Did the Trojan War Really Happen?

Troy invites war. Its location, where Europe and Asia meet, made it rich and visible. At Troy, the steel-blue water of the Dardanelles Straits pours into the Aegean and opens the way to the Black Sea. Although the north wind often blocked ancient shipping there, Troy has a protected harbor, and so it beckoned to merchants—and marauders. Walls, warriors, and blood were the city’s lot.

People had already fought over Troy for two thousand years by the time Homer’s Greeks are said to have attacked it. Over the centuries since then, armies have swept past Troy’s ancient walls, from Alexander the Great to the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915.

And then there are the archaeologists. In 1871 Heinrich Schliemann amazed the world with the announcement that a mound near the entrance to the Dardanelles contained the ruins of Troy. Schliemann, who relied on preliminary work by Frank Calvert, was an inspired amateur, if also something of a fraud. But the trained archaeologists who have followed him by the hundreds in the 130 years since have put the excavations on a firm and scientific basis. And they all came to Troy because of the words of a Greek poet.

But are those words true? Granted that ancient Troy really existed, was it anything like the splendid city of Homer’s description? Did it face an armada from Greece? Did the Trojan War really happen?

Spectacular new evidence makes it likely that the Trojan War indeed took place. New excavations since 1988 constitute little less than an archaeological revolution, proving that Homer was right about the city. Twenty years ago, it looked as though Troy was just a small citadel of only about half an acre. Now we know that Troy was, in fact, about seventy-five acres in size, a city of gold amid amber fields of wheat. Formerly, it seemed that by 1200 B.C. Troy was a shabby place, well past its prime, but we know now that in 1200 the city was in its heyday.

Meanwhile, independent confirmation proves that Troy was a byword in the ancient Near East. This outside evidence comes not from Homer or any Greek source but from Hittite texts. In these documents, the city that Homer calls Troy or Ilion is referred to as Taruisa or Wilusa—and in the early form of the Greek language, “Ilion” was rendered as “Wilion.”

A generation ago scholars thought that the Trojans were Greeks, like the men who attacked them. But new evidence suggests otherwise. The recently discovered urban plan of Troy looks less like that of a Greek than of an Anatolian city. Troy’s combination of citadel and lower town, its house and wall architecture, and its religious and burial practices are all typically Anatolian, as is the vast majority of its pottery. To be sure, Greek pottery and Greek speakers were also found at Troy, but neither predominated. New documents suggest that most Trojans spoke a language closely related to Hittite and that Troy was a Hittite ally. The enemy of Troy’s ally was the Greeks.

The Greeks were the Vikings of the Bronze Age. They built some of history’s first warships. Whether on large expeditions or smaller sorties, whether in the king’s call-up or on freebooting forays, whether as formal soldiers and sailors or as traders who turned into raiders at a moment’s notice, whether as mercenaries, ambassadors, or hereditary guest-friends, the Greeks fanned out across the Aegean and into the eastern and central Mediterranean, with one hand on the rudder and the other on the hilt of a sword. What the sight of a dragon’s head on the stem post of a Viking ship was to an Anglo-Saxon, the sight of a bird’s beak on the stem post of a Greek galley was to a Mediterranean islander or Anatolian mainlander. In the 1400s B.C., the Greeks conquered Crete, the southwestern Aegean islands, and the city of Miletus on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, before driving eastward into Lycia and across the sea to Cyprus. In the 1300s they stirred up rebels against the Hittite overlords of western Anatolia. In the 1200s they began muscling their way into the islands of the northeastern Aegean, which presented a big threat to Troy. In the 1100s they joined the wave of marauders, known to us as the Sea Peoples, who descended first on Cyprus, then on the Levant and Egypt, and settled in what became the Philistine country.

The Trojan War, which probably dates to around 1200 B.C., is just a piece in a larger puzzle. But if the resulting picture builds on Homer, it differs quite a bit from the impression most readers get from his poems. And “impression” is the right word, because much of the conventional wisdom about the war, from Achilles’ heel to Cassandra’s warnings, is not in Homer at all.

