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Evidence from Homer "Was There a Trojan War?"
Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Joachim Latacz

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.:

  • The city called "Ilios" that sustained the attack in the Iliad must still have been known as "Wilios" in Bronze Age Greece. The sound /w/, spoken and written in Greek until at least 1200 B.C., was increasingly slurred in the dialect that Homer used around 450 years later until it was finally left off altogether. Consequently, the "Ilios" of the Iliad must have been the "Wilios" of the Late Bronze Age and in this way identical with "Wilusa," as Troy was known by the Hittite rulers of Anatolia at that time and in all probability by its inhabitants themselves.

  • The Greek aggressors who attack Troy in the Iliad are called consistently "Achaiói" (which was in the Late Bronze Age "Achaiwói") or "Danaói," but at the time the Iliad was composed in the eighth century B.C., there were no such names for the Greek people. The "Achaiwói" of the Iliad must, therefore, be identical with the inhabitants of Ahhiyawa, a western kingdom implicated in Hittite documents of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C. in attacks on the western Anatolian coast. (The "Danaói" of the Iliad, on the other hand, must be identical with the inhabitants of "Danaya," a northern kingdom described in Egyptian documents of the fourteenth 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.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America