Historicity of the Iliad

Historicity of the Iliad

The extent of the historical basis of the "Iliad" has been debated for some time. Educated Greeks of the fifth century continued to accept the truth of human events depicted in the "Iliad", even as philosophical scepticism was undermining faith in divine intervention in human affairs. In the time of Strabo topological disquisitions discussed the identity of sites mentioned by Homer. There was no break when Greco-Roman culture was Christianised: Eusebius of Caesarea offered universal history reduced to a timeline, in which Troy received the same historical weight as Abraham, with whom Eusebius' "Chronologia" began, ranking the Argives and Mycenaeans among the kingdoms ranged in vertical columns, offering biblical history on the left (verso), and secular history of the kingdoms on the right (recto). [Eusebius' chronological tables are re-analysed in depth by Richard W. Burgess, Witold Witakowski, eds."Studies in Eusebian and Post-Eusebian Chronography" vol. 1. (Stuttgart) 1999; see Introduction and Overview] Jerome's "Chronicon" followed Eusebius, and all the medieval chroniclers began with summaries of the universal history of Jerome.

With such authorities behind it, the historic nature of Troy and the events of the Trojan War continued to be accepted at face value by post-Roman Europeans. Geoffrey of Monmouth's pseudo-genealogy traced a Trojan origin for royal Briton descents in "Historia Regum Britanniae". [Analysed in Francis Ingledew, "The Book of Troy and the Genealogical Construction of History: The Case of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae" "Speculum" 69,.3 (July 1994:665-704).] Merovingian descent from a Trojan ancestor was embodied in a literary myth first set forth in Fredegar's chronicle (2.4, 3.2.9), to the effect that the Franks were of Trojan stock and took their name from King Francio, who had erected a new Troy on the banks of the Rhine. [Peter G. Bietenholz, "Historia and Fabula: Myths and Legends in Historical Thought" 1994:190.] Even before the rational Age of Enlightenment these "facts" underlying the medieval view of history were doubted by Blaise Pascal: "Homer wrote a romance, for nobody supposes that Troy and Agamemnon existed any more than the apples of the Hesperides. He had no intention to write history, but only to amuse us." [ (Pascal, "Pensées" (published 1660), part ix, §628.] After the Enlightenment the stories of Troy were devalued as fables by George Grote. [In Grote, "A History of Greece", vol. I (1846), "Legendary Greece" prefaces "Historical Greece to the reign of Peisistratus", and begins the "historical" section with the traditional date of the first Olympiad, 776 BCE: "To confound together these disparate matters is, in my judgement, essentially unphilosophical. I describe the earlier times by themselves, as conceived by the faith and feeling of the first Greeks, and known only through their legends,—without presuming to measure how much or how little of historical matter these legends may contain" (Preface). The "Legend of Troy"—"this interesting fable"— fills his chapter xv.]

The discoveries made by Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik reopened the question in modern terms, and recent discoveries have fueled more discussion across several disciplines. [Manfred Korfmann, the modern excavator of the site, writes "Was there a Trojan War?" in "Archaeology" 57.3 (May/June 2004:36-38); he concludes “Troy appears to have been destroyed around 1180 B.C. …probably by a war the city lost”.] The events described in Homer's "Iliad", even if based on historical events that preceded its composition by some 450 years, will never be completely identifiable with historical or archaeological facts, even if there was a Bronze Age city on the site now called Troy, and even if that city was destroyed by fire or war at about the same time as the time postulated for the Trojan War.

No text or artifact has been found on site itself which clearly identifies the Bronze Age site by name. This is probably due to the planification of the former hillfort during the construction of Hellenistic Ilium (Troy IX), destroying the parts that most likely contained the city archives. A single seal of a Luwian scribe has been found in one of the houses, proving the presence of written correspondence in the city, but not a single text. Our emerging understanding of the geography of the Hittite Empire makes it very likely that the site corresponds to the city of "Wilusa". But even if that is accepted, it is of course no positive proof of identity with Homeric "(W)ilios".

