Originally published in Slingshot issue 304, January February 2016, the Journal of the Society of Ancients
In Antiquity most Greeks thought the Trojan War was fought in the 13th or 12th century BC and that Homer’s Iliad presented the finest account of the action. Today, an increasing number of historians assume that the war did not take place at all. If it did, it would have probably been between 1190 and 1180 BC, in the same period in which a wave of destruction hit the major centres on the Greek mainland, Anatolia, the Levant and the shores of Egypt.
The Iliad is written mainly in the Ionic Greek of around 750 BC. Though this epic poem was recorded more than four centuries after the Trojan War occurred, its author(s) appear(s) to be remarkably well-informed about some Bronze Age details and the way Troy looked like. This information is corroborated by abundant Bronze Age documents and evidence found in Assyria, Canaan, Egypt, Anatolia and Mesopotamia, as well as by recent discoveries that have helped to pinpoint the arms and armour described by Homer to the era of the Trojan War. Nevertheless, as Nic Fields aptly states in his interesting book Mycenaean Citadels, taking Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a source for eleventh century Scottish history would rather miss the point of the play, and the same goes for Homer’s epic.
The Iliad only deals with a fifty-one day episode in the tenth year of the war. More precisely, with the quarrel between two Greek leaders, commander-in-chief Agamemnon and the hero Achilles over the slave-girl Briseis. From the way Homer moves straight into his story after the briefest of introductions, it is clear that he assumes his audience to be familiar with the event. And indeed, there were several other sources on this war, such as the Epic Cycle, a series of poems on early Greece composed between the eighth and sixth centuries BC. Six of these poems narrate the parts of the Trojan War that are missing both from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Unfortunately, only a few quotations and some brief summaries of the Epic Cycle survive today.
The reason for the Trojan War is unknown and no accounts on the conflict have been found in Hittite or other contemporary records. Perhaps the sack of Troy was remembered because it was the last feat of arms of the Mycenaean world, before it disintegrated itself. And maybe we should be speaking of the Trojan Wars, since Homer’s epic is most likely a compressed story of the many raids that the Mycenaean Greeks carried out in Anatolia. This may also explain why the Iliad describes the war as a siege that lasted ten years, an unlikely long period for such an undertaking in the Late Bronze Age. It probably is just a poetic image for a protracted conflict that lasted much longer. Whatever the truth is, as the Trojan War took place in a period of general upheaval, it is important to view the event in a much wider context.
Migrations of the Sea Peoples
Soon after 1300 BC the Mediterranean witnessed large-scale migrations of various seaborne tribes in in southern and easterly direction. These roaming and marauding “Sea Peoples” were not a new phenomenon, as is sometimes thought. Their earliest appearance dates back to the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1391 – 1353 BC). These raiders from the sea may have been the Sherden/Shardana (from Sardinia?), who also repeatedly raided the mouths of the Nile a century later during the reigns of Ramses II (r.1279-1213 BC) and his successor Merenptah (r. 1213–1203 B.C.).
Amidst the general upheaval and destruction caused by invasions around 1200 BC, 47 cities between Greece, Troy and Gaza were violently destroyed and often left unoccupied thereafter. Very likely the causes were a combination of both human and natural events: climate change, drought, famine, seismic disasters, internal rebellions and systems collapse, not dissimilar to events occurring in the world of today.
Archaeologists increasingly recognise that the dramatic cultural disruption and transformation around 1200 BC was a large-scale phenomenon, extending from the Atlantic coast of North-west Europe to the shores of the South-east Mediterranean. Studies in climate patterns through tree rings and pollen deposits, as well as the examination of fluctuation in growth phases in European peat-bogs and lake levels, indicate that there was a climate crisis in Europe and the Aegean world at the time. This may have triggered the movement of peoples from the Hungarian plain into Thrace, and thence into the Aegean. Climate change or drought could be linked with the depopulation of Messenia and central Anatolia.
It is in this period that Hittite King Tudhaliyas IV (r. 1237-1209 BC) sent an urgent letter to the king of Ugarit in western Syria, north of modern Lebanon, demanding a ship and crew for the transport of 450 tons of grain. The letter ends by stating that the demand was a matter of life or death. Also Egyptian Pharaoh Merenptah refers to grain shipments sent to the Hittite king “to keep alive the land of Hatti.”
