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Usman Khan
The Trojan War:
Myth and Reality

The Trojan War saga from the Homeric epic, the Iliad is one of the timeless tales of ancient literature. With its graphic and emotional depiction of humanity at war, the saga has captured the imagination of countless generations. The myth was related to a ten year long war a Greek coalition fought against the city of Troy and her allies. The mythical cause of the war was romantic in nature - the abduction of a royal maiden (the queen of Sparta in this case). This is a theme we see in quite a few other cultures as far as legends are concerned.

The Iliad itself starts in the tenth year of the war, focusing on the disgruntled mood of the Greek hero Achilles. The saga itself is made up of 24 books. It focuses on a great war between two powerful coalitions caused by the abduction of the Spartan queen, Helen. Wholehearted conflict begins in book 4 and warfare dominates the saga up to the climax in Hector's death in book 22 (1) . It is interesting to note that the second book of the Iliad contains a list of 164 places that contributed vessels and soldiers for the war; what is more intriguing is that none of the places identified in the list can be shown to be uninhabited during Mycenaean times, and the eighty or ninety of them located, all show signs of Mycenaean occupation. (2) Troy itself is described as a great fortress city with a large Bronze Age population. The settings for human action seem to be in three areas mostly; the Greek camp, the city of Troy and the great plain of battle that lies between the two. (3) Warfare in the saga strangely leaves out the common soldier and focuses primarily on aristocratic heroes battling each other. (4) This is reflective of the tendency of Greek saga to focus on great entities and personalities while leaving the common man mostly out of the story. The fighting usually involves large forces and battles are fought on an epic scale. The focus, narrows down to individuals and follows them in battle. Even to the common observer there seems to be an overemphasis on one-to-one combat. There is also the matter of logistics that seems to be completely ignored. Homer gives us no clue about where the supplies for such a huge army arrive from, nor is there any mention of support personnel that form the backbone of any military. (5) At the same time, a striking feature of warfare in the Trojan saga is the involvement of the Olympian gods on the battlefield. They choose sides and interfere with the fighting several times during the saga.

The Iliad is a somewhat unrealistic take on war. However, considering that Homer is a poet telling a story, and not a military historian recalling a war; we can overlook lack of realism in the technical sense. While it may not cover the strategic and tactical depth of an ancient war, the poem does offer very brutal and savage imagery of the battlefield. War is equated to human suffering which in turn is not mixed up with glory on the battlefield. The emotions of loss, terror, anger and despair are displayed with glaring realism. This is a display of Greek humanism in itself. To the Greeks in general, the Trojan War represented the best of them. It showed their strength in war, and at the same time also emphasized on fairness and honor embedded in their culture. The victory over Troy and her allies was a victory over the 'barbarian' East.

For ages the tale of Troy was considered as being nothing more than ancient legend. However, in light of discoveries over the past century, the Trojan War seems to be much more than fictional epic. For years it was believed that the saga was myth without any historic background. However, a man obsessed with finding Troy, Heinrich Schliemann with the help of an Englishman, Frank Calvert, located ruins on a hill called Hisarlik on the coast of the Aegean Sea in modern day Turkey. Hisarlik today is located around the very area Troy was placed on Greek maps. (6)

Critics at the time met this find with great skepticism, and pointed out discrepancies between Homeric Troy's surrounding landscapes. The landscape described by Homer was subject to great scrutiny over the ages. However with modern geographical mapping techniques, researchers have a fair idea of what the countryside of Troy, in the 13th Century BC looked like. For example, the bay between Sigeim and Cape Rhoetum, where the Greek fleet was thought to be anchored is not suitable as a harbor today. However, hydrologists working at the site have research showing that the bay was much deeper during the 2nd Millennium BC than it is now. (7) Homer's description of the Trojan landscape seems accurate now. According to J.V. Luce "topographical precision is particularly evident in the Iliad in the accounts of journeys made by gods and men. Here it seems to be a rule that Homer always specifies the starting point, the route, the destination, and the journey can be followed on a map with the aid of these indications." Indeed this author goes to great lengths to prove that the Trojan landscape in its hills and plains of mid 1200 BC was quite accurately described by Homer.Schliemann excavated the site of Hisarlik in six major campaigns between 1870 and 1891. His associate Willhem Dörpfeld worked on Hisarlik in 1893 and 1894. The hill was then excavated in 1932 and 1938 by American Carl Belgen (9) All of these ventures were marked by quite a few discoveries. It was found that human settlements on Hisarlik had been in a number of layers, each layer a new settlement built over the old. Dating the site and checking the evidence, it appears that Troy VI was the city closest to the date of the Trojan war, estimated at 1260 BC. (10) Excavations reveal Troy was a robust but small royal citadel. There does not seem to be evidence that sets the city as being as large in scale and size as Homer described it. However, the defenses of this citadel were quite formidable and would have posed a challenge to any Bronze Age invader. Experts estimate a population of a few hundred at most inside the city walls, and few thousand more living outside (11). Dörpfeld in 1893 found the walls and evidence much more magnificent than what Schliemann had found. The walls he unearthed were inclined at an 'angle' just as Homer had described them when Patroclus tried to scale them. Another interesting discovery was a weak spot on the walls. There was a circuit from previous constructions that the builders had not replaced, where according to Homer "the city was easiest to attack." (12)

