Friday 30 September 2016

Did the Romans speak Latin?

Short answer: yes, of course they spoke Latin.

Longer answer: ‘Lindybeige’, an online personality fairly well known for his videos debunking bad history, had this to say about the elite of ancient Roman society last year --
Romans spoke Latin, right? Well -- not the educated rich ones, not the patricians, not most of the time. You see, Greek was the language of the educated elite, and when one very very posh patrician was having a word with another very posh patrician in the privacy of their own home, they would probably have been speaking Greek.
That must be why Cicero wrote his letters to Atticus and his other posh friends in Greek, right? Not to mention the letters written by Seneca, Pliny, and Fronto to their very, very posh friends. (The imperial family, in Fronto’s case!) Right?

... clearly not.
Greek was the language of learning, of poetry, of medicine, of science, all those sort of things. It was the language for the elite ... [T]he servants very often would not have understood a word that their masters were saying...
Hey, did you know that poets like Vergil, Horace, and Ovid wrote in Greek? No? Well, that’s probably because they didn’t. Ever heard of Varro, one of the very greatest scholars of his time? Guess what language he wrote in.
The target of Lindybeige’s ire, HBO’s Rome: Calpurnia (Haydn Gwynne) and Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) in private. No evidence exists to suggest that Caesar spoke Greek with Calpurnia. Nor with Servilia. Nor any other Roman for that matter. (With Cleopatra, though, possibly yes ... because she was Greek.)
All right then, let’s try technical writing. The most important surviving treatise on architecture from antiquity, by the 1st-century architect Vitruvius? Latin. How about Cato the Elder’s manual on farming? Yeah, not very surprising. Well, there may have been general manuals in Latin, but what about the really technical stuff? Take Roman agrimensores: treatises on the theory of land-surveying, the basis for city planning and Roman roads -- people like Frontinus, Urbicus, Balbus, and Hyginus. I wonder if they wrote in-- oh whoops it’s all Latin. All right, then: science! Another Hyginus, appointed by Augustus as curator of the Palatine library, wrote a treatise on astronomy which-- bother. Pliny the Elder-- nope. Well, medical writers-- aw, crap. Never mind, there’s always philologists-- dammit!

Lindybeige’s discussion isn’t completely divorced from historical reality. Bilingualism in the Roman world is an area of active research. (Take this 2002 book, for example, especially chapters 4 and 6.) Latin- and Greek-speaking communities blended and merged in places like central and southern Italy, Epirus (north-western Greece), and parts of what is now Serbia.

In Rome itself? Well, there were certainly Greek-speaking elements of the community in the city, but we’re definitely not talking universal diglossia -- Rome was not an ancient version of Luxembourg or Miami -- and where there was diglossia, it was definitely not in the aristocratic sphere. The epigraphic record shows that there were Greek-speaking immigrant communities, but there isn’t anything to suggest standard use of Greek among the elite.

A lot of elite Romans, including the Latin writers I mentioned above, were able to speak Greek, at least to some extent. Vergil and Ovid read lots of Greek poetry. Horace, Varro, and others studied at the Academy in Athens. And so on. Greek was, on the whole, the most widely spoken language of the Mediterranean, and there were loads of educators from the Greek-speaking world floating around Rome. ‘[S]peaking [Latin] was the mark of a Roman,’ but ‘Greek was also a vital component of elite Roman identity,’ as Siobhán McElduff has put it recently.

But to conclude that the Romans didn’t speak Latin, or even just elite Romans -- no, that’s pure fantasy. People who had Greek as their first language certainly preferred to speak and write in Greek: people like Polybius, Crates, and other hellenophones who moved to Rome for one reason or another.* But hey, most Norwegians can speak English. That doesn’t mean they speak it at home. Getting your higher education from people who speak Greek isn’t the same thing as preferring to speak Greek.
Note: There are exceptions: Livius Andronicus took to Latin like an archaeologist to drink, and in a previous post I’ve expressed a suspicion that the calendar-reformer Sosigenes wrote in Latin.
Anyway, if the Romans only used Latin because it was required for communication between cultures, where on earth do you imagine the requirement for Latin came from? Who do you imagine imposed Latin on the Romans?

And concerning the ‘servants’ -- what a horrible whitewashing word that is -- why on earth would they not have understood their masters? The slaves are precisely the ones who often came from Greek-speaking backgrounds.

OK, enough carping. What’s the origin of this fake factoid, that posh Romans didn’t speak Latin unless they had to? It’s on this Listverse page too (‘Greek was the dominant language in Rome’).

Is this just a case of looking at studies on bilingualism and suddenly deciding everything you ever knew was wrong? -- a drastic pendulum swing of opinion?