The bilingual toponymy of "Troy/Ilion" is well established in the Homeric tradition. A name "Wilios" or "Troia" does not appear in any of the Greek written records from the Mycenean sites, however. The Mycenaean Greeks of the 13th century BC had colonized the Greek mainland and Crete, and were only beginning to make forays into Anatolia, establishing a bridgehead in Miletus ("Millawanda"). Historical "Wilusa" was one of the "Arzawa" lands, in loose alliance with the Hittite Empire, and written reference to the city is therefore to be expected in Hittite correspondence rather than in Mycenaean palace archives.

tatus of the "Iliad"

The dispute over the historicity of the "Iliad" was very heated at times. [Michael Wood has discussed this history: "In Search of the Trojan War" (1985, rev. ed., with "Postscript 1996", 1998)] The more we know about Bronze Age history, the clearer it becomes that it is not a yes-or-no question but one of educated assessment of "how much" historical knowledge is present in Homer. The story of the "Iliad" is not an account of the war, but a tale of the psychology, the wrath, vengeance and death of individual heroes, which assumes common knowledge of the Trojan War to create a backdrop. No scholars assume that the individual events in the tale (many of which centrally involve divine intervention) are historical fact; on the other hand, no scholars claim that the scenery is entirely devoid of memories of Mycenaean times: it is rather a subjective question of whether the factual content is rather more or rather less than one would have expected.

The extent of a demonstrable historicity for Homer's Troy faces hurdles that are analogous to the historical basis for King Arthur. With Plato's Atlantis the less comparable case is the extent to which myth has been manipulated or created, to illustrate philosophical generalizations. In all cases, an ancient body of culturally agreed-upon "facts" embodied in a crystallizing "classic" narrative version, is now seen by some to be true, by others to be mythology or fiction. It may be possible to establish connections between either story and real places and events, but these always risk being subject to selection bias.

The "Iliad" as essentially legendary

Some archaeologists and historians, most notably, until his death in 1986, Sir Moses Finley, [Finley vigourously attacked Michael Wood's "In Search of the Trojan War" when it first appeared in 1984, four years before modern archaeology was undertaken at the Hisarlik site.] maintain that none of the events in Homer's works are historical. Others accept that there may be a foundation of historical events in the Homeric narrative, but say that in the absence of independent evidence it is not possible to separate fact from myth.

In recent years scholars have suggested that the Homeric stories represented a synthesis of many old Greek stories of various Bronze Age sieges and expeditions, fused together in the Greek memory during the "dark ages" which followed the fall of the Mycenean civilization. In this view, no historical city of Troy existed anywhere: the name derives from a people called the Troies, who probably lived in central Greece. The identification of the hill at Hisarlık as Troy is, in this view, a late development, following the Greek colonisation of Asia Minor in the 8th century BC.

It is also worth comparing the details of the Iliadic story to those of older Mesopotamian literature - most notably, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Names, set scenes, and even major parts of the story, are strikingly similar. [Martin West, "The East Face of Helicon" (Oxford 1999), pp. 336-338; T.B.L. Webster, "From Mycenae to Homer" (London 1958) pp. 82, 119ff.] Most scholars believe that writing first came to Greek shores from the east, via traders, and these older poems were used to demonstrate the uses of the alphabet, thus heavily influencing early Greek literature.

The "Iliad" as essentially historical

Another view is that Homer was heir to an unbroken tradition of oral epic poetry reaching back some 500 years into Mycenaean times. In this view, the poem's core could reflect a historical campaign that took place at the eve of the decline of the Mycenaean civilization. Much legendary material would have been added during this time, but in this view it is meaningful to ask for archaeological and textual evidence corresponding to events referred to in the Iliad. Such a historical background gives a credible explanation for the geographical knowledge of Troy (which could, however, also have been obtained in Homer's time by visiting the traditional site of the city, which was in fact New Ilium, built at the base of the hill at Hisarlik) and otherwise unmotivated elements in the poem (in particular the detailed Catalogue of Ships). Linguistically, a few verses of the Iliad suggest great antiquity, because they only fit the meter if projected back into Mycenaean Greek, in part due to the classical loss of the Digamma; this trace of archaic language suggests a poetic tradition spanning the Greek Dark Ages. On the other hand, there are well-known interpolations in the text we have. Even though Homer was Ionian, the Iliad reflects the geography known to the Mycenaean Greeks, showing detailed knowledge of the mainland but not extending to the Ionian Islands or Anatolia, which suggests that the Iliad reproduces an account of events handed down by tradition, to which the author did not add his own geographical knowledge.

The "Iliad" as partly historical

As mentioned above, though, it is most likely that the Homeric tradition contains elements of historical fact and elements of fiction interwoven. Homer describes a location, presumably in the Bronze Age, with a city. This city was near Mount Ida in northwest Turkey. Such a city did exist, at the mound of Hisarlık. Homer describes that the location was very windy, which Hisarlık almost always is, and several other geographical features also match, so it appears, therefore, that Homer was describing an actual place, although this fact does not in itself prove that his story is true.

