In February of 2018, Netflix and the BBC released Troy: Fall of a City. Filmed in South Africa, it tells the story of the Trojan War, drawing fairly extensively off of the Iliad and other Greek myths. Before I tackle the series itself, however, I first need to discuss whether the Trojan War is actually an historical event.
While the Greeks believed that Troy was a real city and the events of the Trojan War were historical, by the 19thcentury, most scholars assumed that the story was fictional and that Troy had never existed. In the 1860s, however one of the first archaeologists of note, the German Heinrich Schliemann, became convinced that Troy was a real place (although Schliemann is sometimes described more as a treasure hunter than a genuine archaeologist). Working from information provided by another archaeologist, Frank Calvert, Schliemann eventually conducted a dig at Hisarlik in modern Turkey, on the northwest corner of Asia Minor. He discovered the ruins of a series of layered ancient cities which he declared to be Troy, although his excavations caused enormous damage to the site, to the point that one scholar declared that Schliemann had done to Troy what the Greeks had been unable to do in ten years.
Scholars agree that Schliemann’s identification of the ruins at Hisarlik with the Troy of Greek mythology is essentially correct. But Troy was not exactly one city. Instead the ruins show a whole series of cities at Hisarlik, the earliest being founded around 3000 BC and the latest being destroyed late in the Roman period. By tradition, these various cities are known as Troy I, Troy II, Troy III, and so on down through Troy IX (the highest and most recent city). One layer, termed Troy VIIa, flourished in the 13thcentury, during the Mycenaean Period of ancient Greek history.
The 13thcentury BC is sometimes called the Heroic Age, because it corresponds to the period when according to Greek mythology the major Greek heroes were active. Historians call it the Mycenaean Period, because the archaeological layer characteristic of the culture was first identified at Mycenae. The Mycenaean Period was the first flourishing of Greek culture, characterized by large citadel-palaces and a wealthy warrior aristocracy.
Mycenaean Greece was part of an international network of cultures that included Egypt, Babylon in Mesopotamia, the Hittites in Central Asia Minor, the Trojans in northwestern Asia Minor, and the Minoans on Crete. These cultures traded extensively with one another and carried on a lively diplomacy in the 14thand 13thcenturies BC. The Mycenaeans developed a form of syllabic script called Linear B that they used for simple record-keeping.
And then, for reasons that historians are still trying to piece together, it all fell apart at the end of the 13thcentury. The Hittites, the Kassite Babylonians, the Trojans, the Minoans, and the Mycenaeans all suffered a total collapse. Their societies gave out and never recovered, all within about a half-century on either side of the year 1200 BC. The New Kingdom in Egypt held together for about another century before giving way to the Third Intermediate Period.
There are numerous theories about what caused this catastrophe, which is rightly considered the worst disaster of the ancient world. There was clearly a great deal of violence; most of the Mycenaean and Minoan palaces show signs of violent destruction. Both disease and earthquakes have been pointed to as contributing factors. One of the more interesting theories is that the emergence of iron-working technology destabilized the established military systems of the era, which depended on bronze. Since bronze was inferior to iron in terms of strength and hardness, the spread of iron weaponry would have upended existing military arrangements. Among the Greeks, the collapse was so severe that they literally forgot how to write. Linear B was entirely forgotten, and the Greeks wouldn’t acquire the more familiar alphabetic script until the 9th century, with the result that for about 300 years, the Greek ‘Dark Age’ is totally undocumented. Our best sources of information for the Dark Age are archaeology and linguistics (we know a bit about what Greek was like before the Dark Age and we know what it was like afterwards, so the changes give us some clues to what’s happening in between).
Troy VIIa was destroyed around 1190 BC, although only pieces of it have been found. There is some evidence of a fire in the one part of that level of the city that has been excavated. Some partial human remains were found in buildings, and one skeleton with skull injuries and a broken jaw was found near the city’s walls. Three bronze arrowheads were found. All of that is consistent with some sort of war, although none of it is proof of war. And the city does not seem to have been completely destroyed. The Troy VIIb layer suggests that the city remained inhabited, so that whatever happened to VIIa, it was not a complete annihilation of the community.
