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Trojan War: Unveiling the Truth About Warfare in Homer’s Iliad

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

The Iliad, composed by Homer in c. 650 BCE, is a cornerstone of ancient Greek literature and contains numerous descriptions of warfare. For many years, scholars argued that its portrayal of warfare in the Trojan War comes from accurately preserved traditions originating in Bronze Age Mycenaean Greece.

However, although some current researchers still argue for this, it has mostly fallen out of favor within serious Homeric scholarship. What do scholars now understand about the way that warfare is depicted in Homer’s Iliad?

Supposed Mycenaean warfare

Firstly, consider why scholars came to the old conclusion about Mycenaean warfare in Homer’s Iliad in the first place. The most obvious reason for this is the fact that Homer describes many of the Greek weapons as being made of bronze.

It was predominantly the Bronze Age Greeks, of course, who used bronze for weapons. The Greeks of the Iron Age mostly used iron for their weapons. This would include the Greeks of Homer’s own time, even going back as far as before the turn of the first millennium BCE.

Another piece of evidence for this understanding was the apparent description of a tower shield in the Iliad. The Greeks of the Archaic Era, Homer’s time, did not use tower shields. However, the Mycenaean Greeks did regularly use this type of shield.

An additional reason for concluding that Homer’s Iliad depicts Mycenaean warfare comes from the spears. Homer describes them as being incredibly long – much longer than the spears used by the Greeks of his own era.

One additional reason for this conclusion is related to Homer’s depiction of chariot warfare in the Iliad. We know that the Mycenaean Greeks made extensive use of chariots in their battles. They used shock tactics, whereby large groups of charioteers would charge straight at the enemy. They also used chariots as mobile platforms from which to shoot arrows or attack with spears and javelins.

Contemporary armor in the Iliad

With this evidence in mind, one striking fact is that Homer’s descriptions of the armor of the Greeks is virtually a perfect description of the common armor from his own time.

The armor of each Greek soldier, including the greaves on his legs, the zoster on his waist, the cuirass on his torso, and the helmet with a plume of horsehair, is standard Greek hoplite armor of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE.

For this reason, scholars widely recognize that Homer was using descriptions of Greek warfare from his own era when composing the Iliad. This being the case, what can we conclude regarding those few aforementioned examples in which his descriptions of warfare seem more similar to that of the Mycenaean Era?

Professor Hans van Wees, the respected Homeric scholar, addressed this issue in profound detail in his two-part article The Homeric Way of War. In this example of more recent Homeric scholarship, we find a more logical and consistent interpretation of the warfare in Homer’s Iliad.

Exaggerations for the sake of heroic glory

One key issue that researchers have often ignored is the genre of the Iliad. Homer did not compose it to be a strictly realistic account of real-world warfare. No, rather, it presents a heavily mythologized version of events.

The gods get involved in the fighting and even the human characters perform completely superhuman feats. For example, one of his characters hurls a large boulder with one hand. Obviously, Homer did not compose the Iliad with real-world practicality in mind.

As Hans van Wees points out, correctly understanding the Iliad in this way singlehandedly addresses almost all the examples of supposed Mycenaean warfare in the poem.

The bronze weapons

Mycenaean sword
Mycenaean bronze sword with a gold hilt and featuring a lion motif, from Grave Circle B, Mycenae. Credit: Gary Todd / CC0 / Wikimedia Commons

For example, bronze was a more ‘glorious’ metal than iron. That is why the ancient Greeks generally used bronze more than iron as a decorative metal (we see this in Homer’s description of King Alcinous’ palace in the Odyssey, for instance).

Therefore, it makes sense that he would want to depict the Greeks’ weapons as being bronze. His heroes needed to fight with weapons made of glorious metals, not common ones. Real-world warfare was not a consideration.

That is why we also see Homer describe some weapons as being made of gold, silver, and tin. These descriptions do not fit any historical era at all. Evidently, the metals of the weapons in the Iliad are simply not historical. Notably though, Homer does describe tools as being made of iron. Since these are just common items, not the weapons of mighty heroes, it makes sense that Homer felt no need to exaggerate when describing them.

The large weapons and armor

The same principle applies to the issue of the very long spears and the tower shield. The spears are depicted as being incredibly long simply because that fits the genre of the Iliad. Homer was exaggerating for dramatic effect. There is no reason to take these descriptions of long spears in Homer’s Iliad as being memories of the long spears of the Mycenaean Era.

Regarding the supposed tower shield, Homer never actually describes it as such. In fact, he only ever describes the shields as being circular. This fits the shields that the Greeks of his own time commonly used.

The supposed evidence for this tower shield is that, when describing Ajax’s equipment, Homer mentions that the shield went down to his feet. Again, let us understand this in context, in view of the genre of Homer’s poem. With all the shields only ever being presented as circular, it is evident that Ajax’s shield was also circular.

What is remarkable about it is not the shape, which Homer does not specifically comment on, but the size, which is the point of the description. While it would obviously be impractical to fight with a circular shield that large in real life, we have already seen that Homer was not concerned with real-world practicality. Otherwise, he would not have described weapons made of gold, silver and tin.

Chariot warfare in Homer’s Iliad

What about the argument that Homer’s descriptions of chariot warfare in the Iliad matches the Mycenaean Era? In reality, scholars widely recognize that the way in which the Greeks use chariots in the Iliad is completely different to the way that the Mycenaean Greeks historically used them.

The shock tactics and the role as mobile platforms for archers is virtually unseen in the Iliad. As a matter of fact, the characters essentially use them just for transport. The charioteer would charge into the battle lines, the warrior would jump off, and the charioteer would withdraw until the warrior needed to retreat for a time.

While this bears no relation to Mycenaean warfare, it is identical to how warfare on horseback is depicted in scenes contemporary with Homer’s life. A warrior would dismount while his squire would stay back with the horse.

While evidence for how chariots were used in Homer’s day is lacking, the important fact is that they were used. It is a misconception that they fell out of use at the end of the Mycenaean Era. In reality, everything indicates that Homer’s depiction of chariot warfare in the Iliad is essentially accurate to his own era.

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