The Iliad and History

Citation metadata

Author: Andrew Dalby
Date: 2006
From: Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 14,215 words

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 

[(essay date 2006) In the following essay, Dalby surveys archaeological finds, geographic markers, and linguistic evidence to formulate a plausible explanation for the oral tradition that gave rise to the Iliad.]

It's possible to read the Iliad without even thinking about whether the Trojan War really happened. In ancient times, nearly all readers assumed that it was history; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most readers took it to be fiction. The value of the Iliad to its audience--which means us--does not depend on such questions. And yet, quite reasonably, many people want to know the answers.

Is Troy a real place? Was there a ten-year siege of Troy at the same period when Mykenai was powerful, and did the siege end with the destruction of the city by an Achaian army? Were the opposing forces led by Hektor, son of King Priam, and Agamemnon? Was the war fought because Helen, the wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaos, had eloped with the young Trojan Paris? Was Achilles the greatest warrior on the Achaian side?

With every new retelling of the Trojan War story, including the recent film Troy, these questions are asked again. Answers are always given--most recently in Joachim Latacz's Troy and Homer. The answers vary over time, depending partly on the gradual emergence of archaeological evidence and partly on current fashions among historians and archaeologists.

Classical Greeks and Romans believed that the Iliad was in essence history: an accurate oral tradition had transmitted this knowledge to Homer, who made it into a great poem, and this in turn was transmitted orally and eventually written down. Scholars of early modern Europe down to the mid-nineteenth century became more and more skeptical of this belief. They were aware of many conflicting legends of the origins of European peoples, including this one, and they were inclined to believe none of them. Then two big scientific advances set off the swings of fashion. First, beginning in 1870, Heinrich Schliemann's archaeological discoveries at Troy and Mykenai meant that flat skepticism had to give way to acceptance that these had been centers of power at the right time. Then, from the 1930s on, research into oral traditions showed that although historical events may be remembered for several centuries, details are not transmitted accurately and eventually become inextricably confused, and there can be no doubt that the Iliad was composed, purely on the basis of oral tradition, several centuries after the Trojan War would have taken place.

The answer to the basic questions is now known to be yes. Troy is identified with complete confidence; at the right period, its political links placed it in opposition to the Achaians of Greece. It was destroyed violently. However, we cannot say who carried out the destruction. There is archaeological support for many background details in the Iliad, but they turn out to belong to very different periods, as research into oral traditions would lead us to expect. As for a Trojan War and whether Achaians were the attackers, we have no evidence at all outside the Iliad itself.

The Trojan War in Its Traditional Context

In book 6 of the Iliad, when in conversation with Hektor and Paris (here called Alexandros), Helen recognizes that Hektor and the people of Troy are fighting because of her:

For the sake of myself, a bitch, and Alexandros's blind folly.
On us two Zeus has set a sorry fate, so that afterward
We shall be themes of song for men of the future.
(Iliad 6.356-358)

The poet makes Helen describe herself as a bitch because, though she is still married to Menelaos, she is living openly with another man; in this metaphor she equates her own apparent lack of shame with that proverbially attributed to dogs because they will mate in public view. On this rare occasion the poet of the Iliad gives in to the temptation, familiar to narrative poets, to allow characters to predict that songs will be made about them by later generations, and we, as audience, have to admire the skill with which Helen predicts the future. She's right, of course: these traditions would exist, the poet would make use of them, and the Iliad story would be told.

Here we have to work backward from the real Iliad. Is it possible to identify when and how the traditions that led to the poem really began?

To start with the most obvious point, the Trojan War was not a recent event. Unlike the singers Phemios and Demodokos in the Odyssey, who are shown to be narrating current affairs, the poet is telling of incidents that lie far beyond the reach of living memory. We can prove this on the basis of the quotation just given, because what is really happening in these lines is that Helen is predicting the Greek epic tradition. She is predicting the poet; therefore, as far as she is concerned, the poet is in the future. The matter is made clear elsewhere, in any case, because we are told four times that the heroes of the Trojan war belonged to a mighty generation of the past. Here is one example:

He seized a boulder in his hand,
Tydeus's son did, a big thing which even two men could not lift
Who were like mortals of today, but he hefted it easily on his own.
(Iliad 5.302-304)

In all four cases the half-line formula who were like mortals of today is included, as if to drive the point home to us1 This was a different epoch, an age of heroes.

But that's all. We are never told exactly how long ago the events of the Iliad took place. No lines of descent are given linking heroes of the Trojan War with the potential readership of the poems, or with any other people of the poet's own time--in fact, there is scarcely a hint that the heroes had any offspring. Later legends gradually filled the gap.

Other epics told of the later adventures of Telemachos and revealed that Odysseus had had a son by Kirke, named Telegonos (which means "fathered far away"), and that Telegonos eventually killed his father. Tragedians gave classic form to the legend of Agamemnon, which was completed with the story of his son, Orestes. Orestes avenged his father by killing his mother, Klytaimestra, along with her lover, Aigisthos, and was with difficulty cleansed of the pollution of the horrific act of matricide. Storytellers explored the adventures of certain Trojans who escaped death when their city fell and sought a new life in the west, notably Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad. According to the legends crystallized in Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas led a band of Trojans to Italy, where their descendants became the founders of Rome.

Genealogists and local historians, who soon abounded in Greece, traced the family lines from each of the heroes down to their own times. In due course, thanks to their work, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were both convinced of their "heroic" descent, the former from Andromache, the latter from Aeneas. Family trees spread luxuriantly; retrospectively, they filled the centuries that preceded the writing of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Then came the chronologists. Their aim was to list the dates of historical events in the past, and where the sources provided no dates--as is the case with the Iliad and the Odyssey--they had to calculate them. This was generally done by counting generations in family trees or in lists of kings, working to an average of forty years between generations (between the father's birth and that of the son destined to succeed him). Similar methods were applied, with equally unreliable results, when Europeans began to investigate African and Polynesian historical traditions. In this way the precise date of the Trojan War was eventually worked out: converting from the ancient Greek calendar to our own, the accepted answer was that Troy was besieged in 1194 and fell in 1184 b.c. It has been argued that the calculation was faulty because the average generation should have been counted as thirty-three and not forty years. It has also been argued, rightly, that this does not matter, because the family lines and king lists were invented and unrealistic. Since there was no way to verify them, and since classical historians had no other method of determining the date of such ancient events, we have no reason to hope that the traditional date of the Trojan War corresponds to any kind of reality.2

Ancient readers accepted, as we have seen, that the ten-year war really happened. They accepted that its historical background was accurate, encouraged by the fact that its geography was detailed and convincing. True, the two most important places in the Iliad and the Odyssey narratives had no current significance by the date when the poems were written, yet their existence and even their location were not controversial. One of the two was Mykenai, a rich and powerful city, Agamemnon's homeland and apparently a metropolis of southern Greece. The other was Troy, which is called Troie and Ilios in the poems. Troy, the focus of the war, was a fortress near the mouth of the Hellespont or Dardanelles, in northwestern Asia Minor. These places could be confidently identified by classical Greeks who looked into the question.

A prominent hilltop fortress not far west of Argos had strong walls pierced with a narrow gate surmounted by two fine carved lions. This was Mykenai, a decayed city in which a few hundred people still lived, a place that the people of Argos would eventually feel strong enough to depopulate and partly to dismantle. Not only was it in the right place and not only did the name survive, but the elaborate burials in the neighborhood showed that it had once been the capital of a rich kingdom. People regularly made offerings at these burial mounds, as they did at others throughout Greece, to gain the favor of the semidivine "heroes," known or unknown, who must have been buried there in an earlier era. The classical geographical writers Strabo and Pausanias, both careful and critical readers of Homer, accept without question that the ruins are those of ancient Mykenai. Pausanias describes them:

If we turn back toward Argos, the ruins of Mykenai will be on our left. The Greeks know that Perseus was the founder of Mykenai. ... The gate survives, with lions standing over it, among other sections of the defensive wall, said to be the work of Kyklopes. ... In the ruins of Mykenai ... are the graves of those who came home from Troy with Agamemnon, to be murdered by Aigisthos over dinner: one grave is Kassandra's (but the Spartans at Amyklai claim that they have Kassandra's grave); one is Agamemnon's, another is Eurymedon the charioteer's; and one single grave holds Teledamos and Pelops, said to be the twin children of Kassandra, who were only babies when they were butchered by Aigisthos along with their parents.3

The story that Kassandra had already borne twins to Agamemnon is not in the epics. It must have been a local legend, invented to explain a double burial.

