Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Trojan War #2: Homer

Part 1. The consensus | Part 2. Homer | Part 3. Bronze Age evidence

Last time we finished by looking at when ancient Greek writers thought the Trojan War happened. They disagreed by anywhere up to 205 years, and I posed the question of whether this discrepancy really matters — given that they lived up to 1000 years later, and that for 400–500 of those years there was complete illiteracy, with no textual transmission of any documents.
Troy, 2004: Hector (Eric Bana) gets killed by Achilles (Brad Pitt)
And now the answers. No, the imprecision doesn’t really matter; yes, the 400–500 year gap most definitely does matter.

Here’s a way of exposing the real problem. These writers weren’t just looking at which year Troy fell, but also at the calendar date; and most Hellenistic investigations put the date of Troy’s fall in the month of Thargelion, or less often, Panemon or Skirophorion. And it’s rather conspicuous that those are all months in the classical Athenian calendar.

Eratosthenes’ date isn’t based on secret archives from Babylon or anything like that. It’s a synthesis of the work of other Greek historians, most of them within the last hundred years, working without any special access to lost evidence, and making their estimates using a contemporary calendar. It was guesstimation by consensus. As far as Herodotus, Ephorus, or Eratosthenes were concerned, there was no documentary evidence from that era — other than Homer.

In other words: Eratosthenes carries no weight. He had far less evidence to work with than we do.
Note: on ancient datings of the Trojan War see also Clinton, Fasti Hellenici (1834) pp. 123–140 — old, but thorough. Clinton also goes into traditional dates for the Dorian and Ionian migrations.
If we’re going to find any authentic memories of the Bronze Age in classical-era Greek texts, it’s going to be in Homer. With Homer, it is at least feasible to posit a chain of testimony via an oral tradition that reached from the 1100s BCE to the early 600s. Can we actually identify anything of that kind? Well, that’s where the complications start.
Helen of Troy, 2003: the Trojan prince Hector (Daniel Lapaine) about to engage with Achilles. Notice how all the Trojans are all wearing authentic Greek boar’s tusk helmets? Hector’s breastplate, too, is pleasingly reminiscent of some 6th century Greek depictions. (By the way, is it coincidence that Hector keeps getting played by Australians? Just wondering.)

False archaism

It’ll become more obvious today where my own sympathies lie. Just to lay all my cards on the table: in my judgement,
  1. there is inadequate evidence to corroborate the historicity of the Trojan War legend;
  2. arguments in favour of historicity often give the Trojan War special treatment, while happily being sceptical about other legends like Heracles’ wars — not to mention much more recent ‘events’ like the Lelantine War (supposedly ca. 700 BCE) and the First Sacred War (supposedly ca. 600–575 BCE);
  3. when looking for the historical context of the Trojan War legend, it makes much more sense to look at a more proximate setting, namely Greek colonisation of the Troad in the 8th century BCE.
Like I said last time, though, that’s a position in an argument, not an authoritative truth. There are some very reputable people who do support the historicity of the Trojan War. And they’re not crazy.

It would be boring (and take a long, long time) to discuss every piece of potential evidence in Homer that has ever been discussed. Still, in fairness, I’d better list off the elements that appear in Homer that do unquestionably hark back to the Bronze Age in one way or another: they are
  1. a Mycenaean boar’s tusk helmet described in Iliad 10.261–265;
  2. references to a handful of towns which were abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age and were not resettled until after the time of the Iliad, especially the Boeotian town of Eutreus (TH Ft 140) or Eutresis (Iliad 2.502); and
  3. one word that gets used in a sense that hadn’t existed since the Bronze Age, anax ‘king’, which gets used regularly for the Greek leader Agamemnon (king of either Argos or Mycenae depending on which bit of the Iliad you’re looking at) and a handful of times for other characters.
Boar’s tusk helmets: a fresco
from Orchomenos dating to LH IIIB
(source: Wikimedia.org)
There are a few other elements that some scholars in the past have assigned to a Bronze Age context, but they’re not robust: things like Aias’ massive shield (see this article, pp. 132–133: it’s simpler to interpret it as an Archaic aspis but in giant proportions) and Troy itself (but the historical Troy continued to be inhabited until ca. 950 BCE, and was re-settled in the 700s BCE). Don’t put too much stock in those.