Well, there are Roman sources that could, in principle, be taken to support a decision like that. But only if they’re misread. Here’s one from Juvenal’s sixth Satire. In the midst of a truly loathsome misogynistic rant (yes, yes, even for its time), Juvenal comes up with this charming comment -- and I’ll adopt the old custom of translating Greek as French --
quaedam parva quidem, sed non toleranda maritis,
nam quid rancidius, quam quod se non putat ulla
formosam nisi quae de Tusca Graecula facta est,
de Sulmonensi mera Cecropis? omnia Graece,
{cum sit turpe magis nostris nescire Latine;}
hoc sermone pavent, hoc iram gaudia curas,
hoc cuncta effundunt animi secreta: quid ultra?
concumbunt Graece, dones tamen ista puellis
tune etiam, quam sextus et octogensimus annus
pulsat, adhuc Graece? non est hic sermo pudicus
in vetula: quotiens lascivum intervenit illud

ζωὴ καὶ ψυχή, modo sub lodice loquendis
uteris in turba.
And there are some things -- small, sure, but husbands can’t stand them --
for what’s more revolting than a woman thinking she isn’t
beautiful unless she turns from Tuscan into Greek?
From pure Sulmonian into Cecropian? Everything in Greek!
Their shrieks are in that language, their anger, joys, worries,
all the secrets of their soul that they pour out. But wait, there’s more:
they go to bed in Greek. Now, for girls, you might allow that.
But are you really still going to be Greeking when your 86th year
is knocking on the door? That language is obscene
in a little old lady. Every time you interrupt yourself with a lewd
vie et âme!’, you’re taking things that should only be spoken
under the covers and using them in public.
(Modern editions bracket line 188 as an obvious scribal gloss; 195 loquendis is Nisbet’s suggestion for the nonsensical MS reading relictis.)

Do the last six lines show what Lindybeige claims, that Greek was the language of private discourse? No: for one thing, the people Juvenal’s complaining about aren’t elites, he’s looking down on them scornfully. For another, mocking Greek as the language of love doesn’t make it the standard language of private discourse. In the old Looney Tunes cartoons Pepé Lepew satirises French as the language of love as perceived by contemporary Americans, but that doesn’t mean that 1940s-1960s Americans actually spoke French in the bedroom.

Quintilian recommends starting a child’s education in Greek as early as possible:
I prefer that a boy start his education in the Greek language, because he’ll absorb Latin whether we want him to or not, since it’s used for most things ...
This certainly attests to the prestige of Greek. But: (a) he tells us outright that Latin is the language that people actually use, and (b) notice what language Quintilian himself is writing in! This is not a straightforward passage with a straightforward meaning.

Suetonius’ testimony is also mixed. He records how the emperor Claudius sometimes used Greek in diplomatic, judicial, and scholarly contexts:
(Claudius) was just as diligent in his study of Greek, and all the time he declared his love for the language and its superiority. When a certain barbarian spoke in Greek and Latin, he said to him, ‘Since you are accomplished in both our languages.’ When he commended Achaia (in Greece) to the senate, he said that the province was dear to him because of their fellowship in common interests. And often in the senate he replied to ambassadors with a set speech. Before the tribunal he regularly recited lines from Homer. Indeed, whenever he sentenced an enemy or a conspirator, and the guard asked for a password, he would habitually and casually give him none other than this:
pour repousser quiconque attaque le premier.
[= Iliad 24.369, Odyssey 16.72, 21.133; ≈ Il. 19.183]
Finally, he also wrote histories in Greek: twenty books on the Etruscans, and eight on the Carthaginians.
But (1) note what he says: Claudius used a set speech and a repeated catchphrase in Greek; he’s not talking about any actual diplomacy in Greek. These stories don’t even necessarily support conversational fluency. And (2) I hope it’s not just me, but it is obvious, isn’t it, that Suetonius is reporting this anecdote as something noteworthy? That is, something that isn’t automatically obvious?

Elsewhere, he famously quotes Julius Caesar’s alleged last words in Greek (while doubting that there were actually any last words; Julius 82). But when he mentions that Tiberius spoke perfect Greek (Tiberius 71), he goes on to stress that he preferred Latin. He also tells us that Augustus never got comfortable enough in Greek to speak it conversationally (Augustus 87).

Besides, this is the exact opposite of speaking Greek in private.

Another ancient biographer, Plutarch, tells us that Marius never learned Greek at all (Marius 2.2: λέγεται δὲ μήτε γράμματα μαθεῖν Ἑλληνικὰ). Though that, too, is something out of the ordinary: one of the greatest Roman statesmen of all time not knowing any Greek must have seemed as striking as Claudius’ willingness to use the language.
Unusually fluent in Greek? The young Claudius (Derek Jacobi, right) has a chat with the eminent historians Pollio (Donald Eccles) and Livy (Denis Carey) ... both of whom wrote in Latin. (I, Claudius, BBC, 1976)
There is a handful of Romans who wrote books in Greek: aside from Claudius’ lost histories, there was a history of early Rome by Quintus Fabius Pictor (also sadly lost), and in philosophy there’s the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Among the many books written by Cicero’s friend Atticus, one was in Greek. Tertullian wrote a few things in Greek until he settled down to using Latin consistently.

