The question of the historicity of the Trojan War isn’t quite one of the world’s great mysteries, if only because the question is less about a yes-or-no answer and more about the degree to which the legend of the Trojan War reflects the known skirmishes between Mycenaean Greeks, Greek colonists on the coast of Asia Minor, the Hittites, and the people of the Troad. Rather than waste my time rewriting what I have written before, let me adapt a blog post I wrote in 2012 to discuss the myth encountered in this show that “everyone” believed the Trojan War to be a fiction and Troy to be a myth before Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy in the 1870s.
The question of whether the Trojan War ever happened was not one that concerned the ancients or the peoples of the Middle Ages. It was simply taken as a given by Greeks, Romans, and Christians alike. The Greeks favored the Greek side, and the Romans were sentimental about the Trojans, as were medieval Christians as far away as Scandinavia, but everyone agreed that the war had really happened. That’s why, for example, the Trojan War served as the historical and mythical origin of the Romans in the Aeneid and the Norse gods in Snorri Sturlson’s Edda.
Troy was occupied from 3000 BCE down to Homeric times, and the ancients had no doubt about its existence because it was still in existence. The site ceased to be occupied sometime after Homer likely composed, probably around 700 BCE. The Romans later built a new city atop the abandoned ruins, Troy having ceded its ancient name, Ilion, to the nearby Roman city of New Ilium. The claim that Troy was nothing but a myth was actually a modern invention, one generated by early modern critical history when early modern scholars were not able to find a physical site to pin to Homer’s poems, which were increasingly seen as fictional rather than historical. But the fact that the Trojan War had no historical support should not have translated into doubts about Troy’s physical existence since every other pre-Classical Greek epic was tied to a specific, and known, city, such as Corinth, Athens, Mycenae, Thebes, and Tiryns (said to be built by Cyclopes!).
Today, thanks largely to Martin Nilsson, we know that the ancient Greeks consistently associated mythic tales—fictional though they be—with actual geographic locations from the Mycenaean past, creating elaborate and interlocking (if fictional) histories for these cities. Atlantis fails this test because it plays no role in any mythic cycle and is never mentioned outside Plato and those dependent upon his text. Bronze Age cities were celebrated in epic poetry; Troy was one of these cities, but Atlantis was not.
Now, against this is the fact that a Scot, Charles Maclaren, actually did deduce the location of Troy in 1822, largely from the Homeric description. He even picked out the exact hill, called Hissarlik, where Calvert and Schliemann later excavated.
But he could do this only because Troy, like Athens, Mycenae, Pergamum, and other ancient sites, was and had always been real. It was only early modern scholars who had invented the fable that Troy was entirely fictional in a surfeit of skeptical zeal.
The story that Schliemann used Homer as a map to find Troy is a myth Schliemann himself was instrumental in creating. Instead, Schliemann, attempting to find Troy, searched many sites and turned up nothing (proving Homer’s directions weren’t that good) before another man, Frank Calvert, contacted him to tell him he had discovered Troy on his family’s land in Turkey. Calvert had done preliminary excavations in 1865 and was convinced the Bronze Age city of Troy buried beneath the Hellenistic and Archaic layers. Schliemann arrived in 1868, and immediately doubted the site was Homer’s Troy. Calvert eventually convinced him, and Schliemann took over the excavations in 1871. When he reported the results in 1875, he tried to bolster the credibility of his find by carefully relating it to Homer.
Today, scholars generally believe Troy VIIa to be the one described in Homer, and additional evidence from Hittite records referencing Homeric names like Wilusa (Ilion) and the name of Alaksandu (Alexander) suggest that the Homeric accounts reflect actual Bronze Age places and possibly events.
The question left to answer, and which archaeology and history are not yet able to demonstrate, is whether a single massive Trojan War between a coalition of Greeks and the Trojans occurred as described in myth. Many historians prefer to suggest that the Homeric story is a mythic reflection of a long series of battles and skirmishes during the Bronze Age Collapse of the early twelfth century BCE, but some argue for a larger and more contained war.
Megan Fox brushes these questions aside and simply claims that “we’ve been told” that Homer’s Iliad is simply the greatest piece of fiction ever written. She confidently claims that there are “historical facts” embedded in the story. She acts as though this were a revelation, but the existence of the wanax and the famous boar’s tusk helmet in Mycenaean contexts as well as in the Iliad shows that the Iliad drew on fragments of Bronze Age culture. Fox is basically and haphazardly retracing the footsteps of Martin Nilsson, whose Mycenaean Origins of Greek Mythology—published eight decades ago—demonstrated to Classical scholars that the Greek myths known from Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic times embed genuine fragments (and mostly just fragments) of Bronze Age culture. I can’t envision a world where she knows that this path has been trod before.
Fox visits the ruins of Troy and expresses shock that the Greeks accurately reported the geography of a city that was still in existence down to Roman times. She meets with archaeologist Eric Cline to explore Hittite archives and their references to Troy, the Achaeans (Greeks), and the conflicts between them. The Turkish government gave Fox special permission to see one of the Hittite tablets, which apparently is not available to anyone outside of Turkish academia, according to the show, but Fox goes a bit beyond the evidence in claiming that the King Alaksandu of the Hittite records was the Prince Alexander (Paris) of Homer. The existence of the same name speaks to both texts referring to the same culture, but there is no evidence that the same man was meant in both cases.
In the back half of the show, Fox continues her rather boring tour of Trojan War locations, including the spot traditionally identified as Achilles’ tomb, Beşiktepe. It’s not his tomb, though the Ancients celebrated the mound as though it were, much like the way Christians marked places in Jerusalem as sites of Christ’s stations of the cross, though several cannot be.
Fox sees a Luwian seal that bears the name of Troy, though it’s worth noting that the existence of a messenger’s seal does not translate to evidence of the Homeric Trojan War, despite the show’s insistence otherwise. After a commercial, the argument is restated in a more complex way, arguing that Troy was part of the alleged Luwian confederacy and therefore the Trojan War was a “world war” between the Luwians and the Mycenaean Greeks. This leads Fox to embrace the overstated hypothesis of “World War Zero” forwarded by the Eberhard Zangger and his team of Luwian extremists. I wrote about the problems with his views back in 2016. These include the acceptance of medieval evidence and a greatly overstated case for the Luwians as a unified culture. I should have known that Fox would stumble across them. It’s just not possible for her to explore even a straightforward topic without bringing something weird.
As the show ends, Fox receives the results of a survey the show undertook to hunt for Achilles’ grave. She suggests that a shelf-like structure in one burial mound indicates a Mycenaean beehive tomb but concedes that “anybody” could be in the tomb. She remains unshaken in her belief that Achilles really existed. Weirdly, she talks about “evidence” that Homer knew about real events, but declines to actually explore real evidence, such as the boar’s tusk helmet and the geographic evidence outline by Nilsson, that actually would strengthen her case for the accuracy of Homer.
She finishes by stating that the reality of the Trojan War means that we are justified in asking which other myths that “we’ve written off as fiction” are actually true. And so the show ends with a whimper instead of a bang and slinks off into the darkness with a logical fallacy and a bunch of unstated implications about grander and more outrageous hypotheses that neither Fox nor the Travel Channel intend to spend the time or the money to prove but hope you will believe anyway, as long as they remain profitable.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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