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Trojan War - Historic Reality ?

Trojan War

Masterpieces of Western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey describe events that would have occurred in 1200 BC. For a century, historians and archaeologists have questioned the reality of the famous conflict that, according to Homer, opposed the Greeks to the Trojans and that is commonly called the Trojan War.

The trick of Ulysses

At the origin of the struggle between the Greeks and the Trojans, we find a love story: Paris, one of the fifty sons of Priam, the king of Troy, kidnaps the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus, sovereign of Sparta. To avenge the honor of the latter, his brother Agamemnon unites a coalition of Greek - or Achaean - peoples and, at their head, comes to besiege Troy.

For ten years, at the foot of the walls of Troy, the Greek heroes - Achilles, Ulysses, Nestor, the two Ajax - multiply in vain the brilliant actions. The city resists. Ulysses, the most astute of the Greeks, imagines then a stratagem: he builds a gigantic wooden horse in which he hides warriors, while the other Greeks make mine to raise the siege. Without suspicion, the Trojans bring the statue into their walls. At nightfall, the concealed soldiers leave the flanks of the animal and open to their companions the gates of the city.

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The destruction of the city

For the Trojans, disarmed and immersed in sleep, resistance is impossible. While fires are burning throughout the city, the Greeks enter houses to ransack, plunder and massacre. The palace of Priam is invested: Cassandra, the king's daughter, is torn from the altar of Athena, where she has taken refuge, and becomes the booty of Agamemnon; his sister-in-law Andromache falls to the son of Achilles; the young Astyanax, son of Hector, grandson of Priam, is precipitated from the ramparts. The old King Priam, who, despite his great age, took up arms to resist the invader, is beheaded.

After the tumult and agony, silence falls on Troy. All that remains of the splendid capital of Troad is smoking ruins.

Historical reality

Greek historians of the fifth century BC - Herodotus, author of the Histories, and Thucydides, to whom we owe the Peloponnesian War - bring to the Homeric tradition historical and political explanations. For the first, the Trojans represent the eternal enemies of Greece, that is to say the Persians or Medes. The Trojan War would therefore be, according to the "father of history", a first median war. Thucydide's analysis is more political. For him, the conflict described by Homer symbolizes the first attempt to rally the Greeks for a conquest, in short a first form of Hellenic imperialism. The veracity of the poems is, in any case, not doubted by the ancients: the events they describe have in their eyes a historical reality.

From the end of Antiquity, the story of Troy is regarded as a legend rather than as the story of truthful events.

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The ruins of Troy

At the end of the nineteenth century, the German Heinrich Schliemann, passionate admirer of Greek literature, decided to prove that the Troy of Homeric narratives did indeed exist and experienced the tragic end described by Homer. He discovered only a small village, baptized by archaeologists named Troy VII according to the order of archaeological layers. The site dates from periods prior to the supposed ones of the war, and the vestiges show it so small and so poor that one does not understand why the Greeks would have raised such an army against it. Especially since excavations undertaken in Mycenae, the city of King Agamemnon, reveal, conversely, a large number of treasures. The hypothesis of a raid against Troy in order to bring back loot must be rejected.

The extension of Hellenic power

In 1953, on the other hand, a capital discovery opens the door to another interpretation of the Trojan War. That year, the deciphering of the writing of tablets found in the ruins of the palace of Knossos, in Crete, and in Pylos, in the Peloponnese, shows that it is the same language: a first form of Greek. This means that there has been an extension of Hellenic power. Thus, the hypothesis of a king of Mycenae powerful enough to form such a coalition and lead it so far can be historically grounded.

A great historian, Mr. I. Finley, has moved the debate forward in a decisive way. In his work The World of Ulysses, he states that it is neither in the Mycenaean world (thirteenth century) nor in that of the cities of the archaic period (eighth-sixth century) that we must seek inspiration or the Homeric model. The society described in the Iliad and in the Odyssey would be that of the dark ages of Greek history, the period that separates the fall of Mycenae from the birth of cities.

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A magnified event

Today's researchers go further and distinguish three levels of reading in Homeric texts. On the one hand, it is a poetic work of imagination that escapes historical interpretation. Then, Homer actually refers to mythical distant times, those of the golden age of Mycenaean power. But the details of the society he describes - this is the third level of reading possible - are those of his time. Thus, if a Hellenic expedition actually took place in Asia, it surely did not have the scale of the legendary Trojan War: but the scope and importance of the event were magnified thereafter. Perhaps precisely, as Thucydides said, because this enterprise was a common action of the Greeks against another people.

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