Crucially, a date around 1190 BC is loosely consistent both with the Bronze Age Collapse and with the period when later Greek legend claimed that the Greeks (or more properly the Achaeans, since the Trojans were also a branch of Greek culture) destroyed Troy. So it’s not wrong to say that we have evidence that the Trojan War actually happened. There is reasonable evidence that Troy really was at least partly destroyed in a war and that this probably happened as part of the Bronze Age Collapse.
However, having said that, I immediately have to qualify it. The fact that a war might well have overwhelmed Troy VIIa is not the same thing as saying that the Trojan War as it has come down to us is real. We have no evidence at all that any of the people named in the Greek myths actually existed. There may have been a Troy, but we can’t say that it was ruled by Priam and Hecuba and defended by Hector the Breaker of Horses. We can’t say that Troy’s calamity began when the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen away from her husband Menelaus of Sparta, and we have no proof that the attackers were Achaean Greeks, much less that they were led by Agamemnon and Achilles.
What about the Iliad?
What about it?
Ok, it’s actually a fair question. If the Iliad tells use the names of all the major players in the Trojan War, why am I so skeptical that those were real people?
The answer to that question is kind of complicated and gets into all sorts of questions about when the poem was composed and who composed it. First, it has to be noted that the world the poem describes is filled with all sorts of historical errors in terms of Bronze Age Mycenaean culture:
- The armor described sounds much more like Archaic period (9ththrough 6thcentury BC) armor than Mycenaean armor. Mycenaean helmets were made of animal tusks, not bronze.
- The heroes ride to battle in chariots, which the Mycenaeans used, but use them all wrong. Instead of firing missiles at their opponents from fast-moving platforms, Achilles and company ride up to their enemies in chariots, leap out to fight hand-to-hand, and then jump back into their chariots.
- The Mycenaeans buried their valued dead in vaulted beehive tombs called tholoi, but the dead heroes of the Iliad are cremated instead of buried.
- The few scraps of written information surviving from the Mycenaean period describe complex distinctions of leadership that are absent from the Iliad.
- The Iliad fails to mention many major Mycenaean communities.
Despite all of this, we do have some scraps of information from the Mycenaean period that point toward the Homeric tradition. Surviving Mycenaean documents do mention a number of the gods worshipped by the classical Greeks, including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, and Athena. The name ‘Achilles’ occurs in one document as the name of a shepherd. Records from the Hittite kingdom of central Asia Minor mention a place called Wilusa, which might be Ilion (the alternative name for Troy that gave the Iliad its title), whose king was Alaksandu the son of Piyama-Radu; Alexander was the actual given name of the Trojan hero Paris, the son of Priam. Most famously, a throw-away detail in the poem known as the Catalog of Ships mentions a long list of places that existed in the Mycenaean period, some of which no longer existed by the Archaic period. So there are a few hints that a genuine historical tradition lurks under the Iliad.
Greek tradition claims that the Iliad (and the Odyssey) were written by a blind poet named Homer who presumably composed the poem in one long act of composition. The reality was much more complicated. In the 1920s, American scholar Milman Parry proposed that the poem was composed according to what he termed Oral Formulaic Theory. To be simplistic about it, Oral Formulaic Theory holds that instead of memorizing an enormously long and complicated poem like the Iliad, what oral poets actually did was to memorize the outlines of a story that could be expanded or contracted to fit the poet’s needs during a given recitation. For example, if the poet were performing the Iliad at Ithaca, where Odysseus was from, he could greatly expand the material about Odysseus and perhaps contract the material about Menelaus of Sparta based on what he assumed would go over well with his audience. So instead of reciting the poem verbatim every time, he essentially composed a new version of the poem each time he performed it. To help him in the task of composing on the fly, the poet made use of stock phrases that bought him time to compose the next line in his head as he recited the previous one. For example, when the sea is mentioned, it is always ‘wine-dark’, when Athena appears, she is usually ‘grey-eyed’; that’s the Formula part of Oral Formulaic. Parry was able to prove that this was the way that Yugoslav poets worked when they performed, so his theory has solid evidence behind it as a system of performance.
