Sing, oh Goddess, the wrath of Peleus’s son Achilles whose anger brought pains a thousand-fold upon the Achaians.
So starts the Iliad, the first great work in Western literature.
Most people have known the story of the Trojan War since its crucial battles were so well sung by a bard we know as Homer. The Trojan prince Paris was promised by the goddess Aphrodite that he would have as his wife the most beautiful woman in the world. To claim his prize, he traveled from sacred Illium near the Dardanelles across the Aegean Sea to the land of the Greeks. He eloped with Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta. In retaliation, the Greek kingdoms, led by Agamemnon of golden Mycenae, launched a thousand ships for a war that would last ten years, with various gods intervening on the sides of their favorites. The great-walled citadel of Troy was finally breached when clever Odysseus hid with a small band of warriors in a giant wooden horse, seemingly offered by the retreating Greeks as a gift to the gods. Troy was sacked and destroyed.
The Iliad was considered by Greeks of the classical period to be their national epic; Alexander the Great was said to have slept with a copy of the book under his pillow. Homer’s poem showed heroism in battle and the dangers of unbridled passions: Greek champion Achilles’s wrath was unleashed on the Trojans as he killed mighty Hector, their noble hero, and, in an act of sacrilege dragged his body around the walls of Troy behind his chariot. It showed pathos, too: Hector’s father, King Priam, secretly visited Achilles to beg for the body of his slain son for a proper funeral.
But does the Iliad represent legend in literature, a made-up myth—or a real, historical event? By the nineteenth century, most scholars thought it a myth, and historical studies suggested that prehistoric Greece at the time of the alleged war—around 1250 B.C.—was a disconnected patchwork of illiterate, weak, and petty kingdoms.
British historian and broadcast documentarian Michael Wood’s classic series In Search of the Trojan War sought to unearth the truth about Troy.
Wood’s series is one of a number of documentaries from the pre-cable broadcast era that constitute fine examples of historical narrative. The World at War, a 1973 BBC production, was deservedly popular as an overview of that great conflict, using mostly documentary footage and interviews with participants. Heritage: Civilization and the Jews by Israeli statesman and scholar Abba Eban was one of the finest documentaries: It offered not only a compelling narrative but also insights about the culture, philosophy, and theology that characterize his people’s long history.
If Wood’s documentary is history, it is not of the Trojan War but of the search for the truth about the events of the Iliad. It is actually a historical detective story, and it is the rational process by which Wood seeks the truth that recommends the series.
He begins the series with German industrialist and adventurer Heinrich Schliemann. A romantic inspired by the Iliad, Schliemann married a Greek girl thirty years his junior. In 1871, at the age of 49, he began digging in a hill in northwestern Turkey believed by some to be the site of Troy. He quickly found a Roman city and a classical Greek city—both mentioned in ancient records—and also a strange, intermediate city. Deep down where he expected it to be, he found what he took to be Homer’s Troy. Schliemann even found gold jewelry with which he bedecked his young wife like a latter-day Helen.
He announced to the world his discovery. But questions immediately arose. Wood points out that Schliemann had dug far too deep—that even nineteenth-century dating methods suggested that this city existed a thousand years before the date usually assigned to the Trojan War. And the city was small, only about three hundred yards across, hardly the grand city of palaces described by Homer.
Wood next introduces architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld, who joined Schliemann for his next digs. Dörpfeld had an eye for structures and saw that the strange, intermediate city, Troy 6, not only was closer to the time of the war but also looked like the city described by Homer. Sadly, in his haste to find Troy, Schliemann had demolished major parts of that higher-level city. Schliemann’s tragic error could be understood in small part because this Troy was truly grand and its wall well-built, suggesting a much more advanced civilization than of pre-literate Bronze Age one. And most spectacularly, Dörpfeld found that many buildings in this Troy had been toppled. What better explanation than that they were thrown down by Greeks sacking the city?
Does the Iliad represent legend in literature or a real, historical event?
Are there facts described in the Iliad that, five hundred years after the war, Homer could not have known about unless his story related an actual event? Wood wonders. He points out the peculiar angle of the walls of Troy 6, just as Homer described, walls that the Greek warrior Ajax tried three times to scale by hand. No one in Homer’s time could have seen these long-buried walls.
Wood also looks at the list of cities that the Iliad says sent ships to Troy. Many were long gone by Homer’s time. One was Thisbe, which Homer describes as a city of many pigeons. Following Homer’s directions in Greece, Wood tracks down the site of the Bronze Age ruins of Thisbe. And the site is full of pigeons!
