Hungry as a Hostage: Homer and the Trojan War

The Trojan War was a quasi-historical war that took place during the dark ages of Greece. It was documented in a variety of works some of which are attributed to the poet an ancient poet who history knows very little about. However, these are works of literature rather than actual historical evidence, and works of literature are typically poor sources of historical documentation. Be that as it may, Homer’s recounting of the Trojan War in his two masterpieces, the Iliad and the Odyssey, has prompted countless people to find their own ways to bring ancient history for themselves and others.

The Trojan War has two histories: the mythical war and the actual, historical war. The mythical Trojan War is a romantic tale of heroes and gods working together to defeat an undefeatable enemy; it is the war for the most beautiful woman ever. Helen, the wife of the Spartan King Menelaus, was kidnapped by Prince Paris and taken back to Troy with him. In response to this offence, King Menelaus along with his Greek allies went to war with Troy. This war lasted for ten years. But the city of Troy was impenetrable. In the end, the Greeks hid inside a giant wooden horse made from their old discarded ships.  Once the horse was inside the walls of the city, the Greeks sprung out and burned the city of Troy. However, the historical record of Trojan War is much harder to quantify. In fact, there is widespread debate about whether or not the Trojan War actually took place.

According to Michael Wood, the author of In Search of the Trojan War, “In the ancient world it was the almost uniform belief that the Trojan War was an historical event… But then as now, everyone knew that there was no primary source for the war” (Michael Wood, 26). Even in ancient times, they knew the war took place even if the stories about the war were completely untrue. To find actual evidence of the Trojan War, one has to look to the records kept by other contemporary civilizations. Herodotus, a historian that lived in the fifth century BCE, was the first in a long line of historians looking to the historical records of other civilizations to try to find documented proof of the Trojan War. According to Wood, Herodotus went to Egyptian priests asking for their records of the war (Wood, 27). But the search for outside sources did not end with Herodotus. In 1924, a Hittitologist named Emil Forrer when searching through ancient Hittite records came across references to Greece, Troy, and Prince Paris of Troy. However, in 1932, his discoveries were questioned by Ferdinand Sommer who found fault with many of Forrer’s conclusions (Wood, 175). Not only did historians comb through ancient records of other civilizations, but also some historians were out looking for actual physical remains of the war. In 1865, Frank Calvert uncovered the remains of an ancient city that is believed to be the city of Troy (Wood, 45). Although it is tempting to just assume that all of these discoveries add up to definitive proof of the historical existence Trojan War, all of the work done to uncover the truth about the war has only just shown that it could have happened.

The problem was that the Trojan War was said to have taken place within the Greek Dark Ages from 1150- 750 BCE, a time when written language had died out in Greece (Barry Strauss, xiii). Before 1150 BCE, there had been a crude written form of communication used by the Greeks known as Linear B. It was used to keep catalogue of stores and other crude types of communications, but it went out of use for about four hundred years before the Greek alphabet was created (Wood, 111). Unfortunately, the Trojan War occurred during this period between forms of written communication. So without writing or definitive archaeological evidence of the war there could be no historical record, and with no Greek historical records one would have to look elsewhere to find evidence of the Trojan War.

Since the search for the historical proof of the Trojan War seems to lead to a dead end, one must consider the historical significance of the legend itself. Through the centuries, the legend of the Trojan War has piqued people’s imagination and inspired thousands if not millions of people to make their own little mark on the tale, and Homer, the author of the most renowned and respected writings of the tale, is among them. The Trojan War was supposes to have taken place five hundred years before Homer’s lifetime, and it is believed that the story was part of an oral tradition of storytelling. There is a debate among historians as to whether or not Homer actually wrote these stories. Because the tale was around long so before his birth, there was likely a great many tales about the war circulating around the ancient Greek world, and all Homer needed to do was collect the best of these tales and weave them together into a cohesive story. And even then, Homer did not write down the stories himself; he too was part of the tradition of oral poets, and Homer’s stories were thought to have been written down by others that enjoyed the tales centuries after his death. Still others are not even sure that Homer even existed as an individual. Some Historians believe that Homer was just a collective pseudonym for a group of oral poets that circulated similar stories. Plus, the name Homer is very close to the ancient Greek word ‘homeros’ which means hostage, and according to Wood, this is one of the reasons that lead some historians to believe that Homer did not exist. And if Homer either only compiled the stories of others or if he did not exist all together, the internal inconsistencies of the Iliad and the Odyssey could better be explained. However convincing any of the theories on the origins of these stories may have become, the reality is that all the answers have been lost to time (Wood, 123-144).

But even a work of literature (with all of its embellishments, corruptions, and inconsistencies) brings to light the philosophies of the age in which it was written. A great work of literature can put the reader in the shoes of the average citizen of the society in which the story was written, and the Homer’s epics can definitely have the reader see life through the eyes of the ancients. An ancient work of literature is living, breathing embodiment of history. And the more one can envision the society that he or she is studying, the more one will be prompted to learn about it. Even if the story of the Trojan War was never more than the fanciful imagination of a hostage to history, the world is still the richer for it.

Bibliography

Strauss, Barry. The Trojan War. New York, New York: Simon and Shuster, 2006.

Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. New York, New York: Nal Pinguin Inc., 1987.

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