Thousands of years after Homer first made reference to the Trojan horse in a short passage of The Odyssey, an Italian archaeologist now claims that the mythical wooden creation was actually a boat, according to reports appearing this month in Italian media. Francesco Tiboni, a naval archaeologist at the University of Marseille, published an article in Archaeologia Viva claiming that the story of the Trojan Horse was nothing more than a mistranslation of one key word in Homer.
The horse, best known from a late version in the Aeneid of Virgil, is first recorded in Homer’s Odyssey, where it is alluded to in two places:
What endurance too, and what courage he displayed within the wooden horse, wherein all the bravest of the Argives were lying in wait to bring death and destruction upon the Trojans. (4.271f.)
It is fair enough to dismiss post-Homeric stories as later developments, but the allusions in Homer show that the story was already familiar enough by 750 BCE that he could allude to it and expect his listeners to know the tale.
According to Tiboni, the horse was not hippos, the Greek word for “horse,” but hippos, a Phoenician term for a type of warship with a curving prow. This is based ultimately on a retrofitted legend recorded by Pliny the Elder, who in Natural History 7.57 wrote that “Hippus, the Tyrian, was the first who invented merchant-ships.” Hippus was, likely, the back-formed eponym of a type of boat called in Greek (but not necessarily Phoenician) the hippos, the first true plank-built cargo ship, and one long associated with Phoenicia. In academic literature, a curved Phoenician trading vessel is usually called a “hippos ship,” but it is not, to my knowledge, a Phoenician term. It’s a Greek one, because the ship’s curving prow resembled the curves of a horse’s head. It seems to be the general consensus that such a name is of Archaic or Classical origin and does not extend back to the Bronze Age. Whether it was in common use in Homer’s day is unknown to me, though an image of one on the Balawat Gates c. 850 BCE shows that the type of ship existed at the time, regardless of what it was called. The ships are believed to derive from those of the Sea Peoples, which are depicted in Egyptian art from around 1160 BCE in the mortuary temple of Ramses III in a clearly related but somewhat different form. No record of the Mycenaean word for those ships exists, and our Greek evidence is primarily late, notably Strabo (3.3.4), so the argument must remain speculative.
"From the lexicographic perspective, it appears evident that the appearance of the horse resulted from a translation error, an inaccuracy in the choice of the corresponding term, which, by actually altering the meaning of the original word, led to the distortion of the entire event,” Tiboni wrote, in my translation.
Since Tiboni’s argument is not yet available in English, I will present a bit more of his claim in translation from excerpts appearing in Italian news reports, beginning with his argument that by rewriting the Odyssey with the horse as a ship, we can revise the mythic story into a historical one:
"If, in actuality, we examine the Homeric texts, reintroducing the original meaning of ‘ship’—certainly known to his contemporaries—not only does it fail to change the meaning of the story in any way, but the [Greeks’] deception tends to take on a less surreal dimension. It is certainly more likely that a vessel of great dimensions could conceal soldiers inside, and that they could exit rapidly from doors which are clearly visible on the hull and are in no way suspicious to the eyes of the beholder.”
Now, I would take issue with Tiboni’s claim, since the story of the Trojan horse has both a literal and a symbolic meaning. His claim would preserve the literal meaning, provided that we assume that the boat was also meant as a votive statue and not an actual functional merchant vessel, but destroys the symbolic meaning. The horse was the symbol of Poseidon, and the emblem of Troy, and it is for that reason that the Trojans accepted it as a symbolic gesture of goodwill. By rendering it into a boat, there is no longer as much of a symbolic level to the story. Tiboni counters that the hippos ship was originally used to carry treasure and thus could be remembered in myth as a divine votive after the old Phoenician term fell out of common use. But since the change makes no difference to the story, since a boat can be the shape of a votive offering as easily as a horse, there is little advantage to choosing this option except that Tiboni studies ships professionally and would prefer to see them everywhere.
Homer knew the maritime issue perfectly, so much so that he left us a great deal of information on the construction technology of ancient ships. [...] However, the very ease with which he used technical language led the post-Homeric poets to whom his works were handed down to be led astray by some of his passages. For Homer, talking about a ‘hippos’ was equivalent to indicating the Phoenician ship of this type. For his epigones, lacking knowledge of maritime things, it became a true horse. The underdevelopment – for it lay far in the future – of naval archeology, understood as the ability to analyze the various sources available to scholars for the recognition and study of the types of ancient ships, could have resolved this centuries-long equivocation, which, today, naval archeology can finally resolve.
The argument stands or falls, basically, on whether (a) the Greeks called a Phoenician merchant ship a “horse boat” in Homer’s day, c. 750 BCE, and (b) whether the Greeks forgot this for 600 or 700 years until Strabo remembered it again. I can’t answer (a), but (b) is so self-evidently wrong that it knocks a pillar out of Tiboni’s train of logic in claiming that the post-Homeric poets had never heard of hippos (hippoi) ships, despite the fact that Homer supposedly knew of them before these poets, and the Hellenistic writers knew of them afterward.
The claim is not impossible, but neither is it convincing given the number of problems that have to be resolved in order to make it work.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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