The historian then tells us about the American Carl Blegen, the third great excavator of Troy who dug on the site during the 1930s. Blegen also raised questions about Homer’s story. He suggested that Troy 6 might have been destroyed not by Agamemnon’s army but by an earthquake. Wood observes that Poseidon, the god of earthquakes, was also the god of horses. Perhaps the Trojan horse was a mythic acknowledgement that it was this god in his other guise who toppled Troy’s towers.
Blegen also discovered that the city a level above Troy 6, called Troy 7-A, was a town of shanties that seemed to have survived a natural disaster. He speculated that it was this weak city that fell easily to a very small Greek army or perhaps other raiders, not in a titanic battle, as told by Homer.
Sites and Songs of Homer
To put the story of Troy in context, Wood guides us through Greece and the Aegean and, more importantly, through the history of discoveries over the past century about Bronze Age. We’re brought to the ruins of Mycenae, Agamemnon’s capital. We’re presented with Sir Arthur Evans’s discovery of the palace at Knossos on Crete, possibly the real home of legendary King Midas, keeper of the Minotaur in his labyrinth. We’re shown films of the excavation of Pylos, the home of King Nestor, Agamemnon’s trusty old ally and advisor. Wood also takes us through the discovery at Knossos and Pylos of a primitive form of writing that, decades later, was found to be a primitive form of Greek.
How could Homer, who lived half a millennium after the traditional time of the Trojan War, have passed down accurate memories of event from a pre-literate age? Wood introduces us to a modern Irish poet who speaks only Gallic and who recites long passages from traditional tales—one of the last individuals in this oral tradition in the British Isles. He also leads us to a backward part of modern-day Turkey. There we witness bardic masters reciting three hours’ worth of the wisdom of that culture’s sages. Wood explains how such epics employ formulae in descriptions that make memorization easier.
Homer thus could have been reciting a story from an oral tradition passed down through many centuries.
In the Records
For another path to the truth about Troy, Wood looks to clay tablets in cuneiform of foreign-office records of the ancient Hittites. The Hittite Empire dominated what is now central and eastern Turkey during the period of the Trojan War. In this archive is a copy of a letter from that empire’s ruler to another “great king.” This was an honorific that Hittites used not for mere chieftains or minor leaders, but only for those like the Egyptian Pharaoh, who ruled significant kingdoms. And who is this “great king” who is addressed? The king of “Ahhiyawa.” This seems a likely reference to Homer’s word for the Greeks—the “Achaiwoi,” or what we call “Achaians.”
The Hittite king complains about an ally of the Ahhiyawa king who is raiding Hittite possessions from territories in what is now the western fringe of Turkey, which bordered the Aegean Sea. The Hittite ruler complains that this raider has been operating from the Ahhiyawa king’s subject city, Millawanda. Linguistically, this seems to be the Hittite version of the Bronze-Age Greek name for the city of Milwatos, the classical Greek Miletus.
These facts suggest a strong ruler, perhaps even Agamemnon himself, who ruled far-flung possessions in Asia from the Greek mainland, and who might have led ships against Troy.
The Hittite king alludes to the fact that there has not been serious conflict between his and the Ahhiyawa kingdom since the dispute over “Wilusa.” Linguistically, this might well be the Hittite word for “Ilius,” probably “Wilius” in Bronze-Age Greek—Homer’s other name for Troy and the reason his epic is called the “Iliad.” Could this be a reference to the Trojan War?
Another Hittite tablet is a draft treaty with Wilusa, also called Taruisa—Homer’s Troia?—which addresses a ruler of that city, “Alaksandros.” Homer’s other name for Paris, who took Helen from the Greeks to Troy, was “Alexandros.” Could this be a letter to Paris himself, the prince whose wife was Helen of Troy?
The Most Romantic of Sciences
Archaeology, Michael Wood believes, is “the most romantic of sciences because it attempts to bring back lost time.” Like Schliemann, he is a romantic in love with the Iliad. But he is also an objective realistic who employs archaeology, architecture, literary analysis, linguistics, geology, and other sciences in a sincere search for the truth about Troy. Unlike Schliemann, Wood does not look only for evidence confirming a story he would like to believe. In his series, he unfolds for us, as it has unfolded ever since Schliemann's time, evidence first for and then against the historicity of Homer’s tale.
At the beginning of his search, the historian says, he was skeptical about a Trojan War. But he ends the series with his own evaluation that, after separating myth and confusion from fact, points to the general truth of the Iliad.
And what of the story of Helen, of the face that launched a thousand ships? In the archeological record, Michael Wood concludes, “love leaves no trace.”