The Trojan War remains one of the greatest stories from ancient times. Filled with strong warriors, heroes, epic battles, divine intervention, and a giant wooden horse, the Trojan War has been taken as a real historical event that happened thousands of years ago. However, because of the mythic stature of this story, historians and archaeologists alike have a tough time believing it actually happened. Here we present the evidence that both supports and undermines the actuality of the Trojan War.
Technically speaking, the Trojan War falls under the category of a myth. Myths typically involve the supernatural in the form of gods, monsters, and heroes. According to Ancient Greek mythology, Paris, the Trojan Prince, ran off with Helen, the wife of Menelaus (King of Sparta). Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon then led a Greek expedition against Troy to avenge his brother.
The Trojan War was said to have lasted for 10 years until the Greeks pretended to withdraw, leaving behind a large wooden horse. Concealed in this horse was a raiding party. When the Trojans brought the horse into their city, the hidden Greeks opened the gates to their Greek comrades waiting on the other side, who then sacked Troy and won the Trojan War.
The Trojan War is documented in many works of Greek literature, most notably in Homer’s Iliad. However, other parts of the conflict have been described in Ancient Greek epic poems that have survived in fragments.
Part of the Trojan War’s retelling in Greek literature is because the ancient Greeks absolutely believed the Trojan War had been a historical event in the past. In the 5th Century BCE, for example, Herodotus, the so-called “father of history,” dated the Trojan War to about 800 years before his own lifetime. Similarly, ancient Greek mathematician Eratosthenes came up with a much more specific date range, stating that the Trojan War took place sometime around 1184 BCE.
Thus, the Trojan War myth was passed down, generation to generation, because the ancient Greeks believed that their own ancestors took part in the conflict. The Trojan War continued to be held as a true, historical event for over one thousand years.
Is there any truth to the myth?
The site of Hisarlik, located in modern-day northwest Turkey, has been identified as the site of ancient Troy. Archaeological research shows that the site was inhabited for nearly 4,000 years, starting around 3000 BCE. This research also indicates that if a city was destroyed, a new city would be built on top of that site, creating a human-made mound known as a “tell.”
According to University of Amsterdam researcher Gert Jan van Wijngaarden, there are at least 10 Troys, lying in layers on top of each other.
Troy as a city took off after 2550 BCE, when the city was enlarged and fashioned with a massive defensive wall that has become immortalized in pop culture today. Classical writers such as Homer and Eratosthenes date the Trojan War to around 1200 BCE, and if one looks at the archaeological evidence, it might point to some sort of conflict happening in Troy around that time.
There is evidence to suggest that Troy VI suffered earthquake damage perhaps sometime in the early 1200s BCE, which most likely weakened its defenses. Furthermore, evidence from Troy VII suggests there was a fire that caused significant damage around 1190-1180 BCE.
This evidence of conflict matches the date range given to us by Homer. Still, it is important to remember that the ancient scholars who landed on these dates really had no concept of time in the same way we do. Instead, Homer and other scholars situated their epics in a vaguely defined “beforetime,” which was an age of heroes and gods.
Another piece of evidence that perhaps suggests a conflict in Troy is the archaeological finding of arrowheads on the Troy VII layer. The arrowheads found on this excavation layer could suggest some sort of conflict, especially because they match the time Homer suggested the Trojan War happened.
There are also inscriptions made by the ancient Hittites (an ancient civilization based in central Turkey) that depict a Trojan conflict. These inscriptions describe a dispute over Troy, which they knew as “Wilusa,” and “Ahhiyawa,” which could be a Hittisied version of the Greek name “Achaia” — a term associated with the Greeks in Homer.
Evidence against the Trojan War
Although there are a few tidbits of historical evidence supporting some sort of conflict in Troy, there is more evidence that goes against a Trojan War.
The first gaping hole is that there is no Greek or Mycenaean archaeological evidence to suggest the destruction of Troy. In fact, according to the legend, Troy was completely destroyed after the 10-year Trojan War, when in fact Troy continued to be inhabited until about 950 BCE.
Similarly, the evidence of fire in Troy VII does not necessarily indicate a violent war. There is concrete evidence present to tell archaeologists that the Hittites definitely did sack Troy around 1500-1400 BCE. If the Greeks truly were in a major conflict with the Trojans for 10 years and ended up sacking the city, one would think that similar evidence would be found in excavations.
Finally, the surviving Hittite inscriptions describe a conflict, but there is absolutely no mention of a military conflict between the Trojans and Greeks. In fact, the dispute seems to have been more of a diplomatic dispute than a military conflict.
The reality of the Trojan War
Of course, we will never truly know if a large-scale Trojan War truly happened in ancient times. However, looking at the archaeological evidence that has been found at the Troy site, it is more realistic to state that perhaps there were several armed conflicts around Troy at the end of the Late Bronze Age.
Homer’s accounts of the Trojan War have the potential to be based on real historical events. Until there is definitive evidence supporting or denying a major Greek–Trojan conflict, the Trojan War will continue to be retold over and over, helping the story to continue to live on for perhaps a thousand more years.