But there’s a lot more who wrote in Latin. At recitals or concerts in Rome you could certainly expect to hear Greek poetry, just as you can hear Italian in modern opera houses. And yes, Greek was the most widely used language around the Mediterranean for scholarship, just as English is for modern scientists. That’s why modern scientists tend to publish in English, and why people like Claudius chose to publish in Greek. Except that Greek didn’t dominate in Rome to anything like the extent that English does in European academia: very nearly all Roman authors chose Latin. We can literally count the exceptions on one hand.

The first Roman emperors to have Greek as their first language probably weren’t until the 3rd century CE -- and that was only if they came from Greek-speaking places and didn’t come from a Roman background or a military family. After some poking around I suspect the first was Philip the Arab, who reigned 244-249. (Maximinus I, 235-238, was another non-latinophone, but his first language was apparently Thracian: SHA Max. 2.5.)

But when Vergil or Ovid were giving recitals of elite Latin poetry to audiences of elite Romans and Tuscans, you can be damn sure the conversations afterwards were in Latin. (Horace? Well, Horace was very much a hellenophile, so it is at least feasible that he might have liked doing Q&A in Greek. We don’t have any evidence to suggest that, mind: it’s just that it’s not a completely daft idea in his specific case.)

If you read Cicero’s letters you’ll get a pretty good idea of how a posh Roman used Greek domestically. When he’s writing to his close friend Atticus, he slips in occasional words or phrases here and there: it’s an in-joke between friends. Here’s a snippet I’ve had occasion to quote before, in a post on an unrelated subject:
unctus est, accubuit. ἐμετικὴν agebat; itaque et edit et bibit ἀδεῶς et iucunde, opipare sane et apparate ...
He got oiled, he reclined (for dinner). He was on a course of émétiques, so he ate and drank sans crainte and cheerfully, a very sumptuous and well-prepared meal ...
For communication, Latin; for camaraderie, a light sprinkling of Greek words. He uses Greek to build solidarity between friends with a common interest, no more, no less. Atticus spent more time living in Greece than in Italy, for heaven’s sake, but they still wrote to each other in Latin.

It’s a bit like reading a Russian novel and seeing aristocrats break into French. It’s something occasional, and -- more so for the Russians than for the Romans -- something ostentatious. Take the very first paragraph of Tolstoy’s War and Peace:
Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des estates, de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous préviens que si vous ne me dites pas que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) -- je ne vous connais plus, vous n’êtes plus mon ami, vous n’êtes plus my faithful slave, comme vous dites! But how do you do? Je vois que je vous fais peur -- sit down and tell me all the news.’
It was in July, 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and favourite of the empress Marya Feodorovna. With these words she greeted Prince Vasili Kuragin, a man of high rank and importance, who was the first to arrive at her reception. Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from the grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the elite. All her invitations without exception, written in French, and delivered by a scarlet-liveried footman that morning, ran as follows:
Si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, Monsieur le comte (or mon prince), et si la perspective de passer la soirée chez une pauvre malade ne vous effraye pas trop, je serai charmée de vous voir chez moi entre 7 et 10 heures. Annette Scherer.
-- Tolstoy, War and Peace, book 1 chapter 1 (1865)
(English portions are from the 1922 Maude translation; French portions are from the Russian original.)

To open a major Russian novel with a couple of paragraphs of French -- that’s a bold, bold gesture. It evokes frightful snobbishness. And it colours Anna Pavlovna’s character. Notice how in the first paragraph, the torrent of French bewilders her guest (‘Je vois que je vous fais peur, I see I am frightening you’); later, in chapter 2, she forces all the aristocratic guests at her soirée to undergo the ordeal of a conversation with her aged aunt, that none of them know or want to know. Her salon may be where it’s all happening, but her bubbling energy and her social fastidiousness are comical and irritating. Anna Pavlovna isn’t a model to emulate, she’s cringeworthy.

Lindybeige mentions Russian aristocrats too, as it happens.
The Romanovs, for instance, the Romanovs of Russia, you may think that those people who were overthrown in 1917 in the Revolution and so forth, and slaughtered in the palace, that they all spoke Russian. Well, most of them knew Russian ... but actually, when speaking to each other, the main language that they spoke -- was French.
Annnnnd strike three! Take a look here, here, and here. It’s true that Nicholas and Alexandra both knew French. And it’s true that Alexandra’s Russian wasn’t great, and that Russian wasn’t their preferred language in their domestic life. But that may be less surprising if you bear in mind that Alexandra was German, and spent a lot of her youth in England. When she first met Nicholas she couldn’t speak Russian at all. Based on that, can you guess what their preferred domestic languages really were? Yup: English first, and German second. (The children? Russian.) By 1916, Alexandra wrote to Nicholas -- in English (and even her English wasn’t perfect!) -- ‘I am no longer the slightest bit shy or affraid [sic] of the ministers & speak like a waterfall in Russia[n].’