Homer doesn’t just have archaisms: there’s plenty of late material too. It’s a mixed bag. Funerary customs, political structures, religious practices all belong to the Archaic period. Even passages with genuine Bronze Age references, like Eutresis or the boar’s tusk helmet, contain plenty of late linguistic features: both passages lean heavily on καί, a post-Mycenaean word for ‘and’, and the Eutresis passage also uses a relatively late form of a word for ‘ships’, νέες. That demonstrates that they’re not quotations from a Bronze Age poem.

What I’d actually like to talk about is a methodological problem that scholars sometimes mention, but — I think — greatly underappreciate: false archaism.

False archaism is a specific kind of anachronism. When you take something ancient out of its context and insert it into a story set in the distant past, that is false archaism. False archaisms are often genuinely archaic, they’re just out of place. They’re there for tone: to give an atmosphere, a flavour of archaic-ness. Some well known examples are the woad in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Braveheart (set ca. 1190 and 1297, both at least a thousand years out of place); Samuel Johnson’s appearance in Blackadder III (set ca. 1810, 55 years after Johnson’s Dictionary came out); references to Roman gods in King Lear (set in pre-Roman Britain).

Scholars will occasionally mention a possible case of false archaism in Homer (though often it’s just to reject the idea). But if you look for them, you quickly see that Homeric epic is absolutely flooded with potential false archaisms.

It goes without saying that for each of the points I discuss below, other Homerists will have competing interpretations.

1. Iron man

Iron was just starting to see widespread use in 1200 BCE, and the classical Greeks were aware that iron smelting was difficult and a comparatively recent technology. So in the Iliad, iron is depicted as a rare, prized metal. But look at how Achilles describes a hunk of unrefined pig-iron when he makes it a prize in an athletic contest:
Next Peleus’ son (Achilles) placed a pig-iron ingot
which strong Eëtion used to throw once upon a time ...
... He stood up and made this speech among the Argives:
‘Come on, anyone who wants to win this prize!
Even if the winner’s rich flocks are very far away,
it will last him for a full five years
using it: his shepherd won’t need to go to the city in want of iron,
nor his ploughman. This will provide it.’
Ploughs and shepherds’ crooks. Does this sound like a prestige object? In one of the previous contests the fourth prize was two talents of gold (Il. 23.269): two gold talents would be perhaps around 50 to 200 g — not the much heavier Greek silver talents of 25 to 34 kg each! — but still worth $2100 to $8500 USD (€1900 to €7600 EUR) in today’s money.

We have a mismatch between iron’s supposed status (surely hundreds of years ago it must have been a prestige object!) and its actual use (it was valuable because it was useful). Hence: false archaism.
Homer’s Cyclopes are so backward that they don’t cook their food. This posed a problem for the poet: in the underlying folktale, the hero blinds the monster with a metal cooking spit. Homer wrote himself out of a corner by using a wooden stake instead (though it still glows when it’s hot!). Early Greek pictures of the story retained the traditional spit, but this artist, an Etruscan working ca. 625 BCE, was aware of the Homeric innovation. (source: A. Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists, 1998, p. 97)

2. What Cyclopes want

In the famous Cyclops episode in Odyssey 9, Odysseus describes the Cyclopes’ society very harshly. They have no laws, no assemblies, no kings, no temples or gods, no agriculture, no shipmaking or navigation skills. This is in spite of the fact that they have bounty on their doorstep, with fruit growing wild, and an excellent harbour. Some modern readers have actually been tempted to take this as a distorted depiction of a real hunter-gatherer society (here’s an example). Later we find out that they don’t cook their food, and that they have a very warped sense of guest-friendship (Polyphemus’ guest-gift to Nobody: ‘I will eat you last’).

But what actual characteristics does their society possess? We’re not told of any! Everything is characterised by its absence. It’s as though the poet is going through a list of technologies and cultural practices — rather like the one in the 5th-century play Prometheus Bound, lines 447–506 — and then declaring, ‘the Cyclopes don’t have that’.

The intent isn’t to give any kind of a faithful description, it’s to cast them as being as backward as possible — ‘a negation of human values’, as one commentator puts it. So: not a real Neolithic hunter-gatherer society, but false archaism.
The Trojan Horse (La guerra di Troia), 1961: Achilles (Arturo Dominici, left) vs. Aeneas (Steve Reeves, right). Hector doesn’t appear in this version. Reeves was hot stuff in the 50s and early 60s, but his judgement was questionable: after this film he reprised his role as Aeneas in The Avenger (La leggenda di Enea, 1962), but turned down the leading roles in Dr. No (1962) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

3. Trading places

In the Odyssey, relationships between people living in separate lands are routinely cast in terms of guest-friendship (xenia, or in Homeric, xeiniē) and mutual hospitality. Trade consists of guest-gifts given in the context of hospitality. In particular, when people get wealthy on their travels, if it’s not by piracy then it’s by gaining guest-gifts. Odysseus becomes tremendously wealthy by being given guest-gifts from the Phaeacians in this way, and we’re told that there’s no one cleverer than him at gaining wealth from guest-gifts. Guest-gifts and piracy, yes; commerce, no. That’s how we know we’re in Olden Days.

