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The Trojan War: fact or fiction?

The Trojan War may be well known thanks to movies, books, and plays around the world, but did the war that spurred so much fascination even occur? The excerpt below from The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction helps answer some of the many questions about the infamous war Homer helped immortalize.

By Eric Cline


The story of the Trojan War has fascinated humans for centuries and has given rise to countless scholarly articles and books, extensive archaeological excavations, epic movies, television documentaries, stage plays, art and sculpture, souvenirs and collectibles. In the United States there are thirty-three states with cities or towns named Troy and ten four-year colleges and universities, besides the University of Southern California, whose sports teams are called the Trojans. Particularly captivating is the account of the Trojan Horse, the daring plan that brought the Trojan War to an end and that has also entered modern parlance by giving rise to the saying “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and serving as a metaphor for hackers intent on wreaking havoc by inserting a “Trojan horse” into computer systems.

But, is Homer’s story convincing? Certainly the heroes, from Achilles to Hector, are portrayed so credibly that it is easy to believe the story. But is it truly an account based on real events, and were the main characters actually real people? Would the ancient world’s equivalent of the entire nation of Greece really have gone to war over a single woman, however beautiful, and for ten long years at that? Could Agamemnon really have been a king of kings able to muster so many men for such an expedition? And, even if one believes that there once was an actual Trojan War, does that mean that the specific events, actions, and descriptions in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, supplemented by additional fragments and commentary in the Epic Cycle, are historically accurate and can be taken at face value? Is it plausible that what Homer describes actually took place and in the way that he says it did?

In fact, the problem in providing definitive answers to all of these questions is not that we have too little data, but that we have too much. The Greek epics, Hittite records, Luwian poetry, and archaeological remains provide evidence not of a single Trojan war but rather of multiple wars that were fought in the area that we identify as Troy and the Troad. As a result, the evidence for the Trojan War of Homer is tantalizing but equivocal. There is no single “smoking gun.”

According to the Greek literary evidence, there were at least two Trojan Wars (Heracles’ and Agamemnon’s), not simply one; in fact, there were three wars, if one counts Agamemnon’s earlier abortive attack on Teuthrania. Similarly, according to the Hittite literary evidence, there were at least four Trojan Wars, ranging from the Assuwa Rebellion in the late 15th century BCE to the overthrow of Walmu, king of Wilusa in the late 13th century BCE. And, according to the archaeological evidence, Troy/Hisarlik was destroyed twice, if not three times, between 1300 and 1000 BCE. Some of this has long been known; the rest has come to light more recently. Thus, although we cannot definitively point to a specific “Trojan War,” at least not as Homer has described it in the Iliad and the Odyssey, we have instead found several such Trojan wars and several cities at Troy, enough that we can conclude there is a historical kernel of truth — of some sort — underlying all the stories.

But would the Trojan War have been fought because of love for a woman? Could a ten-year war have been instigated by the kidnapping of a single person? The answer, of course, is yes, just as an Egypto-Hittite war in the 13th century BCE was touched off by the death of a Hittite prince and the outbreak of World War I was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. But just as one could argue that World War I would have taken place anyway, perhaps triggered by some other event, so one can argue that the Trojan War would inevitably have taken place, with or without Helen. The presumptive kidnapping of Helen can be seen merely an excuse to launch a pre-ordained war for control of land, trade, profit, and access to the Black Sea.

In 1964, the eminent historian Moses Finley suggested that we should move the narrative of the Trojan War from the realm of history into the realm of myth and poetry until we have more evidence. Many would argue that we now have that additional evidence, particularly in the form of the Hittite texts discussing Ahhiyawa and Wilusa and the new archaeological data from Troy. The lines between reality and fantasy might be blurred, particularly when Zeus, Hera, and other gods become involved in the war, and we might quibble about some of the details, but overall, Troy and the Trojan War are right where they should be, in northwestern Anatolia and firmly ensconced in the world of the Late Bronze Age, as we now know from archaeology and Hittite records, in addition to the Greek literary evidence from both Homer and the Epic Cycle. Moreover, the enduring themes of love, honor, war, kinship, and obligations, which so resonated with the later Greeks and then the Romans, have continued to reverberate through the ages from Aeschylus and Euripides to Virgil and thence to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and beyond, so that the story still holds broad appeal even today, more than three thousand years after the original events, or some variation thereof, took place.

Eric H. Cline is Professor of Classics and Anthropology and chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, as well as director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. He is Co-Director of the ongoing excavations at Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) in Israel and the author of Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, winner of the 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society Publication Award for the Best Popular Book on Archaeology. His recent addition to the Very Short Introductions series is The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction.

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Image Credit: The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy 1773. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. Via Web Gallery of Art. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Pete Laberge

    Well, leaving out the Greek gods (Who might have been actual people, who were in those days as powerful as gods, and then their stories gave birth to legends…), yes, I like your position. (It is based on certain evidences, anyway.)

    What we have, essentially, is two powerful world powers fighting each other to obtain dominance. Much like Rome and Carthage, years, later. Or England and France. Or the USA & the USSR.

    It makes sense that any excuse they could find to give legitimacy and credence to other powers for their making war on their enemy, would be carefully employed. After all, in war, all is fair! And half the battle is propaganda. If you can make potential allies of your enemy believe that these people are evil (or not worth joining), then those other powers will either join you, or second best, stay neutral.

    And a beautiful, intelligent, woman who gets kidnapped or seduced, or whatever … to join one side, is a workable excuse. Heck, families have fought about moonshine stills! (… And in those days, the governments, the military powers, were royal families.)

    So, yes, one can well believe in several wars. Perhaps it was like North and South Korea. The original battle (or reason for battle) never was fully complete, but that the embers of war would reignite a few years after a break in battle.

    We see this all through history: The wars before, during, and after the French Revolution, is one example. and just so, Korea morphed into Vietnam, which morphed into….

    FYI, here is an interesting music video about the Trojan Wars, which you might enjoy…
    The Trojan War (“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiQ4j-D5o4o

    If you look here, below, you will find some other videos on past historical events and legends…
    http://www.youtube.com/user/historyteachers/videos?view=0

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