Having said all that, there are real cases of royal children learning a foreign language first. Victoria learned German from her nanny until she was three: after that, everything was in English. There’s no reason to imagine that kind of thing being the norm in ancient Rome. But when it was -- there must have been cases where aristocratic children had slave nannies who spoke Greek -- you can bet that, like Victoria, they had to switch languages pretty quick once they reached a certain age, and used Latin almost exclusively thereafter.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

The Trojan War #3: Bronze Age evidence

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

Previously we’ve touched on the current state of scholarship concerning the Trojan War, and some points that suggest the Iliad was composed firmly from a seventh-century perspective. But when people argue for a historical Trojan War, it’s evidence from the Bronze Age that carries the most weight — where the ‘Bronze Age’ means about 1200 BCE and earlier. So that’s what we’ll look at today.

Here I’ll be taking it as read that the Homeric name for Troy, Ilios, is a Greek rendering of the Hittite name Wilusa. That equation isn’t rock-solid. There are reputable scholars who doubt it (examples: 1, 2, 3). But I’m not going to be relying on that equation to argue in favour of a historical Trojan War; so if you’ll permit, let’s say I’m allowing that equation to play advantage.

The Alaksandu Treaty: treaty between a 13th century BCE Hittite king and king Alaksandu of Wilusa
Who were the Hittites? This is an important piece of context. The Hittite empire flourished in the second half of the 1000s BCE. By the 1200s they covered most of Turkey, and large parts of Syria and Lebanon. We have a selection of texts from Hittite archives, especially at their capital, Hattusa in central Turkey, as well as diplomatic correspondence at various sites. In the decades after 1200 — the ‘Bronze Age Collapse’ — many Hittite centres were abandoned or destroyed, including the capital, Hattusa, and the empire disappeared except for a remnant in the south-east.

The empire was built out of a combination of military force and one-sided treaties. One such treaty was with king Alaksandu of Troy: it formally incorporated Troy within the Hittite realm as a vassal state and as a part of the Arzawa region. Arzawa was a group of states on the west coast of Anatolia. The treaty dates to the early 1200s BCE.

Troy’s formal position within Arzawa and the Hittite empire roughly corresponds to the period in between Bronze Age Troy at its wealthiest (Troy VIh) and post-Bronze-Age-Collapse Troy (Troy VIIb2, VIIb3) — that is, the archaeological phases known as Troy VIIa and Troy VIIb1. There are no discontinuities between these phases in terms of population or material culture, or anything like that: rather, the dividing lines are disasters which affected the architecture and layout of the citadel. Troy VIh and VIIa are separated by a major earthquake, and Troy VIIa and VIIb1 by a fire.
Timeline of Late Bronze Age/Iron Age Troy and some potentially related events
So: what does Bronze Age evidence have to tell us? Let’s look through the most popular notions: most of them are red herrings.

1. Fire in Troy VIIa

Archaeological evidence shows that the citadel of Troy was destroyed by fire ca. 1190–1180 BCE. One potential cause of fire is human agency; and if the fire was caused by human agency, military hostilities are a possible inference.

The date has a tidy correspondence with Eratosthenes’ guesstimate for the fall of Troy, but as we saw last time, that was just one guesstimate among many, and none of the ancient Greeks who give us these dates had access to any evidence that we don’t also have. 3rd century BCE testimony has zero value.

If the fire was caused by human agency (and that’s not a trivial if: Jürgen Seeher, the director of excavation at Hattusa in 1994–2005, has commented that archaeologists are overly prone to inferring military conflict from fire), even so we have no idea who started it. If it was military hostility, there’s nothing to indicate who the hypothetical enemy was. The Troy VIIa fire gives us a possible scenario for a Trojan War, but nothing that confirms anything.

One reason this fire is so attractive is because classical poems about the fall of Troy put a lot of emphasis on fire. In those poems, though, fire emphasises the point that the city is being eradicated. The real city wasn’t eradicated at all. Troy VIIb1 was a direct continuation from Troy VIIa, and the city continued to be inhabited for nearly 250 years after it supposedly went up in flames.

Troy survived after this fire for longer than the USA has existed.

2. Earthquake in Troy VIh

With the earthquake, Trojan-War-hunters have two main options: (1) Greek myth might have reimagined the earthquake as something to do with Poseidon, who was both an earthquake god and a horse god — and a horse features rather prominently in the Greek legend; (2) the earthquake might have weakened Troy’s defences to the point where Greeks attacked and destroyed the city.

The first option is the most speculative kind of Euhemerism, and even at its best Euhemerism has never been a reliable or even a useful methodology. It’s a game of speculation, not a traceable history.

The ‘weakened defences’ option is at least not ridiculous, but it’s still speculative. If we didn’t have the classical Greek legend, no one would have any reason at all to suspect hostile military action. If there was military action, then — as with the Troy VIIa fire — still we have no clues as to who the hypothetical enemy was.

3. The Tawagalawa letter

One letter in the Hittite text archives, written by a Hittite king and addressed to the king of Ahhiyawa, mentions a dispute over Troy. Most scholars nowadays accept that Ahhiyawa is a hittitised form of the Greek Achaia (or of a Bronze Age form *Achaïwi-).

