For well over 3,000 years, the story of Troy has left its indelible mark on the Western imagination. The epic stories of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, tell the tale with such hypnotic beauty – and at the same time with such ghastly, vividly grotesque imagery, that ever since we’ve heard them, we think that they must be based on real events, and the bardic tradition to which Homer was heir certainly carried the tale down through the centuries before him, showing that the people before Homer were just as fascinated as the people long after him.
But what, if anything, was the story based on? This is the question that Michael Wood attempts to answer In Search of the Trojan War.
I watched the television series last year, and even though it was somewhat outdated as it took place in 1985, I was still very impressed. The music of the series was absolutely beautiful, and Michael Wood told the story with such poise that he can convincingly be argued to be the Carl Sagan of the historical genre.
Because of this, I decided to buy the book this year, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Before continuing on with our own search for the Trojan War, I have to say that the book is beautifully constructed. It has dozens upon dozens of highly detailed photographs and pictures that really add to the reader’s sense of understanding of the Late Bronze Age, but none of these pictures detract from the reading. In fact, sometimes the book overwhelms you with just how long it is. If it were a normal-sized book, it would probably be about 4-500 pages, but because it is quite large (to provide for the pictures), it’s about 300 pages.
At any rate, the ancient Greeks and Romans, of course, took the Trojan War as an incontestable fact of history. Even Thucydides, who was the most modern of the ancient historians in terms of his outlook, skepticism, and writing style, regarded the Trojan War as a fact, though he believed Homer exaggerated its size and importance. (Bernard Knox, introduction to Robert Fagles’ Iliad translation.)
Yet, in modern times, scholarship increasingly came to regard the Trojan War as entirely fictitious, even if the fascination with the place where the war is thought to have occurred continued without interruption. Many tried to find the site of the war, but none were successful in finding the actual ruins of a historical Troy. In the 19th century however, one man was determined from childhood to prove the truth of the story – or so he said. His name was Heinrich Schliemann. With this shady character, the archaeological search for Troy began in earnest.
I should devote an entire post on Schliemann because he was such a colorful character, but here we’ll say what we must. The struggle that Schliemann had with the site of Hisarlik, now regarded as Homer’s Troy, is well known, and Michael Wood details his numerous expeditions in excruciating detail. Though he would eventually go to his grave without finding the answers he sought, and his methods were crude, to put it nicely, Schliemann established the basic stratification of Hisarlik, showing that the city he thought was Troy had been lived in for a very long time. This confounded him, most infamously during his find of the so-called Jewels of Helen or Priam’s Treasure, which was 1,000 years too old to have had any part in Homer’s Troy!
After Schliemann died in 1890 without solving the puzzle, it fell to his successor, Wilhelm Dorpfeld, to take up the work. His was the discovery that shook the world, for it seemed he had discovered Homer’s Troy, the one with the fine walls and “beetling “towers. Three things specifically from Dorpfeld’s find, Michael Wood says, can seemingly be verified in Homer’s specific language, which would hint at a genuine bardic memory of a historical Bronze Age Troy.
- By one of the main gates there seemed to be a great watchtower, which Homer describes in detail in Book 6 of the Iliad.
- Homer mentions in Patroclus’ assault on Troy that he attempted to scale the angle of the city’s walls, and indeed, the finds of the Late Bronze Age citadel on Hisarlik (called Troy VI) show that the walls were angled as Homer mentions.
- Most convincingly of all, Homer says that the goddess Athena told the Greeks to attack Troy at a specific section of the wall which was weaker than the famous beetling walls of the city, a section that was said elsewhere in the Trojan mythos to have not been replaced when Poseidon and Apollo rebuilt the walls for Priam’s father, Laomedon. Astonishingly enough, Dorpfeld found that a small section of the wall on the western circuit of Troy VI had not been replaced with new constructions. It was leftover from weaker, earlier defenses. This specific find convinced even the toughest of Schliemann and Dorpfeld’s critics that the historicity of Homer’s Troy was something that would be hard to doubt.
Yet, doubters there were, and Michael Wood’s search then takes us to the great excavators that came after Heinrich Schliemann and Wilhelm Dorpfeld – the discoverer of Knossos, Arthur Evans, whose opinion that the Minoan Cretans ruled mainland Greece and that Homer’s version of Troy was therefore entirely mythical held so much sway that it prevailed over seemingly far more convincing evidence to the contrary for a long time.
Then there was Carl Blegen, whose excavations of Troy were far more sophisticated than those of his predecessors, and whose discovery of Pylos and its archive eventually led to the decipherment of the writing of the late Bronze Age civilization in Greece and the Aegean by Michael Ventris. Ventris’ decipherment of the Pylos tablets discovered by Blegen showed that the language was an archaic form of Greek, confirming Blegen’s suspicions that Mycenaean civilization had been Greek, that those Greeks had conquered Crete, and that Homer’s basic historicity for the period was correct.
