The Trojan War as a Mycenaean Counterattack
Numerous port cities in the southeastern Mediterranean and even the Hittite Empire fell victim to the wars contemporary to the Sea Peoples’ invasions. And yet this destruction marked only the beginning of the cultural demise that led to the end of the Bronze Age. In Greece, subsequent generations have always ascribed the downfall of the heroic age to the Trojan War. The latter indeed shows all the attributes of a Mycenaean counterattack on the then-powerful Luwians.
Current state of knowledge
No written records have survived describing the events after 1192 BCE. Hattuša was abandoned, not just by the Great King but also by his scribes, and the ruling caste in Egypt became entangled in dynastic turmoil. In Greece, the knowledge of writing was not used for political purposes. Memories that have been transmitted to us from this eventful period originated much later.
Subsequent generations in Greece unanimously attributed the cultural demise at the end of the Bronze Age to the Trojan War. Among Greek historians there was broad agreement that this caused the end of the so-called heroic age. Homer tells of his ancestors facing an alliance of petty states stretching from Macedonia in northern Greece over the whole of western Asia Minor to Cilicia and even gaining support from peoples in the Black Sea region (Iliad 2.816–877). The Greek memory of the Trojan War thus seamlessly integrates into the archaeologically documented wave of destruction after 1200 BCE.
A prophylactic counterattack
Once the Luwians had secured southeast Asia Minor, Cyprus and the coast of Syria, and when even Hattuša was defeated and the Hittite ruling class removed, the petty states from western Asia Minor suddenly controlled an area stretching from Macedonia across Anatolia to Syria and Canaan, where it touched upon the Egyptian dominion. The Luwian attacks had focused on the centralized elite to crush Hittite hegemony, while the domestic population in the interior – who spoke Luwian for the most part – was not really harmed. Therefore, the economic base of the region, agriculture, crafts and the mining of mineral resources, remained largely intact. Together with this vast territory, the Luwians now dominated almost all ore deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the trade routes on land and at sea.
It appears that the Mycenaean kingdoms on the Greek mainland were not attacked by the Luwians. Some Mycenaean ports of call on the coast of western Asia Minor – especially Miletus – could have been affected or changed sides. But in general the Greeks had no clear reason to intervene. However, both the access to the Black Sea region as well as the connection through Cyprus and Syria to Mesopotamia were now under Luwian control. Considering the distribution of mineral resources, arable land, the path of the perennial rivers and of the trade routes, the Mycenaeans were about to face a superior force for an extended period of time. To avoid complete dependence, and after careful consideration and extensive preparation, they seem to have engaged in a coalition themselves with the ultimate purpose to raid western Asia Minor. Homer says many Greek aristocrats, including Odysseus, had initially refused to become involved in this war. When everybody finally joined in, it took another two years to build the fleet. Deploying almost 1200 ships, the Greek troops fell upon the coasts of western Asia Minor and destroyed dozens of Luwian coastal cities, long before they set sail for Troy. The Luwians were unable to defend such a large territory as well as their hometowns.
This was then the reason why the wave of destruction continued soon after the Sea Peoples’ invasions and with reversed opponents. Both main waves of attacks went in the same direction from west to east. However, the driving forces were different. The united troops from western Asia Minor stormed against Syria in the form of the Sea Peoples’ invasions. About ten years later, united Greek forces attacked western Asia Minor – and this was later remembered as the “Trojan War.” The Trojan War described by Homer and other ancient authors was thus a counterattack against the previously victorious Sea Peoples. As a matter of fact, the Trojan allies listed by Homer in the Iliad coincide well with the most likely provenance of the Sea Peoples. In addition, the question why the Sea Peoples were unable to make more of their victory, for instance by settling in the conquered territories, can now also be answered. Many had to return to their homelands to defend themselves.
In the inscriptions of Medinet Habu, one of the countries explicitly identified as a victim of the Sea Peoples’ raids is Arzawa – a heartland of the Luwians in western Asia Minor. This would make no sense if the Sea Peoples were themselves Luwians. But Arzawa did not fall in the initial wave of destruction, it was only destroyed by subsequent counterattacks by the Mycenaean Greeks. Fifteen years later, Egyptian writers did not pay much attention to historic accuracy. They may not have even cared much about who exactly was fighting whom. In the end, both Hatti and Arzawa suffered – much like when both Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima fell victim to World War II. Since some previously powerful opponents and partners of Egypt were swallowed up by the earth, Ramesses III could easily claim that their defeat was his military triumph.
The exact determination of the date of the Sea Peoples’ invasion of Ugarit (after January 1192 BCE) now permits additional calculations with respect to the duration of the crisis years. Dares of Phrygia (44), according to Isidore (1.42) the oldest chronologist after Moses, reports exactly how long the Trojan War lasted: ten years, six months and twelve days. According to Homer (Iliad 12.15), the entire conflict lasted ten years. Eusebius of Caesarea dates the destruction of Troy, and hence the ultimate end of the conflict, firmly to the year 1182 BCE. Supposedly the decisive attack, during which the city of Troy finally went down, took place during the night of the seventh full moon, as some have said; it would have been 13 July 1182 BCE. If this was the case, the Sea Peoples’ invasions and the Trojan War combined lasted about ten years and six months altogether.
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Albright, William Foxwell (1950): “Some Oriental Glosses on the Homeric Problem.” American Journal of Archaeology 54, 162-176.
Hope Simpson, Richard & John Francis Lazenby (1970): The Catalogue of Ships in Homer’s Iliad. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1-191.
Huxley, George Leonard (1960): Achaeans and Hittites. Vincent-Baxter, Oxford, 1-54.
Wainwright, Gerald Avery (1961): “Some Sea-Peoples.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 47, 71-90.
If the Assuwa confederation was really centered in the northwestern part of the peninsula [of Asia Minor], as seems probable, it corresponded strikingly in make-up and geographical extension to the Trojan confederation of the Iliad. Moreover, it was just such a political alignment which may reasonably be supposed to have blocked further Mycenaean expansion toward the east and southeast, thus greatly reducing Mycenaean trade with the east between c. 1240 and c. 1220 BCE.
William Foxwell Albright 1950, 169
We have to understand Troy as western Asia Minor at the time of the Trojan War.
Gerald Avery Wainwright 1959, 206
For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which … was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot.
Plato, Timaeus 24e (Lamb)
Twelve cities of men I’ve stormed and sacked from shipboard, eleven I claim by land, on the fertile earth of Troy. And from all I dragged off piles of splendid plunder, hauled it away.
Achilles in Homer, Iliad 9.398 (Fagles)