Troy: Truth and Fiction

Roundup: Talking About History

Bill Eichenberger, in the Columbus Dispatch (May 9, 2004:

Let's get one thing straight: The Trojan horse is not mentioned in The Iliad and only alluded to in The Odyssey.

In fact, the bulk of the Trojan War -- which lasted 10 years -- isn't covered in Homer's epic poems.

Whether someone named Homer even wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey is open to debate.

So, in the upcoming film Troy, the words "based on" in reference to The Iliad are suspect.

"Loosely based on" or "barely based on" would be more fitting. (Homer does get a "writing credit," with the screenplay attributed to David Benioff.)

In any case, the movie -- classic or bomb? -- provides a good excuse to revisit Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Trojan War and Greek mythology.

The war took place, if it took place, roughly in 1250 B.C., half a century before Homer wrote The Iliad -- if he wrote it.

The Penguin Classics edition of The Iliad begins with a disclaimer: "The Greeks believed that The Iliad was composed by Homer. In our ignorance of the man, his life and his work, we are free to believe it or not. Received opinion dates him c. 700 B.C. and places him in Ionia."

The war was fought, according to Greek mythology, for the love of Helen, the world's most beautiful woman -- who was abducted by Paris of Troy from Menelaus, king of Sparta. (Whether Helen went willingly also is disputed.)

Agamemnon led the Greek forces; and Hector, the Trojan troops. Among the most famous warriors: Achilles and Odysseus.

The independent kings of Greece joined with Agamemnon and Menelaus and sailed to Troy, which they besieged. The war was eventually won by the Greeks, who sacked the city.

Historians have a more prosaic explanation for what caused the war: control of the Hellespont and trade in the region.

Which raises more questions: Did the city of Troy exist? Did a war occur?

The first excavator who searched for Troy -- thought to have been situated at the western entrance to the Hellespont in what has become northern Turkey -- was eccentric German businessman Heinrich Schliemann. He was followed by Wilhelm Dorpfeld, then Carl Blegen.

The three dug at the presumed site of Troy between 1870 and 1938.

Schliemann was so certain he had discovered Troy that he once exclaimed of a gold mask uncovered at the site, "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon!"

According to the authors of The Lost World of the Aegean, "Scholars now agree that Homer's Iliad deals with real events, but, because it was handed down through generations of bards, the facts have been badly garbled and romanticized."

Whether Troy existed is the wrong question, said Bruce Heiden, an associate professor of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University.

"There may have been a real city called Troy," he said, "but, if so, its relationship to the Troy of The Iliad was something like the relationship between the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the cartoon cathedral in Disney's Hunchback.

"The Iliad is a story about the past, but it's certainly not a believable story about the past in the sense that a historian would find it believable. Only a fool would go to Notre Dame and ask to see the bells that Quasimodo rang."

Would he describe the Schliemann search as quixotic?

"Quixotic isn't the right word," Heiden said. "Don Quixote looked at a real windmill and imagined adventures. But Schliemann took a fabulous story and imagined it was something you could find. He reduced the mythical to the parameters of the natural.

"Imagine if Schliemann had gone searching for Mount Olympus instead. You'd have said he was crazy."

Roman historian Herodotus also was skeptical of the Trojan War stories.

He insisted, for instance, that Helen (the "face that launched a thousand ships," according to Christopher Marlowe) couldn't have caused the conflict.

For starters, the Egyptians claimed they had banished Paris after demanding that he relinquish everything he had stolen from Sparta -- including his beautiful abductee.

Had "Helen been in Troy," Herodotus concluded, "she would certainly have been surrendered to the Greeks whether Paris liked it or not."

Isn't that just like a historian? Trying to make the impractical seem practical, he takes all the magic and majesty out of one of the greatest works of Western civilization.

"The Iliad and The Odyssey," Heiden said, "are mythical poems, absolutely fascinating and profound poems."

What about that horse?

"If you only read The Iliad," he said, "you'd never know there was a Trojan horse."

Some critics view the horse as a metaphor for earthquake damage, said Joseph Tebben, a professor of Greek and Latin on the Newark Campus of Ohio State University.

Poseidon, god of the sea and creator of horses, watched the war from a mountain, according to Homer.

"Those two images, of a violent cataclysm and of horses," Tebben sai

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Capri Marraudino - 11/29/2009

In recent years archeologists have found evidence to support the theory that there is some truth to Homers work and have done research to back this up. One of the most significant findings supports Homers description of animal sacrifices, which until recently most archeologists assumed Homer had been mistaken in his description. “But one collection ‘stood out like a sore thumb,’ Halstead says. ‘They were almost exclusively cow, almost exclusively femurs, humeruses, and mandibles, and all burnt.’ The parts were carefully filleted of their meat but their marrow was left intact—something no one cooking for mere mortals would have done. The burn marks weren't uneven in the way of meaty bones burned on a cooking fire or buried underneath a burning palace. They were uniform, as if the entire bone surface had been exposed to the flames at once. To Halstead the bones looked exactly like the remains of a burnt sacrifice. These burnt bones could have come smoking from the beach at Pylos on the morning that Telemachus stepped ashore.” (Fleischman, 2002) This discovery helps put more credence to Homers writing and his description of what happened during that time.
What we have to remember when we read Homer’s writings is that he may have embellished facts and details to make a better story, as do most writers and film makers when retelling a true story. The exact facts are usually never as exciting and can be rather boring, so having that thought in mind can help us understand all the embellishments like sons and daughters of gods living among normal people and the elaborate Helen drama. “Myths are not just the legends resembling History. They also address—among other things—philosophical and religious dimensions that cannot be apprehended in factual ways. The narrative of past events (including the details of social and political life with its rituals and superstitions) are interwoven with a theology and a cosmogony, with emotional and ethical valuations, and with moral and ontological issues. The myths have physical and metaphysical sides. And it is not an easy task to remove divine presence from the tales of mythology: the heroic action develops in front of a divine background.”
(Parado & Forlag, 1997) Everyone elaberates their stories to make them more interesting and add other details whether it be to get a lesson across or help the listener understand the thinking of the people in that time period. In Ancient Greece, the gods were part of an average citizens life, they worshiped them, sacrificed to them, and belived in them why wouldn’t they believe that they may have lived among them as well.

Krishna s Kumar - 11/14/2004

In iliad homers describes the war has taken place for a long period of 10yrs.

It may be a fact. considering supplies of food, drinks shelters and other sanitation facilities . Food may come
from Greece or some other near ally country to the troy.
But even though it is very difficult to digest that fact
"Homer Describes"---sheep and animals died of plague.

They can take the water from the river but even that will polluted by continue use.

but in many ways the iliad portrays human behaviour in the war and y they included in the list of animals......

Iliad describes , the nature of human mind with many faces like ---
Achilles in his anchor of lossing his friend,Patroclus, he killed the Troy Warrior Hector to avenge,abuse the body with little humanity knowing that it will lead into his own death.

Casta Flaugher - 6/2/2004

Well, upon further examination of the records it now appears that the whole thing is apocryphal. Schliemann never uttered or wrote those words.

Casta Flaugher - 5/25/2004

Your write: "Schliemann was so certain he had discovered Troy that he once exclaimed of a gold mask uncovered at the site, "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon!"

Schliemann discovered the mask in question, a funerary mask, not at Troy but at MYCENE (Mykene) in Greece. He began digging there after more or less giving up on Troy. He wrote of the discovery to the then king of Greece (his name escapes me), and that is when he made that emotional statement.