Conflict involving Greeks and Troy? Must be the Trojan War! Here’s the relevant passage, in Gary Beckman’s translation (Beckman, Bryce, and Cline 2011: 114–117):
(I, the Hittite king, want you to send this message to Piyamaradu:) ‘The King of Hatti has persuaded me (i.e. the Ahhiyawan king) about the matter of Wilusa concerning which he and I were hostile to one another, and we have made peace. Now(?) hostility is not appropriate between us.’ [Send that] to him. ...
... And concerning the matter [of Wilusa] about which we were hostile — [because we have made peace], what then? If [a certain ally] confesses an offense before his ally, [because he confesses] the offense before his [ally], he does not reject [him. Because] I have confessed [my offense] before my brother, [ ... And] let it [ ... ] no further to my brother.
CTH 181 (the ‘Tawagalawa letter’), iv.7–10 and 18–26
Here are the problems: (1) This dispute wasn’t between Trojans and Greeks, it was between Hittites and Greeks. (2) The Hittite king makes it crystal-clear that the Hittites were the aggressors, not the Greeks, and he’s trying very hard to apologise. (3) There’s no powerful reason to interpret the dispute as a war. Here’s the commentary on the passage by the hittitologist Trevor Bryce:
Hostilities had apparently broken out between them over the country called Wilusa ... This is the only occasion in the Ahhiyawa corpus where there is a reference to what appears to have been direct conflict between Hatti and Ahhiyawa. In all other cases, hostile action by Ahhiyawa against Hatti appears to have been limited to support for the activities of local insurrectionists like Piyamaradu. However, we do not know what the nature or the scale of the hostilities was on this occasion, whether it amounted to outright war, a skirmish or two, or merely a verbal dispute conducted through diplomatic channels. (The verb ku-ru-ri-iḫ-ḫu-e-en used in this context could mean any of these things.)
Beckman, Bryce, and Cline 2011: 121
There are potential quibbles over the date of the letter too — Gurney argued in 2002 that it could be as early as the 1290s, Singer has more recently argued for a date in the mid-1200s: either way, it definitely had nothing to do with the fire of Troy VIIa! Whatever the nature of the dispute, it’s not a great match for the legend.

4. The name game

Various names that pop up in Hittite records have tempting similarities to names that we know from classical-era Greek stories. We’ve already seen Wilusa = ‘Ilios’, and Ahhiyawa = ‘Achaia’.

Another interesting one is Alaksandu, the king of Troy who was made to agree to the ‘Alaksandu Treaty’. His name may well be Greek: it looks awfully similar to Greek Alexandros, and Alexandros is absolutely fundamentally Greek: it’s made out of Greek roots (it means ‘man-defender’). Alexandros is also an alternate name for Paris, the legendary Trojan prince. (Again, this is way too early for a Trojan War in Troy VIIa: the Alaksandu Treaty dates to the early 1200s.)

If Alaksandu = Alexandros, though, it just raises more questions. (1) In the legend, Troy was no vassal but an independent city. (2) Paris/Alexandros never became king. Alexandros was a common name (Paris isn’t even the best-known Alexander of antiquity!), so we don’t have a strong case for linking him directly to the legendary character. (3) What on earth is a Trojan king doing with a Greek name? We don’t know the ethnicity of the Late Bronze Age Trojans, but their political and material cultures were rooted in Anatolia, not the Greek world. So, whether you think Alaksandu has anything to do with Paris or not, we have a serious problem here. How on earth did an ethnic Greek get to be king of a thoroughly non-Greek Hittite vassal city? This is a damned good question, and no one has a very tidy answer.

Next up: Attarissiya ‘of the city of Ahhiya’ is named in the ‘indictment of Madduwatta’ (CTH 147) as having attacked a Hittite vassal. If you squint just right, this may look a little bit like ‘Atreus’, Agamemnon’s father in the Greek legend. At least that’s what Emil Forrer suggested in the 1920s.

Ahhiya is certainly an early form of Ahhiyawa, so it does look like Attarissiya was genuinely Greek. (It’s disconcerting that the text uses a city determinative on ‘Ahhiya’, though.) The timeframe is a bad fit: Attarissiya lived in the early 1300s BCE, during the reign of the Hittite king Tudhaliya I/II, three or four generations before the end of Troy VIh (let alone Troy VIIa). But it’s his name that’s the real problem. The similarity, if you can call it that, isn’t nearly as good as Alaksandu or Wilusa ... and it looks like it’s not Greek. Both elements of the name pop up in Hittite names (Attarimma, Sarissiya), and a prehistoric form of ‘Atreus’ should have sounded something like *Atrew(o)-. Forrer’s idea pre-dates the decipherment of Linear B, and linguists don’t buy it these days.

Next is *Akagamuna. A letter from an Ahhiyawan king to a Hittite king (CTH 183) supposedly mentions an Ahhiyawan leader of this name, and it kind of looks a bit like ‘Agamemnon’, the Greek commander in the Iliad. This one’s just based on obsolete information. The initial a- is an old misreading of a damaged determinative sign; the name is really ‘Kagamuna’; and the text is damaged, so we can’t tell whether Kagamuna was Ahhiyawan or Assuwan. He might not even be Greek!