Then there was a big mound topped by a small and insignificant city on the plain near the mouth of the Skamandros River, which reaches the sea at the point where the Hellespont flows into the Aegean. The name of this place was Ilion--the usual name of Troy in the Iliad--and it was widely accepted as the site of Troy. Some skeptics had doubts about the location. Ilion stands at the end of a rocky ridge, and the Roman geographer Strabo insists that Achilles could never have dragged Hektor's body all around this city with his chariot. The alluvial plain between Ilion and the sea was a recent formation and could not have been the site of Greek-Trojan battles, said the female scholar Hestiaia of Alexandria. The historical geographer Demetrios of Skepsis concluded that the real Troy must have been further inland, and the battleground must have been an inland valley.

Still, no one doubted that ancient Troy was somewhere around here. The district was still known as Troas; other place-names (including the river, Skamandros) matched those of the Iliad; many local topographical features corresponded with the poet's descriptions. When Alexander the Great visited the site in 334 b.c., providing what would now be a photo opportunity after the first military victory of his Persian expedition, he was shown the "tomb of Achilles"--admittedly, not a real monument from the time of Achilles and Agamemnon, but a later memorial where visiting tourists and devotees could worship the hero. Not far away were shrines to Hektor, Paris, Hekabe, and the Greek heroes Aias and Patroklos.4

To sum up, later Greek readers were close enough to the heroes and their world to feel with absolute confidence that the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey was history. In fact, it was their own national history.

From National Myth to Archaeology

Building on the Iliad and on later legends of Aeneas the Trojan refugee, Virgil's Aeneid adopts the Trojan War theme to provide a national mythology for the Romans. This inventive but high-handed literary use of what had been a Greek oral tradition set the pattern for the development in medieval times of a series of legends linking the peoples of various European countries with Troy. Geoffrey of Monmouth's twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain for example, holds that the ancestor of the Britons was a certain Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas. At least down to the Elizabethan period, many serious historians believed such tales. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, critical historians at last perceived the fantasy that lay behind these legendary genealogies. Unfortunately, they did not see any difference between the literary inventions of Virgil and his imitators, on one side, and the oral tradition that had culminated in the Iliad and the Odyssey, on the other side. As a result, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Virgil, and Homer were all rejected as potential sources of history. Readers were no longer prepared to be taken in by the myth that there had been rich kingdoms and high culture in Greece and Asia Minor at the supposed date of the Trojan War.

Thus matters remained until Heinrich Schliemann, fired by his reading of the Iliad, excavated at the traditional sites of Troy and Mykenai. Schliemann, a successful businessman who applied his hard-earned wealth to his enthusiasm for Homer, was convinced that real history underlay the early Greek epics. Contradicting Strabo and many more recent doubters, he argued that the well-known mound of classical Ilion, then called Hissarlik, would in fact reveal the prehistoric city of Troy. He began to dig there in 1870 and found a series of cities succeeding one another on the same site. In a deep layer (now called Troy II) he found spectacular golden jewelry which he called "the treasure of Priam"; it was modeled by Mrs. Schliemann in a famous photograph and then deposited in the Prussian State Museum in Berlin, but it was lost from sight at the end of World War II and has only recently been rediscovered in Russian custody.5

The remains of this very ancient city still showed signs that it had been destroyed by fire--one of the best possible archaeological indications of enemy action. Schliemann drew the natural conclusion that the Trojan War and the Greek victory were real historical events for which he had found the clinching evidence. He did not realize that Troy II is a thousand years older than any probable Greek siege of Troy.

His confidence bolstered by his finds at Troy, Schliemann dug at Mykenai, just inside the Lion Gate, and was lucky enough to rediscover several deep burial chambers, whose entrances had been carefully concealed. Some of them had been known to Pausanias; others had remained unknown and had never been plundered. In these chambers Schliemann found rich offerings that clearly originated from an unknown civilization many centuries older than the classical remains of Greece. The most celebrated item is probably the gold death mask of an aged man; "I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon," Schliemann announced.

In later excavations at Troy, in which Schliemann paid more attention to archaeological methods, it became clear that another of the eight successive cities (Troy VIIa), not very distant in date from the burial chambers of Mykenai, had also been destroyed by a catastrophic fire.

That is how Schliemann changed the agenda. Yes, we could test the Iliad archaeologically--he had begun to do exactly that. It was eventually clear beyond doubt that at around the same prehistoric period, Mykenai and Troy were rich, powerful, civilized cities and that both had been destroyed violently. A new era had opened in the study of the two epics. There was demonstrably some historical truth in them. Once more they could be looked on as potential historical sources, and they are still regarded in this light today.

Yet they result from an oral tradition that must have extended at least four hundred years, and probably much longer, without any written support, because writing was unknown in Greece between 1200 and 800 b.c. The real challenge, if we are to evaluate the Iliad as history, is to distinguish traditional from imagined, historical from fictional, early from late.

The Historical Geography of the Iliad

To face this challenge, we need to look beyond Mykenai and Troy to the other Greek and Aegean places and peoples named in the Iliad. Every name is a piece of historical information, indicating that this locality was known and worth naming at a certain date during the growth of the epic tradition and was retained in the story until the poet composed the Iliad. Can we obtain any consistent dating in this way for the historical information in the Iliad?

To begin to formulate an answer, we can focus on the Greek cities named in the Catalogue of Ships in book 2. This catalogue is presented as a list of the places of origin of the Greek contingents fighting at Troy in the last year of the war. However, any reader will soon see that the list actually has a different history--a history that turns out to be independent of the traditions from which the remainder of the Iliad was composed.

The catalogue evidently began simply as a list of Greek cities, which naturally went into hexameter verse because in an oral culture, versified lists are easier than prose lists to remember accurately. There was a vital tradition of versified lists and catalogues in early Greek literature, including Hesiod's Theogony and its sequel, the Catalogue of Women. The city list in the catalogue as we have it is incomplete. A few cities that were surely important are not there, and some regions of Greece are completely omitted, perhaps intentionally, for a reason unknown to us, or perhaps as a result of errors at some stage. The list has a geographical arrangement: a clockwise spiral around central and southern Greece; a counterclockwise spiral from Crete via Rhodes and Kos to Karpathos; a short counterclockwise spiral in part of northern Greece. This is why it is unlikely that the catalogue started out as a list of the contingents that sailed from Greece or that fought at Troy, because if it did, why would they be listed in geographical order of origin? The suggestion has been made that these were cities that would be visited by sacred ambassadors from a major shrine; such lists are known from later Greece.6

At a later date, numbers of ships or of men and names of military leaders were attached to this city list, turning it into a fictional poetic catalogue of the Greek military leaders and contingents who set out from Aulis in Boiotia to fight the Trojan War. However, some Greek heroes of the story as told in the remainder of the Iliad--Antilochos, Patroklos, Teukros, and others--are not in the catalogue at all. Some, such as Aias, appear to be squeezed in as afterthoughts. Others, including Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, are in the list but are affiliated with strange territories that are not consistent with what is said about them in the rest of the poem. Meanwhile, the Arkadians, though listed in the catalogue, never show up in the remainder of the Iliad, and the Boiotians play a very small part. Some of the leaders of catalogue contingents, including Nireus, Agapenor, and Gouneus, do nothing at all. Evidently, at the time when this catalogue was first adapted to the Trojan War story, the current local version of that story was significantly different from what was eventually adopted and developed in the Iliad.7

The poet of the Iliad clearly thought this version of the catalogue was important and relevant enough to be built into the new poem. Since the Iliad narrates only the tenth year of the war, the catalogue had to be introduced as a list of those who were present and fighting in the tenth year, but it was not adjusted all through to reflect this change. However, some essential adjustments were made--for example, to get Aias and Odysseus in.

