Historicity of the Iliad

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Map of the Troad (Troas)

The extent of the historical basis of the Iliad has been debated for some time, and recent discoveries have fueled more discussion across several disciplines. 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. 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.

A name Wilios or Troia does not appear in any of the Greek written records from the Mycenean sites. 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.


[edit] Status of the Iliad

The dispute over the historicity of the Iliad was very heated at times. 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 that 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 ostensible historicity of Homer's Troy faces the same hurdles as with Plato's Atlantis. In both cases, an ancient writer's story 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 to be subject to selection bias.

[edit] The Iliad as essentially legendary

Some archaeologists and historians 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 stories, but say that in the absence of independent evidence it is not possible to separate fact from myth in the stories.

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 Hissarlik 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.<ref>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.</ref> Some 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.

[edit] The Iliad as essentially historical

Another view is that Homer was heir to an unbroken tradition of 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) 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, and this trace of archaic language suggests a poetic tradition spanning the Greek Dark Ages. 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.

[edit] 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 Hissarlik. Homer describes that the location was very windy, which Hissarlik 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.

Also, the aforementioned 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 many of the names of the towns are 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: finding the Bronze Age palace of Sparta, the traditional home of Menelaus, has been challenging.

Likewise, in the Linear B tablets, some Homeric names appear, including Achilles, which is not attested as a common name in the classical period. This Achilles 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.

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 Hissarlik, 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.

The Manapa-Tarhunda letter mentions fighting over Wilusa, presumably Troy, but dating it and matching it with a particular destruction of a particular level at Hissarlik has not been easy.

On the other hand, there are parts of Homer's story that appear not to match a Bronze Age war over the site of Hissarlik. 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.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

<References/>de:Wilusa es:Wilusa nl:Wilusa

Historicity of the Iliad

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