Paul Cartledge reflects on the world in and of Homer: but was there a Trojan War?

‘Trojan horse’, labouring ‘like a Trojan’, ‘odyssey’, ‘epic’—our vocabulary like our imaginations is stuffed with ‘Homeric’ echoes and aspirations. Not a bad run, considering that the Iliad and the Odyssey were first put together in hexameter verse over 2500 years ago. Of course, this is, in part, because the Troy story is yet another of the many things the Romans have ‘done for us’. They latched on to one small detail of the original poems and transformed Trojan Aeneas, fleeing from the fiery wreck of his city with his aged father on his pious back, into their very own original founding father. Hence Virgil’s Aeneid, and his immortal sunt lacrimae rerum. But still it took Chaucer, Shakespeare and James Joyce, among many others, to keep the Trojan flame alive. Such that within the two decades of this century and millennium alone, we have already had new translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, each the first to be done by a woman scholar.

The Trojan Horse

These epics have survived to be read and re-read and translated and re-translated and re-visioned and re-purposed to this day chiefly because they are blazingly great stories, what the Greeks called ‘myths’ in the original sense of the word: traditional tales handed down from generation to generation, at first orally, later in written form. In ancient Greece an entire profession of rhapsodes (literally ‘stitchers of songs’) sprang up to perform ‘Homer’ in competition at festivals. It was considered an admirable personal feat to be able to learn and recite all Homer (a feat that would have taken several days); and it was among the first achievements of the alpha-class literary critics based at the great Library at Alexandria in Egypt to redact and re-present (on papyrus) a ‘standard’ scholarly text of both poems.

The pre-Christian Greeks had no Bible equivalent. Their nearest—not very near in fact—was ‘Homer’, a one-word stand-in for the supposed author of those two truly monumental epic poems composed in hexameter verse. A key part of ‘his’ genius was inspired selectivity: from the mass of traditional stories handed down orally over many centuries regarding the deeds and adventures of a golden age of heroes, ‘Homer’ elected to focus on just two: Achilles and Odysseus. The Iliad is really about the anger of Achilles vented and satiated in a heroic duel with Troy’s champion defender Hector, the Odyssey about the travels and travails of the eponymous hero as he struggled over ten long years to return from Troy to his native kingdom of Ithaca. Why did they go to Troy at all? Homer is economical with the backstory, partly because it was widely known among his audiences—though elements of it were later contested, including even errant Helen’s actual presence at Troy!

But who exactly was—or were—Homer? The Greeks disagreed vehemently amongst themselves about that too. But on two things all—or almost all—ancient Greeks did agree: that he was somehow responsible for both epic poems, and that the war that lay at the heart of them, the Trojan War (so labelled as seen from a Greek, anti-Trojan perspective), was historically authentic, that it had really happened. But did it, really? Was it (any of it) true? Had there really been a Trojan War such as Homer described or assumed, or at any rate a Trojan War, not necessarily correctly represented in all its manifold details by the (much later) poet or poets labelled ‘Homer’? This essay will attempt briefly to re-analyse and re-evaluate the claims and counter-claims, in the light of the latest linguistic, historical and above all archaeological research.

Heinrich Schliemann, vastly wealthy 19th-century Prussian businessman and ultra-Romantic, was in no doubt: not only was Homer a great poet, he was a great historian, and what was needed above all was to excavate the original sites of Mycenae (capital of Menelaus’s older brother King Agamemnon, who in Homer was to lead the united Greeks’ expedition of Helen-recovery) and of course Troy. Which is what Schliemann, following clues left by the ancient Greeks themselves, duly—and controversially—did. Unfortunately at Hissarlik in today’s north-west Turkey—which we all agree must have been Homer’s Troy—he made a serious botch of things, leaving an archaeological disaster area that has had to be cleared and cleaned up by properly scientific American and German dig campaigns.

Heinrich Schliemann

Successive layers of habitation have been conventionally awarded Roman numerals further distinguished by letters of the alphabet, but although there is no doubting that this massively fortified hilltop site with a considerable lower town spreading out beneath was of great significance in the appropriate period (roughly the 13th-12th centuries BC), experts can’t agree which of the layers/levels (VIh?, VIIa?) is the ‘Homeric’ level, since archaeologically there is little or no evidence let alone proof of Greek presence at the site, not to mention of Greek aggressive action of the (10-year-long) siege variety postulated by Homer’s story.