Food supplies, however, were not Tudhaliyas’ only problem. Sources point to continuing social unrest among the Hittites and to acts of outright defiance by vassal states. Around 1180 BC public buildings and the fortress in the capital Hattusas were burned down. As private residences were spared, this may point to internal revolt rather than external enemies. An indication for this may be that the royal family had left the city prior to the wave of destruction, taking all its possessions.
Eventually, facing trouble from all sides, the Hittite Kingdom vanished from historical records.
Records left by Pharaoh Ramses III (r. 1186-55 BC) tell of the utter havoc the Sea Peoples were causing in Anatolia, Carchemish and Cyprus. The documents speak of a conspiracy of the confederacy of the Peleset, Tjekker, Shekelesh, Danuna and Weshesh. Though the Sea Peoples moved in large numbers, the migrations of the Sea Peoples were not of the same dimensions as the Great Migrations after the Fall of Rome. This transpires from detailed Egyptian figures for casualties among the Sea Peoples during their raids. The records of Merenptah’s battle in c. 1210 BC list c. 8,500 enemy casualties and 9,500 prisoners, including women and children. A generation later, Ramses III records 12,000 killed in a first battle and over 2,000 killed and 2,000 captured six years later. For the attack in c. 1180 BC there are no figures, but Wood assumes that a fighting force of 10,000 with women, children and non-combatants is realistic.
|Egyptian impression of Sherden warriors|
Nevertheless, these were big armies for the time. By way of comparison, Mycenaean kingdoms like Pylos or Tiryns with estimated populations of 60,000 can only have had a military force of 2,000 to 3,000 men at most for offensive expeditionary campaigns.
The invasions were not merely military operations, but involved the movements of large groups of people seeking new lands to settle. This situation is confirmed by the Medinet Habu temple reliefs which show that the Peleset and Tjekker warriors who fought in the land battle against Ramses III accompanied by women and children loaded in ox-wagons.
Though Egypt was eventually victorious over the Sea Peoples in 1177 BC, it had to pay a high price. Its power and influence had much diminished and Egypt became a mere shadow of what it once had been. The influential civilisations in the Aegean and Near East that were still flourishing in 1225 BC had begun to vanish by 1177 BC and would be almost completely gone by 1130 BC.
Vikings of the Mediterranean
Quite unlike the non-Greek Minoans, whose society mainly benefited from trade, Mycenaean civilisation was dominated by a warrior aristocracy, whose advancement was based on conquest. Unlike Knossos and the other Bronze Age palaces of Crete, which were wide open to the surrounding countryside, the Greek citadels were sited on strong hilltop locations and massively fortified with cyclopean walls. The walls of Mycenae itself were seven to eight meters thick and are thought to have stood ten to twelve metres in height. Tiryns was the earliest of all Mycenaean citadels and the archetype on which the others were modelled.
An exception is Pylos, whose royal residence was more like a palace than a citadel and which was not fortified between 1300-1190 BC, though it appears to have been fortified before. Instead, the city-state had 800 sentinels stationed at its borders along the coast as well as inland. Maybe Pylos’ authority in Messenia was unchallenged at the time.
|Mycenaean warriors 1150 BC|
Between 1400 and 1200 BC the Mycenaeans virtually were the Vikings of the Mediterranean. In Near Eastern texts of the thirteenth century small groups of predating chieftains and their personal warbands appear at many places. What they could not get through trade, they would endeavour to obtain by raids. Linear B tablets found at Pylos show that the Mycenaeans were involved in armed forays on the shores of western Anatolia to capture women and children, implying that the men were killed by the predatory warbands. If we can trust Homer, it was a warlord’s greatest claim to glory if he obtained the title “sacker of cities” (πτολíπoρθος / ptolíporthos).
Shortly after the devastating eruption of the marine volcano of Thera (modern Santorini) in c. 1450 BC, the Mycenaean Greeks had settled in Crete and taken over the Minoan international trade routes to Egypt and the Near East. In a next step they took possession of the southwestern Aegean islands and the city of Miletos (Millawanda or Milawata in Hittite), a former Cretan colony on the west coast of Anatolia, named after Milatos in Crete. Considering its size, it may well be that Miletos was used as the capital of Ahhiyawa, as the Hittites called the Achaean kingdom in Anatolia. From here, the Greeks drove eastward into Lycia and across the sea to Cyprus, which in the texts of Ugarit would come to be called Yadanana –Isle of the Danaans/Δαναοί, as the Mycenaeans of the Peloponnese were called.