Homeric evidence

Also, the Catalogue of Ships mentions a great variety of cities, some of which, including Athens, were inhabited both in the Bronze Age and in Homer's time, and some of which, such as Pylos, were not rebuilt after the Bronze Age. This suggests that the names of no-longer-existing towns were remembered from an older time, because it is unlikely that Homer would have managed to name successfully a diverse list of important Bronze Age cities that were, in his time, only a few blocks of rubble on the surface, often without even names. Some evidence is mixed, though: locating the Bronze Age palace of Sparta, the traditional home of Menelaus, under the modern city has been challenging.

Mycenaean evidence

Likewise, in the Linear B tablets, some Homeric names appear, including Achilles, which was also a common name in the classical period [ [http://epigraphy.packhum.org/inscriptions/search_main.html Epigraphical database] gives 164 matches for Ἀχιλλεύς and 368 for Ἀχιλλε.The earliest inscriptions: Corinth 7th c. BCE, Delphi 530 BCE, Attica and Elis 5th c.BCE.] . The Achilles of the Linear B tablet is a shepherd, not a king or warrior, but the very fact that the name is an authentic Bronze Age name is significant. These names in the Homeric poems presumably remember, if not necessarily specific people, at least an older time when people's names were not the same as they were when the Homeric epics were written down.

Local evidence

It is very likely, then, that Homer records some information of a factual nature, things that refer to "something" in real life, even if it is not clear that they record history. But what of the war itself? There is nothing inherently unlikely about a large battle or even a war over the city of Troy. That general area has always been extremely valuable and hotly contested, since it is at the mouth of the Dardanelles. Istanbul, the city on the other side of the straits connecting the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, has been the site of many confrontations for exactly the same reason. However, there is not a great deal of positive evidence at Hisarlık, the best candidate for Troy, of a destruction by war. The chronologically appropriate layers, Troy VIh and Troy VIIa, both appear to have been destroyed by fires, the former more likely because of an earthquake or natural disaster, but it is harder to identify what destroyed the latter. It is possible that Troy VIIa was destroyed in battle, but it is not certain.

Hittite evidence

Hittite texts are an important source of information as they were written independently of the Homeric tradition. The Manapa-Tarhunda letter mentions fighting over Wilusa, presumably Greek "Ilios, Ilion", i.e. Troy, but dating it and matching it with a particular destruction of a particular level at Hisarlık has not been easy. Nevertheless, the letter mentions Piyama-Radu as the troublemaker ruler of Wilusa; he is also mentioned in the Milawata letter and the name does bear a similarity to the Homeric king Priam. Alaksandu ruled Wilusa some time after Piyama-Radu, and Alexandros/Alexander was an alternative name of Priam's son, Paris. Alaksandu made a treaty with the Hittite king, invoking the god Apaliunas. Apollo was the Trojans' foremost champion in the Iliad, and in it he helped Paris kill the otherwise invulnerable Achilles.

Artefactual evidence

On the other hand, there are parts of Homer's story that appear not to match a Bronze Age war over the site of Hisarlık. The armor that he describes is most likely more from his era than from the Bronze Age, although it is somewhat mixed. Ajax's tower shield makes sense in the context of the shields depicted in Bronze Age artwork, which are very tall and either rectangular or shaped somewhat like a curved hourglass. However, most of the other shields are described as circular, which is an anachronism, as far as modern scholars can tell. The body armor is similarly mixed.

Thus, the details recorded in the Homeric epics appear to be a mix of fact and fiction, and separating the two is likely to be the work of many future generations of archeologists, as it has been the work of many preceding ones.

Geological evidence

In November 2001, geologists John C. Kraft from the University of Delaware and John V. Luce from Trinity College, Dublin presented the results [http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2001AM/finalprogram/abstract_25431.htm Confex] .] [http://www.nature.com/nsu/nsu_pf/030127/030127-4.html Nature] .] [http://dsc.discovery.com/news/briefs/20030203/iliad.html "Iliad"] , Discovery.] of investigations into the geology of the region that had started in 1977. The geologists compared the present geology with the landscapes and coastal features described in the "Iliad" and other classical sources, notably Strabo's "Geographia". Their conclusion was that there is regularly a consistency between the location of Troy as identified by Schliemann (and other locations such as the Greek camp), the geological evidence, and descriptions of the topography and accounts of the battle in the "Iliad".

ee also

*Homeric Question

References

External links

* [http://projectsx.dartmouth.edu/history/bronze_age/lessons/les/27.html (Dartmouth College) Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean: 27. Troy VII and the Historicity of the Trojan War]
* [http://www.salimbeti.com/micenei/war.htm The Greek Age of Bronze "Trojan War"]


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