links and domestic wealth.

    3. It's not really a strong argument *against*, more about a lack of corroboration *for*. The destruction on the mound is a powerful way of explaining the absence of any text finds, since it may well have destroyed evidence of a text archive (if one existed), but I don't think it can account for other kinds of material. There's plenty of pre-Hellenistic goods outside the citadel, including 8th/7th cent. trade goods (so we do have strong evidence that Troy was trading at that time), and loads of Bronze Age Anatolian ware. And, of course, a certain amount of Mycenaean.

      I'd actually prefer to see LBA Troy's trade role as a link between Thrace and Anatolia, rather than between the seas. Its location makes a lot more sense to me that way. What would you think of that idea?

    4. My knowledge of LBA Thrace is admittedly lacking; is there enough going on there for a major trade link to be necessary? Troy is certainly in the middle of the Aegean-Anatolian interface politically, so it would follow that this should be its commercial world as well.

      I wonder, too (and this is rampant speculation) if control of the Hellespont wasn't as much a political issue as a commercial one; the Hittites were obviously regularly concerned with it, and Troy is a long way from Hattusa. Could they have seen the Black Sea as a "back door" of sorts into their Anatolian heartland?

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