Popular accounts still sometimes try to link Piyamaradu to the legendary king Priam. This one’s just silly. There’s no getting Priamos out of Piyamaradu — ‘Priam’ is indeed a Luvian name, but it comes from an unrelated root, pariya- ‘outstanding’ — and Piyamaradu wasn’t a king of Troy who fought the Greeks, he was a warlord who made a base at Miletus and colluded with the Ahhiyawans against the Hittites.

Last but not least: Appaliuna, a god associated with Troy/Wilusa in the Alaksandu Treaty, definitely is linked to the Greek Apollo (Apollōn), the most important god favouring the Trojans in the Iliad (see especially Bachvarova 2016: 243–250). Out of the names in this list, Appaliuna is by far the strongest link between Homer and Bronze Age Troy. The link is confirmed by a text describing an Arzawan purification ritual, CTH 456, which mentions Appaluwa as a plague god.

Even here some care is needed. In the Archaic period the chief civic cult of Troy was that of Ilian Athena, not Apollo (Il. 6.269–311; Hdt. 7.43; copious later textual, epigraphic, and numismatic evidence). The cult of Apollo was based at Thymbra, nearby, though its location is uncertain (possibly a 6th–5th century BCE site 7 km to the southeast, on the river Kemer). Even so, Thymbra gave Apollo a special relationship with Troy.

(For the linguistic connection between Arzawan Appaluwa, Trojan Appaliuna, and Greek Apollōn see Bachvarova 2016: 246–247: the variation in -l-, -li-, -ll- is explained by Beekes’ conjecture of a palatalised l in pre-Greek, *ly, which also gave rise e.g. to both Ἀχιλεύς and Ἀχιλλεύς. Cf. dialectal forms of Apollo: Doric Ἀπέλλων, Cypriot Ἀπείλων < *Apelyōn. Beekes, aware of Appaliuna but not Appaluwa, reconstructs the proto-form *Apalyun (2010: 119). Personally I’m not convinced that the reconstructed *ly shows Appaliuna/Appaluwa was an import from the Greek world, as Bachvarova argues: we still don’t have Apollo in Mycenaean.)

The Merneptah Stele, Egyptian Museum, Cairo: Merneptah’s campaigns against the Sea Peoples, 1208/7 BCE

5. The Sea Peoples

Popular accounts often link the Bronze Age Collapse to Egyptian reports of conflicts with Sea Peoples. The relevant records are from the reigns of the pharaohs Merneptah (1213–1203 BCE) and Ramesses III (1186–1155 BCE). Sometimes these Sea Peoples get blamed for the downfall of the Mycenaeans and the Hittites.

The catch is that we only have reason to think of the Bronze Age Collapse and the Sea Peoples as firmly connected to one another in the region of Lebanon-Israel. Contrary to popular belief, the Bronze Age Collapse was not a continent-wide catastrophe afflicting all civilisations from Greece to India: the name refers to a political, economic, and demographic upheaval in mainland Greece, Crete, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The New Kingdom of Egypt purred along for another hundred years; the Assyrian empire was untouched.

Egyptian monuments link the Sea Peoples to events specifically in Egypt, Israel, and potentially as far afield as Cyprus (if we take Merneptah’s propaganda at face value). Now, even granting that Cyprus was a hotspot of Sea Peoples activity, that’s still a loooong way from Greece or Troy (and, in 1208/7, two decades too early for the burning of Troy VIIa).

‘Ah, but the archaeologist Eric Cline wrote a book on how the Sea Peoples ended civilisation in 1177!’ Well, that’s certainly what the title of the book suggests, and there’s no doubt about Cline’s high scholarly standards. But if you actually read the book, you’ll find he’s actually very cautious about this. He specifically argues, in fact, that no single factor caused the collapse, and that there is no powerful reason to see the Sea Peoples as active in Greece and Turkey.

In both stories — the Bronze Age Collapse, and the Sea Peoples — Troy is peripheral. Plenty of Mycenaean and Hittite sites were abandoned, some violently destroyed, at the end of the Late Bronze Age (Mycenae, Tiryns, Gla, Pylos, Hattusa, Ugarit, etc. etc.); others suffered a downturn but survived (Thebes, Knossos). Troy belongs firmly to the second group. Along the more than 1000 km of coastline between Troy and Cyprus — where the Sea Peoples were active — some of the most important sites suffered only a downturn (Miletus), like Troy, or no downturn at all (Ephesus, Tarsus).

6. Solar eclipses

In 2008 two astronomers, Baikouzis and Magnasco, argued that a series of purported astronomical references in the Odyssey pointed to a date of 1178 BCE for Odysseus’ homecoming from the Trojan War (and therefore a date of 1188 for the fall of Troy). This is very much a fringe view, but it did provoke a certain amount of interest. I published a response that rejected the thesis unequivocally, showing that the argument was founded on several kinds of false assumptions, mistranslations, and cherry-picked data.

