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About Troy in England
The Trojan Kings of England
Lecture by Iman J. Wilkens to the 'Herodoteans',
Classical Society of the University of Cambridge, UK
26th May 1992
Added note: The lecture text is provided here as a backup alternative to emeritus Professor P. H. Damste's website in the event there is difficulty accessing his website through the internet. In the 2009 expanded and revised edition of the book Where Troy Once Stood the lecture text below has been slightly abridged and includes minor changes.
[Appendix 1 to 'Where Troy Once Stood by I. Wilkens, 2nd revised edition 1999, page 1 of 9]
Since classical antiquity, readers of Homer have been puzzled by the inconsistencies of the Greek geography as described in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Already Strabo and Eratosthenes had abandoned their efforts to make sense of Homer's geography in the Mediterranean. To mention only a few examples of the absurdities : when Odysseus had arrived in his native country Ithaca, which is supposed to be Thiaki near Greece's west coast, he at first made believe Athene that he had come as a passenger aboard a ship travelling from Crete to Sidon, present Saïda in Lebanon. But it is obvious to anyone that Thiaki is not on the way from Crete to Lebanon, but quite in the opposite direction.
As to Ithaca itself, it is described as the westernmost of a group of islands while it is also situated close to the mainland, with the tiny island of Asteris close by. As none of these descriptions and none of the other details mentioned by the poet correspond to the present island of Thiaki, or to any of the other islands in the region, the problem of identifying Homer's Ithaca has never been solved, despite the efforts of countless scholars. Most surprising is also the story where Agamemnon recounts that it took him a full month to sail from his kingdom Argos, taken to be in the northeastern Peloponnese, to Ithaca, when we know that in Greece the trip takes less than 24 hours. One may also wonder why the Achaeans built 1186 ships for their attack on Troy in Turkey as it would have been much cheaper, quicker and far more convenient to approach northwest Turkey overland via Thessaly.
What is more, they were clearly afraid to cross the sea, despite the fact that sailing in the Aegean is rather a question of 'island hopping' as one is seldom out of sight of the next island. But Iphigenia had to be offered to secure a fair wind and Menelaus even invoked the gods to show him the best course to sail from Lesbos to Euboea. But when he hears that his brother Agamemnon was assassinated by his wife, he apparently sees no particular difficulty in making the enormous detour to Egypt to build a burial mound for his dead brother in this country which, in fact, was ruled by the Pharaohs and certainly not by Agamemnon or any other Greek king.
If the Achaeans were afraid to cross the Aegean Sea, one also wonders why Paris, after the abduction of Helen, on his way from Greece to Turkey, would have made the enormous detour via Sidon in Lebanon to buy some embroidered cloth for her.
Another story that defies explanation is about a merchant sailing from Taphos with a cargo of iron to Temese, as it is impossible to identify these names with coastal cities or with any mining region in the Mediterranean, as many commentators have noticed.
We are also informed about a place with a very healthy climate called the island of Syria, situated about six days sailing north of Ortygia, which could not be identified either, apart from the fact that such a north-south distance is too great for the Mediterranean. One also wonders, for instance, how Menelaus' ship could drift from Cape Malea southwards to Crete in a storm blowing from the south !
The list of inconsistencies in Homer's geography is very long indeed and this is also true for the descriptions of the city of Troy and the Trojan plain. The ruins at Hissarlik in northwest Turkey, which Heinrich Schliemann took for those of Homer's Troy, despite the doubts expressed by the scientific community ever since, can hardly be those of the great capital 'with the wide streets' of Priam's kingdom, which, according to Homer, had a garrison of 50,000 warriors.
The ruins of Hissarlik are those of a very small village, about the size of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, but the layers VIIa and b, which correspond to the time of the Trojan War, are particularly poor hamlets. What is more, the so-called 'Treasure of Priam' was found in a layer that is about a millenium too old. The Trojan plain in Turkey is also far too small to contain all the rivers mentioned by Homer, or all the cities destroyed by Achilles. In fact this plain, which was even considerably smaller 3200 years ago, does not provide enough space for the installation of an invading army of about 100,000 men and still leave enough room for the long pursuits with the horse-drawn chariots. Since Homer speaks of the 'horse-taming Trojans' and of 'Troy rich in horses' one would expect archaeologists to have found many skeletons of horses, which is not the case.