Thus the catalogue is a serious, semi-independent document, a list of cities in many of the regions of Greece, claiming to show how many ships and how many men these places sent to Troy and who their leaders were. As a clue to its separateness, the poet begins with an invocation of the goddesses of poetry:

Tell me now, Muses whose homes are on Olympos--
For you are goddesses, you are everywhere and know all things
But we merely hear rumor and know nothing--
Who were the leaders and monarchs of the Danaoi?
I could not tell or name the whole army,
Not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths
And an unbreakable voice and a heart of bronze,
Unless the Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus who holds the aigis,
Were to remind me how many went to fight under Ilion.
I shall list the shipmasters and all the ships.
The Boiotians were led by Peneleos and Leitos
And Arkesilaos and Prothoenor and Klonios:
Those who farmed Hyrie and rocky Aulis
And Schoinos and Skolos and Eteonos of many mountain spurs,
Thespeia and Graia and Mykalessos with broad dance floors,
Those who farmed around Harma and Eilesion and Erythrai,
Those who held Eleon and Hyle and Peteon ...
(Iliad 2.484-500)

According to the usual story, it was from rocky Aulis, on the coast of Boiotia, that the Greeks embarked on their voyage at the beginning of the war, and it used to be guessed that this is why Boiotia comes first in the catalogue. Recent discoveries have shown that there is a much better reason. They include a major find at Thebes, the principal city of Boiotia, of tablets in Linear B, the cuneiform script used in Mycenaean Greece. They also include a newly interpreted letter of the mid-thirteenth century b.c. to the king of the Hittities from the king of the Achaioi, who names his ancestor Kadmos, a name familiar in later mythology as the founder of Thebes. It is now clear that in Mycenaean times, Thebes was the center of a major Achaian realm; it may even have been the residence of the Great King.8

The Iliad as a whole takes no account of this fact and says very little about Thebes or the Boiotians. The story of Thebes was told in other epics (Thebais and Epigonoi; see [Dalby, Andrew. Rediscovering Homer: Inside the Origins of the Epic. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006] page 28), and the two story lines, perhaps once connected, had grown apart. However, one way in which the catalogue displays its independence from the Iliad is that it takes full account of the importance of Boiotia. Not only does it place Boiotia first; it gives this region more space than any other (the entry is much longer than I have quoted here), with a total of thirty cities and six thousand warriors. The detail, in the Boiotia section and in the catalogue as a whole, is astonishing. It has posed many problems for readers of the Iliad both ancient and modern, because so many of the places named are highly obscure or completely unidentifiable.

Can the catalogue be dated? Naturally it lists some of the inhabited cities of Greece at the period when the Iliad was compiled, in the seventh century b.c., such as Aulis in the lines quoted above. But many cities of seventh-century Greece are left out (Lebadeia, Chaironeia, and Tanagra are among the well-known Boiotian cities that are not included), and it lists many places that were not inhabited in the seventh century. This is clear because there are simply too many names that classical readers could not identify, in spite of continuity of settlement and strong historical traditions running from that period into classical times. So the catalogue is definitely not current seventh-century information.

The catalogue lists many places that were inhabited in the four centuries that followed the collapse of Mycenaean culture in Greece; within the regions it covers and as far as our knowledge goes, not many major sites of this period are omitted. But archaeological evidence tells us that settlement in Greece in those centuries was rather sparse. A great many smaller Mycenaean towns fell into ruin at the end of the Mycenaean period or very soon after. If that is so, the catalogue has too many names to be a list of "dark age" cities.

Moving backward in time, it definitely includes many places that were inhabited in the Mycenaean period, when Troy fell; how many is uncertain, because we do not know the original names of all Mycenaean sites. It would be logical and satisfying if the catalogue turned out to be real Mycenaean information, from the period when a real Trojan War could have taken place. Evidence has been slowly accumulating in favor of this view, famously championed by Denys Page in 1959 and in general supported by the researches of Simpson and Lazenby in 1970. Scholars are excited that in the newly discovered Linear B tablets of Thebes, dated very close to the time of a possible Trojan War, no fewer than three of the places listed in the Boiotian entry in the Catalogue of Ships have turned up--the names Eleon, Hyle, and Peteon. All three were completely unknown to classical Greek writers, including Strabo, who worked very hard on the Catalogue of Ships, and all three had been given up as unidentifiable by modern scholars. Not only is this important evidence in itself; it strongly suggests that more names in the catalogue will turn out to be Mycenaean whenever more Mycenaean place-names happen to be rediscovered.

There is a puzzle here. If, as this new evidence seems to confirm, the catalogue lists many places that were inhabited over five hundred years before its time and were soon afterward abandoned, it is hard to understand how and why such names would have remained in the collective memory, in a purely oral tradition, through the centuries when they were uninhabited, down to the time when the Iliad was written. We could use this as an argument that the Iliad was created and put into writing earlier than is assumed, or that the catalogue had been recorded in writing in some separate form before it was incorporated in the Iliad, but these arguments would not help much. We cannot propose a date of writing earlier than about 800 b.c., because that is when the writing of Greek began, so there would still be a gap of nearly four hundred years to be bridged by oral tradition. Without claiming to have the final answer, I will say that in many cultures abandoned towns and villages continue to be centers of ritual or pilgrimage; in early historic Greece, worship was offered at prehistoric burial mounds that were identified vaguely as those of "heroes." So it is at least possible that the minor Mycenaean settlements of Greece, even as they fell into ruin, were still on a religious list.

Many minor names in the catalogue are Mycenaean. Unfortunately, this does not mean that we can really arrive at a firm dating for the catalogue as a whole. An exploration of some individual entries indicates that it would be better not to try. Here is one striking example from the same Boiotian part of the Catalogue of Ships:

Those who held Hypothebai, the well-built citadel ...
(Iliad 2.505)

We must be talking about Thebai, or Thebes, the principal city of Boiotia in classical and modern times. The Mycenaean city and palace of Thebes were destroyed, according to archaeologists, at around 1200 b.c., not long before the fall of Troy VIIa, but suburbs were already clustering below the rock, and for a long time after the destruction these suburbs were all that existed of Thebes. Eventually the citadel was rebuilt and became once more the heart of the city. So the name given in the list, Hypothebai, or Under-Thebes, has a very precise sense. It carries a memory of the late Mycenaean period (say 1200 to 1100 b.c.), when the destruction of the upper city was still a recent event and people had not yet grown accustomed to using the simple name Thebai for the lower town. But now look at the descriptive phrase that ends the line. It suits Thebes very well at certain times, but definitely not at those times when the name Under-Thebes belongs in a list of Boiotian cities, because the lower town was not a well-built citadel. The citadel lay in ruins when the lower town represented Thebes. So this single line derives from two different periods of history, one of them about five hundred years before the date when the Iliad was written, the other even older or somewhat younger.9

Similar confusions of date can be found elsewhere in the Iliad, outside the catalogue. When Hektor seems invincible, the poet tells us that his progress could not be stopped by all the Greeks currently gathered against him,

The Boiotians and Iaones with trailing robes,
The Lokrians and Phthians and brave Epeians ...
(Iliad 13.685-686)

In this little catalogue of peoples of central Greece, it is the Iaones, or Ionians, who make us look twice. In the poet's time they had become one of the four major subdivisions of Greek peoples, and their dialect is the one that contributed most to the special poetic language of the epic tradition--to the language of the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves. By that time they occupied the Greek cities of the middle Asia Minor coast (founded long after the fall of Troy) and also some of the Aegean islands (but none of their islands are listed in the Catalogue of Ships). Now this little list in itself makes good sense. Later Greek writers said that the men of Athens and Euboia, Boiotia's neighbors, were ethnically Ionian, and the poet perhaps has one or both regions in mind here. The form of name in the Iliad, Iaones, is still very close to that used by the Mycenaeans and various Near Eastern peoples (Hebrew Yawan, for example), and all these people had learned to know the Ionians as fighters and traders long before the composition of the Iliad. So they are rightly included--but their epithet is anachronistic. The Ionians with trailing robes are not mercenaries or seamen; they are the luxury-loving citizens of western Asia Minor, at just the period when the Iliad was composed.

