Is Homer's Troy in 1200 B.C. the right War ?

Modern scholarly opinion states that the war we have described in Homer's Iliad actually took place in the first quarter of the 12th c. B.C. (1175 - 2000 counting down) and Troy finally fall near 1184 which is the later Greeks' traditional date. Over the last century we have accumulated a large body of archaeological and historical information about what was happening at the East end of the Mediterranean world, and at this time. There seems to be a growing interest in Homer and Troy and that curious East-looking face of what we used to think of as the pure Hellenic fount of Western Civilization, and now we should be prepared to revise some of the old notions which were fossilized in our schoolbooks since the times of Schliemann. Troy and Mycenae and Pylos and the great cities of the East down to Egypt were all part of a warring and trading world, which was fairly complex, as seen in the early Greek Linear B product lists on the world market, dating from the late 2nd millennium B.C.

It now seems fairly clear that some major Catastrophe occurred around 1200 B.C., which the historian Robert Drews ("The End of the Bronze Age ": changes in warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 B.C., Princeton l995) notes as having happened simultaneously to all the major cities of the East down to Egypt, where records point to the mysterious appearance of sea-warriors who were devastating the coast. Drews cannot identify these invaders from the sea exactly, but his evidence points to the unexpected appearance of terrorists who probably destroyed the operation of the large armies of chariot warfare with as simple a solution as foot soldiers killing the horses with the long spear. These men may have come from Malta, or further West or even from the North sailing down the Atlantic coast, since we know there was a lively kassiterite trade supplying tin for the alloying of copper from Cyprus into castable bronze.The evidence points to the sacking of the cities in a close time-frame, looting and leaving the cities bare and unable to rebuild for a considerable period and in the case of Troy, for several centuries. Drews was right in calling this a "Catastrophe", and considering the unexpected nature of this happening which left no traces of its perpetrators, I think we can assign it to a wave of as yet unidentified "Terrorists".

But this does not fit the Homeric account of the Trojan War, which shows two well matched opposing armies which struggled on the plain before the walled city of Ilion, using similar techniques of warfare and weaponry until after a ten year siege, a well planned and executed device breached the walls . This does not fit the sudden stage of Drews' well documented Catastrophe, it is a traditional warfare done in a traditional manner. Considering the placement of Troy in the trade-paths to the Euxine Sea and down the Levantine Coast, the Greeks' reasons for the war were probably economically conceived.

Homer's account of the war does not point to looting of everything valuable and total destruction of the city so that it would never rise again, in the manner of Rome's handling of the final defeat of Carthage. In the final interview of Achilles by Priam, we see a city largely intact, there is no program of genocide or arson, but a presumable shift of power from the Illuwian administration to the foreign powers which were expanding eastwards into the well developed commerce of a 2nd Millennium East-Mediterranean world.

This does not match the pattern of a the world hit everywhere and simultaneously by a Catastrophe caused by unknown forces which cause terror and destruction worldwide. After their work is done, the Invaders disappear from the pages of history while some of the cities which were affected will slowly rebuild or in some cases like Troy, lie dormant for ages. How do we match the world of the Catastrophe with the world in which two conventional armies fought the traditional and protracted war at Troy?

We knew long ago, since the time of Schliemann's excavations, that there were as many as five levels of destruction and rebuilding at Troy, which could be assigned to dates from 1200 - 1800 B.C. I suggest that since Homer's Trojan War does not fit the conditions of the Catastrophe of 1200 B.C, that it refers back to a much earlier "Ilion" standing somewhere earlier in the time frame of the Bronze Age. We have always thought that Homer has elements of a tradition going deep into the Bronze age past, not only the copper-based weaponry but also some of the art and religious threads which point to great antiquity. Our conventional approach to the time between 8th century Homer and an ancient Troy has been that a three century gap could be bridged by folk memory and the traditions of an oral poetry. But if the web of memory can extend back into the past for three or four centuries, it can equally well reach back five or seven centuries, to a time when expanding Greeks were feeling the pinch of Ilion on their commerce.

We have blurred the lines of history in our older textbooks with a foolish idea that the Homeric Greeks were representative of our "West", fighting against a Near Eastern world of foreign people with foreign values. Once we start looking at Homer's world as part of a intertwined cross-cultural complex, we can expect to find unsuspected traits even in words and names. The Greek leader Agamemnon has a strangely Eastern name, which is compounded from the Greek prefix "aga-" meaning "very, highly" ( as aga-kleEs, as 'very glorious') with the telling name -memnon. Mythologically, Memnon was the son of Eos, the Dawn goddess and this of course point to the East. Furthermore a giant statue of Amenophis near Thebes in Egypt from the 18th Dynasty was thought to be a figure of the same Memnon. Trojan Prince Alexandros' name appears in ancient Hittite documents, the other side of the name-identification process, and I suspect word-analysis may give us unsuspected clues in this direction. Names often show national traits even after centuries of lost identity, witness dozens of Norman French names absorbed into the families of British aristocracy and regarded as British some ten centuries since the Invasion.

To summarize: The Near Eastern general "Catastrophe" of the world of 1200 B.C does not fit well with Homer's Trojan War, which was a traditional two-nation struggle for position in the trade route between West and East, and not the kind of "slash-and-burn" terrorist style attack on the cities of the East which Drews' carefully prepared study on "changes in warfare" describes. I therefore suggest that we consider referring the Homeric War back to an earlier position in the 2nd Millennium. . and see if it offer a good historical match with materials which we can document from the records of the Hittite, Assyrian and Egyptian chronologies. If as we have always thought, Homer's memory can hypothetically stretch back three centuries to 1200 B.C. , it can also reach back a few centuries more. Further research will show if that can be supported and substantiated by cross referencing to the abundant surviving materials from other facets of the Near Eastern Empires. If this seems to fly in the face of established Classical tradition, we should remember that the worst kind of scholarship is produced by cleaving to a tradition on the basis of familiarity, while ignoring possibilities which lie in another direction. The art of History is less a summarizing of Facts than a matter of Interpretation, and as such it must be continually re-examined and in some case eventually revised.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College