But wait: when Athena appears on Ithaca in book 1, disguised as Mentes, she tells Telemachus that she’s en route to southern Italy to trade a large quantity of iron. Oops what a giveaway!

The Homeric world has commerce, but the poet has partially erased it to make his society sound more old-fashioned. False archaism.

4. Dude, where’s my chariot?

The use of chariots in the Iliad is a notorious trouble-spot for ancient historians. The heroes of the Trojan War use them as an infantry delivery platform, not as attack vehicles. As far as we know, chariots weren’t used in warfare in mainland Greece in the 7th century BCE, so it’s often thought that the poet simply didn’t know how they were used in battle, and was just guessing. One military historian, P. A. L. Greenhalgh, famously complained about the Homeric ‘taxi-service’ in a 1973 book. One very capable historian has defended the Homeric depiction of military chariot use, though: Hans van Wees, in this landmark article.

I’d agree with Greenhalgh that it’s simpler to see the chariot as a false archaism. It’s a symbol of old-fashioned aristocratic prestige, standing in for a much more familiar piece of military equipment: the horse.

In Homer there’s no such thing as horse-riding (except possibly in Iliad 10.498–501): horses are consistently depicted with charioteering language. Conversely, we know that in real life classical Greece, chariots were used for racing, but we have no evidence (other than Homer) to suggest any military use. Horses did have a military use — but not as cavalry. Most horses in Greece were too small to be suitable for cavalry. Only Thessaly had true cavalry, and when southern states really needed cavalry they would hire Thessalians. What people like the Athenians and Spartans had instead were mounted infantry. They used horses, but for transport, not for attacking — that is: as an infantry delivery platform.

So once again we’ve got a mismatch between reality and portrayal. We’ve got contemporary 7th century BCE military methods (using horses for moving infantry) dressed up with an archaic-sounding and prestigious artefact (chariots) to make them seem old-fashioned. False archaism.
Helen of Troy, 1956: Hector (Harry Andrews, left) vs. Achilles (Stanley Baker, right).
Don’t ask me what those weapons are meant to be. They’re pretty hilarious though. Watching this I can’t help but think of that Star Trek episode with the atrocious fight between Kirk and the Gorn. By the way, in Homer it’s Paris, not Hector, who wears the leopard skin.

5. Around the (Greek) world in eighty minutes

Homer gives us a wealth of placenames. The biggest collection is in the Catalogue of Ships (Iliad 2.494–759), with a smaller collection in the catalogue of Trojan allies (2.816–877). Here’s a sample of how one entry in the Catalogue begins:
The people who lived at Aspledon and Minyan Orchomenos:
their leaders were Ascalaphus and Ialmenus, sons of Ares ...
Iliad 2.511–512
About a quarter of the placenames in the Catalogues were no longer known to our main textual sources of later times, most notably Strabo and Pausanias (both were writing in the 2nd century CE). A handful, like Eutresis, are places that had genuinely been remembered since the Bronze Age.

Just to be extra clear, and at the risk of being repetitive: Troy itself doesn’t prove anything. Troy did exist, unquestionably; and one of its Greek names, Ilios, is widely thought to be a hellenised form of the city’s Hittite name in the 13th century BCE, Wiluša (Wiluš(iy)a > *Wil(y)o- > Ilio-). Its other name, Troiā, may possibly be the hellenised form of a place mentioned in connection with Wiluša, Taruiša (Taruiša > *Traw- > Trō- > Troi-). But the historical Troy didn’t suddenly vanish after 1200 BCE. Moreover, it had been re-settled by Greeks before Iliad was composed. Homeric Troy isn’t very Hittite: the main civic cult is dedicated to Ilian Athena, the patron of classical-era Troy, and most of Homer’s Trojans have Greek names.

Leaving aside Troy itself, the Iliad unquestionably gives us a lot of genuine cases of geographical information surviving oral transmission for an awfully long time. Some respected scholars — like Latacz — believe the Catalogue of Ships was itself transmitted more or less accurately, as a piece, all the way from the Late Bronze Age up to the 7th century, at which time it was incorporated into the Iliad.

