Swiss Geoarchaeologist Claims Lost Luwian Civilization Caused the Bronze Age Collapse and the Trojan War
What caused the Late Bronze Age collapse in the eastern Mediterranean? The question has vexed scholars for generations and led to a number of hypotheses. These tend to fall into a number of categories: environmental changes, climate change, and widespread failures of political and social institutions. Now a Swiss publicist and former geoarchaeologist has proposed a radical new explanation for the fall of cultures from Mycenaean Greece to the Hittite Empire and the Egyptian New Kingdom’s empire in Asia: The Luwians did it.
Eberhard Zangger’s ideas aren’t new, and they are founded on much less than meets the eye. It’s probably worth pointing out that Zangger got his start in the world of unusual claims as an Atlantis theorist, in 1992. At the time he proposed that Plato based his account of Atlantis on an Egyptian original, for reasons that were not especially convincing. His argument was that the Egyptians preserved an account of the Trojan War and this, in turn, became the basis for Plato’s narrative. To wit, Atlantis was none other than Troy, since both Atlantis and Troy went to war with Greece. Similarly, the various Atlantean incursions into the Mediterranean were distorted accounts of the Sea Peoples who were active during the Bronze Age collapse. Based on this, Zangger then back-formed a hypothesis that Troy had to have been much larger than the currently accepted archaeological site, complete with artificial harbors, all the better to match Plato’s account of Atlantis.
Logic is not Zangger’s strong suit. He is correct that the Atlantis story has intentional echoes of Homer, as well as the Near Eastern Flood myth, particularly in the last lines of the Critias, when Plato has Zeus plot to destroy Atlantis for their corruption and wickedness. But this doesn’t imply that the Atlantis story is a genuine recollection of said events, only that Plato was familiar with the Homeric poems and the mythic history of primordial times. Other Greek authors demonstrated as much; Apollonius of Rhodes intentionally modeled parts of the Argonautica on Homer, just as Homer himself drew on Greek and Near Eastern sources. Plato himself, in the Timaeus (22-23) and Critias (111b), acknowledges his familiarity with Near Eastern Flood myths. That he saw this Flood as occurring more or less as analogous to the destruction of Atlantis is evident from Plato’s mention in Laws (677a-b) that the Flood that wiped out all civilization had occurred a “myriad” of years before his time, which is literally 10,000 years but was used figuratively to refer to many thousands of years, or just a long time. There is nothing in Plato that could not have been derived from knowledge of Homer and the Flood myths current in his day.
Zangger has built his belief in the Atlantis-Troy connection into a wide-ranging hypothesis that Troy was the center of an empire, not just a city-state. The Trojans may have spoken a Luwian language (as the late Calvert Watkins proposed), so Zangger proposes that all of the speakers of Luwian in Anatolia were in league as part of a federation or empire that banded together to take down the Hittites, thus starting a chain of events that culminated in the Trojan War. This latter hypothesis forms the basis for Zangger’s new book The Luwian Civilization and the accompanying website.
Zangger blames academic dogma for the refusal of scholars to acknowledge that Luwian isn’t just a language but also a united culture. He claims that scholars believe the Luwians were nomadic, so they never searched for Luwian sites. “The absence of evidence for the existence of a remarkable civilization by no means invalidates the existence of such a thing. We simply do not know enough about the Luwians because there have not been enough large-scale, deep excavations to date.”
The question of whether the Luwians existed as a united people is an interesting one, but not one Zangger can solve using his evidence, for his evidence is faulty. The first thing I noticed when I visited his website is that he reconstructed the city of Troy not from Homer or even from other Greek sources but from Guido de Columnis, a medieval writer who based his accounts on corrupt Latin summaries of Homeric texts and their Roman elaborations. This wasn’t a good sign.
Worse, Zangger believes that Western scholars are dogmatically blinded by Homer to the exclusion of later texts that mention the Trojan War, ranging from Hellenistic Homeric fan fiction to medieval epics: “Apparently, not a single attempt has been made so far to compare the content of non-Homeric reports on Troy with the findings made during 140 years of excavations.” Why might this be? Oh, right: Because the non-Homeric accounts are many centuries younger and bear no evidence of containing genuine fragments of material from even the age of Homer, much less the Bronze Age. Homer, for example, contains references to Mycenaean weaponry and Mycenaean cities and social organization, while later texts lack even these small connections to prehistory.
Nevertheless, Zangger sees all of the various accounts of the Trojan War, from Homer down to the late Middle Ages, as containing genuine Bronze Age material which he can then selectively use to match Greek mythic history to his reconstruction of the Luwian civilization. To be fair, he does say more than once that he doesn’t accept ancient texts at face value and doesn’t consider them to be objectively accurate. That said, he reasons that if he can match part of the material from a text to archaeological evidence, he can then use the remainder of the text to fill in the story to explain the archaeological remains and assume the existence of other features not yet excavated or otherwise known to exist. To give an example: The Atlantis story isn’t literally true, he said in one of his earlier books, but if he can “match” some of Atlantis to the geography of Troy, then he can use Plato’s texts to conclude that Troy had artificial harbors like Atlantis.
He believes that the Antique forgery of the journal of Dictys Cretensis, surviving in Latin translation and fragments of the Greek original, preserves genuine Bronze Age information about Luwian instigation of the Trojan War. He similarly sees value in the Latin forgery of Dares Phrygius, another likely translation from the Greek. Both books are essentially Homeric fan fiction, composed in the waning days of Hellenistic Antiquity, for which there is no reason to suppose they contain genuine ancient knowledge. It’s not worth even discussing why Zangger would rely at all on medieval epics that simply retell the Latin version of the Illiad from Dares and Dictys.
