“The only certainty in life is uncertainty” – John Allen Paulos. 1
History is clouded with uncertainty, and only the eager handful of minds in every generation seek a curiosity to answer the mysteries which surround the many unanswered questions that exist today. Perhaps the most controversial events of our past are those told of the ‘Trojan War’ in Homer’s Iliad2. The epic conflict over the beauty of a woman known as Helen3which sends 1000 ships to war. However up until recently the events of Homer’s account have not been taken literally due to many mythological and unreal elements. Due to the uproar in technology and the accessibility and availability of resources, investigations have been undertaken in order to uncover the veracity in Homer’s text. Nineteenth Century excavations revealed a nine layered city in North-Western Turkey4 believed to be Homer’s Troy, and since further study has been conducted on the landmark. However there are many questions which arise from this and many which remain unanswered. Through my personal investigation I will Critically analyse the existence of a Trojan War using contemporary sources.
There has always been an interest in the unknown to all of men since the beginning of time. Upon reading Homer’s account and then witnessing the events on the big screen one can draw links between different interpretations and perspectives people forge of the text. Historians, archaeologists and alike all begin their investigations from the roots of their curiosity and this exploration is no exception. There are problems encountered when investigating the existence of such an epic from one source only. Since the topic is so controversial many sources must be considered and from these many sources evaluations must be made to draw a final conclusion. This is the aim of this essay, through critically analysing sources such as Troy (Film), Excavations of Heinrich Schliemann, Hittite Letters and Homer’s Iliad itself a thorough knowledge and understanding can be developed. Consecutively this investigation will expose the fundamentals of each of these sources to gain a greater accuracy and allow for a final reflection and conclusion to the question posed.
Ironically there is mystery surrounding the war but even so little is known about its writer, Homer5. Nonetheless he is a Greek poet who lived around 850 BC mentioned in the works of Xenophanes, Plato, Aristotle and the father of History himself Herodotus6. The general agreement is that Homer was blind who travelled between Greek colonies telling of his stories most notably the Trojan War. Although the origins of Homer’s most famous text remain unknown it is made evident that Homer was inspired of the events from oral tradition. It was commonplace that bards and storytellers would pass down history from one generation to the next as was the events of the Celts and Vikings in Iceland7, the first ever conflict between east and west was sung five centuries later until it was noted by Homer. A technique of oral tradition is the recurrence of descriptions of personas and places and so the lives of Achilles the fleet-footed and Hector the horse-tamer8 came to life. The Trojan War is between the Greeks of Mycenae, Sparta and surrounding colonies under the command of King Agamemnon9 against the high-walled distant Troy ruled by King Priam10. The account tells of the struggle and challenges faced by the Greeks which are cleverly overcome to lead to the downfall and burning of Troy.
In the most presumptive manner Historians have not accepted Homer’s account based on the fact that there are a lot of fantastical elements. These elements namely being the involvement of God’s, Achilles immortality and the apple of discord11. However when taking into account the authenticity of the Iliad one must be discerning. There is no doubt stories are influenced by society’s means and religion played a major role in Greek culture, and so the participation of the transcendent dimension would help to give the story more meaning or reason. Although it is unclear how many sources Homer had or the forms of influence he came across, it is known that poet’s would keep similar the main elements and then reshape aspects of a tale to their perspective. This would greatly affect the outcome of veracity in the final account posed by Homer. The other factor which plays a part is the gap between the actual events and Homer’s record. There is approximately a five century difference from the Trojan War to Homer’s Iliad12. Homer’s stories are filled with action and detail that “reflect the lifestyle and the social mores of Homer’s time”13. A period when the Greeks had settled down after a dark age and these epics of the oral tradition were finally written down. Nevertheless from a discerning judgement it is not hard to interpret the likely myth and reality from the account as is the work of Wolfgang Peterson’s film titled ‘Troy’ which will be analysed later on.
Homer’s Iliad had been a fascinating tale of betrayal and love for many centuries but it was not perceived as anything more than a myth. This all changed when an inspired German traveller named Heinrich Schliemann14 picked up Homer’s Iliad after grieving over his deceased cousin. Schliemann was not a licensed archaeologist but he was a motivated individual passionate to uncover the reality in this myth. He was a fluent businessman and eager learner whom after many years of travelling made amends with the Turkish Government to excavate the site believed to contain Homer’s Troy. Using only Homer’s text and legends from the locals at North-Western Turkey Schliemann uncovered the mystery of Troy. His two greatest finds included the Mask of Agamemnon and Priam’s treasure15 which he smuggled out of the country for personal wealth. What amazed Schliemann more was that in layer VIIA there was evidence of buried and burnt walls as told in Homer’s Trojan War. After a few more weeks of excavation the Turkish Government became superstitious of Schliemann’s behaviour and discovered his smuggling of artefacts, as a result Schliemann was deported to Greece.