It is in this warlike period that the immense fortifications were built at Mycenae, Tiryns, Gla and Athens, as well as at scores of lesser sites. Also, elaborate precautions were taken to ensure the water-supply by tunnelling into the rock under the citadel walls. At Athens, where the remains of a massive defence wall from this period still survive on the Acropolis entrance, another deep cistern was dug. Elsewhere on the Greek mainland huge forts were built in isolated places, serving as frontier defence works against hostile invaders from the sea.
The Greeks in Greece
From the above, it will have become clear that the raiders of Troy were not the Classical Greeks of Homer’s time. They were Achaeans (Ahhiya, Αχαιοί) and Danaans (Δαναοί), who had settled continental Greece and the Peloponnese at around 2000 BC. Homer uses the names of these tribes when he refers to the Greek warriors, together with Argives (literally “inhabitants of Argos” in the Peloponnese) and, occasionally, Hellenes.
In the Late Bronze Age (1600-1150 BC), these tribes dominated Greece with a series of warrior kingdoms, of which the most important were Mycenae, Thebes, Tiryns and Pylos. In Hittite and Egyptian sources they are referred to as Dan(una) and Denyen, or Tanaju. Like Homer, contemporary Bronze Age Linear B documents refer to the Greek army as a collection of warrior chiefs rather than as the impersonal institution of later Greek texts . Hittite records refer to Greece collectively as Ahhiyawa, the land of the Achaeans. This reference includes the Achaean kingdom in Anatolia, which may indicate that the Greek states were an alliance, most probably headed by the king of Mycenae, which would concur with Homer’s epic of the Trojan War.
|A Greek megaron house|
Mycenaean society, originally based on agriculture and livestock rather than manufacturing, crafts and trade, was organised as a rigid bureaucracy (hence the many Linear B tablets) with a detailed division of administrative competences. At the head of this society was the wa-na-ka/wanax, with all powers centred on himself. He was aided by the la-wa-ge-tas, the leader of the host (lawos) and probably the commander of the army. The followers of the king were the he-qe-tai (companions), who made up the ranks of the rulers and who constituted the military elite. The ko-re-tai was a sort of advisory body for enforcing the law of the land, while the qa-si-reu (cf. basileus, the later Greek word for “king”) was a kind of feudal lord.
After the collapse of the Minoan kingdom around 1400 BC, the Mycenaeans used their sea power in the Mediterranean world to make the exploitation of trade, craftsmanship and manufacturing a top priority.
The Greeks in Anatolia
In Hittite texts the land of Troy (Τροία, Troia) is referred to as Wilusa. The first reference is from the reign of the Hittite king Tudhaliyas I (r. 1420-1400 BC) in connection with a campaign against Assuwa, a kingdom with 21 vassal states in western Anatolia. Among these vassals was Wilusa; the city of Troy proper was called (W)Ilion /(W)Ilios.
According to the Hittite annals of the first half of the 14th century BC, an Ahhiya ruler called Attarissiyas in Hittite – maybe Atreus in Greek, like Agamemnon’s father – repeatedly attacked Madduwattas, a Hittite vassal in southwest Anatolia. The political relations between Greece and Anatolia at the time appear to have been rather intricate. Nestor of Pylos, who relied on a fleet with over 600 oarsmen, also ruled over Crete and was a vassal of both Mycenae and the West-Anatolian kingdom of Arzawa. Why the king of Arzawa also was the overlord of Crete is unclear, but this may have resulted from Minoan traditions. These were abruptly put to an end when the Argolid Mycenaeans burned down the palace of Knossos in c. 1350 BC and introduced megaron houses and standard types of pottery all over the island. Some historians think that Mycenaean troops invaded Crete to subdue the Greeks from Pylos, who to their taste had become too prosperous and independent of the mainland.
In the late 1300s Mycenaeans stirred up rebels in western Anatolia against the Hittite overlords. To curtail Greek ambitions in Anatolia, the Hittite king Mursilis II razed Millawanda/Miletos to the ground in 1318 BC. This can be found in Hittite annals and is corroborated by an archaeologically detected destruction layer.
