March 25, 2016

The Battle Over Troy


Historian Frank Kolb shifts Trojan War from Turkey to Greece

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 TheIliad 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 of central and northern 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. 

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 Turkey. Homer is the Western canon’s version of antimatter: Homeric problems are drawn to the void; few Homeric solutions emerge.

Until relatively recently the scholarly consensus held that Homer’s verses were mere myth and the archeological site had little or no relationship to the text that is still read, studied and, increasingly, adapted for stage and screen. 

That began to change under the direction of the Manfred Korfmann, best known of the recent directors of excavation at Troy-Hisarlik.

Korfmann claimed in 2004 that Homer should be “taken seriously”. What is more, “his story of a military conflict between Greeks and the inhabitants of Troy is based on a memory of historical events — whatever these may have been”. Majority opinion in the English-speaking scholarly world — though not the European, specifically German, academic milieu — now supports him.

But the archeological site of Troy-Hisarlik is not, at first sight, amenable to his vision. He had to work hard to make it stick.

The site is made up of at least nine settlements built atop one another, much like a multi-level carpark, and it is the sixth and seventh layers, destroyed around 1200BC, that are most often identified with Homer’s Troy. The Greek, or Achaean, forces are led by Agamemnon, the lord of Mycenae — “king of kings” — and brother of the cuckolded Menelaus of Sparta, husband to the wayward beauty Helen.

Any later than 1200BC — the late Bronze Age — and there would have been no Greek attack on Troy, for the palace of Mycenae lay in ruins. However, in the century before its collapse, Mycenae certainly looked the part. Visitors to its remains, in the Greek Peloponnese, get that. With its Lion Gate, its riches of beaten gold and its massive walls of well-cut masonry — dubbed cyclopean because it was thought only a Cyclops could assemble them — powerful Mycenae lives up to Homeric expectations. But Troy — not so.

The believers maintain that here, within a tiny citadel, a wealthy Trojan kingdom withstood a siege by an armada of 1200 ships filled with the Greek world’s best fighting units. These included Achilles and his fearsome Myrmidons — Navy SEALS in shin greaves.

Homer’s Troy is rich in gold, with sumptuous halls and high-vaulted roofs. King Priam, who sired 50 sons and 12 daughters, ruled from a magnificent structure built wide with porches and colonnades of, in the poet’s words, “smooth, lustrous ashlar, linked in a line”. Not by any stretch of the imagination do the visible ruins match Homer’s wonders.

While Troy VI and VIIa fit the time frame of a possible Mycenean Greek attack, nothing else about them dovetails neatly with Homer. The former is the more impressive of the two settlements, yet it was destroyed by earthquake. The latter came to a violent end, but there are no Greek calling cards in the charred rubble: nothing definite to link the settlement’s end to a war bearing any resemblance to Homer’s.

The crux moment came when Korfmann presented archeological evidence of a much larger “lower city” at the site. A bigger Troy was more Troy-like. He proposed an ancient city 15 times larger than the undistinguished pile atop Hisarlik hill. This Troy would have housed up to 8000 souls.

Kolb argued against this view at the time. Korfmann was not only a compatriot of Kolb’s; both worked at Tubingen University. When Korfmann presented his conjectural recreation of Troy as an Anatolian power city, Kolb scorned him as the “Erich von Daniken of archeology”.

It was at this point that their stoush hit the English-speaking papers. In October 2002, The New York Times covered the contretemps in a report headlined: “Was Troy a metropolis? Homer isn’t talking”. The piece, which ping-ponged the arguments of Korfmann and Kolb back and forth, concluded inconclusively by asking whether Korfmann or Kolb would be Achilles the victor.

The debate about the “historicity” of Troy — the question of whether and to what extent Homer’s Trojan War has a grounding in reality — has since broadened into other fields. One of these is the wonderfully named discipline of epigraphy: the study of inscriptions. Much of the interest now revolves around whether cunei­form inscriptions from the Hittite empire — the reigning Anatolian superpower in 1200BC — shed any light. But there’s still no clincher. For each push from a believer, there is pushback from a sceptic.

Since Korfmann’s death in 2005, the intensity of the debate has subsided, but it continues nonetheless. And now the battle over Troy is to be revived, along fresh lines of attack, by Kolb’s Talanta piece.

If the success of an argument can be measured purely by the amount of modern statuary erected in support of it, then Korfmann, with the support of the Trojan Horse and the 5m-high Turkish Hector, must surely be the posthumous victor.

But the Greeks are pretty good at statuary, too. And who knows how they will respond to news that Hector is really a Hellene.

By Luke Slattery
With many thanks to The Australian

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