Walls of Troy

Which is grist to the mill of those nasty sceptics (spoiler alert: I am one of them) who doubt the fundamental veracity of the entire Trojan War myth as such. Consider some of the other evidence for the prosecution—apart from the lack of objective, confirmatory, probative, contemporary archaeological data. Might there have been reasons why the post-Trojan War Greeks might have wished to invent and embellish such a tale? Comparative socio-historical study of epic as a genre of communal literature suggests two relevant things: that the invention of saga such as the Iliad presupposes ruins; and that in the hallowed sphere of epic poetry defeats can be turned into victories—and victories can be invented from whole cloth, based airily on nothing factual whatsoever.

On the other hand, it is a massively documented fact that some time during the decades around 1200 BC the ancient Greek (we know it was Greek, thanks to the decipherment of the contemporary ‘Linear B’ bureaucratic records scratched on clay) eastern Mediterranean world suffered a raft of major catastrophes—of physical destruction of cities and citadels followed by severe depopulation, massive internal transmigration, and near-total cultural degradation. We do not know for sure what or who caused the catastrophes. We can however identify their negative—economic, political, social, psychological—consequences. In short, there ensued an illiterate ‘dark’ age lasting in some areas up to four centuries, which ended only in the renascence of the eighth century BC. This was the age in which the Greeks rediscovered writing and invented a new, Phoenician-derived alphabet; Greeks began to trade once more with their Near Eastern neighbours on a substantial scale; population increased notably and permanent settlements grew in size and complexity as well as number; a rudimentary notion of political citizenship was first forged; and Greeks began to emigrate out of the Aegean heartland to points both further east and much further west—to, not least, what they called Ilion and to Corfu, Homer’s Phaeacia.

Linear B

We have therefore a prime candidate for the impulse to the creation or fabrication of the Trojan War myth: the compelling need in the dark night of the soul to postulate a ‘once upon a time’ golden age of pan-Greek solidarity and power, when the Greeks were able to muster collectively an expeditionary force of over 1000 ships and their crews, led by heroic kings and aristocrats, in order to wallop a pesky foreign city that had dared to steal and hang on to one of their most important and iconic (I use that much abused word advisedly) women.

But is that all there is to it? Another of the great scientific advances of more recent times, beyond those in sophistication of archaeological technique and interpretation and the decipherment of the Linear B script, has been the decipherment of Hittite cuneiform and hieroglyphic texts from—especially—Bogazkoy or ancient Hattusas, the eventual forerunner of today’s Ankara (200 km to the east). Indeed in the Hittite records have been found both toponyms and personal names that sound uncannily Greek, e.g. the city name Wilusa, which sounds a bit like ‘Ilion’ (the Greeks’ own alternative term for Troy—whence ‘Iliad’), or the region- or people-name Ahhijawa for ‘Achaea(ns)’. (Homer notoriously never calls Greeks what the historical Greeks actually called themselves, ‘Hellenes’. Instead in the epics they are Achaeans, and Danaans and Argives.) However, for all those linguistic similarities—or coincidences—the Hittite records so far discovered and published contain no reference to anything approaching a Homeric Trojan War, nor a Greek-style Helen.

There are other reasons for scepticism about the Homeric epics as historical documents, or as implying historically authentic backgrounds, for the late Bronze Age Greek world—what scholars conventionally refer to as the ‘Mycenaean’ world after its undoubtedly most wealthy and powerful city. Consider just one: the issue of slavery. In both the Iliad and Odyssey the institution of slavery and its fundamental importance and intrinsic shaming disgrace are fully recognised: ‘when the day of slavery falls upon a man, half his virtue is instantly removed’ (repeated in both poems). But the composers and auditors of the Homeric epics, both before and after they had achieved their monumental poetic form in the eighth or early seventh century BC, had absolutely no idea whatsoever of the scale of slaveholding that was actually practised in the great Mycenaean palace economies of the 14th or 13th centuries BCE. They thought 50 was an appropriately vast holding for a great king, whereas in actuality a Bronze Age Agamemnon could command the unfree labour of thousands.

Homeric rhapsode

In short, I am with those who believe that the world of Homer is immortal precisely because it never existed outside the framework of the Homeric epic poems and their repeated oral performance and eventual scribal transcription and dissemination. And thank goodness for that—for without the ancient Greeks’ belief in a Trojan War, they—and so we—would not have had the genre of tragic drama, one of the ancient Greeks’ most fertile and inspirational inventions, to delight, caution and instruct us. (The great pioneer Athenian tragedian Aeschylus is said to have referred to his plays, over-modestly, as mere offcuts from the banquet of Homer.) There is a world in Homer, a world of literary reception, allusion and collusion, as there is a world of Homer: without them, we should all be very much the poorer, spiritually, artistically, culturally speaking. Homer lives—long live Homer. But as for the Trojan War? Lost, most probably.

Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture emeritus and Senior Research Fellow in Clare College, Cambridge

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