If you find their idea even faintly appealing, just take a moment before investigating to read the bit straight after Theoclymenus supposedly mentions this ‘eclipse’:
So (Theoclymenus) spoke, and then they all laughed sweetly at him.
Among them Eurymachus, Polybus’ son, led the talking:
‘He’s raving, this guest, this new arrival from abroad!
Come on, boys, throw him out of the house, outdoors
into the town square, since he says it’s like night in here.’
Odyssey 20.358–362
Path of solar eclipse in June 1218 BCE, suggested by Papamarinopoulos et al. as a supposed ‘eclipse’ in Iliad 17.366–377. (Hey, you missed one in Iliad 16.567!) Source: NASA Eclipse Web Site
In spite of this, a few other similar studies have popped up since 2008: 1, 2, 3, 4 (none written or co-authored by ancient historians, surprise surprise). They don’t fare any better. For the record, the first (Henriksson) dates the fall of Troy to 1312 BCE, the other three (Papamarinopoulos et al.) to 1217 BCE. Neither date is a match for either the end of either Troy VIh or Troy VIIa. The Henriksson article at least puts some effort in on the research front, but the others don’t even take a glance at previous research on the text and background of the Homeric poems. Baikouzis and Magnasco report that their research consisted of looking at footnotes in popular translations. Yes, seriously.

(Surprisingly, my own article has earned me a substantial section in the German Wikipedia article on Odysseus. Should I feel chuffed? Actually I do, kind of. It’s just that there’s no way the 2008 argument lives up to Wikipedia’s ‘notability’ standards, so really my response doesn’t either!)

An alternative perspective: literary traditions

Up to this point things are looking pretty negative. We’ve got Apollo, we’ve maybe got a kind of parallel to Paris (but with the Greek version of his name), and that’s about it. We have lots of possibilities but not much that is at all definite. What positive things can we say?

Things look very different if we stop agonising over historical events, with the question framed as ‘Was Homer based on fact?’, and instead ask a more literary-mythological question: ‘What kinds of influence from Bronze Age Anatolia can we see in Homer?’ Evidence becomes clearer and looks a lot more pertinent, and things fall into place more simply.

Earlier this year a new book appeared by the hittitologist-hellenist Mary Bachvarova (with whom I had the good fortune to co-teach a course several years ago), From Hittite to Homer (2016). Bachvarova synthesises a lot of material concerning not just historical events of the Late Bronze Age, but more importantly poetic traditions. Homer is no historical record, but literary influence from Bronze Age Near Eastern material is beyond any possible doubt. Mycenaean Greece and the Hittite world were certainly in contact —
  • We have about two dozen Hittite documents referencing Ahhiyawa, including one letter from an Ahhiyawan king to a Hittite king;
  • Physical evidence of trade across the Aegean, mainly with Miletus in south-western Anatolia (which was actually an Ahhiyawan city for much of the Late Bronze Age), but also to some extent in the north-west, and even a Mycenaean sword blade in the Hittite capital (Cline makes a big thing of this);
  • In Hittite sources it’s easy to trace a story of ongoing Ahhiyawan meddling in western Anatolian politics: we’ve alluded already to Ahhiyawan collusion with the rebel warlord Piyamaradu, and a dispute of some kind over Troy.
In addition, Greek poetry and mythology show heavy influence from the Near East. The masterwork on this topic is M. L. West’s The East Face of Helicon (1997). Some elements include
  • Story structures like the Succession Myth. Greek: the Ouranos-Kronos-Zeus succession that we see in several Theogonies; Hurrian-Hittite: the Kumarbi cycle and the Song of Ullikummi; Phoenician: Sanchouniathon’s Phoenician history (perhaps: we have no Phoenician source, only a late Greek source); Ugaritic: the Baal cycle; Babylonian: the Enuma elish.
  • Stories revolving around a city being destroyed by a spectacular device, often with direct divine involvement. Greek: the Trojan War; Hurrian-Hittite: the Song of Release, about the destruction of Ebla; Hebrew: the sack of Jericho in Joshua 6; Egyptian: the Sack of Joppa.
  • Other genres and incidental features, like a god fighting a chaos/water-monster (Zeus vs. Typhoeus, Marduk vs. Tiamat, Baal vs. Yamm); many of the tropes of wisdom poetry (Greek: the Works and Days; Ugaritic/Hittite: the Instruction of Shube’awilum(?) to Zurranku(?); Sumerian: the Instructions of Shuruppak; etc.); parallels in the Hymn to Hermes to a Sumerian story about Lugalbanda.
Note that we’re not talking about direct imitations. Hesiod didn’t have a copy of the Enuma elish in front of him. Rather, we’re talking about traditions: literary and mythological genres and tropes which spread because of their common appeal.

Bachvarova’s new book is tailored more specifically than West’s, and looks at how this influence was filtered through Hurrian-Hittite culture in Anatolia. The result is very compelling in places (though I don’t share her eagerness to latch onto figures like Alaksandu).