Now back to the Catalogue of Ships and to the island of Rhodes, a major center of Greek culture in prehistoric and classical times. No wonder it is mentioned several times in the Iliad. It is among the few Greek islands named in the catalogue, and it is named rather insistently:

Tlepolemos son of Herakles, big and brave,
Led from Rhodes nine ships of proud Rhodians
Who occupied Rhodes, arranged in three divisions,
Lindos and Ielysos and gleaming Kameiros.
(Iliad 2.653-656)

In other words, Rhodes and its inhabitants had been organized into three city-states, which are named in the last line. This listing (which is followed by a digression about the birth and adventures of Tlepolemos) fits Rhodian history accurately, but during one particular period. Formerly sharing in Mycenaean culture, Rhodes was afterward colonized by a second wave of Greek settlers, the Dorians, and classical Greek legend said that the Dorian settlements were led by the sons of Herakles, including Tlepolemos. Archaeologists place this colonization close to 900 b.c. In Mycenaean times there were several towns on the island, but it is thought that the newly arrived Dorians set up the three city-states named in the catalogue. These cities retained their importance until 408 b.c., when they united to found Rhodos (Rhodes Town), after which the island became a single state. Since the Rhodes entry in the catalogue names Tlepolemos and the three Dorian cities, our best guess must be that it originated after 900 b.c.

Let's now glance at the Trojan Battle Order with which book 2 of the Iliad ends. Clearly this section is inserted in order to balance the Catalogue of Ships; having had a list of the Greeks and their ships, we must have a list of Trojan and allied contingents also. It's a much shorter list, also in geographical order, dealing first with Troy and its neighborhood, then with allies from southeastern Europe, northwestern Asia Minor, and the western coast as far south as the people whom the Greeks called Lykioi. It's a frustrating list, because so far we do not have enough external evidence to date it. Yet it too stems from a tradition distinct from that of the Iliad in general, and some parts of it are very ancient. Greek cities on the Asia Minor coast, even the oldest, are not mentioned. This could be a planned omission, to avoid a glaring anachronism, since these cities were known to be more recent than the fall of Troy. But the major city of Miletos, believed from statements by two early Greek historians to have been Carian-speaking and then for a while bilingual before it became Greek, is here; it is said in this list to be the metropolis of the Kares of foreign speech. This listing again seems to take us back some hundreds of years, to the time when Miletos was a bilingual city and a buffer state independent of the Hittite empire of inland Anatolia, favoring the Achaioi of Mycenaean Greece.

Now, setting aside the catalogues, let's consider two formulaic descriptions of the peoples who took opposing sides in the Trojan War. Although horses were important to the peoples spoken of in the Iliad--in farming, in warfare, and in sports--only one ethnic group is described as hippodamoi, "horse-tamers," and that is the Trojans. On one occasion Agamemnon accuses Odysseus of laziness, and Odysseus replies hotly:

Son of Atreus, what a speech out of your teeth!
How can you claim I avoid the fighting when the Achaioi
Stir up fierce battle upon the horse-taming Trojans?
Now watch, if you want to, if you care about it,
As the father of Telemachos goes into the front line
Against the horse-taming Trojans. Your words are wind.
(Iliad 4.350-355)

More than once the horse-taming Trojans are named alongside a comparable characterization of the Achaioi, euknemides, "well protected by greaves." When the goddess Athene suddenly appeared on the battlefield,

Astonishment gripped those who saw her,
The horse-taming Trojans and the well-greaved Achaioi.
(Iliad 4.79-80)

Both of these formulaic adjectives carry real historical information. When the Trojans are singled out in this way from the many peoples in the Iliad who prized horses, and when Troy itself, elsewhere in the poem, appears as Ilion of fine foals, it is because the Trojans really did keep horses in large numbers--archaeologists confirm it. But these descriptions would make little sense after Troy was occupied by people from the Balkans and the Trojans ceased to exist as an identifiable people, around 1100 b.c.; they would make no sense at all after Troy was abandoned, around 950 b.c. When the Achaioi are distinguished in the Iliad by the leather greaves that protected their shins, it is because this really used to be a distinctive feature of their armor. Vase paintings and reliefs show that Egyptians and Near Easterners did not wear greaves, but Mycenaean Greeks did, and Mycenaean Greeks undoubtedly correspond to the Achaioi of the Iliad. The wearing of greaves cannot be traced beyond the decline of Mycenaean Greek civilization, soon after 1200 b.c.10

There is another description for the Achaioi, kare komoontes, "growing their hair long," or "long-haired." When Hektor taunts Paris in book 3, he exclaims:

How the long-haired Achaioi will be cackling,
Saying that we made you our champion for your good looks,
When there's no strength or valor in your heart.
(Iliad 3.43-45)

Cretan men of the ancient Minoan civilization are sometimes depicted in wall paintings with very long black hair, and Mycenaean men adopted this fashion, to judge by some Mycenaean vase paintings. Once the Minoan culture had disappeared and been forgotten--sometime around 1350 b.c.--the phrase kare komoontes might gradually be felt to be appropriate to the Mycenaean Greeks instead, because they kept up the fashion; but again, not after the decline of Mycenaean civilization, soon after 1200 b.c.

Thus three formulas characterizing the Trojans and the Achaioi almost certainly originated in the poetic tradition more than five hundred years before the creation of the Iliad. Although the Catalogue of Ships contains items that are easily recognizable as more recent, some other items are at least five hundred years old.

In the grand sweep of the Iliad, however, these are mere details. What can we say about the origins of the main story, the siege and destruction of Troy?

The Prehistory of Troy and Mykenai

Archaeology alone will never answer all the questions about the fall of Troy that historians and readers of the Iliad and the Odyssey want to ask. Archaeology practically never finds named persons. It is scarcely ever possible for archaeologists to trace the course of a journey by individuals, such as a naval expedition, or to ascribe the evidence of fire and destruction (such as what is visible at Troy) to identifiable and named attackers. It is fascinating to find signs of the flourishing and the destruction of two prehistoric cities separated by hundreds of miles, but dating the events concerned may be difficult or impossible, setting aside the even more difficult question of who or what caused the destruction. Yet archaeologists can tell us a great deal.

Let's begin with Greece. Mycenaean civilization in Greece seems to have flourished quite suddenly, around 1600 b.c. There was a great deal of mutual influence between it and the much older Minoan culture of Crete, though Minoans and Mycenaeans spoke different languages. Mycenaeans spoke an early form of Greek; they kept accounts and inventories on clay tablets, which were written in Greek in Linear B script, deciphered in the 1950s. In Crete people spoke a language unrelated to others in Europe, but we know little about it; it was written in Linear A script and is as yet undeciphered. Around 1450 b.c. the Mycenaeans took possession of central Crete. Mycenaean centers then included Knossos, Phaistos (Crete), Pylos, Sparta, Tiryns, Mykenai (southern Greece), and Thebes (central Greece), and at Knossos, as at the mainland sites, administrative records were henceforth kept in Greek, in Linear B.

All these places were destroyed violently, but not all at the same date. Pylos was burned around 1200 b.c. The fortified stronghold of Mykenai, with some others, lived on through the period at which Troy VIIa was burned, but for less than a hundred years. Many Cretan settlements were abandoned during this period, and people took to the hills. Archaeologists cannot identify the attackers. Once the Mycenaean administrative centers--the palaces--were destroyed, knowledge of Linear B writing was also forgotten. Greek became once more an unwritten language, the vehicle of a wholly oral culture.

Across the Aegean, Troy was further excavated in the twentieth century, and the excavations are continuing today. This later work has been much more scientific than Schliemann's was. The massive fortress called by the archaeologists Troy VI, built around 1700 b.c., stood for over four hundred years. It soon grew larger than the central hill, the mound of Hissarlik, could accommodate. The Lower City, outside the citadel walls and with its own defenses, might eventually have accommodated a population of several thousand; but the density of population is uncertain, because only small areas have yet been excavated. Troy VI collapsed in a great earthquake about 1250 b.c. It was rebuilt hastily and much less solidly. The new level, known as Troy VIIa, was a much less imposing fortress, which stood for perhaps as little as sixty years. Troy evidently had enemies, and maybe these enemies were aware that the city's defenses were no longer what they had been. At any rate, Troy VIIa was destroyed by violence sometime around 1180 b.c. All the buildings that can be identified were ruined by a devastating fire. Slingstones and other weapons found show that enemy attack brought about the end of Troy VIIa. People went on living at Troy even after that disaster; but the new and shrunken settlement, Troy VIIb, was of little interest to anyone except the insignificant few who had been untouched by whatever caused the fire. Around 1100 b.c. Troy was apparently occupied by people from across the Dardanelles, and about 950 b.c. it was abandoned altogether. All these dates are open to dispute, but the sequence of events is clear.11

The site lay unoccupied for at least two hundred years, until a Greek shrine was established there around 700 b.c. Later Greeks and then Romans, fully aware of the Troy legend, developed a new city on the site. It too was eventually abandoned.