In the first half of the thirteenth century BC Wilusa became involved in a major crisis, when an Arzawan rebel named Piyamaradu raided Hittite territory. This rebel was apparently backed by the king of Ahhiyawa, which in this case refers to the Greek territories in Anatolia. This Greek king was Tawagalawa, or *Etewoklewēs in Late Bronze Greek, better known in its classical Greek form Eteocles. Supported by the Greeks the rebel now attacked Wilusa, forcing its king Alaksandu (cf. Alexandros/Paris of the Iliad) to ask for help from the Hittites.
When the rebel also attacked and defeated the king of Arzawa, Hittite armies came to the west. After this intervention, Wilusa became a vassal of the Hittites. The treaty, which was concluded before 1272 BC, survives in no less than six copies; the terms were guaranteed by a Trojan god named Apaliunas (Apollo).
In c. 1220 BC, another king of Ahhiyawa is reported of being involved in an anti-Hittite uprising in western Anatolia. As a reaction, the Hittite king Thudaliyas IV (r. 1237-1209 BC) ordered a ban on traffic between Ahhiyawa and Assyria via the harbours of Amurru (in modern Lebanon and northwest Syria). By 1200 BC the Mycenaeans had lost their Anatolian bridgehead in the region of Miletos and started to dwindle as a regional power.
Developments in mainland Greece
In c.1250 BC, a first wave of destruction was witnessed in various centres of mainland Greece for reasons that cannot be identified. These incidents may have prompted the massive strengthening and expansion of the fortifications in various sites after that date. In some cases, subterranean passages were created which led to underground cisterns. Tiryns, Midea and Athens expanded their defences with new cyclopean-style walls. The extension programme in Mycenae almost doubled the fortified area of the citadel. Part of this extension was the impressive Lion Gate, the main entrance into the Mycenaean acropolis.
Archaeologists have discovered that around 1200 BC Tiryns was destroyed by an unusually violent earthquake. This earthquake probably also led to the destruction of Mycenae, only 17 km away. These and other Greek cities were probably hit by a so-called “earthquake storm”, in which a seismic fault kept “unzipping”, unleashing a series of earthquakes over decades until all the pressure along the vault had been released. At least nineteen bodies of people crushed beneath fallen stones have been found.
|Reconstruction of the Mycenaean citadel|
When the earthquake had destroyed all larger buildings in Tiryns, the survivors hastily built small temporary houses. Between 1190 and 1150 BC the town swelled and its inhabitants reorganised themselves, starting to build insulae and north-south streets. Apparently, the rebuilt city flourished in this period and must have had more inhabitants than the older city destroyed by the earthquake. After 1050 BC the population in this area probably fell by half. Similar decreases of population have been observed in Messenia and Laconia by 1200 BC.
Until recently these large-scale destructions were associated with the invasion of the Dorians. It is now believed, however, that the Greek-speaking Dorians entered Greece long after those events had transpired.
In his “Mycenaean Civilisation” Kontorlis postulates that the large-scale destructions in Greece between 1225 and 1180 BC result from internal conflicts between the Mycenaean states. Others suggest that there may have been social clashes between the underprivileged strata of society and the ruling classes, and that the Mycenaean cities were not looted by foreign raiders but by their own (starving) populace. In this context, Schwartz (“Darkness descends”) suggests that the new fortification walls built fifty years earlier were meant to keep out the peasants, not invading hordes; archaeology shows that life continued in the lower towns of these cities, whereas the residences of the ruling classes, the palaces and citadels, were destroyed.
Apart from the major centres of Mycenaean culture on the Greek mainland mentioned above, a similar fate was in store for many of the citadels of Anatolia, Cyprus, Canaan and Mesopotamia. Egypt weathered the storm, but it felt its force nonetheless. Earthquakes appeared to have played an important role, but they were probably not the only source of trouble.
