Did the Trojan War really happen?

The Burning of Troy by Johann Georg Trainman

The foundation of Western literature can be traced back to Ancient Greek epic. The Homeric works known as The Iliad and The Odyssey are among the most well known works of literature in the western canon. They tell the story of the Trojan War, a ten year siege of a city called Troy by the Greeks. The Illiad tell the story of how a beautiful wife of King Meneleus, called Helen, was kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris. To bring Helen back and punish the Trojans for Paris’s crime, Meneleus led a massive invasion of Troy by Achean troops. For ten years the Greeks laid siege to the city of Troy until finally it fell and was ransacked and destroyed.

Three thousand years later the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered a site, known as Hisarlik, which many experts believe is the fabled city of Troy. The city was clearly destroyed sometime in the late Bronze Age. However, the question of whether or not that destruction was the work of a Greek army is unanswered. Archaeologists have long studied the site and still disagree on the likelihood that such an event took place. Sources are limited and experts are still divided over whether the story in the Illiad represents an actual war.

Homer’s epics as an historical source

The primary source of information we have about Troy and the Trojan War come from Homer’s Iliad. Unfortunately the Illiad is primarily a work of oral fiction that was passed down for generations before it was finally recorded in writing. This long history as an oral document casts doubt the on accuracy of the story and the descriptions of events that take place in the book are dubious. Moreover, the Trojan War happened sometime in the 13th century BCE, a staggering five centuries before the date of the earliest known written copy of The Iliad. Thus, The Iliad tells us more about society, war and culture in the 9th century BCE than it does about the Bronze Age.[1]


The Iliad is unquestionably one of the most important pieces of literature and has been compared to The Bible in its ability to influence on Western art, literature and morality. The Greeks, and many other ancient commentators such as Herotodus, absolutely believed that the Trojan War was an historical event that took place in the “Golden Age” of their history. [2] Many modern archaeologists agree, believing that at the very least there was some type of conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans in northwest Turkey at some time in the late Bronze Age. However, it is also true that the details have been heavily dramatized and the kidnapping of Helen was almost certainly not the cause of the war. Based on documents from other civilizations at that time, experts speculate that the cause was either political or “accidental”, which means that Troy was simply one city out of many that was the victim of Greek raids. [3]

The modern day archaeological site

The best known candidate for Troy is a site in northwest Turkey called Hisarlik, discovered in 1970 by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. There are nine levels of settlements at Hisarlik, and each level is divided into sublevels. Early archaeologists believed that level VIIa or VIIb were the mythical Troy, but dating of pottery shards has ruled those levels out. Today level VIh is the most likely candidate, as it appears to have been destroyed at some time in the late 13th century BCE [4]

Archaeologists know that VIh was destroyed in a violent fashion sometime during the 13th century, but the nature of its destruction is not known. The site was not particularly impressive, with a small citadel and only a few broken foundations that remain today. As such there is very little evidence of a large settlement and archaeologists speculate that this site could have been destroyed by a natural disaster, an invasion or some other destructive event. [5] Other levels of the site are known to have been destroyed by human violence, including VIIa, but most have ruled these levels out as likely candidates for the city of Troy from the Iliad.[6]

Theories about the historical likelihood of a Trojan War

Due to the lack of useful evidence at Hisarlik, archaeologists continue to disagree on whether or not the Trojan War really took place. Carl Blegen, an archaeologist who excavated at Hisarlik in the 1930s, has said that “it can no longer be doubted” that the Greeks laid siege to the site known as Hisarlik and ultimately destroyed it.[7] However, that opinion was based on the belief that level VIIa was the fabled Troy, and modern experts disagree.

Hisarlik - Is this Troy?

Indeed, many have criticized Blegen for his hasty decision to declare that VIIa is the real Troy. Moses Finley and others have called his conclusion an “act of faith”, and pointed to an almost total lack of evidence to suggest that the fall of Troy was caused by a Greek army [8] Authors such as Finley are far more conservative in their reading of the evidence found at Hisarlik and instead point to contemporary texts from that period, specifically those of the Hittites, that mention a site that may be Troy. The Hittites suggest that this city’s destruction may have been either political or “accidental”, meaning that VIh was invaded as part of a larger scale plundering or raid. [9]

The most commonly held theory is that the stories in The Iliad are largely untrue, but are born out of one or more small truths from the Greeks’ distant past. Perhaps there was some Bronze Age conflict whose story survived the centuries, was passed down orally, and provided the basis for what became a cornerstone of Western literature and thought. Most agree that the cause of such a war was likely politics rather than romance, and far fewer numbers of fighters were involved [10] Until the day when more clues comes to light, there is no way to conclude that the Trojan War was a real event.

Due to a great lack of evidence even to prove that Hisarlik is the real Troy, the question of whether or not the Trojan War really took place remains unanswered. However, given that The Iliad is a work of fiction that was passed down orally for centuries before it was written down, archaeologists are hesitant to conclude that such an event took place. However, most agree that there is a high degree of likelihood that The Iliad and The Odyssey were at the very least inspired by a large scale military excursion that occurred some time in the late Bronze Age.

References

  1. Finley, M.I. et al.. “The Trojan War” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 84 (1964): 1–9. Web. 1 Dec, 2015, p. 9.
  2. Bryce, Trevor R.. “The Trojan War: Is There Truth Behind the Legend?”Near Eastern Archaeology 65.3 (2002): 182–195. Web. 1 Dec. 2015, p.182
  3. Finley, 5-6.
  4. Bryce, 185.
  5. Bryce, 187-188.
  6. Finley, 1.
  7. Blegen, Carl William. Troy and the Trojans. New York: Praeger, 1963, p. 20.
  8. Finley, 1.
  9. Finley, 5-6.
  10. Bryce, 183.

Contributors

Admin and Katherine Fi