A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Recent Homeric scholarship has shown that the Iliad is the culmination of a protracted oral transmission of past events, transmitted by epic poetry improvised and performed by singers. Comparative historical linguistics has shown that the poetic medium in which the Iliad was passed on through the ages, the hexameter, in all probability was in use in Greece at the latest by the fifteenth century B.C., so that kernels of information transmitted via hexametric formulas from that time on could have been conveyed in Greek epic poetry. Here are a few examples of critical information transmitted in the Iliad from the Late Bronze Age to the period of Homer in the eighth century B.C.:
From this, Homeric scholars can conclude that remnants of the memory of, among other things, one or several acts of aggression against the western Anatolian coast could have been transported via the hexameters of Ahhiyawan poetry down through the centuries between about 1200 and 800 B.C. Furthermore, Homer's Iliad has in all probability preserved remnants of the memory of one or more acts of aggression perpetrated by the Ahhiyawans against Wilusa in the thirteenth century B.C.
So did a "Trojan War" take place? Even with qualifications and certain reservations, I can give a basically positive answer. We still cannot prove that the Trojan War took place. However, all circumstantial evidence points to armed conflicts around 1200 B.C. between the area we now call Greece and the area that was called Wilusa at the time of the Hittite kingdom. The historical event or events left a mark in Greek poetry of that time, and because of the distinctive nature of the orally improvised Greek epic poetry of the Dark Ages, traces of this were preserved down to the time of Homer.
Joachim Latacz is professor of Greek philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland. The English version of his book Troy and Homer will be released by Oxford University Press in October.