For thousands of years, the myth of the Trojan War has lived on. As told by the mysterious poet Homer in his Iliad, it is the archetypal story of the tragedy of war and the destruction of civilization. The Greeks were victorious, but Homer hints of their own civilization’s destruction in his Odyssey. The war was seen as the end of a heroic age and the beginning of a darker time.
For the Greeks, this was history. Even Thucydides, the most modern of the ancient historians, considered the war and its aftermath to have been fact. Later generations were not convinced. Homer and his tale came to be regarded as mere myths with no basis in reality.
That was until the late 19th century, with the controversial career of Heinrich Schliemann. Since then, he and his successors have uncovered fascinating clues hinting that the myth of Troy might not be such a myth after all. No, there is still no evidence of a Trojan Horse, but here are 10 parts of the myth that are probably based in fact.
10. The Great King Agamemnon
The Greek expedition to Troy was led by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, who brought 100 ships (the largest force). Agamemnon’s army and his wide network of allies made him the most powerful king in Greece.
In the Late Bronze Age, Mycenae was indeed the most sophisticated site in Greece, suggesting that it was the most powerful kingdom. The most tantalizing clue, though, comes not from any find in Greece, but from Hittite tablets discovered in Turkey.
Contemporary with the Greeks, the Hittites ruled most of Turkey and were allied to a state called “Wilusia,” now thought to be Troy (Ilium). Much of what we know about the period comes from their archives and several important documents relate to Greece.
Hittite letters confirm the presence of a state to the west of their empire called “Ahhiyawa.” Since the Hittite Empire stretched close to the coast of Turkey, the only obvious candidate for Ahhiyawa would be Mycenaean Greece. One letter reveals that the ruler of Ahhiyawa was considered the “brother” of the Hittite king. This would mean he had “Great King” status, which another letter also implies. The distinction was important, because a “Great King” was not a ruler of a petty state, but was expected to exercise power over a wide sphere of influence and have many allies. A “Great King” was someone like the Hittite king himself, and here, he was placing the ruler of Ahhiyawa on the same level.
There was no other plausible candidate for a “Great King of Ahhiyawa” at this time than whoever sat on the throne of Mycenae. It is not a smoking gun, but it does conform with Homer’s story and hints that he was closer to the truth than not. Until something is found to disprove him, a Mycenaen overlord who was capable of leading a Greek alliance remains plausible, even likely. If Agamemnon himself didn’t exist, somebody just like him probably did.
9. The Greek Kingdom of Crete
According to Homer, there was a Greek kingdom on Crete. Led by King Idomeneus, this kingdom sent 80 ships to Troy. It was one of the largest parts of the Greek army. Crete should be one of the most powerful Greek kingdoms at the time, then. There was little evidence for the existence of this kingdom, however.
Then, in 1900, the British scholar Arthur Evans made a spectacular discovery. It was the Palace of Minos at Knossos. It was a substantial structure and must have controlled the area around it. It suggested a sophisticated polity on Crete that existed in the Late Bronze Age. Knossos also had the same material culture as the mainland centers, suggesting that Crete’s participation in a pan-Greek expedition against a foreign enemy was plausible.
Tantalizingly, Evans discovered a library of clay tablets, proving that this culture was literate. Most of the tablets were associated with the upper layers of the palace, but some were found amidst a lower layer and a still older culture. After designating the language on the tablets as “Mycenaean,” Evans quickly changed his mind. Dubbing the language “Minoan,” his theory was that Crete ruled the mainland. It permitted no Mycenaean Greek dominance, and therefore, no expedition to Troy. Homer’s story was just a myth after all.
Unfortunately, Evans could not decipher the language on the tablets. His Minoan theory was rapidly accepted, but in hindsight, it was little more than speculation. Other archaeologists found evidence against it. The question was settled in 1952, when the British architect and amateur philologist Michael Ventris deciphered the language on the tablets and revealed it as an early form of Greek. It proved that there was a Late Bronze Age Greek kingdom on Crete.
The earlier tablets were written in a different language that has still not been identified. These came long before the Trojan War would have taken place, however, and demonstrate that the earlier, “Minoan” kingdom was conquered by the Greek mainlanders, in line with Homer’s version of events.
8. The Catalogue of Ships
The second book of the Iliad contains something much different from the rest of the story. This is the Catalogue of Ships, which details the cities that took part in the Trojan expedition and how many ships they sent. What makes the Catalogue most interesting, though, is that some of the places that Homer mentions were abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age and never inhabited again.
This implies a Bronze Age origin for the Catalogue, especially since some of the sites Homer mentions were abandoned in his own time! This does not prove that an expedition to Troy took place, but it does conform the map of Greece at the time with Homer’s story. The content of the Catalogue also resembles the tablets that Michael Ventris deciphered, which were largely composed of long, exhaustive lists. This is another clue that suggests that the Catalogue is one of the oldest parts of the Iliad.
7. Troy’s Walls
Troy was famous for its walls, which were said to have been built by Apollo and Poseidon. The Late Bronze Age layers on Hisarlik in Turkey, which is regarded as the site of Homer’s Troy, indeed boast walls that are more sophisticated than any other contemporary site. Yet, that alone is not convincing. If we can find specific features of those walls that correspond to Homer’s descriptions in the Iliad, we would be on much firmer ground. That might sound unlikely, but surprisingly, there are three such examples.
The first instance comes in book six of the Iliad. Here, Homer describes a “sacred” watchtower by the main entrance. A similar watchtower, enclosing an altar for the city’s gods, was found during excavations by Wilhelm Dorpfeld in the 1890s.