In much of the rest of Anatolia in the second millennium b.c., the languages spoken and written belonged to the group now called Anatolian. All have been extinct since ancient times; the best known is Hittite, which was deciphered in 1915. Anatolian languages belonged to the Indo-European family, as does Greek. Hittite and the related Luwian were the two languages of record in the Hittite empire and its tributary states. Troy, as we shall see, was one of the latter; the find there in 1995 of a typical late Hittite seal with a short inscription in Hieroglyphic Luwian helps to demonstrate this link.12

Troy VI was no more than a small town by modern standards, but it was the capital city of a Hittite tributary state. Archaeological finds show that materials and works of art came there not only from Greece, Crete, and Hittite lands but from as far afield as central Europe and central Asia. The classicist Denys Page, recalling those equine formulas (the horse-taming Trojans and Troy of fine foals), long ago suggested that Troy exported horses to Greece, and if he had been equally aware of how the horses and chariots of Troy figure in Hittite documents, he might have hypothesized an export trade in horses in that direction also. Troy was in a remarkable and privileged geographical position, standing at a convenient crossing point between southwest Asia and Europe and guarding the only possible sea route between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Not only was the city a crossroads; it was also on the edge of the "developed world" of the second millennium b.c. Admittedly, there were cities of comparable size in southern Greece, but there were no long-distance land routes from them to the north. No cities existed anywhere else in Europe; no cities existed anywhere at all to the north or west of Troy. Whatever commodities from southwest Asia that people in southeastern Europe might want were likely to pass through Troy. Anything in southeastern Europe that attracted people in southwest Asia--and this might well include horses from the plains of the southern Balkans--was equally likely to pass through Troy. Though as yet very small in volume, long-distance trade of this kind continued and increased through the second millennium, although it was interrupted by the catastrophic events of around 1200 b.c. and after.13

Myths and legends naturally reduce history to personalities. If we look beyond Helen, Priam, Agamemnon, and Achilles, in terms of prehistoric geography Troy deserves its place in legend as a major city of the north, as a potential rival to Mykenai, as a crossroads, and as a center of trade in horses and other commodities.

The Major Names and Places

As we look at the historical circumstances that might have surrounded a siege of Troy, we must keep in mind that the poet of the Iliad freely uses alternative names for places and peoples that are central to the story. Troy may be Troia, Dardania, or Ilios. The Greeks may be Achaioi, Argeioi, or Danaoi. Paris, the seducer of Helen, may be Paris or Alexandros. Let's explore these alternates and the possible reasons for them.

What we would really like to find, of course, is a detailed contemporary chronicle or inscription that we can identify as describing the burning of Troy VIIa soon after 1200 b.c. Then at last we would know who did it and maybe even why. It seems unlikely that any such text will ever come from Greece. Linear B script may well have been in use at the right time, but it survives only in accounts and inventories. If administrative and historical records were kept at Troy--and they surely were--they would have taken the form of clay tablets stored somewhere in the citadel. Some of them would have been baked hard by the fire that destroyed Troy VIIa, favoring their survival, but the whole center of the ruined citadel was cleared by later Greeks to make room for a temple of Athene, and any surviving written records would probably have been destroyed at that time. It seems unlikely, therefore, that a record of the crucial event will come from Troy. South of Troy lay the kingdoms of Arzawa and Mira and their dependencies. These were Hittite tributaries for a longer period than Troy was and had more direct links to the imperial capital, but as yet we have scarcely any historical records from them. So we must make the most of what records we have. They are meager records from peoples to whom Mykenai and Troy were obscure and close to the horizon, but they are much better than nothing. They tell us of events that lie in the background of the legends that eventually turned into the Iliad and the Odyssey. And they do mention a sack of Troy.

The Hittites ruled an extensive empire of inland Anatolia known to others as Hatti; it collapsed not long after the burning of Troy VIIa. The capital of this empire, which they called Hattusa, has been excavated at Boğazköy in Turkey. The Hittites had numerous allies and client states to their west, south, and southeast. They maintained regular contacts (sometimes peaceful, sometimes warlike) with rulers in Syria and even, further afield, with the monarchies of Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Hittites and the Egyptians went to war for the domination of Syria, and in 1285 b.c. (by one current calculation) fought the battle of Qadesh in Syria. The battle is recorded in great detail in Egyptian sources. It did not go well for Egypt, but the Egyptian king Ramses II, proud of his military prowess, made sure that not only the dry official record but also the praise-song of the court poet Pentauor was inscribed for all to read. These records tell us that the Hittite king Muwattalli II (who ruled around 1290-1272 b.c.) had numerous allies fighting on his side, providing the excuse for a long preliminary list of peoples that the Egyptian king could claim to have defeated:

Here begins the victory of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Usermare-Sotpenre, son of Re, Ramses II, beloved of Amun, endowed with eternal life; which he achieved over the land of Hatti, Naharina, the land of Arwad, Pidasa, the Drdny, Kashkash, the land of Masa, the land of Karkisha and Luka, Carchemish, Kode, the whole land of Nukhashse, the land of Qadesh, Ukeret, and Mushanet. ...14

The name of one contingent of Hittite allies immediately strikes a chord with any reader of the Iliad. Those who appear in Egyptian script as Drdny surely ought to be the Dardanoi, one of the three names that the poet of the Iliad uses for the people of Troy and its hinterland. The list of Hittite allies is repeated, with variations, as they appear at Qadesh ("the wretched enemy from Hatti had arrived there, fetching together all the foreign lands as far as the end of the sea: the entire land of Hatti had come, that of Naharina ...") and in the praise-song of the battle:

The wretched leader of Hatti stood among his infantry and chariotry,
Watching his majesty fight all alone
Without his infantry and chariotry ...
Then he caused many leaders to come,
Each of them with his chariot
Equipped with weapons of war,
The leader of Arwad, of Luka,
Of Drdny, of Carchemish,
Of Karkisha, of Halep;
His brother leaders gathered together,
All of their thousand chariots rushing into the fire.15

These are lists of Hittite allies and tributaries "as far as the end of the sea," which, if it means anything, means the northern and eastern coasts of Anatolia. No other known place-name from the Near East appears to match Drdny. Is this a mere coincidence, or were Trojan infantry and chariots fighting for the Hittites at Qadesh in 1285?

It seems likely that they were, because just around this time, in 1290 or soon after, the same Hittite king, Muwattalli II, drew up an agreement with four states to the west of his own realm and adjacent to the better-known Hittite vassal kingdom Arzawa. One of these four, a new tributary ally of the Hittite empire, is Wilusa. Here we have a fairly close match, geographically and linguistically, to Ilios, the name used most commonly in the Iliad for Troy. In fact, it is a better match than we would think at first sight, because linguistic research has independently indicated that the prehistoric Greek form of the name was Wilios (the w sound disappeared from classical Greek).

The identification of place-names like this one in Hittite historical and diplomatic texts was the life work of John Garstang. Earlier scholars had taken some names out of context and linked them hypothetically with those known from later sources, and the link Wilusa-Ilios had already been made and had been the subject of fierce argument. Garstang's achievement was to set the work on a reliable basis by demonstrating, using all the historical texts and taking account of all records of journeys and campaigns, how each place must lie in relation to others. He made it clear that Arzawa (which had been placed far to the southeast by some earlier scholars) actually centered on the valleys of the Kaystros and Maiandros rivers in western Anatolia, and he showed that it was highly probable that Wilusa was in the neighborhood of Troy. Thanks to new documents, the identification of Wilusa with Troy was made a certainty in the late 1990s in work by J. D. Hawkins and Frank Starke.16

The introductory clauses of Muwattalli II's agreement make a specious claim that Hatti had established suzerainty over Wilusa 350 years earlier and had never lost it:

Thus says the Sun, Muwattalli, Great King, King of the land of Hattusa, favorite of the Weather God, son of Mursili, Great King, Hero: In early times the Labarna, my forebear, subdued the whole land of Arzawa and the whole land of Wilusa. ... I know of no subsequent secession by the land of Wilusa from any king of the land of Hattusa. Even if the land of Wilusa did secede from the land of Hattusa, friendship was maintained nonetheless with the kings of the land of Hattusa and envoys were exchanged regularly.17

In reality, the royal ancestor or Labarna probably went nowhere near Wilusa. When official documents claim to narrate events of the distant past, they are at least as unreliable as oral tradition. Reading between the lines, we can see that Muwattalli's archivist, instructed to find records of previous contacts with Wilusa, found evidence of relations between recent monarchs but nothing that would justify the new agreement, which these introductory clauses were required to do.

