By Caleb Howells
The Trojan War was one of the most significant and famous events in Greek history, at least as far as the ancient Greeks themselves were concerned. For this reason, the ancient historians were very concerned with establishing when the Trojan War happened, and they often mentioned it in relation to other events.
One of the earliest writers to discuss the Trojan War in terms of when it happened in relation to other events was Ctesias. He was a fifth-century BC Greek writer from Cnidus, a town in Caria in western Anatolia. One of his most notable works was a history of Assyria and Persia. No records of this survive directly, but the first-century BC historian Diodorus referred to it extensively.
From Diodorus, we know that Ctesias claimed that there had been thirty kings of the Assyrian empire. The first was a king named Ninus. He supposedly ruled 1,360 years before the last Assyrian king, a certain Sardanapalus. This final king was ruling when Nineveh fell.
So, when did the Trojan War happen in relation to these kings? According to Ctesias, the Trojan War occurred in the reign of the 22nd Assyrian king. He placed this king a thousand years after Ninus—in other words, 360 years before the final king.
This chronological information appears to be very useful for working out when the Trojan War happened. If that war occurred 360 years before the final Assyrian king and the fall of Nineveh, then all we need to do to calculate the date of the Trojan War is count back from the historical end of the Assyrian empire.
Establishing the true date of the Trojan War
Unfortunately, things are not quite so simple. The ancient Greeks miscalculated the fall of Nineveh because they thought that there was a long dynasty of Median kings between the fall of Nineveh and the reign of Cyrus the Great of Persia.
Due to this, they placed the fall of Nineveh almost three centuries earlier than it actually occurred in around 900 BC. Starting from this date, working back 360 years to get to the date of the Trojan War takes us to the thirteenth century BC.
Ctesias’s chronological scheme seems to have been very popular among the ancient Greeks, so it’s no surprise that most Greek (and later, Roman) sources placed the Trojan War in that century or the following one. The most popular date today is 1187 BC, which comes from Eratosthenes.
No one knows exactly how he reached his date, but some scholars think that he was using a modified version of Ctesias’s chronological scheme, using slightly lower figures.
The problem, of course, is that the final Assyrian king did not live in 900 BC. Modern scholarship has shown beyond all doubt that the end of the Assyrian empire came in the second half of the seventh century BC, long after 900 BC.
This means that Ctesias’s date for the Trojan War, as well as all later estimates based on his record, are fundamentally flawed. They should actually be moved forward by about 300 years.
However, the situation gets even more interesting than that. Remember that Ctesias claimed that there were 360 years between the 22nd Assyrian king and the 30th king. For this to be true, there would need to be a space of just over 45 years per king. Since this was supposed to be a direct father-to-son line of kings, this means that each king was 45 years old when they had their child.
An average of 45 years per generation is incredibly high! A more realistic average is about 25 years. If we use that average, then there should have only been about 200 years between the 22nd king and the final one. Since we know that the final one lived in the second half of the seventh century BC, that would place the Trojan War in the second half of the ninth century BC.
But the situation gets more interesting still. There is good evidence that Ninus, the legendary first Assyrian king, was really Tukulti-Ninurta I. He was the historical king who transformed Assyria into a great regional power and even claimed to have conquered as far as India. Whether he actually did or not is another matter, but his claims could have led to the legend of Ninus conquering far to the east.
He also built a major city, possibly the new capital, which he named after himself just like Ninus was said to have done. He was also the first Assyrian king to have conquered Babylonia much like Ninus. For these reasons and others, many scholars accept that Tukulti-Ninurta I was the historical Ninus.
Tukulti-Ninurta I lived in the thirteenth century BC. If he was Ctesias’s first Assyrian king, and the Trojan War occurred in the reign of the 22nd king, then that means that the Trojan War allegedly happened 22 generations after Tukulti-Ninurta I. Using an average of 25 years per generation again, that would place the Trojan War right at the end of the eighth century BC.
In other words, depending on whether we count forward from Tukulti-Ninurta I (the first king, Ninus) or back from the fall of Nineveh (the last king, Sardanapalus), Ctesias’s claim about when the Trojan War happened in relation to Assyrian history would place it somewhere between the end of the eighth century and the end of the ninth century BC.
What does this mean for the question of when the Trojan War really played out? Well, Ctesias is only one source although he does seem to have influenced many of the subsequent estimates of the date of the war.
We cannot make a definite conclusion about when this major event in Greek legend happened based on solely this information. However, if the Trojan War did happen much more recently like Ctesias’s information would suggest then this means that the records about the Trojan War (such as Homer’s own writings) are much closer to the events they described than commonly assumed.
This means that they are far more likely to be historically accurate than if they were about events that occurred many centuries earlier.