If that’s true for the Iliad, then it’s much harder to speak of a specific author. Homer wasn’t so much the author of the poem we have today as he is a collective name for the many poets who memorized the structure of the poem and then constantly changed it as they performed it and passed it on to a new generation of poets. Perhaps the poem (or a piece of it) was first composed within a generation of 1190 BC, but by the time it got written down in the 8thcentury, it had passed through so many hands that must have undergone enormous change from its first version. Because there’s no good way to tell what has changed and what hasn’t, it’s impossible to locate whatever original nuggets of fact might still exist in the poem.
It is, however, possible that the written version of the Iliad was reworked by the final person whose hands it passed through. The structure of the poem is, in it own way, quite tight (though not as tight as the Odyssey), and the characters in it demonstrate reasonably consistent personalities. It opens with a declaration of its theme, the wrath of Achilles, and concludes when Achilles is finally able to lay aside his wrath. All of that sort of suggests that a conscious mind was at work, trying to achieve a consistent and satisfying story. So perhaps we can say that Homer is the final editor of the poem.
What’s Actually In the Iliad?
When students actually read the Iliad for the first time, they are often surprised to discover that it doesn’t tell the whole story of the Trojan War. It actually only tells the story of one important moment during the 9thyear of the 10-year campaign. It doesn’t tell us about how the war began; it makes no mention of the Golden Apple that Paris was asked to award to the loveliest goddess. It doesn’t tell us how Aphrodite, the winner of that contest, awarded Paris Helen of Sparta and how he stole her from her husband Menelaus. Nor does it tell us anything about the end of the war. The famous Trojan Horse and the Fall of Troy won’t happen for another year after the end of the poem.
Instead, the poem opens with Chryses, the priest of Apollo, seeking the return of his daughter Chryseis, whom Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, has taken as a slave. When Agamemnon refuses, Apollo strikes the Greeks with a plague that forces Agamemnon to return the girl. Butt-hurt over having to give up his war prize, Agamemnon petulantly confiscates Briseis, Achilles’ slave girl. That causes Achilles to get pissed off, so he decides he’s going to sit out the war and just sulk. Given that he’s the greatest warrior on the Greek side, the consequence is that the Trojans have the upper hand. Hector proves a greater warrior than anyone on the Greek side except Achilles.
Eventually Agamemnon swallows his pride and sends Odysseus to Achilles with an offer to return Briseis. But Achilles has built up a good head of anger and refuses. Eventually Patroclus, who is probably Achilles’ lover although the poem never makes that explicit, begs Achilles to let him borrow Achilles’ armor so he can fight. Since he’s wearing Achilles’ armor, everyone will think Achilles has changed his mind and this will boost the Greek morale. Achilles agrees but tells him that he cannot pursue the Trojans if they retreat. But you already know what’s coming. Patroclus ignores Achilles’ command and pursues the Trojans back to the gates of Troy, where Hector fights and kills him, thinking he’s just killed the greatest hero of all time.
Achilles is furious with grief when he learns his sexy daddy Patroclus is dead. Since his mama is a goddess, he gets a new set of armor made by Hephestus himself and goes and wreaks havoc among the Trojans. Eventually Hector goes out to fight him but chickens out and instead they get into a foot-race around Troy. Athena, who is still pissed at the Trojans because she didn’t get the Golden Apple, eventually tricks Hector into standing to fight, at which point Achilles gets Mycenaean on his ass and kills him. Then, because he can’t make Hector any more dead, he ties Hector’s corpse behind his chariot and drags it around Troy a bunch of times. It’s an act of total savagery, but he’s so torn up that his lover is dead that he can’t stop himself.
Eventually, in one of several remarkably moving moments in the poem, the aged Priam goes to Achilles, kneels before him and begs for his son’s body so he can bury it properly. Achilles finally realizes that his grief isn’t any different from Priam’s, and he agrees to return Hector’s body, allowing the Trojans to bury and mourn their great hero.
At the end of the poem, the writing is on the wall. With their greatest hero dead, it’s clear that the Trojans will lose. But it’s still going to take a year and the most famous military trick in world history to take them down.
In my next post, we’ll look at how Troy: Fall of a City handles this material.
Want to Know More?
There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.
If you’d like to know more about the Bronze Age Collapse, I really liked Robert Drews The End of the Bronze Age.