Consider what Homer does say: He tells the story in two long poems, the Iliad or Story of Ilion (that is, Troy) and the Odyssey or Story of Odysseus. According to Homer, the Trojan War lasted ten years. The conflict pitted the wealthy city of Troy and its allies against a coalition of all Greece. It was the greatest war in history, involving at least 100,000 men in each army as well as 1,184 Greek ships. It featured heroic champions on both sides. It was so important that the Olympian gods played an active role. Troy was a magnificent city and impregnable fortress. The cause of the war was the seduction, by Prince Paris of Troy, of the beautiful Helen, queen of Sparta, as well as the loss of the treasure that they ran off with. The Greeks landed at Troy and demanded the return of Helen and the treasure to her husband, Sparta’s King Menelaus. But the Trojans refused. In the nine years of warfare that followed, the Greeks ravaged and looted the Trojan countryside and surrounding islands, but they made no progress against the city of Troy. Ironically, the Iliad focuses on a pitched battle on the Trojan Plain, although most of the war was fought elsewhere and consisted of raids. And the Iliad concentrates on only two months in the ninth year of the long conflict.

In that ninth year the Greek army nearly fell apart. A murderous epidemic was followed by a mutiny on the part of Greece’s greatest warrior, Achilles. The issue, once again, was a woman: this time, the beautiful Briseis, a prize of war unjustly grabbed from Achilles by the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. A furious Achilles withdrew himself and his men from fighting. Agamemnon led the rest of the army out to fight, and much of the Iliad is a gory, blow-by-blow account of four days on the battlefield. The Trojans, led by Prince Hector, took advantage of Achilles’ absence and nearly drove the Greeks back into the sea. At the eleventh hour, Achilles let his lieutenant and close friend Patroclus lead his men back into battle to save the Greek camp. Patroclus succeeded but overreached himself, and Hector killed him on the Trojan Plain. In revenge, Achilles returned to battle, devastated the enemy, and killed Hector. Achilles was so angry that he abused Hector’s corpse. King Priam of Troy begged Achilles to give back his son Hector’s body for cremation and burial, and a sadder but wiser Achilles at last agreed. He knew that he too was destined to die soon in battle.

The Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector. The Odyssey is set after the war and mainly describes the hard road home of the Greek hero Odysseus. In a series of flashbacks, it explains how Odysseus led the Greeks to victory at Troy by thinking up the brilliant trick of smuggling Greek commandos into Troy in the Trojan Horse, an operation which he also led. Achilles did not play a part in the final victory; he was long since dead. The Odyssey also shows Helen back in Sparta with Menelaus. But Homer leaves out most of the rest of the war. One has to turn to other and generally lesser Greek and Roman poets for additional detail.

Aeneas is a minor character in the Iliad, but the hero of a much later epic poem in Latin, written by Vergil, the Aeneid. Vergil makes Aeneas the founder of Rome (or, to be precise, of the Italian town that later founded Rome). But in Homer, Aeneas is destined to become king of Troy after the Greeks depart and the Trojans rebuild.

Now, consider how new evidence revises the picture: Much of what we thought we knew about the Trojan War is wrong. In the old view, the war was decided on the plain of Troy by duels between champions; the besieged city never had a chance against the Greeks; and the Trojan Horse must have been a myth. But now we know that the Trojan War consisted mainly of low-intensity conflict and attacks on civilians; it was more like the war on terror than World War II. There was no siege of Troy. The Greeks were underdogs, and only a trick allowed them to take Troy: that trick may well have been the Trojan Horse.

The Iliad is a championship boxing match, fought in plain view at high noon and settled by a knockout punch. The Trojan War was a thousand separate wrestling matches, fought in the dark and won by tripping the opponent. The Iliad is the story of a hero, Achilles. The Trojan War is the story of a trickster, Odysseus, and a survivor, Aeneas.

