THE BATTLE OVER TROY
As a distinguished scholar shifts the site of the Trojan War from Turkey to Greece, Luke Slattery weighs the archeological and literary evidence
About 6km inland from Turkey’s Aegean coast stands a pile of ancient masonry believed to be the site of legendary Troy. An outsized Trojan horse — very Disney — rears beside it. A few broken doric columns lend a classical air. And tour guides explain how at this stronghold, more than 1000 years before the birth of Christ, the Trojan champion Hector fought the Greek superhero Achilles in a war over a faithless beauty named Helen.
Now one of Germany’s most distinguished ancient historians, Frank Kolb, is challenging this article of faith with claims that the Trojan War was fought not in Turkey but in mainland Greece. Kolb, a professor at Tubingen University, is out to deflate the popular belief in a real Trojan War fought at the archeological site identified with Troy since the German amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating there — the locals call it Hisarlik hill — in the 1870s.
Kolb, an expert in the ancient history of western Turkey, argues in the next issue of Talanta, journal of the Dutch Archeological and Historical Society, that the legend of the Trojan War was formed in Greece before migrating between the 11th and the 8th centuries BC to Turkey, or Asia Minor as it was then called. “Together with the Trojan legend, the names of persons, settlements and tribes were transported into that region, which thus became a kind of lookalike of central Greece,” he writes.
The Trojan War story is told in The Iliad, an epic poem written around 700BC. The work, composed by a reputedly blind bard named Homer, is the distillation of an even more venerable body of myth preserved in the aspic of formulaic verse. Homer was the first epic poet in Western literature. Some scholars believe the Greek alphabet was developed to bear his work. Little, though, is known about him.
Throughout its 2700-year lifespan The Iliad has been many things. It tells of the rage of one warrior, Achilles, and its consequences. Of the sorrows, and the splendours, of war. And the necessity — the democracy — of death. These days it is often read as a clash-of-civilisations tale pitting the Greek West against the Oriental East. Kolb’s essay, titled Phantom Trojans at the Dardanelles, suggests the clash at the heart of the poem is Greek-on-Greek. Achilles’ famous duel with Hector, he claims, cannot have been staged on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Instead, it “reflects a war between neighbouring tribes in central Greece”.
Ilios is Homer’s preferred name — a Greek name — and The Iliad is, by definition, “the story of Ilios”. The word Troy, which relates to the surrounding region — the Troad — is used less frequently and never explicitly to name the settlement. And yet it is Troy, and not Ilios, to which our culture has the deeper attachment.
The idea that the Trojan War was really a kind of Hellenic war that shook itself from its moorings, drifted east across the Aegean, and washed up in Turkey, will likely cause a stir. Athens will be delighted to reclaim its foundational epic from the hands of its Turkish antagonist; Ankara will be nettled.
Turkey is deeply attached to the idea that the Trojan champion Hector, whom many readers of Homer see as the poem’s real hero, was one of its own. In 2009, a 5m statue of Hector was erected near Canakkale, the jumping-off point for tours of the World War I battlefields of the nearby Dardanelles as well as the archeological site of Troy. In that year the local mayor, Alaaddin Ozkurnaz, told the Anatolia news agency: “It is very important for us to have a permanent marble work of art about Hector, an Anatolian who we embrace as one of our own.”
Kolb, however, argues that the name Hector has no Anatolian, or Turkish, roots. But it does turn up in Mycenaean Linear B tablets, which preserve the earliest form of written Greek, along with other names of important Trojan figures in The Iliad. In fact, Kolb writes, in The Iliad “the large majority of the personnel on the Trojan side bear Greek names”. Homer’s Greek heroes, such as Achilles and Ajax, are also mentioned on the clay Linear B tablets. “There is, however, nothing heroic about their role in the Mycenaean world,” Kolb adds. “They appear as servants, artisans or administrative functionaries in Mycenaean palaces.”
Anchises is another name powerfully connected with the Trojan War. He was the lucky Trojan who got to sleep with the love goddess Aphrodite. She bore him a son, Aeneas, who fought valiantly for his home town. Aeneas escaped from the ruins of Troy, after the quintessential Greek ruse of the Trojan Horse, to found Rome. That story is told in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, a Latin sequel to The Iliad. However, as Kolb points out, Anchises was also a famous Greek aristocrat in the Greek Peloponnese.
This might explain why Greek place names, such as Thebe, turn up in Homer’s Trojan world. Another example is Larissa, which in The Iliad is inhabited by a tribe loyal to the Trojans. But Larissa also happens to have been a city in ancient Thessaly, now northern Greece. The Leleges and the Pelasgoi, groups that Homer places near Troy — the poet has rampaging Achilles destroy their cities — were in reality inhabitants Greece. In Homer’s time the Aegean coast of Asia Minor was land rich for the taking. Migrants set out for these shores by boat (much like today’s refugees) in search of a new life. Homer was, in all likelihood, part of this migration. His poetic language is a fusion of two Greek dialects, Ionian and Aeolian, both of them used by immigrant Greeks to the eastern Aegean. And he has clearly, in composing his story, braided together heroic tales from different regions of Greece and Asia Minor. But one thing, Kolb argues, is certain: there were never any Trojans at this place. There were Dardanians, and they gave their name to the Dardanelles; but the Trojans, he believes, are a Homeric invention.
Homer is the original dead white male and The Iliad is the taproot of Western civilisation.
northern The poem was glamorous in antiquity — it was the “milk” on which Athenian boys were raised. And its glamour — its allure — has never dimmed.
When the British poet Patrick Shaw Stewart, who fought at Gallipoli during World War I, gazed across the Dardanelles to the ruins Schliemann had exposed less than half a century earlier, he spied there a god of war and comrade in arms. The Homeric hero Achilles chose immortal death over a long, yet forgotten, life. And it was to him that the poet penned these heart-wrenching lines: Was it so hard, Achilles, So very hard to die? Though knewest, and I know not — So much the happier am I. So I will go back this morning From Imbros over the sea; Stand in the trench, Achilles, Flame-capped, and shout for me.
In the past 12 months two new translations of The Iliad have appeared between hard covers, while a live-relay reading by some of the finest actors of the British stage — including Simon Russell Beale, Simon Callow, Sinead Cusack, Ben Whishaw and Samuel West — was broadcast in August last year to a global audience. The professors, meanwhile, are at odds over the poem’s precise relationship to the ruins in Tur-