Troy VI showed little traces of fire. But it did show that the city had been violently destroyed through some means or the other. Belgen claimed that it was probably an earthquake that ravaged the city - he proposed that the layer of Troy VIIa was Homeric Troy due to the heavy traces of fire damage. This hypothesis produces a discrepancy in dates and the shanty town architecture of this phase of Troy is of no comparison to the regal elegance of Troy VI. (13) However, opinion of historians continues to differ. Looking at what Homer has said of Troy, it was a great city with wide streets, beautiful walls and great gates, Troy VI seems to better suit us. According to what Dörpfeld found, a master architect appeared to have planned the latter city. The masonry is of very fine quality and the city gives a very prosperous, regal impression. (14)

Troy VI certainly had a great deal of contact with the Greek world. A great amount of Mycenaean pottery and weapons similar to those found by Schliemann's digs at other Greek sites were discovered in Troy VI. (15)In other digs at famous Mycenaean era sites, boar tusk helmets that had been so carefully described by Homer were found at Knossos. There were also discoveries of images of warriors carrying tower shields such as the one carried by Ajax, a cup similar to one used by Nestor was discovered in a grave at Mycenae, a suit of body armor described by Homer (called a thorax) has been found at Dendra. The technique for metal work on Achilles' shield was found on grave daggers(16) These finds are definite links between Homer's tale and actual items used in the Bronze Age. However there are also discrepancies such as names found on Linear B tablets. It has been found that about a quarter of these are Greek names Homer assigned to the Trojans. (17)

Another interesting discovery is that signs of Mycenaean influence abruptly seem to stop in after Troy VI. (18) Could this be a sign of destruction at the hands of this 'enemy' culture? It is known that with Troy's location, the city must have been a lucrative trading post as it lies on the trade routes between east and west. In the bloodthirsty world of the Bronze Age, it was perhaps this feature of this city that lead to its destruction. According to several Hittite diplomatic tablets found, one gets a fairly good idea of the politics of the Bronze Age world. In several instances, these diplomatic archives roughly around the time of the Trojan War make a reference to a 'Great King' - a mark of great respect - for a people called the Ahhijawa. (19) The Ahhijawa are widely acknowledged as being the Achaean Greeks. Could this great king be Agamemnon? In these same tablets is also is also a somewhat confusing mention of a great city northwest of the Hittite culture being in conflict with the Achaeans. (20) Archeology around the Aegean Sea has revealed that palaces at Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, and Menelaion shared the same material Mycenaean culture, the same artistic traditions, and the same bureaucracy down to the smallest detail (21) Such a unity in culture could also mean that despite having their local monarchs, the Bronze Age Greeks may have accepted a dominant regional king as a 'Great King' (as mentioned by Hittite documents) to lead Greek coalition forces in raids and war. It is quite evident that the economy of these states to a great extent ran on materials and slaves captured in raids and expeditions. (22) We see ancient Greek tradition place a sort of honor in being a 'sacker of cities' and in stealing possessions from other peoples (23) Thus it is quite safe to assume that this was a warfare centric culture. Considering that they were well armed and had put quite a few resources towards warfare, it would not be too hard for these Mycenaeans to put together a sizable force for overseas expeditions.Indeed tradition in Homer does mention that Troy was one of the incidents in the series of raids and attacks in the East. There is mention of forays into Teuthrania and Mysia, with attacks on Lemnos, Lesbos, Pedasso, and Lyrnessos where the attackers took women and sacked cities.24 This is ratified somewhat by the discovery of destruction on Lesbos dating to around the time of the Trojan War. (24) Considering that Troy as we know it is one of the most well defended cities in the list of places the Mycenaean forces put to sack, there must have been a grueling battle to overcome it. It was perhaps the last great conquest of the Mycenaean Aegean as we know it. Afterwards, cracks seem to appear in this world; Mycenae and Tiryns are damaged by earthquakes, some other cities are overcome by attackers. There is a huge influx of 'third world' immigrants from the north and elsewhere. Many centres were eventually abandoned for good. (25)

It is in the light of these facts one could say that the myth of the Trojan War as remembered by the bards of Greece was perhaps the last great flourish of an Age of Mycenae. And considering that it is always the most recent and latest stories that are sung by the bards, it lead to the immortalization and romanticization of the conquest of Troy, for this was not only the story of the destruction of Troy, but also of several other similar cities in a violent time.


1)Rutherford, Richard. New Surveys in the Classics: Homer; (1996); p. 37
2)Wood, Michael. In Search for the Trojan War; (1985); p. 134
3)Rutherford, Richard. New Surveys in the Classics: Homer; (1996); p. 30
4)Ibid p. 37
5)Ibid p. 38
6)Thomas, Carol G. Myth Becomes History: Pre-Classical Greece B p. 5
7)Ibid p. 6
8)Luce, John V. Celebrating Homer's Landscapes; (1998); p. 2
9)Wood, Michael. In Search for the Trojan War; (1985); p. 11
10)Ibid p. 240
11)Ibid p. 11
12)Ibid p. 89
13)Ibid p. 223

14)Ibid p. 91
15)Ibid p. 91
16)Ibid p. 130
17)Thomas, Carol G. Myth Becomes History: Pre-Classical Greece p. 11
18)Wood, Michael. In Search for the Trojan War; (1985); p. 112
19)Ibid p. 179
20)Ibid p. 187
21)Ibid p. 246
22)Ibid p. 247
23)Ibid p. 248
24)Ibid p. 249
25)Ibid p. 251

Sources and Bibliography

Rutherford, Richard. New Surveys in the Classics: Homer; Oxford, 1996.

Thomas, Carol G. Myth Becomes History: Pre-Classical Greece; Regina, 1993.

Wood, Michael. In Search for the Trojan War; BBC, 1985.




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