The Importance of the "Iliad"
The importance of the Iliad can be viewed from a great number of different angles. Here, we will consider just two: its importance as history, and its importance as poetry.
To all intents and purposes, the Greeks considered both the Homeric epics to be historically true. The Trojan War occurred as it is described in the Iliad, while Odysseus' return home was as related in the Odyssey. Herodotus, the Father of History, sometimes relies on Homer to provide quasi-legal evidence in certain contemporary disputes. Thucydides, meanwhile, despite his rationalisation of the motives of the other Greek kings in aiding Agamemnon with his attack on Troy (they were not bound to him by an oath to help retrieve Helen if she were captured, but instead recognised him to be the most powerful king and were coerced into it, the evidence being provided by the superior number of his ships in the catalogue of Book 2) still states in other places 'if one regards Homer as evidence', thus demonstrating that he also reasons from Homer, considering him, in the main, to be historically accurate.
How historically true, then, is Homer? Through archaeology, we can tell that from 1600 BC there was dramatic change in Greece, which signalled the start of the Mycenaean Age, in which the discovery of shaft graves, complete with gold and treasures, seems to indicate some sort of new 'heroic' society. 1400-1200 BC was the strongest period of the Mycenaean Age. In addition to Mycenae itself, the cities of Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes and Athens were also powerful. There was homogenous art produced at this time in the different cities, but no political unity. The thirteenth century BC saw increasing turbulence, the building or rebuilding of protective walls, and increased protection of food and water supplies. From 1250-1150 BC, there are the signs of much destruction and, in particular, the decimation of the Mycenaean palaces, which led to the period known as the Dark Ages, which lasted until about 950 BC. After this, things began to pick up again, and we can see, for example from the excavation of Lefkandi, that it was a time of burgeoning prosperity. By the start of the eighth century BC, the likely period in which Homer was writing, trade and colonisation had increased enormously, and we enter the Historical Age.
One aspect of Homer's fidelity to the past can be seen in the fact that most of the armour and weapons described in the Iliad are bronze, rather than iron, as they would have been in his own time. The Heroic Age, which comprised only a few generations, fell during the Bronze Age (c.2800-c.1050 BC), before the Iron Age, which mostly coincided with the Dark Age. As far as specific items are concerned, Homer's descriptions do seem to be archaeologically correct. For example, the boar's-tusk helmet (10.261-271) is described like an heirloom and does appear to have been prevalent between the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries BC. It was long obsolete in Homer's time, but the epic tradition had preserved its description. Similarly, the tower-like shield of Ajax, which is represented in a formulaic line that recurs throughout the poem, was in use during the sixteenth century BC but had probably ceased to be used by the thirteenth century BC. However, it too is preserved in Homer, in contrast to the normal reference to shields as being round and small.
As for the general political scene that we see in the Iliad, it does seem similar, in some respects, to that which we can reconstruct archaeologically for the Mycenaean Age. The representation of powerful kings ruling powerful cities with citadels and protective walls, who go around sacking each other, does seem to be true of the period. However, in general the social and more specific political aspects of the poem are more representative of the Dark Age and the subsequent period, when Homer himself probably lived. To some extent the political, economic and social conditions of the poem are an amalgam of several different periods, the older elements surviving either through their embedding in the formulae or structure of the stories passed on from generation to generation, or through the imagination of the poet in placing himself in the past. In this respect, they are similar to the language of the poem, which is also an amalgam of archaic and contemporary dialects and the entirely artificial.
What we can say is that Troy did exist. In the epic tradition, it was a great-walled city in the northwest of Asia Minor. There is only one comparable city in that area and it is known to have had links with Mycenaean Greece. It was sacked in the early twelfth or late eleventh century BC. Given such information and the way in which artefacts and some political elements of the Iliad are proven to be archaeologically correct, it does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that some of the action of the poem may be historically
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