" he [Heinrich Schliemann] found layers of ruins and two bore unmistakable signs of violent destruction. One of these layers, the seventh according to more recent excavators, was no doubt the city of Priam and Hector. The historicity of the Homeric tale had been demonstrated archaeologically." - M.I. Finley, the World of Odysseus
The Trojan War and its characters are detailed in the writings of Homer, Vergil, Dante and many others. It is a fantastical tale of a decade-long siege of a powerful city by a massive pan-hellenic force. However, even though it has proved to be such a rich source of inspiration for writers, poets and artists throughout history, it is debated whether it actually took place. Heinrich Schliemann famously said "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon." on discovering tombs with the bodies of Mycenaean chieftains in Turkey. The German businessman-turned-archaeologist claimed to have discovered the city of Troy at the hill now called Hisarlik about three miles from the Dardanelles. However, his claims are still disputed today. Before tackling the question of whether the Trojan War actually occurred, we must ask in what form. What exactly do we mean by "the Trojan War"? There is no definitive version of the events in the war, as our knowledge of it comes from a myriad different sources. Then we should consider Schliemann's discoveries, and the other archaeological evidence for the Trojan War. Finally, after we have defined "Trojan War" in context of archaeology and historical fact, we must then draw conclusions about the extent to which archaeology proves its historical authenticity.
What do we mean by the "Trojan War"?
The first source that comes to mind is the writings of Homer the Iliad and the Odyssey. The two epics are considered canon. However, Heroditus' Histories briefly detail the major events of the war, and relays them as if they were historical fact. Heroditus' account of the war differs slightly from Homer's version, and he is well aware of this. After relating the tale of Alexander (Paris) carrying off Helen, Heroditus writes:
"Such was the tale told me by the priests concerning the arrival of Helen at the court of Proteus. It seems to me that Homer was acquainted with this story , and while disregarding it , because he thought it less adapted for heroic poetry than the version the he followed " Heroditus, Histories book 2 chapter 116
But the Trojan War's historicity was not questioned by the Greeks. Thucydides, much like Heroditus, believed that it had happened, though he does concede that Homer had changed the story in creating his poetry.
Other authors who have drawn on the Trojan War include Plato, Vergil and Dante. Though the Trojan War was an event from early Greek history, the Romans too wrote about it. Vergil's unfinished Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas. Indeed, classical civilisations did not have a monopoly on the Trojan War - Ulysses (Odysseus latinised) appears alongside Diomedes (another leader of the Achaeans who, amongst other deeds, went inside the famous Trojan Horse) in Dante's Inferno.
Because so many authors have written about the Trojan War, there are conflicting versions of events. However, we can compare the different versions and conclude that anything that is repeated in each of the sources actually happened. At the most basic level, we can say that the Trojan War was a pan-hellenic assault on the city of Troy, which after a protracted siege, the attackers were the victors. (If we do not take it for granted that the Trojan War was an attack on the Trojans, then there is very little reason for calling it the "Trojan War".)
The other problems with the surviving accounts of the Trojan War are the involvement of the gods. Supposedly Apollo and Poseidon helped build Troy as punishment. Throughout the Aeneid, the gods aid mortals...