Issues of Historicity
in The Iliad and The Odyssey
Homer and his poetry, specifically
The Iliad and The Odyssey, remain subjects of considerable discussion and debate. The literary nature and occasional historical details of the poems lend the works to the scrutiny of a
number of academic disciplines. Given the inherent characteristics of the two
works, it is reasonable and indeed, necessary, to subject the poetry and its (often) subtle historical detail, to an analysis
designed to reveal historical validity. In doing so, historical elements of the
poems may be expounded upon and examined for genuine historicity.
Several aspects of the
two works should be included in the historical analysis. First, the oral tradition
that Homer drew on should be treated. Secondly, archaeological data from Mycenaean
and western Anatolian sites must be examined in light of details in the poems. Lastly,
conclusions should be drawn on the grounds of the historical analysis.
Historian M. I. Finley
noted that The Iliad was not a contemporary work. Homer’s tone is
one of reflection and nostalgia. The poet looked back in time. The Iliad, then, was literary composition that presented a picture of Greece’s
ancient past (Finley, 1954:36). Hence, the work lends itself to at least some
degree of historical examination.
A careful assessment of
the bardic tradition of Dark Age Greece provides a beginning
for the historical analysis. The bards related stories and epic songs about myths
to the general populace. They recited and sang these stories, which were subject
to slight changes and improvisations during the course of their delivery. This
device often resulted in elements being repeated in various places. Certainly
the Homeric poems are fanciful in many ways, as they are works of literature (Bryce, 1998:394). However, they also contain historical aspects. The myths in
the epics comprised all knowledge about heroes and gods from a previous age: an
age both mythical and remote (Lang, 1906:84). Homer in particular, is looking
back to a preceding age (Nilsson, 1968:1).
Persons living at the time
of the bards (and Homer as well) believed the myths to be true. They apportioned
them the value of history. These stories were events that took place in the past. Hence, the oral tradition of pre-historic Greece
prompts one to consider that due to the fact that mythology, in connection with the oral tradition, was history to the Greeks,
poems such as The Iliad and The Odyssey ought to be seriously examined for historical content and validity.
One of the problems plaguing
the historian is the frequent vagueness of historical detail in The Iliad and The Odyssey. These obscurities are due in large part to the fact that as the author, Homer assumed his readers would
have been familiar with the smallest details of his works (Jebb, 1905:56). Therefore,
he would logically have had no reason to expand on these elements, such as Agamemnon receiving a breastplate from the king
of Cyprus, or Priam offering Achilles a Thracian cup (Jebb,
The science of archaeology
has given insight into the historicity of the Homeric poems. Where details in
the poems are obscure, or external written records are absent, archaeological data have been of great import to the historian. The task of dealing with the historical value of the Homeric poems is made less daunting
with the aid of archaeological interpretations. Both Mycenaean and Anatolian
sites have yielded artifacts and features that strengthen some historical arguments for the poems, and weaken others.
Heinrich Schliemann was
the archaeologist who excavated the site of Troy, on the mound of Hissarlik, in
Turkey (Bryce, 1998:393).
His work, in addition to that of archaeologist Frank Calvert, was the foundation for historical verification of the
possibility of a Trojan War. Carl Blegen continued Schliemann’s work and
revealed further evidence for a historical Troy.
Blegen also discovered and excavated King Nestor’s Palace in 1939 (Frost, 1997:3). In many ways, Schliemann and
Blegen demonstrated the historicity of the Homeric poems archaeologically (Finley, 1954:37).
The Trojan War, as recounted
in The Iliad and The Odyssey, was paramount subject matter. Homer’s
literary indulgences aside, there are elements from archaeological and textual analyses that further support the historical
validity of a conflict between Greeks from the mainland and a Trojan coalition. Although
Homer’s description of the hostilities between the two Mediterranean powers is not exactly congruent with archaeological
findings, it is a starting point (Finley, 1954:186).
There are several things
that are important in archaeologically and historically associating Troy with
Mycenae. Level VI of the excavations
at Troy reveals pottery remains that indicate contact between Mycenae
and Troy (Bryce, 1998:396). Hittite
sources recovered elsewhere in Anatolia make mention of names and places that are linguistically similar
to Greek renderings of names and places Homer recounts. Scholar Emil Forrer claimed
to have found references to two vassal kingdoms in western Anatolia in the letters of Tudhaliya I: Wilusiya and Taruisa (Bryce, 1998:394).
He interpreted these as the Hittite renderings of Ilios and Troy, respectively. Forrer also found reference to the king of the Ahhiyawa, which Forrer took to be the Hittite spelling for Achaea (Akhuoi)—ancient
Mycenae (Bryce, 1998:394). Among the other names that resonated with personages
of the Homeric poems were Alaksandu
(Alexander Paris) and Pariya-muwa or Piyamiradu (Priam) (Bryce, 1998:395). Forrer’s conclusions gave further credibility
to the notion of a historical Troy, and relations between Troy and Mycenae.