Moving on to its real purpose, the agreement binds the ruler of Wilusa to send troops in support of the Hittite king if the latter is attacked by certain enemies:

If any of the kings who are equal in rank with the Sun (the kings of Egypt, Babylon, Mittanni, and Assyria) makes war, or if from within anyone stirs up rebellion against the Sun, and I write to demand infantry and chariotry from you, send infantry and chariotry at once to my aid. ... If you obey these words, the thousand gods whom I, the Sun, the Labarna, Muwattalli, Great King, have convoked in assembly, gods of Hattusa and gods of Wilusa and the Weather God of myself the Sun, shall protect you and your wife, your sons, your grandsons, your towns, your threshing floor, your vineyard, your field, your heads of cattle and sheep; under the power of the Sun you shall prosper and grow old.18

The treaty therefore matches up neatly with the hypothesis that the Drdny at Qadesh were a contingent from Troy-Wilusa, because in accordance with the treaty, some contingent from Wilusa ought to have been there.

The treaty has more to tell us, however. The current ruler of the kingdom of Wilusa was Alaksandu, adopted son of his predecessor, Kukkunni. His name is clearly identical with one of the two names in the Iliad for the young prince who caused the Trojan War. Nowadays we call him Paris, but the poet of the Iliad more frequently uses the alternate name Alexandros. The making of the treaty took place a good sixty years earlier than the burning of Troy VIIa, so if that event happened to have been caused by Greeks in search of the abducted Helen, she certainly could not have been abducted by the Alaksandu of the treaty. Still, to find that name in a Hittite source as belonging to the royal family of Troy-Wilusa is a remarkable clue to the realities that might underlie the Trojan War story.

The Hittites were also in occasional contact with a state that lay offshore to the west of Arzawa, which they called Ahhiyawa. For a long time scholars have wanted to link this name with one of the names in the Iliad for the Greek warriors who fought at Troy, Achaioi, and they are clearly right. They really are the same name. According to Hittite records, contacts between the Hittites and Ahhiyawa were at their closest when both states were simultaneously involved, on the western coast of Asia Minor, with a place named Milawata, known in Greek as Miletos and according to the Iliad the chief city of the Kares.

Let's return to the challenging problem that arises with nearly all of these historical links--a problem that scholars almost forget to notice if they have a lifelong familiarity with European epic poetry, because all later poets, imitating Homer's handy example, have felt free to multiply names for their most important places and peoples. But why should there be three names for the Trojans and three for the Greeks? And why on earth should Paris have two names? It is an odd coincidence, when so few names out of Greek epic have matches in Egyptian and Hittite records, that no fewer than five of these matches belong to entities that have multiple names: Wilusa-Ilios, Drdny-Dardanoi, Achaioi-Ahhiyawa, Alexandros-Alaksandu, and Tnyw-Danaoi.

In the Iliad there are three groups of names for Troy and its people. First we have Ilios or Ilion, the city. Then there is Troie, the city; Tros, its founder, ancestor of Priam; Troes, the men of the city, and Troiades, the women. Third, we have Dardanoi and occasionally Dardaniones, the people; Dardanos, son of Zeus, founder of the kingdom; and Dardania, the country. The Dardanoi are sometimes (not always) explicitly distinguished from the Troes, as at the opening of speeches by Trojan leaders to their troops, Listen to me, Troes and Dardanoi and allies! and in a parallel listing of these troops, Troes and Lykioi and Dardanoi fighting side by side; these two formulaic lines occur four times and six times respectively in the course of the Iliad. The Lykioi are Trojan allies here, and Lukka is a tributary state (south of Arzawa) in Hittite records.19

We now have a sidelight on the possible implications of these names. The phrases Ilias ge, "land of Ilion," and Troias ge, "land of Troy," found in later Greek poetry, actually have precise equivalents in Hittite; the former corresponds to "the land of Wilusa," the official name in Hittite documents of the state that was ruled from Troy, while the latter corresponds to "the land of Truisa," named once in the Annals of Tudhaliya I. Hittites generally applied names in just this form to countries in their sphere of influence. Dardanoi is the precise equivalent of Drdny, the Egyptian name for a contingent of enemy soldiers at Qadesh. Egyptians often used names of peoples to designate attackers and enemy states; they must have learned this particular name from Hittite sources. We may now guess--though it can be no more than a guess--that the inhabitants of Troy, whatever language they spoke, used an equivalent of Ilias ge for the whole state ruled from Ilion, an equivalent of Troie for their capital city and Troias ge for the neighboring district, and an equivalent of Dardanoi for a division of their troops, perhaps levied not from the city but from an adjacent territory.20

Now to the three collective names for the Greek warriors. The most familiar is Achaioi, which, as already noted, corresponds to the Hittite name Ahhiyawa. In classical Greek, Achaia was a region on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, one bypassed by the later invasion of the Dorians. The second name for the Greeks is Danaoi, explained mythologically as "the descendents of Danaos" and apparently corresponding to the name Tnyw found in Egyptian documents. Less common is Argeioi, which means literally "men of Argos"; Argos itself, the name of a city near Mykenai, is sometimes mentioned in the Iliad as if it were the center of Greece and stood for the whole country. Least common of all are Hellas and Hellenes, the now familiar names for Greece and its people. In the Catalogue of Ships, Hellas is a district in northern Greece; elsewhere in the Iliad it seems that Achilles' own warriors, the Myrmidones, come from this district. But by the time the Iliad was composed, Hellas was also familiar as a name for all of northern Greece. This is reflected in a phrase in the catalogue, Panellenas kai Achaious, "all the Greeks and Achaioi"--that is, all the northern and southern Greeks--and likewise in the Odyssean formula kath' Hellada kai meson Argos, "throughout Hellas and middle Argos"--that is, throughout northern and southern Greece.21

We may guess that Achaioi was the name used for themselves by the people of a Mycenaean Greek kingdom of southern Greece; the related country name, in the form Ahhiyawa, was adopted in Hittite documents, in which the names of countries rather than peoples are preferred when listing foreign states. Danaoi perhaps had a more inclusive sense, encompassing Greek-speakers in general. Whatever its precise definition, it was adopted in Egyptian records because it was normal in Egyptian to use names of peoples in such contexts.

Six Possible Ingredients of the Trojan War Legend

But why does Paris-Alexandros have those two names? If the Hittite king did business with an Alaksandu, king of Wilusa, about a hundred years before the destruction of Troy VIIa, why do Greek legends make Alexandros not one of the ancestors of Priam but his son, destined never to be king of Troy? It isn't hard to find answers to these questions--similar inconsistencies and confusions are very common in royal genealogies preserved by oral tradition--but the answers are depressing to anyone who hopes to find proof that the Trojan War was fought in the way described and for the reasons stated in the Iliad. The double naming of Paris is a warning that the story of Troy, as it stands in the Iliad and the Odyssey, has complicated origins.

A quick tour of two other epic traditions will show us the kind of thing that can happen. The medieval French epics (chansons de geste), written between about a.d. 1080 and 1400, are explicitly set in the court of Charlemagne, crowned in 800, and his immediate successor, Louis the Pious. It is recorded that the oral traditions were in existence by 840, yet in the form in which we know them, these poems often incorporate episodes set in Constantinople and Jerusalem, inspired by the Crusades and by the east-west marriage alliances of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Epics and sagas in various languages of northern Europe--Anglo-Saxon, German, Icelandic, and medieval Latin--written between about 930 and 1300, deal with Ermanaric, king of the Ostrogoths; Attila, leader of the Huns; Theoderic, Gothic king of Italy; and their warriors. Ermanaric was powerful from 350 to 375; Attila ruled from 433 to 453, Theoderic from 493 to 526. In these narratives, which result from up to nine hundred years of development in oral tradition, the three heroes are treated as contemporaries.22

If oral narratives elsewhere combine historical characters of very different periods, then the Iliad and the Odyssey may certainly do the same. If we could follow the strands of the Iliad story back to their beginnings, they might involve a prince of Troy named Alexandros and a seducer named Paris--not the same person, not necessarily in the same place or at the same date.

