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The Trojan War

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Always be the best, my boy, the bravest, and hold your head up high above the others. Never disgrace the generations of your fathers. -- The Iliad (trans. by Robert Flagles). Hippolochus to his son Glaucus


7th century BC pottery depiction of the Trojan Horse

 

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 In Search of the Trojan War
by Michael Wood

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Was there a Trojan War? The short answer is "probably." Though for most of modern history, archeologists believed that the war was just a legend, today it is accepted that there probably was such a war. The amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, using The Iliad and the The Odyssey of Homer as a guide, discovered the ruins of a powerful city in Asia Minor. The Ancient Greeks from the classical period thought the Trojan War was a historical event that had taken place in the 13th or 12th century BC, and believed that Troy was located in modern day Turkey and the Dardanelles. The city Schlieman found is where Troy would have been, and was destroyed at the end of the 13th century. Its location and apparent wealth suggest that it would have been a trade rival to the fpowerful Mycenaeans. The prize was control of the Aegean. Other parts of the poems appear to have had a historical basis. Archeologists discovered great bronze age cities on the mainland, the remnants of the Mycenaeans.

Archeologists discovered that there was a powerful city in Asia Minor where Troy would have been, which was destroyed at the end of the 13th century. There were many levels of cities on this site. The one which most likely corresponds with the great war of the Achaeans is Troy VII, which was destroyed in 1190 BC either by earthquake or by attack. Its location and apparent wealth suggest that it would have been a trade rival to the powerful Mycenaeans.The prize was control of the Aegean. Other parts of the poems appear to have had a historical basis. Archeologists discovered great bronze age cities on the mainland, the remnants of the Mycenaeans. Archeologists studying Troy found a Mycenean cemetery at Besik Bay, south of Troy, which may have been the Greek landing place - there were over 50 cremations with grave goods, so the Mycenaeans were there.

It is clear that Troy had contact with the Mycenaeans. Trojan pottery imitating the Mycenaean style has been found at the Troy excavations.

But the truth in the poems is only a kernel. Bards modified as they transmitted the poems through the dark centuries. The more interesting the poems, the more enthusiastic the response from their audiences, and the greater the stature of the poet. And the descriptions became more and more distorted, as features of the dark age culture became part of the poems. For example Homer speaks of iron in weapons, which was common in the iron age civilization of the dark ages, but which would not have been present in Mycenaean culture, a bronze age civilization. In The Iliad the leaders were cremated as they were in the Iron Age, while the Mycenaeans clearly buried their noble dead in tholos tombs.

The evidence indicates that the Mycenaeans probably did sack Troy in around 1250 BCE. But around 1200 BCE sees the the decline of the Mycenaeans. One theory of the Mycenaean fall may be found in Homer and Greek legends. The war took a toll on their civilization. When the kings returned they found their power weakened, and were engaged in power struggles. Odysseus, for example, when he finally arrived at Ithica, found his loyal wife Penelope hounded by suitors. She had reached the point where she had to accept one of them, who would then become the king. Other returning kings, such as Agamemnon, met bad fates. Do these stories have a kernel of truth too? Did the Mycenaean kings have to fight for their place when they came back from Troy? Were they so weakened by 10 years of war, that they never regained their prosperity and power?


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Part of The Long-Haired Achaeans - The Mycenaeans, a HistoryWiz exhibit

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