To many it may have seemed that Schliemann was a Messiah of history as his finds sparked convincing arguments of what was believed to be a myth. However to the average historian Schliemann was just another madman caught up in his own little world. Although his discoveries possessed great significance and importance to historical study there are many reasons against his authenticity. We must first consider his personal state of mind. Schliemann was a grieving man in a personal depression and this text was his oxygen. It is believed he re-read the text many times and could recite dialogue from the text perfectly. The account had a major impact on his life it consumed his entire personality and lifestyle. This is evident when Schliemann took residence in Greece and named all his servants after mythological Greek figures16. He existed as if he was in Ancient Greece. On the practical side the Mask of Agamemnon was dated too old to be that of the Trojan War and Priam’s treasure bears no link to the war itself and could represent any piece of wealth from Troy’s history. Schliemann’s sly behaviour towards the Turkish Government and his own self obsession should not be ignored when analysing his sanity. Apart from this Schliemann was neither a credited nor a licensed archaeologist he was just an individual on a mission.
Inevitably Homer’s account and the works of Heinrich Schliemann provoked so much controversy and interest that the adaptation of the text to film was destined to occur. In 2004 the infamous director Wolfgang Petersen17, in the same mindset as Schliemann before, took Homer’s account and transitioned it onto the big screen in an attempt to create the events as a reality. In the least case if you were watching the film without any background knowledge about Troy and its mysterious roots, the events would seem realistic and believable. Petersen has made many omissions mainly of fantasy elements such as Gods, mythological creatures and Achilles immortality. It is a clear separation of the director’s judgement of fact and fiction, and this interpretation is evident in many scenes of the film. For example when the seer Calchas18 predicts the Trojans will win the war because he had seen an eagle holding a snake, Hector outbursts in rage demeaning Calchas’ dependency on superstition “You can’t base a war off bird science” and “The God’s will not fight this war for us”. In another incident where a child confronts Achilles questioning his immortality, Achilles replies saying “I wouldn’t be bothering with the shield then”. In both these cases it is made clear that Petersen’s purpose is to show that these events would have very likely occurred if you discern the facts from Greek religious/mythological influence.
For a long time the existence of a Trojan War would be dismissed at a thought, but up until the discovery of the most recent evidence, the Hittite Letters19, historians have begun to consider the reality of Homer’s magic. The Hittites were a superpower in the late Bronze Age who existed in central Turkey and their recently excavated letters were forms of communications between noblemen and kings. What is interesting about these letters are their events and translations which seem to tell of similar occurrences to Homer’s Iliad. In translation the letters mention a city named ‘Wilusa’ which due to Professor David Hawkins’s breakthrough20 has been proved as the same city as Homer’s Troy and this discovery opens up light on many more aspects of these letters. Also of particular interest is the mention of a city referred to as ‘across the sea’, Ahhiyawa21 believed to be Mycenae Greece evident in the Tawagalawa letter. In many of the letters notably, Annals of Tudhaliya VII, Alaksandu Treaty, Tawagalawa letter, Milawata letter and most importantly the Manapa-Tarhunta, there is the general indication that Mycenaean Kings and their allies initiated war with coastal Anatolia namely Wilusa. In all these letters there exists some form of reference that around 1200 BC there was conflict over Wilusa. This is made clear in the Tawagalawa letter where the Hittite King writes to the Mycenaean army notifying them of their former conflicts with Wilusa and establishing a peace between their empire and the Greek army. There are two characters which strike great interest and recur within these letters, Alaksandu and Piyamaradu. Alaksandu is translated to Alexander, another name for Paris. More importantly is the persona of Piyamaradu, believed to be the same person as Homer’s Priam. These letters show many accounts of Priam’s actions before the proclaimed Trojan War, his constant sieging of surrounding Anatolia towns and conflict with the Hittite empire.
The notable aspect of these letters is that if you consider their account with Homer’s reflection, then parts of the Trojan War begin to make sense. For example the reason why Priam had so many allies and resources was because he besieged all neighbouring regions prior to the war22. However these letters also show some contradiction in regards to Paris. It draws no link between his relationship with Priam and according to the Alaksandu Treaty, it poses Priam and Paris as enemies which delivers the investigation into another level of ambiguity.
To broaden any perspective it is ideal to take someone else’s views into account. Manfred Korfmann23 the director of excavations at Troy for the past 20 years and Professor of archaeology at the university of Tubingen, has developed a collective perception. In regards to Homer, Korfmann believes he was too occupied in describing the wrath of Achilles, and so gives a limited importance to the text. Korfmann also states “He used Troy and the war as a poetic setting for a conflict between men and gods”24 about Homer. The professor also believes that from the archaeologist’s point of view the Iliad can be perceived as a ‘setting’25. However Korfmann has been deeply involved in the investigation of the Hittite letters and believes they are the milestone in persuasion. Even the Egyptians make reference to Wilusa let alone the Hittite empire, both showing recurring evidence of military tension around 1200 BC. Due to the extravagant amount of excavated artefacts within the past decade Korfmann believes that the spotlight should be placed upon those who did not believe there was a Trojan war because there is now more evidence that these events took place.