(Part 2 deals with Troy and the Greek and Trojan armies)
Sources and further reading
- Ancient Warfare (AW) magazine Vol IV, issue 4 – Darkness descends: End of the Bronze Age Empires
- Mark Schwartz – Darkness descends, pp. 6-9
- Josho Brouwers – Palace Warriors, pp. 13-19
- Duncan Campbell – Homes for heroes, pp. 22-2
- D’Amato, Raffaele & Andrea Salimbeti – The war of the eighth year, pp. 27-33
- Binsbergen, Wim M.J. van and Fred C. Woudhuizen, Ethnicity in Mediterranean Protohistory, BAR International Series 2256, Archaeopress, Publishers of British Archaeology Reports, Oxford 2011
- Bryce, Trevor – The Kingdom of the Hittites, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1998
- Bryce, Trevor – The Trojans and their neighbours, Routledge, London and New York, 2006
- Bryce, Trevor – Hittite Warrior, Warrior Series no. 120, Osprey Publishing Oxford 2007
- Cline, Eric H. – 1177 BC the year civilisation collapsed, Princeton University Press, Woodstock UK 2014
- D’Amato, Raffaele & Andrea Salimbeti – Sea Peoples of the Bronze Age Mediterranean c. 1400 BC – 1000 BC, Elite Series no. 204, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2015
- D’Amato, Raffaele & Andrea Salimbeti – Bronze Age Greek Warrior 1600 – 1100 BC, Warrior Series no. 153, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2011
- Desperta Ferro Antigua y Medieval no. 30 – La Guerra de Troya
- Thomas G. Palaima – La Grecia micénica, una sociedad marcada por la guera (pp. 20/5)
- Dan Howard – El armament micénico, Características y evolución (pp. 32/8)
- Jordi Vidal – Arqueología de Troya (pp. 40/5)
- Easton, Donald F, The Wooden Horse: some possible Bronze Age Origins, in Luwian and Hittite Studies presented to J. David Hawkins on the occasion of his 70th birthday, (pp. 50-63), Institute of Archaeology Tel Aviv University, 2010
- Fields, Nic – Troy c. 1700 – 1250 BC, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2004
- Fields, Nic – Mycenaean Citadels c. 1350 – 1200 BC, Fortress Series no. 22, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2004
- Grguric, Nicolas – The Mycenaeans c. 1650 – 1100 BC, Elite Series no. 130, Osprey Publishing, Oxford 2005
- Jung, Reinhard and Manfred Bietak – Pharaos, Swords and Sea Peoples, AHL, issues 26-27, 2007/spring 2008
- Kontorlis, Konstantinos P., Mycenaean Civilisation, J. Makris SA, Athens 1974
- Koui, M., P. Papandreopoulos et al. – Study of Bronze Age copper-based swords of type Naue II and spearheads from Greece and Albania, Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol 6 no. 1, pp 49-59, Athens 2006
- Luce, J.V. – Homer and the Homeric Age, Evanston, New York -San Francisco-London 1975
- Mellink, Machteld J., Troy and the Trojan War: A Symposium Held at Bryn Mawr College, October 1984
- Hans G. Güterbock – Troy in Hittite texts? Wilusa, Ahhiyawa, and Hittite history (pp. 33-44)
- Manfred Korfmann – Troy: topography and navigation (pp. 1-16)
- Calvert Watkins – The language of the Trojans (pp. 45 – 62)
- Emily D.T. Vermeule – “Priam’s Castle Blazing” (pp. 77-92)
- Molloy, Barry – The Origins of Plate Armour in the Aegean and Europe, TALANTA XLIV (2012), pp. 273-294
- Panagiotopoulos, Diamantis – Foreigners in Egypt in the Time of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, in E.H. Cline and D. O’Connor, A New Biography, Ann Arbor 2006 (pp. 370-412)
- Peatfield, Alan et al. – 1200 BC, War, Climate Change & Cultural Catastrophe – Abstracts, UCD School of Archaeology
- Roebuck, Carl – The World of Ancient Times, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1966
- Strauss, Barry – THE TROJAN WAR, A New History, Arrow Books, London 2008
- Waterson, Patrick – The Trojan war – Moved!, Slingshot 292, pp. 37-40
- Willcock, Malcolm M. – A Companion to the Iliad, The University of Chicago Press, London 1976
- Woudhuizen, Fred C. – The Ethnicity of the Sea Peoples, PhD thesis for Rotterdam University, 2006
- Wood, Michael – In search of the Trojan War, BBC Books, London 1985