On the other side, we have good reason to be sceptical about many aspects of the Catalogue. I mentioned earlier on that it has a certain amount of post-Mycenaean language. A much bigger problem, relating to the Catalogue’s overall structure, is how it conceives the ethnographic layout of Greece.
The Catalogue of Ships (the blue arrows show the route the poet takes) and the ethnographic layout of Greece according to the Iliad. Note that the titles at the left are not explicitly given in the text (except for the Ionians).
The classical Greeks had several myths about migrations of ethnic groups. Now, all of these migrations supposedly took place after the Trojan War, so when you want to depict the world at the time of the Trojan War, what you need to do is rewind these migrations. And that’s exactly what Homer does — but not always consistently. The results are often nonsensical, and at times they are in direct conflict with what we know to be true from archaeology, and from Bronze Age documents left for us by the Hittites.

Take the Dorians. The first section of the Catalogue (2.494–644) purportedly shows us southern Greece before the legendary ‘Dorian invasion’ or ‘return of the Heracleids’. So the poet dutifully avoids mentioning Dorians anywhere. Yet the second section of the Catalogue (2.645–680) places Heracleids as rulers of some islands in the Aegean! — namely Tlepolemus (653) and Pheidippus and Antiphus (678). The Odyssey slips up even worse, and mentions Dorians in Crete at one point (Od. 19.177). Later Greeks got confused trying to work out a coherent chronology of the Dorian migrations too, with the unhappy result that Diodorus of Sicily has the Dorians colonising Crete twice: once before the Trojan War, to get Homer’s Dorians into Crete and the south-east Aegean, and once after, in the Dorian invasion proper (Bibl. 5.80.2–3).

Take the Ionians. The poet reverts the legend of the Ionian migration, with the result that Miletus (2.868) is not Greek, as it was in the 7th century, but aligned with the Trojans — yet from Hittite documents we know that historical Miletus was under Ahhiyawan (=‘Achaian’?) control in the 13th century BCE. According to classical legend, before the Ionian migration the Ionians ought to be living in the region known in classical times as Achaia (Hdt. 1.145; Strabo 8.7.1), under the rule of the Neleids who ended up leading the migration. But the poet evidently feels compelled to retain the Achaian label. The bizarre result is that pre-Achaian Achaia is firmly Achaian, ruled by the arch-Achaian king Agamemnon (Il. 2.569–580), in Mycenae, which isn’t in Achaia! So where are the Ionians? Again, the poet avoids mentioning them. The one time he does (13.685), they’re grouped with Boeotians, Locrians, Phthians, and Epeians, and Athenians get mentioned shortly afterward, so they are probably the Athenians themselves — just possibly the Euboeans — but certainly not the residents of Achaia.

Take the Aeolians. The Aeolian settlements of Boeotia and the north-eastern Aegean supposedly haven’t happened yet, so the poet doesn’t include them in the Catalogue. Section 3 of the Catalogue, the ‘Aeolian’ section, is confined to the northern mainland, around the plain of Thessaly. Boeotia is still Achaian — or maybe Minyan, or something (who knows what) — so that’s put in section 1 of the Catalogue. To judge from external evidence, the portrayal of the north-eastern Aegean as non-Aeolian is realistic: in the Late Bronze Age that area ought to be firmly within the Anatolian sphere of influence, and we know from epigraphic evidence that early Lemnos spoke a Tyrsenian language, not Greek [Edit: but see Hans’ comment, below]. Yet elsewhere in Homer Lemnos has a cult of Hephaestus (1.593–594) and an Aeolian ruler (7.467–468, 21.40–41), and Lesbos already has an Aeolian founder (‘seat of Makar’, 24.544).

It looks very much as though the three main sections of the Catalogue of Ships are supposed to represent Ionians/Achaians (2.494–644), Dorians/Heracleids (2.645–680), and Aeolians (2.681–759). But these broad divisions don’t sit well with the requirement of reverting all the migration myths.

The result: perhaps the most glaring case of false archaism in this list.

Maybe it sounds like I’m suggesting we should be looking for false archaism behind every bush in Homer. If so, that’s exactly correct. We should.

No use of writing in Homer? Could well be false archaism. The position of basileus sounds less like a king and more like a ‘big man’? Could well be false archaism. No hoplites or phalanxes? Could well be false archaism. Narrative poetry is sung, not recited? Could well be false archaism.