The Iliad is to the Trojan War what The Longest Day is to World War II. The four days of battle in the Iliad no more sum up the Trojan War than the D-day invasion of France sums up the Second World War. The Iliad is not the story of the whole Trojan War. Far from being typical, the events of the Iliad are extraordinary.

Homer nods, and he exaggerates and distorts too. But overly skeptical scholars have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. There are clear signs of later Greece in the epics; Homer lived perhaps around 700 B.C., about five hundred years after the Trojan War. Yet new discoveries vindicate the poet as a man who knew much more about the Bronze Age than had been thought.

And that is a key insight because Bronze Age warfare is very well documented. In Greece, archaeologists showed long ago that the arms and armor described by Homer really were used in the Bronze Age; recent discoveries help to pinpoint them to the era of the Trojan War. Like Homer, Linear B documents refer to a Greek army as a collection of warrior chiefs rather than as the impersonal institution of later Greek texts.

But the richest evidence of Bronze Age warfare comes from the ancient Near East. And in the 1300s and 1200s B.C., Bronze Age civilization was international. Trade and diplomacy, migration, dynastic marriage, and even war all led to cultural cross-fertilization. So the abundant evidence of Assyria, Canaan, Egypt, the Hittites, and Mesopotamia puts in perspective the events of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Some things in Homer that may seem implausible are likely to be true because the same or similar customs existed in Bronze Age civilizations of the ancient Near East. For example, surprise attacks at night, wars over livestock, iron arrowheads in the Bronze Age, battles between champions instead of armies, the mutilation of enemy corpses, shouting matches between kings in the assembly, battle cries as measures of prowess, weeping as a mark of manhood—these and many other details are not Homeric inventions but well-attested realities of Bronze Age life.

Besides recording Bronze Age customs, Homer reproduces Bronze Age literary style. Although he was Greek, Homer borrows from the religion, mythology, poetry, and history of the Near East. By composing in the manner of a chronicler of the pharaohs or the Hittites or Babylon’s King Hammurabi, Homer lends an air of authenticity to his poem. For instance, Homer portrays champions on both sides carving paths of blood through the enemy as if they were supermen—or as if they were pharaohs, often described by Egyptian texts as superheroes in battle. Ironically, the more Homer exaggerates, the more authentic he is as a representative of the Bronze Age. And even the prominence of the gods in Homer, which drives most historians to distraction, is a Bronze Age touch, because writers of that era always put the gods at the heart of warfare. Belief in divine apparitions on the battlefield, conviction that victories depended on a goddess’s patronage, and faith that epidemics were unleashed by offended deities are all well documented.

Could Homer have preserved the truth about a war that preceded him by five centuries? Not in all its details, of course, but he could have known the outline of the conflict. After all, a remarkably accurate list of Late Bronze Age Greek cities survived to Homer’s day and appears in the Iliad as the so-called Catalog of Ships. And it survived even though writing disappeared from Greece between about 1180 and 750 B.C.

As for Trojan memories, writing did not disappear from the Near East, and trade routes between Greece and the Near East survived after 1200. Around 1000 B.C., Greeks crossed the Aegean Sea again in force and established colonies on the coast of Anatolia. Tradition puts Homer in one of those colonies or on a nearby Aegean island. If so, the poet could have come into contact with records of the Trojan War—maybe even with a Trojan version of the Iliad.

In any case, writing is only part of the story. The Iliad and Odyssey are oral poetry, composed as they were sung, and based in large part on time-honored phrases and themes. When he composed the epics, Homer stood at the end of a long tradition in which poems were handed down for centuries by word of mouth from generation to generation of professional singers, who worked without benefit of writing. They were bards, men who entertained by singing about the great deeds of the heroic past. Often, what made a bard successful was the ability to rework old material in ways that were new—but not too new, because the audience craved the good old stories.

We can presume that the Trojan War indeed happened: that is, that a Greek coalition attacked and eventually sacked Troy. But if the Trojan War really happened, how was it fought? What caused it? To answer these questions we will start with Homer and then scrutinize all details in light of what we know about the Late Bronze Age.