Forrer also examined another document that contained further evidence for a Trojan War.
He studied the Manapa-Tarhimda letter and found that it gave the location of Walusiya. Manapa-Tarhimda
was the ruler of a vassal state of the Hittite Empire in western Anatolia called the Seha River Land. The ruler mentioned that Wilusiya suffered a number of attacks during the thirteenth century. Manapa-Tarhimda stated that Wilusiya
was indeed in the northwest corner or Anatolia (Bryce, 1998:395).
Political relations between
Mycenae and western Anatolia began to deteriorate sometime
in the thirteenth century B.C. There is some evidence that lends credence to
the notion that the Mycenaeans took part in a series of successive raids between 1250 and 1200 B.C. that partly destroyed
Troy (Pomeroy et al, 1999:37). According
to M. I. Finley, it is possible that war broke out between the two powers due to economic reasons. Plausible reasons include fishing rights and merchant ship passage in the Hellespont,
and access to copper resources (Finley, 1954:397-98).
The archaeological record
attests to the fact that some force destroyed Troy in the thirteenth century. Blegen contested that Troy VIIa was Homer’s Troy, and that its earliest destruction
was 1200 B.C. (Bryce, 1998:398) However, Troy VIIa appears to have been a relatively
poor community; not at all like the description of Troy in the Homeric poems (Finley, 1954:168). Troy VIh reveals occupation that is consistent with the Troy
that Priam ruled (Bryce, 1998:398) Given the evidence, it is likely that Troy
VIh was Homer’s Troy, instead of Troy VIIa.
finds have both confirmed certain details of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and refuted others. For instance, with regard to supportive data, the boar-tusked helmets that Homer mentions in The Iliad
were verifiable military equipment in use in Mycenae (Finley, 1954:176-77). Also, the fact that Agamemnon was the head of the Mycenaean coalition is also supported
(Finley, 1954:185). Archaeologists have also found broaches similar to the one
Odysseus used to fasten his cloak (Nilsson, 1968:123-24).
Conversely, there are some
aspects of Mycenaeans in the Homeric poems that are not confirmed by archaeology. In
the Homeric poems, the slain heroes are burned on pyres. This practice is inconsistent
with shaft burial customs of the Mycenaeans (Lang, 1906:86). Furthermore, Homer
stated that warriors utilized leather shields coated with bronze. Again, there
seems to be no evidence for this shield design in Mycenaean excavations (Lang, 1906:109-10).
Despite the debate, The
Iliad and The Odyssey retain an amount of historical accuracy. Granted,
Homer did take license in the process of composing his works. He was a poet and
wrote as a poet recalling an earlier time. Obviously, there are details about
that earlier time that Homer described correctly, such as the historical kingdoms of Troy
and Ilios. However, he did obscure, and in some cases, misrepresent traits of
various themes and persons, such as the practice of burning a body on a funeral pyre.
The most convincing evidence
for a conflict between Troy and Mycenae
in the thirteenth century is the work of Emil Forrer. His correlation of Hittite
records and place names in the Homeric poems was innovative. The linguistic similarities
that he illustrated, such as Wilusiya
being the Hittite rendering of Ilios, are quite compelling. Forrer’s work
on the Manapa-Tarhimda letter, naming the location of Wilusiya, is equally compelling. The presence of a contemporary written record,
in this case, the Hittite letters, and the names contained therein, present a strong argument for the aforementioned conflict.
With regard to the Trojan War itself, it seems more plausible that the Trojan War was actually a series of engagements,
given the gradual decline in Aegean economy that was occurring. The occupants
of Troy VIIa were left very poor, perceptibly from the battles. Evidence for
several raids in the archaeological record of Troy supports the notion of a number of Trojan
Wars, as opposed to one single war (Pomeroy, et al, 1999:37).
The Iliad and The
Odyssey are first and foremost, poetry. However, as illustrated herein, they
do have a good deal of historical merit. The nature of the oral tradition of
Dark Age Greece and archaeology illuminate the subject of
the historicity of the Homeric poems. They help scholars to fill in the gaps
of the historical record. Homer looked back into history to a previous time whose
nature, in some respects, still eludes the historical record. Homer was a poet
who preserved much of Greek myth and legend for his audiences, and managed to create a piece of art that preserved something
of their history as well (albeit inaccurate in some areas). Percy Bysse Shelley
observed that every good historian is a poet. As in the case of Homer,
it can be said that the reverse is not always true—that every good poet is a historian—but he did give substantial
material of an undeniably historical nature.