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Home » History » The Trojan War Myth: Fact and Fiction of Homer’s The Iliad

The Trojan War Myth: Fact and Fiction of Homer’s The Iliad

by Shelly Barclay

The Trojan War is an epic story. There are heroes, damsels, villains, gods, goddesses and kingdoms pitted against each other. Of course, given the period in which it was written, there is pettiness, revenge and the bdivine intervention. Everything from Paris’ bid for Helen to the defeat of Troy echoes with ancient god myths. This has led some to coin the term The Trojan War Myth in reference to the incredibility of the story. Indeed, most of the saga is likely fiction. Nonetheless, some truth may pepper the fictional accounts. Unfortunately, separating the truth from the fiction is a monumental task, considering the war itself is in question.

A Reading from Homer, Trojan War Myth

“A Reading from Homer,” Lawrence Alma-Tadema 1885. Public domain.

Homer’s “The Iliad” Tells the Trojan War Myth

The story of the Trojan War comes from Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. In it, the gods instigate a war between the Greeks and the Trojans that is further perpetuated by both kingdoms’ greed and bloodlust, however heroically portrayed. There are numerous characters in the story whose existence can be called into question.

See also: Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Historical Treasure in Ancient Egyptian Garbage

The main characters that take part in the Trojan War in some way are Helen of Troy — formerly, Helen of Sparta — Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, Paris, Hector and Odysseus. Odysseus, a soldier for the Greeks, is nearly certainly a creation of Homer. Reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey make this virtually inarguable. Helen is the wife of the Spartan King Menelaus. She is abducted by Paris to be his wife. Paris is a prince of Troy.

Characters of the Trojan War myth.

The main characters of the Trojan War myth in the Iliad. Source: Clipart.com, modified.

Troy itself may never have existed, making the existence of Paris and his brother Hector very questionable. Sparta did exist without a doubt. However, there is nothing earlier than the Iliad to suggest that Menelaus, his wife Helen and his brother Agamemnon existed. There is no King Menelaus in known Spartan history of the time. As for Achilles, he is a hero of the Greeks in the story, but there is nothing more than tales of his skill and bravery to support his existence. All of these characters are widely regarded as myth.

The Basis of Homer’s Tale

It must be noted that the Iliad was written sometime around the 8th or 9th century B.C.E. The Trojan War is generally thought to have occurred between 1194 and 1184 B.C.E., lasting the entire ten-year span. There is a distinct possibility that Homer was writing of a war that he learned of through oral history or from some text that is not available to modern researchers. Given the hundreds of years that passed, it is understandable that Homer would have to fill in all of the blanks.

It would be like someone writing about the American Revolution and only knowing that it took place in the United States and was fought between England and the United States. That is a short story. Homer did not write short stories. Furthermore, he did not write stories sans gods and goddesses. Therefore, if Homer did base his story on little known history, most of it would have to be fictional and can be regarded as such.

Story of the Trojan War

The Trojan War allegedly started with Paris’ kidnapping of Helen. She was brought back to Troy from Sparta, at which time Menelaus sought to have her returned by force. An army of Greeks set out to destroy Troy, but first attacked the wrong city. Later, the king of that city showed them the way to Troy. Once there, the Greeks demanded the return of Helen. King Priam of Troy refused. Over the next nine years, the Greeks fought Troy while destroying neighboring towns in order to cut the city off. Eventually, Achilles killed Hector, the Trojan hero of the war. Paris then killed Achilles, the Greek hero of the war. After all of this tragedy played out, Odysseus came up with a brilliant plan to take Troy.

trojan war

In the “Judgment of Paris,” Paris must judge three goddesses. He chooses Aphrodite because she will give him Helen, the most beautiful woman, and thus, the Trojan War will begin. Enrique Simonet, 1904.

The Famous Trojan Horse

The Greeks built a gigantic wooden horse and filled it with their own soldiers. They offered it to the Trojans as a sign of truce, though they never let on what was inside of the horse. They even had every other soldier and every Greek ship leave Troy to aid in the deception. Once the horse was inside the gates of Troy, the soldiers emerged from within the horse and took the city. They raped, pillaged and then burned Troy. The war itself and this destruction may be the only aspects of this myth that are true. There is no evidence of a Trojan horse. However, archaeologists have found what many believe is Troy. This does not prove that Homer’s story is true. However, it does show that it may have been based on a war that was already history by the time he wrote the Iliad.

Finding Troy

The suggested ruins of Troy were discovered in modern-day Turkey nearly 150 years ago by Heinrich Schliemann. Study of the rubble, which includes no less than nine cities, each built on top of the ruins of the one that came before it, shows that it matches the description of Troy and the neighboring area. This makes it the most logical candidate for Troy. The site is known as Hisarlik.

One of the nine cities is thought to be Homer’s Troy. The trouble is finding evidence that shows which of the nine layers it is. Archaeologists must find evidence of war. They could look for evidence of destruction by fire, but can we really trust Homer? That part may have been made up. It is more prudent for archaeologists to look for the traditional clues that a war took place. They may have even found it but nothing is conclusive thus far.

Sources:
Stanford, “The Trojan War,” retrieved 2/3/12, stanford.edu/-plomis/history.html (broken link).
National Geographic News, Lovgren, Stefan, “Is Troy True? The Evidence Behind Movie Myth,” retrieved 2/3/12.

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