Here are some known historical events of which there might be traces in the Iliad and related traditions: (1) the adoption by Kukkunni, a former ruler of Wilusa, of Alaksandu, who thus became his successor: (2) the presence of Trojans, and possibly of their ruler Alaksandu, at the battle of Qadesh; (3) the Hittite attack on the Seha River land; (4) the fall of Troy VIIa and the Hittite sack of Wilusiya; (5) the earthquake that destroyed Troy VI; (6) the raids on Egypt by the "Sea Peoples."

1. First let's look at the odd family history of Paris, said in later sources to have been abandoned at birth by King Priam and his wife, Hekabe, owing to a prophecy that he would bring destruction. The baby was found and brought up by a herdsman and afterward recognized and accepted into the royal family. There are many such stories in Greek legend and fiction, and we have no reason to take this one more seriously than most of the others--except that Alaksandu, who was king of Wilusa just after 1300 b.c., is said in the treaty to be not the natural son but the adopted son of his predecessor, Kukkunni. In legal terms, therefore, both Alaksandu and Paris-Alexandros entered the royal family not at birth but in later life. This is surely no coincidence--the Greek legend of Paris-Alexandros incorporates a real tradition concerning Alaksandu.

2. Now let's consider the hint in the Iliad that Paris, on returning to Troy with Helen, made a very long detour via the coast of Syria:

Hekabe herself went down into the sweet-smelling storeroom
Where her robes were kept, intricate work by women
Of Sidon, whom godlike Alexandros himself
Had brought from Sidon, sailing the wide sea,
On the voyage on which he had brought home noble Helen.
(Iliad 6.288-292)

These unexpected lines were a real puzzle to later commentators. If Paris and Helen were on the run, why did they not make immediately for the safety of the walls of Troy? And why did Paris have to bring the embroiderers home with him instead of just buying clothes for Helen? The story was flatly contradicted in other versions of the legend, including the lost epic Kypria, a narrative of the beginnings of the Trojan War that was composed somewhat later than the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Kypria stated that Paris and Helen reached Troy three days after leaving Sparta, which means that they could not have taken a detour via Sidon. The historian Herodotos uses this conflict between the Iliad and the Kypria to demonstrate that the latter poem was not by Homer.23

There is obviously a chance that this odd detail in the Iliad is a real reminiscence of a similar journey made by Alaksandu of Wilusa, if he personally led the contingent of Drdny who fought alongside the Hittites at the battle of Qadesh in 1296. They had a leader, but the Egyptian source does not tell us his name. It is even possible, after the victory at Qadesh, that embroiderers from Sidon were among the booty allotted to Alaksandu.

3. Next we look at an odd episode at the beginning of the Trojan War. According to Greek legend, the first landfall of the Achaioi in Anatolia was Teuthras pedion, the lowlands of Teuthrania (this was the Greek name for the valley of the Kaikos River, now known as Bakir Çay). Led by Agamemnon, the Achaioi found themselves in conflict at once with a powerful enemy and were driven back to the sea in spite of the personal bravery of Achilles. The leader who opposed the landing at Teuthrania was Telephos. This story is not in the Iliad or the Odyssey, and Telephos does not appear in the Iliad at all, but his son, Eurypylos, is mentioned in the Odyssey as having been leader, in alliance with the Trojans, of a contingent of troops from the people called Keteioi. After the repulse at Teuthras pedion, the Greeks returned, set out once more from Aulis in Boiotia, and this time encamped before the walls of Troy.24

This story might correspond to a real occurrence recorded very briefly in the annals of the Hittite king Tudhaliya I, around 1410 b.c. The king advanced westward to subdue a vassal, King Manapadatta of the Seha River land. The kingdom known by this name to the Hittites lay north of Arzawa. It centered on the valley of the Hermos (modern Gediz) and probably extended northward to include the Kaikos valley; at any rate, it bordered on the kingdom of Wilusa, or Troy. Its territory corresponds with that of the people called Meiones in the Iliad. The annals record that as Tudhaliya approached, "the king of Ahhiyawa withdrew," implying perhaps that the latter had been involved in some resistance movement but did not wish to risk a direct confrontation with the Hittites. In their classic exploration of Hittite geography, John Garstang and O. R. Gurney suggested that the Seha River land included the Kaikos valley and noted the possible link between this occurrence and the Troy legend.25

The name of the troops whom Telephos's son led to Troy, Keteioi, was long ago conjecturally linked with the Hittites, known to the Egyptians as Kheta. This link has never been widely accepted, but it could be real. We do not as yet know what name the Mycenaean Greeks used to refer to the Hittite kingdom.

4. Now to the fall of Troy, sacked by the Achaioi after a ten-year war. Two quite separate events may stand in the background of this legend. The first is an archaeological landmark, the burning of Troy VIIa, dated to around 1180 b.c. The burning was the result of action by an enemy that used slingstones, but the archaeologists cannot yet say who the enemy was. The second event is one more incident from the annals of the eventful reign of Tudhaliya. After the intervention in the Seha River land, Arzawa revolted from Hittite domination, along with a long list of mostly unknown states. That revolt was suppressed. A more northerly polity, Assuwa, then opposed the Hittite monarchy in turn. Wilusiya (which must be substantially identical with Wilusa) was one of twenty-two "lands" included in Assuwa at this period, according to King Tudhaliya. He takes up the story:

But when I turned back toward Hattusa, the following countries declared war against me: ... the land of Kispuwa, the land of Unaliya, the land of Dura, the land of Halluwa, the land of Huwallusiya, the land of Karkisa, the land of Dunda, the land of Adadura, the land of Parista, the land of Warsiya, the land of Kuruppiya, the land of Alatra, the land of Mount Pahurina, the land of Pasuhalta, the land of Wilusiya, the land of Truisa. These countries with their fighting men assembled. They drew up their army facing me. I, Tudhaliya, brought up my forces at night. I surrounded the enemy army. The gods went before me. ... I defeated the enemy army and entered every country that had sent an army to fight me. I stripped all the countries mentioned that had declared war against me. I brought to Hattusa the conquered people, the cattle, the sheep, and the equipment of the land. So when I had destroyed the land of Assuwa I came back home to Hattusa.26

The list is a curious one, because most of the names in it do not occur elsewhere in the Hittite records. Many cannot be identified; but alongside Wilusiya appears Truisa, which is certainly the Hittite equivalent of the name Troy. As noted above, Greek Troias ge corresponds directly to the Hittite term "land of Truisa" in this text.

Tudhaliya is evidently pleased with himself; his listing of Wilusiya and Truisa as two states, when we believe them to be one, would be pardonable exaggeration. The king's boast cannot be totally discounted. Ancient Near Eastern kings always recorded their successes and sometimes used them to paper over their failures (modern politicians do similar things), but Tudhaliya could hardly have made these assertions if he had not brought home at least some prisoners and sheep and oxen to sell in the markets of Hattusa.

Thus the annals of Tudhaliya claim that the city of Wilusiya and Truisa, that is, Troy, was conquered and stripped of its people and animals just before 1400 b.c. It is not difficult to believe that the Hittite sack of Troy contributed to the legend retold in the Iliad and the Odyssey.

5. In book 12 of the Iliad there is an unusual glimpse of the future. The Achaioi had built a wall around their camp on the plains of Troy. Immediately after the fall of the city, this wall was to be destroyed by the gods Apollo and Poseidon the Earthshaker:

When the city of Priam was destroyed in the tenth year,
And the Argeioi went in their ships to their dear native land,
Then Poseidon and Apollo devised a plan
To overwhelm the wall, harnessing the force of rivers,
All those that flow out to the sea from the mountains of Ida ...
Phoibos Apollo made all these rivers join at one mouth
And for nine days hurled their waters at the wall, and Zeus rained
Continuously, the sooner to wash the wall into the sea.
The Earthshaker himself, his trident in his hands,
Led them, and sent away in his waves all the foundations,
Of logs and stones, over whose placing the Achaioi had groaned.
(Iliad 12.15-29)

The wall and its destruction might quite easily be fiction. They might, however, carry a reminiscence of a real natural disaster. If so, although flooding is the chief destructive force mentioned in this passage, we have to remember that Poseidon is the god of earthquakes and consider the earthquake that, according to the archaeologists, demolished the city of Troy VI around 1250 b.c. The destruction was not total, but it was so serious that the city had to be largely rebuilt; moreover, some archaeologists believe that fire, and perhaps enemy action, contributed to the destruction.