Take, for instance, the war’s length. Homer says that the Trojan War lasted ten years; to be precise, he says that the Greeks at Troy fought and suffered for nine years and finally won in the tenth. But these numbers should not be taken literally. Among many other reasons, consider that in the ancient Near East, there was an expression “nine times and then a tenth,” which means “over and over until finally.” It was a figure of speech, much as in today’s English the phrase “nine times out of ten” means “usually” rather than the literal numbers. In all likelihood, Homer uses a time-honored expression to mean that the Trojan War lasted a long time. We should not understand it literally. Either that, or the meaning of the phrase was garbled by the time it reached Homer.

So how long did the Trojan War really last? We don’t know. All we can say is that it lasted a long time but probably considerably less than ten years. Since they had limited resources, Bronze Age kingdoms are unlikely to have mounted a ten-years’ campaign. It was a protracted war. But then, Troy was a prize worth fighting for.

Troy’s fortune lay in its location. “Windy Troy,” as Homer calls it, was not merely gusty, it was a meteorological miracle. The city rose because it was located at the entrance to the Dardanelles, the water link between the Aegean and the Black Sea. In its prime, Troy covered seventy-five acres and held 5,000–7,500 people, which made it a big city in Bronze Age terms and a regional capital.

The Troad, the hinterland of Troy, was a blessed land. There was fresh water in abundance, the fields were rich with grain, the pastures were perfect for cattle, the woods were overrun with deer, and the seas were swarming with tuna and other fish. And there was the special gift of Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind: Boreas usually blows in the Dardanelles for thirty to sixty days during the summer sailing season, sometimes for weeks at a time. In antiquity, when boats lacked the technology to tack, that is, to zigzag against the wind, Boreas stopped shipping in the Dardanelles. For much of the sailing season, ship captains were forced to wait in Troy’s harbor until the wind fell. As lords of the waterfront, Trojans got rich, and they owed it to Boreas.

The Trojans were among the world’s great middlemen. Middlemen are rarely beloved, especially if they get rich on bad weather. With the possible exception of textiles, the Trojans had only one good to sell, their famous horses. Horse dealers were the used-car salesmen of the ancient world. The fast-talking Trojans probably found ways to cheat other men that outdid anything thought up in Thebes or Mycenae.

Troy may not have been popular, but with its natural advantages and business savvy, Troy was peaceful and prosperous—or it would have been, had it been wrapped in a bubble. Unfortunately, Troy stood exposed on the bloody fault line where two empires met. There was no more dangerous piece of real estate in the ancient world. To the east lay the Hittites, great charioteers who rode out of the central highlands and dominated Anatolia as well as much of the Near East. To the west lay the Greeks, a rising power whose navy exerted pressure across the Aegean Sea. These two warlike peoples were cousins of a sort. Both spoke an Indo-European language, and both had arrived in the Mediterranean from farther east around 2000 B.C. Although these two rivals never invaded each other’s heartland, they took out their fury on the people stuck between them.

Western Anatolia was the Poland of the Late Bronze Age: wealthy, cultured, and caught between two empires. In a region of about forty thousand square miles (roughly the size of Kentucky or about four-fifths the size of England), an ever-shifting set of countries struggled for power—with the Hittites and the Greeks always ready to stir the pot. There was a never-ending series of wars among the dozens of kingdoms that came and went over the years, vying for power in a turbulent no-man’s-land.

To the Greeks, who laid claim to the Aegean islands and who held a foothold in Anatolia, the Troad was a threat and a temptation, both a dagger pointed at the Greek heart and a bridge to the Hittites’ heartland. It was also the richest source of booty on the horizon. A major regional hub, Troy was a way station for goods from Syria and Egypt and occasionally even from the Caucasus and Scandinavia. How could the predatory hearts of the Greeks not have yearned to plunder it? But it was not a fruit to be easily picked.