The most compelling example of influence in the poetic tradition is the argument made by the great linguist Calvert Watkins that Wilusa — and here we had better stop taking it for granted that Wilusa is Troy — had a place in a Luvian poetic tradition. A Hittite tablet describing cult songs at the religious site of Istanuwa lists the opening lines of several cult songs in Luvian. One hymn-opening reads:
ahha-ta-ta alati awienta Wilusati
When they came from steep Wilusa
CTH 772.1 (= KBo 4.11)
(Bachvarova 2016: 21 reproduces Starke’s transliteration, which has some technical differences.)

The especially striking thing is that the phrase alati ... Wilusati ‘(from) steep Wilusa’ has an identical meaning to three phrases that appear in Homer: Ilios aipeinē ‘steep Ilios’, Priamoio polin ... aipēn ‘Priam’s steep city’, and Ilion aipy ‘steep Ilios’.

If there’s a catch, it’s that the parallel is solely semantic: there’s no possibility of a formula in a shared linguistic tradition. The phrasing is different, and Luvian ala- is unrelated to Homeric aipys and aipeinos. (On the other hand, it is fairly likely that ala- does appear in the Homeric word ēlibatos ‘(steep?)-stepping’, used of high rocks.)

The upshot is that it’s pretty much futile to look for historical events in Homer, but in terms of mythological or poetic traditions there is a kind of continuity — very very indirect perhaps, but still traceable — between Bronze Age Anatolia and Archaic Greece. That continuity is perhaps more visible in Hesiod than in Homer.

And it is very indirect. Homer shows barely any trace of effort towards making his Trojans Anatolian. Their names are nearly all Greek: Hector, Deiphobus, Aeneas, Polyxena, Lycaon, Poulydamas, Anchises, Cassandra, Agenor, and many others are all built out of Greek roots, like Alexandros. Only a handful have non-Greek origins: Priam, Paris, Dardanus, and Assaracus. (I leave aside Ilus, Tros, and Troilus, since they’re based on place-names.) Priamos and Paris both appear to come from a Luvian root pariya- ‘outstanding’, and the name Pariyamuwa is attested in Kizzuwatna, the region of Anatolia to the north of Cyprus.

But the overall picture is of a Near Eastern poetic substrate shifting in the course of adapation, and being gradually remodelled as the centuries pass. Anatolian names like Paris get sidelined in favour of characters who are wholly Greek inventions, like Hector and Aeneas. Something comparable happened to the demographics of the real Troy throughout the Dark Age (Aslan and Hnila 2015): Wilusans kept on living there after the end of Troy VIIa and throughout Troy VIIb1, continuing to make Anatolian styles of pottery, but in Troy VIIb2–3 there are increasing signs of migration from Thrace and Bulgaria.

Eventually, when the first signs of Greek settlement start to appear in the mid-700s BCE, there must have been quite an ethnic mix. They were no longer Hittites, Arzawans, Sehans, or Mirans: the Anatolian groups mentioned in Homer are Lelegians, Maeonians, Mysians, and Phrygians. The only Trojan allies to show continuity with any Bronze Age group are the Lycians, from southern Turkey.

However, this ethnic melting pot would be an ideal setting for a legend about an ethnic conflict.

It’d be strange to imagine a 7th century Greek wanting to preserve a 500-year-old Luvian story faithfully. But a story about an ethnic conflict, in a place recently colonised by Greeks, where Greeks were running up against a diverse and entrenched non-Greek population ...?

That’s the situation in the Iliad, and it’s the situation of 8th–7th century Troy. Sure, we can trace elements from Bronze Age Anatolia (and Phoenicia, too: that’s where the Greeks got their alphabet, and the Odyssey is much more interested in Phoenicians than in Anatolians). But the Greeks took this age-old material and made it their own. The Troy of the Iliad is first and foremost an 8th–7th century construct.


  • Aslan, C. C.; Hnila, P. 2015. ‘Migration and integration at Troy from the end of the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age.’ In: Stampolidis, N. Chr.; Maner, Ç.; Kopanias, K. (eds.). Nostoi. Indigenous culture, migration and integration in the Aegean islands and western Anatolia during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. Istanbul: Koç University Press. 185–209.
  • Bachvarova, M. 2016. From Hittite to Homer. The Anatolian background of ancient Greek epic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Beckman, G.; Bryce, T.; Cline, E. 2011. The Ahhiyawa texts. Atlanta: SBL (Writings from the Ancient World vol. 28).
  • Beekes, R. 2010. Etymological dictionary of Greek. Leiden: Brill.
  • Cline, E. H. 2014. 1177 B.C. The year civilization collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Gurney, O. R. 2002. ‘The authorship of the Tawagalawas letter.’ In: Taracha, P. (ed.). Silva Anatolica. Warsaw: Agade. 133–141.
Part 1. The consensus | Part 2. Homer | Part 3. Bronze Age evidence