Incidentally, later poets depict the gods helping to destroy Troy with flood and earthquake as the Greeks overrun the city. This idea is not to be found in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and as far as we know it is not derived from early Greek legends.27

6. Now to the sixth recorded event. About 1188 b.c., the Egyptian ruler Ramses III included in his official annals a report of a fairly unusual occurrence for Egypt--a threatened invasion that somehow arose from disturbances far to the north. This is a free translation of the crucial words of his report:

Year Eight ... Certain foreign peoples created a disturbance in their islands. All at once, states were overturned and wiped out in the fighting. Not one state was able to stand against their arms: Hatti, Kode, Carchemish ... and Alasiya [Cyprus] fell before them at the same moment. They camped at a location in Amor [in Palestine or Syria]: they destroyed the people there, and the land was in chaos. They moved forward toward Egypt.28

This describes the beginnings, as seen from Egypt, of the great upheaval caused by the wandering bands usually described as the Sea Peoples. They attacked Egypt itself, but Egypt stood against them; Egyptian rule in Syria and Palestine was ended, however.

It is far from clear where the Sea Peoples came from and whether they had any aims beyond looting and destruction. It seems likely, however, that the Mycenaean Greeks took part in these adventures. The stories told in the Odyssey by Menelaos and Odysseus of their adventures in Egypt around the time of the Trojan War, adventures that are completely irrelevant to the plot, may be pure fantasy. But they may contain small nuggets of historical fact, in the shape of reminiscences, transmitted by oral tradition, of Greek participation in the Sea Peoples' raids on Egypt in the early twelfth century.

In the second volume of his commentary on the Iliad, Geoffrey Kirk considers whether there is any historical basis for the Iliad story. In preparation, he asks whether it matters. This is a good question. We do not look to the Iliad for a historical narrative; what the epic has to tell us is timeless, and remains valid whether or not there happens to be any link with real events of the past. But we still want to know how traditions such as those of the Trojan War come into existence.29

We should not be surprised by conflicts of dates or contradictions of names. It's interesting, but not disturbing, that the adoption of Prince Alaksandu is to be dated a century earlier than the destruction of Troy VIIa; nor will it worry us if datings of that kind are suddenly altered by revisions in archaeological benchmarks or in the identification of documents. Whatever the dates of events 1 to 6, however inadequate their connections with one another, people remembered them and singers told of them. There were many other such events, equally tenuously linked, not identified here and in some cases never to be identified. Transformed in hundreds of years of oral tradition, these incidents survived in the repertoire. Thus they were available for their final transmutation, by a truly great poet, into the story of the written Iliad.


1. See Iliad 20.285-287, 12.381-383, and 12.447-449.

2. For calculations based on African and Polynesian historical traditions, see Henige, Chronology; in general, see Vansina, Oral Tradition.

3. Pausanias, Guide to Greece 2.15-17. See also Strabo, Geography 8.6.19 [377].

4. Strabo, Geography 13.1.24-42 [592-602].

5. See Boedeker, The World of Troy.

6. Giovannini, Étude historique.

7. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad, pp. 124-132 and especially p. 161, note 28.

8. See Latacz, Troy and Homer, pp. 243-244, citing recent work by Frank Starke.

9. Kirk, The Iliad, vol. 1, p. 194.

10. Lorimer, Homer and the Monuments, p. 252; Page, History, pp. 245, 251-252, and 283, note 78.

11. Blegen et al., Troy; see also the journal Studia Troica vol. 1 (1990) to date. Some archaeologists use the form Troia as an international standard and call the successive layers Troia I to Troia VIII. On the issue of dating, see Hood, "Bronze Age," and Korfmann, "Troia."

12. Latacz, Troy and Homer, pp. 49-72.

13. Easton et al., "Troy in Recent Perspective." For the guess about horses, see Page, History, pp. 67, 70.

14. Based on a French translation by Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, She and others identify Arwad with Arzawa. Compare the translation in Breasted, vol. 3, p. 136.

15. After Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt (above). Compare the translation in Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 2, pp. 62-72.

16. Garstang and Gurney, Geography; Güterbock, "Troy in Hittite Texts?"; Latacz, Troy and Homer, with references to work by Hawkins and Starke.

17. After Garstang and Gurney, Geography, p. 101; cf. Latacz, Troy and Homer, p. 105.

18. After Garstang and Gurney, Geography, p. 101; cf. Latacz, Troy and Homer, pp. 108-110.

19. See Mellink, "Homer, Lycia, and Lukka."

20. Kirk, The Iliad, vol. 1, 252-253, 261-262.

21. Iliad 2.530; Odyssey 1.334 and elsewhere.

22. Examples include the French Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, the Anglo-Saxon Waldere and Widsith, the German Nibelungenlied, the Icelandic Thidrekssaga, and the Latin Waltharius. See [Dalby, 2006] page 222.

23. Herodotos, Histories 2.116-117. See [Dalby, 2006] page 173.

24. The Greek sources for the incident are Pindar, Olympian Odes 9.70; Euripides, Telephos; Strabo, Geography 1.1.17; and Proklos, Chrestomathy. The latter is a prose outline of the early Greek epics and is based at this point on the Kypria.

25. Garstang and Gurney, Geography, p. 97. For a completely different, folkloric interpretation of the Teuthranian episode, see Davies, "Euripides' Telephus."

26. Abridged translation based on Garstang and Gurney, Geography, pp. 121-122; cf. Latacz, Troy and Homer, p. 94.

27. Virgil, Aeneid 2.608-633; Quintus of Smyrna, Fall of Troy 14.632-655.

28. Based on the translation by John A. Wilson in Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 262.

29. Kirk, The Iliad, vol. 2, pp. 36-50.


Blegen, Carl, et al. Troy: Excavations Conducted by the University of Cincinnati, 1932-1938. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-1958.

Boedeker, Deborah, ed. The World of Troy: Homer, Schliemann, and the Treasures of Priam. Washington, D.C.: Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage, 1997.

Breasted, J. H. Ancient Records of Egypt. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906-1907.

Davies, Malcolm. "Euripides' Telephus fr. 149 Austin and the Folk-Tale Origins of the Teuthranian Expedition." Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 133 (2000): 7-10.

Easton, D. F., J. D. Hawkins, A. G. Sherratt, and E. S. Sherratt. "Troy in Recent Perspective." Anatolian Studies 52 (2002): 75-109.

Garstang, J., and O. R. Gurney. The Geography of the Hittite Empire. London: British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, 1959.

Giovannini, A. Etude historique sur les origines du catalogue des vaisseaux. Berne: Francke, 1969.

Güterbock, H. G. "Troy in Hittite Texts? Wilusa, Ahhiyawa, and Hittite History." In Troy and the Trojan War: A symposium held at Bryn Mawr College, October 1984. M. J. Mellink, ed. Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College, 1986, pp. 33-44.

Henige, David P. The Chronology of Oral Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.

Hood, Sinclair. "The Bronze Age Context of Homer." In The Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule. Jane B. Carter and Sarah P. Morris, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 25-32.

Kirk, G. S., ed. Homer. The Iliad: A Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985-1994.

------. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 1: Books 1-4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

------. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 2: Books 5-8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Korfmann, Manfred. "Troia, an Ancient Anatolian Palatial and Trading Center." In The World of Troy: Homer, Schliemann, and the Treasures of Priam. Deborah Boedeker, ed. Washington, D.C.: Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage, 1997, pp. 53-74.

Latacz, Joachim. Troy and Homer: Towards a Solution of an Old Mystery. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lichtheim, M. Ancient Egyptian Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973-1980.

Lorimer, H. L. Homer and the Monuments. London: Macmillan, 1950.

Mellink, Machteld J. "Homer, Lycia, and Lukka." In The Ages of Homer: A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermeule. Jane B. Carter and Sarah P. Morris, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 33-43.

Page, Denys L. History and the Homeric Iliad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.

Pritchard, James B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3d ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Simpson, R. Hope, and J. F. Lazenby. The Catalogue of Ships in Homer's Iliad. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970.

Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition as History. Rev. ed. London: James Currey, 1985.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100193