Thousands of years after Homer’s Iliad described the events of the Trojan War, its dramatic resonance and memorable characters have preserved the conflict’s fame. Until relatively recently it was thought to be nothing more than an entertaining legend, however. But that all changed in 1868 with the discovery of a burned ancient city.
In the 150 years since, historians and archaeologists have been forced to conclude, for the most part, that something did happen at the site of Troy in the early 12th century BC, and even that the exact dates proposed by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes might be accurate. If so, that would place the fall of the city on 11 June 1184 BC.
The archaeological evidence
So what did happen at Troy – now Hisarlik in western Turkey – in the Bronze Age? The first thing we have to go on are archaeological finds. That a city existed on the site of the 1868 discovered – which was identified as the possible location of Troy as early as 1822 – is undeniable.
Excavations have revealed walls and distinctive pottery styles which allow us to date the city’s existence from some time in the mid-13th century BC to around 1190 – which pretty much exactly fits the chronology given by ancient Greek scholars.
Whether it was created by Poseidon and Apollo, as the same scholars claim, is more up for debate. In addition to these striking findings, there is also clear evidence of the destruction of the city having been violent, with traces of a fire and human remains found which bear gruesome injuries likely inflicted by Bronze Age weapons.
In addition, several arrowheads have been found scattered across the site and excavations continue to unearth more and more.
In 2001, painstaking geological examinations of the area were conducted, with the site appearing to bear great resemblance to Homer’s lavish descriptions of the plains of Troy where much of the fighting of the Trojan War allegedly took place.
But did a fight between the Greeks and Trojans really take place?
So it appears that we do have pretty solid evidence of the sacking of a city in around 1200 BC, but was it a fight between Greeks and Trojans as Homer would claim 400 years later? The answer is that we still don’t know for sure. But there is some interesting written evidence from the time of the burning of the archaeological site of Troy.
The two main powers during this period were the chariot-driving Hittites of modern Turkey, and the already-venerable kingdom of Egypt. Both have left written records, and some of these are interesting for scholars seeking more information about Troy.
That the Hittites were aware of the Greeks and interacted with them is certain, for a letter written by the Hittite King Hattusili III mentions a kingdom of Ahhiyawa, which can easily be translated to Achaea, the ancient name for Greece.
The letter also mentions a confederation in western Turkey called Assuwa, which includes the city of Wilusa (Greek Ilium, the Greek name for Troy – hence the Iliad). Assuwa had been part of the Hittite Empire until it had defected after the Battle of Kadesh – an epoch-defining clash between the Hittites and the Egypt of Ramesses II.
As a result, we know for sure of two rival powers on either side of the Aegean who definitely existed and came into contact with each other at the time of the Trojan War. That it might have been a clash between important powers over a much wider area is actually supported by the Iliad, which extends the fighting to other areas that were in the Assuwa confederation.
There are also great similarities between the Asiatic Sea Peoples, who were raiding Egypt at the time and described in detail by Ramesses, and the eastern allies of Troy who are named and described by Homer.
Since Greece was ruled by the powerful and warlike Mycenaean Empire at this time, aggressive expansion into the east would not have been unlikely.
The Mycenaean civilization fell in 1100 BC for reasons that have never been properly understood. It seems as though this fall was an apocalyptic event similar to the fall of Rome 1,500 years later, for the evidence records in Greece go dark, leading to what is known unoriginally as the “Greek Dark Age”.
Homer was composing his epic poems (which were originally performed orally rather than being written down) just as Greece and Ionia (Greek-influenced western Turkey) were beginning to emerge, and it seems he was relying on oral accounts of a war that had taken place in what was now a far-off golden age – just as it is described in the Iliad.
Regardless, the poem remains perhaps the most influential work of western literature, and finding the grains of truth behind it has only increased its legendary appeal.