Also in book six, Hector’s wife, Andromache, fears that the Greeks will attack a section of the western wall that was weaker than the rest of the circuit, one which was more primitive, and which had not been built by Apollo and Poseidon. Sure enough, Dorpfeld found such a weaker, earlier section on the western circuit during his excavations.
Finally, in book 16, Patroclus drives the Trojans back to their city. Here, he attempted to get inside by climbing up the slope of Troy’s walls. The walls at the site in the Late Bronze Age do have an angle unlike the walls of other sites of the time, like Mycenae. If there was indeed a Greek attack on Troy, it is possible that warriors would have scaled those slopes.
Neither Homer himself nor any of his contemporaries could have seen these features. During his time (the 8th century BC), they had long been buried. This suggests that Homer’s story has a Bronze Age basis. It does not prove a war, but it is strong evidence that the city looked like Homer said it did.
6. Paris, Prince of Troy
There is no evidence that Helen of Troy existed, but surprisingly, there is evidence that her lover did. Prior to the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC, the Hittite King Muwatalli II secured a treaty with a certain Alaksandus, King of Wilusia. In Greek, the name would be “Alexandros.”
In the legend, Alexandros was the name given to Paris before he was sent out of Troy to be killed for fear that he would bring destruction to the city. In other words, Alexandros and Paris were the same person. It is feasible then, that the Alaksandus of the treaty somehow found his way into the story. The chronology is a problem, since the Trojan War is thought to have taken place a few decades after the treaty, meaning the same Alaksandus would have been old if he was still alive, and far from the virile lover of Helen. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that one of Homer’s main characters is hinted at in the historical record.
5. Odysseus’ Attack on Egypt
In book 14 of the Odyssey, Odysseus, in disguise, spins a tale of a hard journey that began with an amphibious attack on Egypt. After landing unopposed, he and his men plundered the area. The king responded with his army and destroyed them. The survivors were taken into slavery.
Egyptian records tell of two attacks by groups of maritime raiders that they called “Sea Peoples.” One occurred during the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah in 1208 BC and another in the reign of Ramses III in 1175 BC. Among the peoples listed as participating in the attacks were the “Akwasha.” This name is regarded as the equivalent of Homer’s Achaeans. Significantly, Egypt is the one country that survived the storm of the Sea Peoples in the late 13th and early 12th centuries BC, which had destroyed the Hittites and several powerful Mycenaean states like Pylos.
In everything from the amphibious attack on Egypt to its failure, Odysseus’ descriptions coincide with Egyptian accounts. Even the timing is right, as the Sea Peoples were supposed to have come in the generation after the Trojan War, which is exactly what Odysseus described.
4. Greek Attacks on Other Fronts
Troy was not the only front in the war. Fighting is described in places like Lesbos, Tenedos, and Lemnos. The very dispute on which the Iliad turns, that between Achilles and Agamemnon, is centered on Briseis, a woman awarded to him as a prize for leading the attack on Lyrnessus, a stronghold in the area near Troy.
We know that women like Briseis were taken from those places because the Greeks wrote it down. Women from Lesbos, Tenedos, and other sites named by Homer are mentioned as slaves on the tablets that Michael Ventris deciphered. To remove any doubts about the origin of these slaves, the tablets describe them as being “captives” from these places. Most interestingly of all, the majority of the slaves come from areas south of Troy, as Briseis did. This obviously implies a hostile encounter.
Here, Homer’s version of history is not only plausible, it is certain.
3. Troy’s Allies
The Trojans did not fight the Greeks alone. Homer describes them as having allies from many lands fighting by their side. Should a war with Greece have occurred in the Late Bronze Age, it is likely that Troy would have had allies. The city was in the Hittite sphere of influence and there was a treaty signed between the two powers.
Given that the Hittites had protested Ahhiyawan influence on the Asian continent in other letters (the same ones that acknowledged the ruler of Ahhiyawa as a Great King), an expedition by the Greeks against Troy would not be treated lightly. Indeed, the most famous of the Ahhiyawa tablets in the Hittite archives state that there was a matter regarding Wilusia “over which we went to war.”
Whether it was the Hittites, an alliance of local states that the Greeks had attacked before (for which there is also evidence in the Hittite tablets), or both, it is unlikely that the historical Troy would have fought alone should it have been attacked.
2. Trojan Geology
Homer’s description of the Trojan topography is detailed. Situated near Mount Ida, Troy was on a windy hill between two rivers. There was a bay that came close to the city, acting as a natural harbor for ships.
Hisarlik is indeed a windy place, but that does not tell us much. Can Homer’s description of the lay of the land be matched with geological evidence? A study done by a team of geologists and classicists suggests that it can.
In everything from the bay, to the location of the Greek camp, to the battles along the banks of the Scamander River, the team discovered that Homer’s descriptions matched the geological data. More importantly, Homer describes things about the landscape that were true in the past, but not in his own time. For example, part of the bay of Troy had silted up by the 8th century BC. All of it suggests that Homer’s descriptions come at least in part from the Bronze Age.
1. Odysseus’ Journeys
While his story of an attack on Egypt deserves special mention, many scholars believe that the Odyssey itself is an echo of voyages by the Sea Peoples. For 20 years (a generation after the Trojan War), Odysseus wanders around the Mediterranean. His attack on the Cicones bears a resemblance to descriptions of the Sea Peoples.
Interestingly, Odysseus’ journeys take him to the Western Mediterranean. Many scholars think that some of the Sea Peoples originated in this area. For example, the “Sherden,” which Ramses II listed as among his allies at Kadesh, are thought to have originated in Sardinia.
There is no evidence that Odysseus existed, but the historical record is full of journeys resembling his own. From their long voyages to their plundering ways, it is possible that memories of the Sea Peoples were preserved in Homer’s Odyssey, especially since some of them were Greek.