We’ve got plenty of grounds to be sceptical of the idea that Homer is a reliable guide to any real thing at all, let alone a faithful depiction of Late Bronze Age warfare. There’s plenty of material in Homer that does relate to a real past — but no one has ever detected that real past by looking at Homer. Always, every time, it has come from independent evidence, and only then has it been seen to correspond with Homer.

Or, put it another way: if we didn’t have Homer, and relied only on Late Bronze Age evidence, would we be talking about a Trojan War?

We’ll talk more about that in part 3 — but you can probably guess what my answer would be.

Part 1. The consensus | Part 2. Homer | Part 3. Bronze Age evidence


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  3. A note on Lemnos - the epigraphic evidence only shows that a Tyrsenian language was spoken there, not that it was native to Lemnos or that it was the main language spoken. E.g. in these papers Heriner Eichner posits that Lemnian was spoken by only a minority community of immigrants coming from Italy. (Not that I'm necessarily convinced by Eichner's arguments, but it's by no means undisputed scholarly consensus that Lemnian is native to Lemnos or was the main language spoken there).

  4. Certainly, much of what is in the Iliad is anachronistic: mostly stuff from the Late dark age or early Archaic period, superimposed on an original story set in the bronze age. This, I believe any objective observer can agree on.

    But I have a question: is it possible that what we’re seeing is something a little different than just false archaisms? What I mean is this:

    As you know, the account of the kings of the Israelites (in Israel and Judah), are from the period between the 10th and 6th centuries (at least at face value— for the earlier parts anyway). Yet when medieval Christian and Muslim artists depicted the characters therein, they’d do so either in contemporary garb (i.e Medival), or (in another case of false archaism), classical garb. This raises a question:

    Is it possible these anachronisms are Homer’s(?) attempt at filling in details with things from his period, on what is essentially a kernal of Bronze Age lore about an actual event? Because if one strips out the anachronisms, the story is kind of boring: some Greeks, led by a high king presiding over some random vassels, make war at Troy, with the a-hole blamed for it a “Trojan” named Alexander. The list of possible characters from that tiem would also be very small (and I’m being generous). Even Michael Wood was of the opiniom that many of the big names are later insertions (or even conflations—deliberate or not) by Homer(?), meant to spice things up.

    It wouldn’t be the first time this happened—havin real people mixed up like this: Arab folklore about Zenobia—very much a real person—is little like the stuff written in histpry books. For starters, the Arabs say she sucked on a poison ring, to avoid capture by Amr b. Adi. He attacked because in the story, Zenobia killed his uncle, judhayma al-abrash, for killing Uthayna, her husband. He was able to get into Palmyra because an adviser of his uncles cut off his nose to become double-agent.

    Every person in the above story is a real person, with period documentation—however limited (you may recognize Uthayna as “Septimius Odaenathus”).They even lived at the same time. However, as you know, that wasn’t what actually happened: it was the Romans who defated her, and she survived; judhayma was pwned by Uthayna (during his wars against the Sassanids), and Uthayna was murdered, not KIA.

    And this is with a people who’ve been writing since the 1st Century BC (hiwever sparsely). Imagine what manner of mixups happened in Dark Age Greece...

    Guess it shows just how complex the issue of analyzing the Iliad really is.

  5. This is an excellent article. I am personally strongly of the opinion that the Homeric poems are almost completely fiction and that the world they depict is, to a large extent, a fantasy world with only a handful of authentic Bronze Age elements thrown in. Nonetheless, I frequently encounter people who believe that the Iliad is primarily a work of history with only a few fictional elements thrown in. I think a lot of people choose to believe such things out of wishful thinking.

    The Iliad's inaccurate portrayal of how chariots were used in Bronze Age warfare is always one of my go-to examples when conversing with someone who thinks that the Iliad is an accurate portrayal of Bronze Age warfare, since chariots are such an important element in the poem and yet the poet seems to completely misunderstand how they were actually used.

    That article you linked that tries to defend Homer's portrayal of chariots in Bronze Age warfare is interesting, but I cannot say I am entirely convinced. On a side note, I had an instructor at one point who liked to humorously compare the way chariots are used by the warriors in the Iliad to the way golf carts are used by modern golfers—a comparison that has stuck with me in part because of its aptness and in part because of the absurdity of imagining a Homeric warrior in a golf cart.

  6. Regarding the historical Troy being inhabited until 950 BC, I've read argument that the Trojan War story was originally set in the 10th century BC (as shown by genealogies supposedly stretching back to the Trojan War only giving that many generations) and was moved further back when the Greeks were exposed to the much deeper histories of Egypt and Babylon