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Do Ancient Hittite Records Prove the Trojan War Really Happened?

Mykonos Vase depicting the Trojan Horse
Mykonos Vase: Decorated pithos found on Mykonos, Greece, depicting one of the earliest known renditions of the Trojan horse. Credit: Travelling Runes, CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia

The Trojan War is one of the most famous legends of Greek mythology. However, there is intense debate about whether or not this famous event actually happened. For some time, scholars believed that even the city of Troy itself was fictional. Schliemann’s excavations in 1873 proved that it was real. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily mean that the war itself was real. Some scholars argue that certain Hittite documents prove that the Trojan War really happened. What are these documents, and what do they really show?

What was the Trojan War?

First of all, it is important to establish what the Trojan War supposedly was. According to ancient Greek records, it was a war between the Greeks and the city of Troy. This was a city in the northwestern corner of Anatolia. The Greek forces were led by Agamemnon, the king of Argos, while the king of the Trojans was elderly Priam.

This war was supposedly a massive event. Over a thousand ships were launched from Greece. On the Trojan side, it was more than just the city of Troy itself that was involved. The Trojans were joined by numerous allies all across western Anatolia. For example, the Lydians and the Phrygians supported the Trojans during this war. Many other nations all across the region joined in the war as well.

The war itself allegedly lasted a whole decade, and the Greeks raided various cities along the coast of Anatolia during that time. Therefore, this was clearly a major event in the history of Greek and Anatolian relations. We would be justified in expecting some independent corroboration of this event.

The Hittite Empire During the Trojan War

The Hittite Empire was the empire which ruled most of Anatolia during the traditional date of the Trojan War, c. 1200 BCE. For this reason, many scholars have examined ancient Hittite documents in the hopes that these will show that the Trojan War really happened. So what do these Hittite documents reveal?

One of the most significant findings from these ancient documents is that they demonstrate that the Greeks were active in western Anatolia in the Bronze Age. They refer to a nation called the ‘Ahhiyawa.’ Linguists generally agree that there is a connection between this name and ‘Akhaioí’ (that is, ‘Achaeans’), the name for the Greeks used by Homer in the Iliad.

These documents strongly suggest that the Ahhiyawa were a very powerful nation to the west of the Hittite Empire. Based on other historical evidence, the only nation which fits this profile is Mycenaean Greece. This appears to confirm that the Mycenaean Greeks were active in western Anatolia in the era in which the Trojan War supposedly occurred.

Do These Hittite Documents Prove the Trojan War Really Happened?

In the context of the Trojan War, one of the most significant findings was a document which referred to a conflict involving ‘Wilusa.’ The vast majority of linguists agree that this place name is the Hittite form of ‘Ilios,’ one of the names Homer uses for the city of Troy in the Iliad.

This document is known as the Tawagalawa letter. It dates from about 1250 BCE. In this letter, the writer mentions former hostilities between the king of the Hittites and the king of the Ahhiyawa, or the Mycenaean Greeks. It contains this fascinating passage:

“The king of Hatti has persuaded me about the matter of the land of Wilusa concerning which he and I were hostile to one another, and we have made peace.”

Therefore, according to this letter, there was a conflict between the Hittites and the Greeks over Troy. Many scholars in the past took this as striking confirmation of the legend of the Trojan War.

A Hittite document from the mid-13th century BCE
A Hittite document from the mid-13th century BCE. Credit: Wikipedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Why These Hittite Documents Do Not Prove the Trojan War Really Happened

Despite the initial enthusiasm after this document was first translated, recent scholarship is much more cautious about associating this with the Trojan War. But why is this? For one thing, the original translation may have been clouded by a desire to link it to Homer’s writings. Many pages on the internet use the expression ‘over which we went to war’ in the translation of this letter.

However, the letter does not actually use the Hittite word for ‘war.’ It simply uses a word that refers to hostilities of any kind. That is why this more recent translation uses the expression ‘we were hostile’ rather than ‘we went to war.’

This could simply refer to verbal hostility. It could be that the two kings argued over it, tried to interfere with trade to or from it, or any other expression of hostility. There is no reason to necessarily interpret the letter as referring to actual warfare.

A Very Different Ending

Furthermore, and perhaps more significantly, this letter directly tells us how this conflict ended. It says that the king of the Hittites and the king of the Greeks ‘have made peace’ regarding the conflict over Troy. Therefore, that conflict was settled amicably. This certainly does not match the legendary Trojan War. According to Greek legend, the Greeks defeated Troy and burned it to the ground.

Therefore, this Hittite reference to a conflict over Wilusa cannot be used to prove that the Trojan War really happened. The way the Trojan War ended was completely different to the way this historical conflict ended.

There is additional support for the fact that this conflict between the Hittites and the Greeks does not prove that the Trojan War really happened. Again, the Trojan War supposedly ended in the complete destruction of the city. Aside from the fact that the Tawagalawa letter refers to a peaceful resolution for the conflict between the Greeks and the Hittites, archaeology also supports the conclusion that it ended peacefully.

Troy shows signs of destruction dating to approximately 300 BCE. After that, it shows signs of destruction dating to around 1180 BCE. However, there is no evidence of destruction or warfare between these two dates. The Tawagalawa letter dates to about 1250 BCE. This is well before 1180 but long after 1300 BCE. Therefore, there is no evidence for a destruction at Troy around the time of this Hittite document.

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