Although the Trojan War was of great importance in Antiquity, neither Troy nor the war are mentioned in the thousands of claytablets with diplomatic correspondence of the Hittites living in Turkey at the time, although these tablets do mention for instance, the battle of Kadesh against the Pharaoh. The names of the famous commanders of the Trojan War are not mentioned either, nor those of the famous city of Athens nor the 'opulent' city of Mycenae, the capital of Agamemnon's kingdom, which in fact has never been more than a small village according to Thucydides. What is more troubling is that Mycenae had ceased to exist by the time the Trojan War was about to start. We must also ask ourselves the question whether it would take a great army ten years of efforts to conquer a hamlet !
For all these reasons and many others, the late Sir Moses Finley, Professor of Ancient History at University of Cambridge, concluded that 'we are confronted with this paradox that the more we know, the worse off we are' and he therefore suggested that 'Homer's Trojan War must be evicted from the history of the Greek Bronze Age'. As it seems difficult to disagree with his conclusion, we are, in my view, left with only two options : either the great Trojan War never took place in northwest Turkey and consequently, the Iliad is the fruit of pure imagination, or else, the war did take place, but in another country.
The first option must be discarded because it is very unlikely that a myth or any other work of pure imagination would go to such length to mention hundreds of geographical names, give precise descriptions of towns and ports, and indicate distances and even travel directions. In addition, the Iliad and the Odyssey describe many people in great detail, from their physical appearance to their character and often even their status, family ties and personal history. In our days we have of course the example of Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' but life in the Bronze Age was certainly too harsh for such a luxury !
Metric verse was used to pass on useful knowledge from one generation of illiterates to another, and if we agree that it is most unlikely that a myth would provide such a wealth of detail, we are left with the alternative option, namely that the war took place in another part of Europe.
The next question then arises, of course, where that could have been. At first sight, the problem is not a simple one, but Homer gives an initial indication through the description of the late Bronze Age culture of his time, which has so little in common with Mycenaean culture that a disappointed John Chadwick, who assisted Michael Ventris in deciphering the Linear B script, wrote an article entitled 'Homer, the Liar', thus adding insult to injury for the poet who was not only considered 'utterly ignorant of Greek geography' by Professor Murray, but also incapable of correctly describing the culture of his society. As it seems unlikely that a poet would be ignorant in both fields simultaneously, we have a strong argument to search elsewhere for the Trojan War.
The most important clue given by Homer is the cremation of Achilles, Patroclus and Hector, whose ashes were collected in golden urns. By contrast, in Bronze Age Mycenae, important people were buried with a golden mask, many of which have been found by Schliemann, such as the golden mask he attributed to Agamemnon, but which has turned out to be a century too old to have belonged to this king. But cremation was a typical Celtic custom that was not shared by other peoples in Europe at the time.
Another interesting clue given by Homer is the frequent indication of oceanic tides, as tides are insignificant in the Mediterranean. Already Strabo wrote that 'Homer was not unfamiliar with tides and that for this reason several of the places described by the poet should be sought in the Atlantic Ocean'. These combined indications given by Homer therefore suggest that his epics related to Celts living on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. However, this suggestion raises a number of serious problems and questions which must be dealt with before arriving at any firm conclusions.
The first question is : were there already Celts living in Western Europe in the late Bronze Age, around 1200BC ? Although urnfields dating from this period have been found in England and on the Continent, we know the Celts only through archaeological finds dating from the Iron Age, starting around 800BC but we have no trace of their existence in the second millenium BC. Fortunately, Homer provides another indication to help us out by mentioning in passing the 'very famous ' Galatea. But precisely because she was so famous in his time, the poet obviously did not need to elaborate, leaving modern readers in the dark about the reason of her fame. But we learn from other ancient Greek sources that in classical mythology Galatea was one of fifty-odd Nereïds and the legendary mother of the Celts, the Gauls and the Illyrians through her three sons, Celtus, Galas and Illyrius.