Before concluding we must take into account possible issues with the Trojan War topic. It is by far one of the most controversial events of our planet’s history made evident in the varying of information of each source. There exists an overload of opinion as everyone has a different perception, the facts are in the artefacts but the perspectives are created by the individual.
To answer the question an overall approach must be taken. Homer’s account has some level of historical significance or truth because it has withstood the test of time and is more than likely based of memory of historical events. Everything comes from inspiration; it is unlikely that homer or the roots of his sources would have made these events up spontaneously. Schliemann’s artefacts may not have been convincing but he discovered Troy’s location and was the first step in convincing society that these events are much more than just a myth. He was obsessive, perhaps mad but he gave historians and archaeologists hope and sparked interest. Petersen shook the media with his interpretation and creation of the war as a reality, his discernment of fact and fiction gave audiences a clearer judgement. However Hollywood’s epic style and the director’s own show levels of limited accuracy and opinion in regards to the text. Astoundingly the Hittite letters and perspective of Korfmann is where most of the answer should be drawn from. Nevertheless, we know for a fact that both the Hittites and the Egyptians existed around 1200 BC in and around the area where the Trojan War took place. There is repetitive mention of Wilusa in more than six letters of the corresponding time period we are told of in Homer’s Iliad and more than this these letters all give evidence of military conflict between Wilusa and an army from across the sea (Mycenae). Even so Troy would have experienced many conflicts, its location was the control point of trade, high walls and its citadel was envied by all of Asia Minor and Europe. Korfmann himself suggests that more pressure should be directed at those who don’t believe there was a Trojan War due to the amount of veracity the recently investigated artefacts create. In conclusion taking into account all of the analysed sources and their credibility, the existence of a Trojan War seems very convincing. Perhaps in the early stages controversy would be understood but the evidence derived from the Hittite letters and Korfmann show that it is certain there was military tension in 1200 BC Turkey and this is what we know as the Trojan War. There is no question that a Trojan War took place, the real question that should be asked to those in disbelief is ‘why wouldn’t there have been?’
By Karlos Ishac
Homer, The Iliad, Peter Jones, Penguin Classics 2004
McCarty, Nick, Troy the myth and reality behind the epic legend, Lisa Moore, Carlton Publishing Group 2004
Korfmann, Manfred, Was There a Trojan War? , 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America, Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
Archaeology.org, Is The Mask a Hoax? , http://www.archaeology.org/9907/etc/calder.html 23/8/08
Home.att.net, Warrior 2: Excavations at Troy,
7 Nick McCarty, TROYthe myth and reality behind the epic legend, Carlton Publishing Group 2004 pg 9
8 Achilles was the immortal warrior in the Trojan War, known as fleet-footed for his agility in battle and as reference to his vulnerable spot, Achilles heel. Hector was the greatest Trojan warrior, known as the horse tamer for his representation of virtue mainly courage, he is one of the nine worthies
9 King of Achaeans and leader of most of Greece, lead Greek army in the Trojan War
11 Apple of Discord was the prelude to the Iliad in which Paris was given judgment over the three fairest God’s who all offered him a gift. Wealth, Glory or a beautiful woman- Paris chose the woman and the Trojan War begun.
12 Events of the Trojan War were around 1250 BC and Homer’s record was around 800 BC so there was a five century gap
13 Nick McCarty, Op Cit, pg 9
14 Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) first man to excavate the site of Troy, sparked interest in the Trojan War as being a reality
15 A collection of gold and jewellery believed to be the wealth of Helen
16 After being deported he took residence in Hisarlik where he maintained an ancient Greek lifestyle
17 Wolfgang Petersen, TROY¸ Radiant Productions 2004
18 Famous seer of the Trojan War, predicted how Agamemnon would reach the beach of Troy
19 A collection of letters between noblemen or leaders of the Hittite empire and other neighboring states about contemporary issues to their time
20 Professor David Hawkins’s proved that Wilusa was in fact Troy by locating Hittite inscriptions around the area of NW Turkey corresponding with the direction and layout of the city of Troy in relation to everything else
21 Believed to be the Greek state of Mycenae where the Greeks sailed from to attack the coast of Troy
22 The Greeks had trouble defeating the Trojans due to the city’s wealth and resources gained from the conquered surrounding towns, so the Greeks killed of the neighbours of Troy and then attacked the city itself
23 Director of excavations at the site of Troy for more than two decades, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Tubingen
24 Manfred Korfmann, Was There a Trojan War? , 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America