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Why Did the Trojan War Last for Ten Years?

Achilles fighting Memnon during the Trojan War, depicted on a vase from Vulci, 510 BCE.
Achilles fighting Memnon during the Trojan War, depicted on a vase from Vulci, 510 BCE. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

One of the things that makes the Trojan War such a famous event within Greek mythology is the fact that it was a siege which lasted for ten years. Something else that makes it so famous is the fact that it involved forces from all over Greece.

However, if forces from all of Greece were besieging one city, how on earth did it take them so long to defeat it? Surely, with so much military power, a single city would have fallen almost immediately. This logic leads many to believe that the Trojan War cannot have been a real event.

Bigger than the siege of just one city

Firstly, we should note that the idea of a siege lasting for ten years is by no means impossible. History has seen sieges lasting even longer than that. For example, the siege of Tyre by Babylonian forces lasted for thirteen years. The city of Philadelphia in Asia Minor was besieged for twelve years in the fourteenth century CE. Even longer sieges have occurred throughout history.

With Troy, there is one obvious reason why a single city was able to withstand against the Greek forces for ten years. The reason is that it was not just a single city withstanding those forces. In fact, Homer describes in his Iliad (written c. 650 BCE) a coalition of nations from Anatolia and even parts of Europe on the side of the Trojans.

If it really had been just the isolated city of Troy standing against the Greeks, it probably would have fallen quickly. Yet, that is definitely not what Homer described. When we see what he did describe, it is not surprising at all that the Trojan War lasted so long.

Trojan allies

On the side of the Trojans, there was the kingdom of the Phrygians and the kingdom of the Lydians. It appears that Homer was describing the world of the Trojan War based on the geopolitics of his own era or those just shortly before.

The Phrygian kingdom that Homer refers to controlled a huge part of Anatolia. It was quite rich and powerful and could actually be described as a small empire. Troy was closely associated with them. In fact, King Priam of Troy supposedly married a Phrygian princess. Later, Greek writers often called the Trojans ‘Phrygians.’

The kingdom of Lydia was powerful, too. After the fall of Phrygia in approximately 700 BCE, Lydia immediately rose to fill the power vacuum, indicating that it had already been a powerful state.

Troy was supported by the Thracians from the European side of the Dardanelles. With all these allies, some of whom were especially powerful, it is no wonder at all that the Trojan War lasted for ten years.

The Greek forces during the ten years of the Trojan War

It is not only the Trojans about whom there exist misconceptions. There are also misconceptions regarding the Greeks in the war. Many people imagine that all the Greek forces were supposedly united against the city of Troy for ten full years during the Trojan War. They imagine a siege in which all Greeks stood outside the city the entirety of the time.

However, this is emphatically not what Homer described—nor is it what we see from later records about the Trojan War. In fact, for most of the ten years of the Trojan War, the Greek forces went their separate ways. It appears that it was only during the first and final years that the Greeks actually presented a united front against the city of Troy.

Why did they not remain steadfast to their goals throughout the entire decade? This was for the simple reason that they lacked the resources to do so. Thucydides, in the fifth century BCE, discussed this issue. For the sake of food and other resources, the Greek forces had to scatter to other territories to obtain what they needed.

Trojan horse
The Trojan horse, with soldiers inside– is depicted in a vase found on Mykonos, Credit: Traveling Runes / CC by SA 2.0

How the Trojan War lasted ten years

Thucydides noted that this was the exact reason why the Trojan War lasted for ten years. He wrote:

“Difficulty of subsistence made the invaders reduce the numbers of the army to a point at which it might live on the country during the prosecution of the war…they seem to have turned to cultivation of the Chersonese and to piracy from want of supplies. This was what really enabled the Trojans to keep the field for ten years against them; the dispersion of the enemy making them always a match for the detachment left behind.”

In line with the concept of the Greeks spreading out from Troy, the Iliad states that Achilles captured eleven cities during the Trojan War. Clearly, most of the Greek forces were actually not besieging Troy at all most of the time.

Furthermore, during this ten-year event, the Trojans had numerous allies, many of whom were powerful. The fighting was not confined to the city of Troy. The Trojan War was the siege of one main city, but it was an event which involved numerous nations and was spread out over a very wide area.

Far from being a fantasy, the scenario that is actually presented by the Iliad and later records is a perfectly plausible and reasonable one.

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