The trouble with Zangger’s methodology is rather evident when he tries to justify his reliance on these texts. His two arguments are ridiculous. The first betrays his lack of familiarity with ancient literary traditions:
Homer is generally considered to have offered the Greek perspective of the conflict, while many of those non-Homeric Troy reports relayed a rather Troy-friendly version of events. During the Middle Ages, it was those stories that became popular and common knowledge, not the Homeric epics. They had a lasting impact on European thinking. For over a thousand years, aristocratic families, royal dynasties and entire nations traced their family lines back to Troy. Some historians have considered Troy “the common heritage of Europe” and “the idea of a genealogical relationship within Europe,” but these notions are not related to Homer, because during the peak of the European enthusiasm for Troy, Homer’s work had been neglected and was only known from hearsay.
This paragraph contains so many omissions that it’s hard to know where to start. First, Homer wasn’t neglected due to distrust of his reportage but rather because knowledge of Greek died out in the Latin West at the end of the Roman Empire, and the Greek classics disappeared, leaving the West with only a limited selection of Greek authors, among them Dares and Dictys, in Latin translation, and some (but not all) of the Latin writers. Due to this linguistic collapse Dares became not only the main source for the Trojan War but also one of the key sources for the story of Jason and the Argonauts. I deal with this in my book Jason and the Argonauts Through the Ages. The reason that “Troy-friendly” sources survived is not because the Latin West recognized Troy as the wellspring of civilization but for the simple reason that the Romans traced their lineage to Aeneas, a Trojan refugee and son of Venus. (The Romans knew they were not Greeks, so this was the next best thing, with the off chance that it is a very distant echo of the genetic origins of the Etruscans in Anatolia, though this was so long ago as to be unlikely.) Vergil’s Aeneid preserved a “Troy-friendly” narrative in order to glorify Augustus Caesar, descendant of Venus, and the West inherited this. No one can seriously propose a secret stream of Trojan knowledge without first dealing with the shadow of Roman propaganda—a shadow so long, incidentally, that in the Edda Snorri Sturluson identified the Norse gods as Trojan refugees to better tie the North to the broader Latin culture of the European South!
And this gets to the second of Zangger’s bad arguments about why we should accept these Late Antique and medieval texts as true: He believes that they are more accurate because they lack supernatural gods.
… the non-Homeric sources contain virtually no mythology. It is Homer’s account in which the gods determine the course of history. The poet even claimed to know what gods talked about in conversations. How did he find out? Precisely for these reasons, Homer was considered non-authentic, at least until the Enlightenment. Homer had not been around at the time of the Trojan War, and he claimed that gods intervened in human affairs. Both these considerations made his work seem unreliable.
But a medieval guy who copied from a guy who copied from a guy who was writing fan fiction? Totally reliable! More seriously, the difficulty is that Zangger doesn’t grapple with the changing nature of literature and culture at the time that different sources were written. Later Greek sources contain fewer references to the gods because Greek historiography had become more secular in the wake of Herodotus and Euhemerus, and a separation had occurred between epic poetry, in which the divine played an active role in the human drama, and more earthbound prose literature in which humans took center stage. Such differences can be clearly seen in the difference between the epic versions of the Argonautica produced by Apollonius of Rhodes and Valerius Flaccus (both with prominent roles for the gods) and the quasi-historical versions recorded during the same period by Diodorus Siculus, Justin, and even Dares Phrygius (largely without gods). Medieval sources, it should go without saying, have no reason to imagine the Greek gods were real since they were written by Christians seeking to fit the Trojan War into a Christian chronographic and religious framework. References to divine agents in the Trojan War survived in the Latin text of Hyginus’ Fabulae down to 900, but even that was lost until its recovery in 1500. Some references to divine action at Troy occur in the so-called Vatican Mythographers of the early Middle Ages (e.g. First Vatican Mythographer 206), so the role of the gods was never entirely forgotten. Authors, as always, were selective in their emphasis and whether they were writing poetry or “history,” or in the pagan or Christian tradition.
But Dares Phrygius is a good example of why it’s wrong to consider a text “accurate” simply because it conforms to our secular bias. Dares’ account of Jason and the Argonauts at the start of his history of the Trojan War makes no mention of the gods and offers no supernatural account. Yet Dares doesn’t claim that such magical events didn’t happen. He even refers his readers to an account, which he endorses, that includes just that: “To describe those who set out with Jason is not our purpose: But he who wishes to know about them, let him read the Argonautica” (sec. 1, my trans.). Whether he was anachronistically referring to the Argonautica of Apollonius or Valerius is irrelevant; either one yields the same result. Dares, in particular, doesn’t refer to the gods because he (or rather the character the true author pretends to be Dares) didn’t witness the gods personally, a literary conceit. Latin sources in the West followed Dares and ignored the divine drama more frequently as belief in the gods waned. That doesn’t make Dares accurate or authentic, only coincidentally closer to our preferred bias toward “objective” history.
Zangger concludes that we should honor medieval and early modern “European thinking” and the preferences of antiquarians from before the Enlightenment, when the Trojan War was considered a real event and Latin sources were privileged over Greek ones, before those academics started privileging Greek sources and ancient material over familiar Latin classics. This point is the weirdest but perhaps the most telling. Behind Zangger’s elaborate Luwian fantasy there seems almost to be a quest to find the “real” and “true” Europe, the source that unites Latin and Teutonic, Eastern and Western, and proves, somehow, that all Europeans share a common culture and heritage.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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