In the postscript in the second edition (released in 1996), Michael Wood goes over the excavations by the now-late Manfred Korfmann, which strengthened the argument that a historical Trojan War took place.
In Search of the Trojan War is a highly-detailed guide to the history of archeology in the eastern Mediterranean region, but it never becomes too technical that the layperson wouldn’t understand it, becuase Michael Wood understands that his job is essentially to tell a story – the story of Troy.
Was Homer Literate?
If you read Bernard Knox’s introduction to the Fagles translation, you will see an argument as to Homer’s literacy. Homer, we read, was not just an oral poet, but wrote. Michael Wood however, argues vehemently against this idea:
The general opinion today about the Iliad (and the Odyssey too) is that they were composed not orally, but by a poet building on oral tradition though using writing. In the eyes of many people, the introduction of writing into Greece was in some way tied up with Homer’s genius: it has even been suggested that the Greek alphabet was actually devised to write down the Homeric poems in c. 700 B.C. There are obvious objections to this idea. First, the writing of these two immense poems in a predominantly oral culture at the very moment of the introduction of writing goes against all we know of such processes in history; this is not how the introduction of ‘communications technology’ works in culture, from writing culture to print or (to point to our own time) from print to electronic systems. It is, bluntly, inconceivable that such a mammoth and expensive task as recording (on papyrus or parchment?) such lengthy poems could have been undertaken when society – and more important, the poet’s audience – was still to all intents and purposes illiterate. (pg. 127-8)
While Michael Wood’s argument here is generally strong, I think he’s missing a few things. It’s true that saying the introduction of writing into Greece was specifically because of Homer is probably incorrect. However, it does not take as long as he seems to believe it takes for communications technology to advance. For example, in the television series, he praises the first printed edition of the Iliad, which came in Florence in 1488, but that was a mere 30 years after the introduction of printing into Europe – well within a human lifetime and far more than enough time for people to adjust to the communications technology. Millions of books were printed in Europe only 50 years after the introduction of the printing press. Obviously enough people could read those books.
In our own time, we’ve advanced from the first Pong to games like The Elder Scrolls in 30 years as well.
If writing was reintroduced to Greece toward the start of the 8th century B.C., as is generally agreed, and Homer, who by contemporary scholarly opinion, composed the epics sometime between 750 and 700 B.C., it is well within the realm of possibility that Homer was literate. That doesn’t mean he was so, but I had to point out this weakness in Michael Wood’s argument.
The Mycenaean Golden Age:
The rest of the book details the historical events of the time, so much as we know them from archaeology and the sources on hand, primarily the Hittite archives and the Greek Linear B tablets, but also through some Egyptian sources.
Some have said that there was no reason for the Hittites and the Mycenaean Greeks to even know each other existed, but through his exploration of the Hittite archives and the city of Miletus in what is now southern Turkey, which was Greek at the time, Michael Wood exploded those fallacies.
He convincingly showed, for instance, the “imperial” status of Mycenae:
There is no mention of mining in the Linear B tablets, so we must conjecture, but it seems plausible to think that just as a Hittie king might control trade and exercise a monopoly on foreign traders, just as Mycenaean and Hittite kings might have a monopoly on the importing of copper, so they might have controlled the mining of precious stone, and a Mycenae quarry manager may have lived near Spira. Finds of stone from the Mani n Mycenae and Knossos, and smaller items elsewhere, may have been seen as a good example of the Greek kingdoms’ ability to organize themselves; it tells us about their wealth, their connections, their stability at their height, and perhaps is an indicator of the (loose) unity of their world. It may not be extravagant to compare such detail with, for example, the expensive stone used by Roman builders to build and adorn the temple at Colchester – red and green marble from those same Spira quarries, alabaster and black marble from Asia Minor and North Africa. Once again, this is not local kingship. (pg. 153)
The Mycenaean Greeks were well-organized, shared a common material culture, spoke the same language, and could indeed have recognized a “Great King” which led them in times of war against a common enemy, as the Hittite tablets seem to suggest.
Such a civilization could well have mounted an attack on the city that once occupied Hisarlik, and the Hittites tantalizingly seem to suggest that they had done so – in turn causing a war between the Greeks and Hittites. We have recently seen, for instance, that people thought to be from the area around Hisarlik, who the Egyptians called “Drdny” fought for the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. It is not inconceivable at all that those same soldiers would soon partake in another great campaign between superpowers led by “Great Kings.”
This was a war which would have been worthy of undying celebration on song, songs which eventually reached Homer 500 years later.
In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood is a must for Homer lovers everywhere, and those interested in history, particularly Bronze Age history and its collapse. Michael Wood tells the story in excruciating detail, but with an eye to the tradition he is heir to. He knows he needs to tell the story of Troy anew, to dazzle his audience as Homer and all the bards did before him. He doesn’t disappoint.