Troy was a sturdy fortress. The plain of Troy was broad but, otherwise, it was no place for a bloody brawl. It was soggy for much of the year, which was bad for chariots. It may have been malarial—the evidence is unclear. Add to these factors the Trojan army and Troy’s wide network of alliances. But though the city was strong, Troy had weak spots. Twenty-eight towns lay in Troy’s rich hinterland, not to mention more towns on the nearby islands, and none of them had fortifications to match the walls of the metropolis. These places overflowed with the material goods and the women whom the Greeks coveted.

Practiced and patient raiders, the Greeks were ready for the challenge of protracted conflict. Living in tents and shelters between the devil and the wine dark sea would be miserable, but no one becomes a “Viking” in order to be comfortable. The Trojans enjoyed all the rewards of wealth and sophistication. But the Greeks had three advantages of their own: they were less civilized, more patient, and they had strategic mobility because of their ships. In the end, those trumped Troy’s cultural superiority. And so we come to the Trojan War.

The war probably took place sometime between 1230 and 1180 B.C., more likely between 1210 and 1180. At that latter date the city of Troy was destroyed by a raging fire. The presence of weapons (arrowheads, spearheads, and sling stones) as well as unburied human bones points to a sack—that is, a sudden and violent attack. The towns in the Troad, according to a recent survey by archaeologists, may have been abandoned around 1200, consistent with an invasion.

Yet some skeptics deny the veracity of the Trojan War because few weapons have been found in the ruins of Troy compared to other ancient cities that had been sacked. But we must remember that Troy is no undisturbed site. It was the premier tourist attraction of the ancient world; its soil was dug up in search of relics for such VIP tourists as Alexander the Great and the Emperor Augustus. And later “urban renewal” flattened the citadel for terraces for Greek and Roman temples, a process that destroyed layers of Bronze Age remains. The archaeological evidence fits the picture of a city that was sacked, burned, and, in later centuries, picked through by eager tourists.

The date of the Trojan War sticks in some historians’ craws. Around 1180 B.C. the great palaces of mainland Greece, from Mycenae to Pylos, and many places in between, were themselves destroyed. With their own ruin looming, could the Greeks have possibly attacked Troy between 1210 and 1180? Yes. History is full of sudden reversals. For example, most Japanese cities were rubble in 1945, yet only four years earlier, in 1941, Japan had attacked the United States. Besides, the Greek myths say that the Trojan War gave way to civil war and chaos within the Greek homeland, and that might just fit the archaeological evidence. Finally, unrest in Greece in the period 1210–1180 might have made the Trojan War more, not less, likely, because it might have tempted Greek politicians to export violence abroad.

History is made up not of stones or words but of people. Was there ever a queen named Helen and did her face launch a thousand ships? Was there a warrior named Achilles who in a rage killed thousands? Did Aeneas suffer through a bitter war only to have the last laugh as a king? What about Hector, Odysseus, Priam, Paris, Hecuba, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Thersites? Did they exist or did a poet invent them? We don’t know, but names are some of the easiest things to pass down in an oral tradition, which increases the likelihood that they were real people. Besides, we can almost say that if Homer’s heroes had not existed, we would have had to invent them. There may not have been an Achilles, but Greek warriors used his tactics of raiding cities and of fighting battles by attacking chariots on foot. Whether Helen’s face launched a thousand ships or none, queens of the Bronze Age wielded great power and kings made war over marriage alliances. Priam may never have ruled Troy, but Kings Alaksandu and Walmu did, and Anatolian rulers lived much as Homer describes Priam, from his dealings with uppity nobles to his practice of polygamy. So this book will refer to Homer’s characters as real-life individuals. The reader should keep in mind that their existence is plausible but unproven. Descriptions of them are based on Homer and, whenever possible, on details drawn from archaeology, epigraphy, art, etc.

And with that, let us meet our leading lady. She is a character who sums up the spirit of her age, and new evidence increases the chances that she really did exist. And that she ran away from home to go to the windy city, blown by Boreas, and the fatal waterway by which it sat, where soldiers stole cattle and hunted men.