The Trojan War Was a Disaster

by Eldon Quick

      After the diminution of the Minoan empire around 1600 BC the Mycenaean empire grew and flourished. The empire consisted of a loose collection of king ruled city-states that shared a common language, similar pottery, dress, and building styles.  They obviously traded and communicated with one another and no doubt in their early days, frequently quarreled with one another.  Though quarrels of the time, or wars, were more likely to be settled by battles between the king and the warrior class of one side against the king and the warrior class of the other than by battles between the populations.  It was up to the heroes to settle disputes in single combat. Allowing commoners to take part would be disgraceful.
      Loosing a war could be devastating to the loosing side. The common class of the loosing side would become slaves to the winning side, and their city would be obligated to pay tribute to and serve the winners for the rest of time. Though these wars may not have been frequent, they happened often enough for cities such as Mycenae and others to feel they needed to build strong, thick walls for defense.
       Those we today call the Mycenaeans, were known to Homer, and the Greek-speaking people of his time as the Achaeans, the Danaeans, or the Argives.  They did not consider themselves a Nation.  They were independent city-states competing and co-operating with one another for their independent survival. 
       Why is it then, that of all the many wars that must have taken place in the Achaean Archaic Age almost the only war history, legend, and myth have preserved and passed down to us is the Trojan War?  What was it about that war that made it so unique, so special?  I propose, that it was this war that brought about the end to the Achaean world.  The War set off a chain of events that would bring about some three hundred years of a dark age; a dark age that would envelope the Greek speaking cultures of the Attic, Peloponnesian and the islands of the Aegean Sea.  The war was a huge disaster for all involved.
       It was a disaster for the Trojans, of course, because their city was sacked and burned.  The men of the city were slain, except for those few who managed to escape into the mountains.  The women and children were taken as slaves.  The walls were torn down, never again would it occupy a place of importance between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara.  It was the end of the city of Troy as a power.
       But it was a disaster for the Achaeans as well.  For, according to “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” by Homer and “The War at Troy” by Quintus of Smyrna, the great Achaean army composed of the elite of the kingdoms, the Kings, the Princes, the greatest warriors had gone off to Troy to fight for a cause greater than themselves.  They had gone to avenge the honor of the Achaeans; to get revenge for the kidnapping of Helen the Queen of Sparta, and they did not return.
       Many were killed in battle, for the war was long and difficult.  Many died of disease, for great plagues swept the Achaean camp.  But most disastrous of all, on the return voyage, their ships laden with booty and slaves, the fleet was caught by a great storm while in the open sea.  Many ships were swamped and capsized.  Those who made it to the shelter of land were then hit by a great earthquake; landslides came tumbling down on them, a tidal wave echoed back and forth across the Aegean Sea crushing ships against the rocks.  Some ships, such as those commanded by Odysseus, were blown so far off course; it took them years to find their way home. Agamemnon may not have been the only king to reach home only to find that, in his absence, changes had taken place that would be disastrous to him. 
       When the kings, the princes, the warriors, the heroes, did not return, the people wanted to know what had happened to them? How could they have failed to return?  Into this vacuum of information came the ‘Story Tellers’ (Rapsodes).  They told stories of the heroes and the glory that was theirs for their valiant deeds fighting on the plains of Troy;  fighting there to ‘avenge the struggles and the groans of Helen.’  The stories they told were sad stories, they told where the hero came from, who his parents were, how he came to Troy.  They told with whom he fought and whom he killed and finally who killed him. These stories were laments for the bravery and glory of the fallen heroes. Perhaps these stories were based on eyewitness accounts; perhaps they were made up to please the wishes of the survivors.  Echoes of these stories can be seen in ‘The Catalogue of Ships’ in Book II of “The Iliad” and in the details of individual combat scenes in the rest of “The Iliad.”
       According to clay tablets found in the ruins of the city of Pylos, the Achaean social structure was very hierarchal.  The king and his ruling elite were in charge of everything.  Every grain of wheat had to be accounted for, brought to the kings store rooms, then distributed from there.  Nobody built a ship, or a wagon, or a plow unless the king ordered it.  He was in command of everything.  This must have been the result of a ruling class that was foreign to the indigenous population.  At some point the Greek speaking population had been conquered and taken over by a warrior class that then adopted the Greek language and ruled with a bronze fist.
       But now the king was gone.  Not only the king but also the captains who enforced his rule, the strong men who maintained order were gone.   Slowly the social structure began to deteriorate.  There was civil unrest, then anarchy, then at last civil war.  The working classes, the original inhabitants of the land rose up and overthrew their oppressors, and chaos followed.  One by one the great-fortified cities fell starting in the north then moving to the south, and finally to Pylos on the South-west edge of the Peloponnese. 
       Many scholars see, in this progression of destruction, an invasion by a Dorian accented peoples from the North.  Whether it is a Dorian people from the north, or a Dorian accented underclass that rose up and overthrew their Achaean masters is arguable.  What is important is that the Achaean empire was destroyed.  The Ionic accented overlords and those who supported them fled in the remaining ships, or were killed.  The lands once ruled by a great Achaean empire drifted into a dark age.  The indigenous people became nomads once more; shepherds wandering from pasture to pasture.  Or they became farmers working small plots of land.  Some became raiders living off the work of others. 
       Those who fled took to the sea, and without a land to return to, become pirates and raiders of the weakened cities on the west coast of Anatolia. (What is now Turkey).  They were known as “The Sea People” and they raided the lands of the Levant, all the way south to Egypt where they met the strength of Ramses III the Pharaoh of Egypt and were turned away.  Eventually they settled on the coast of Judea and were known to the writers of the Bible as the Philistines.
       A dark age is not a dark age because the sun doesn’t shine.  It’s a dark age because there is no permanent ness, no trade; the people of that time leave no record of themselves in written records or in archeological records.  The art of writing is lost.  They build no buildings of stone.  Their dwellings were of mud and sticks, temporary dwellings that soon disappear.  The pottery of the Achaeans, the painted swirling designs of octopus arms, dolphins and seaweed are gone.  The pottery is now plain, undecorated, and primitive.  The cultures around them that have the skill of writing, the Egyptians, the Babylonians make no mention of them.  For several hundred years the people of the Aegean Sea disappear.
       But in the 8th century BC a renaissance begins. The farmers, forced to scatter from the Achaean Empire to wherever they could find fertile ground, became innovators.  The invention of the iron tipped plow allowed new ways of managing the land.  The low flat land, best suited for grain or grasses, was rotated with different crops to allow for more than one harvest per year.  The low hills were devoted to orchards of fruit, nut and olive trees.  The higher hills best suited for vines, were planted with grapes and berries for wine.  The art of grafting had been discovered, so the limb and branch of a prolific producer could be grafted onto the healthy root and trunk of another to create a new plant combining the best of both plants.  The mountainsides furnished grazing ground for sheep, goats, and cattle and maybe even a horse or two.  Horses though were only used to pull wagons or chariots, as riding a horse was too dangerous for a man until the 6th century when pants were adopted.  The farmers had learned to manage their time and effort so that each season had its tasks to be performed. 
       As the farmer’s families grew, it soon became time for 2nd sons to go off on their own and build their own farms.  Interrelated communities of farming families grew.  As they grew they became strong enough to defend themselves.  No longer was the only option for survival when the raider came, to run hide and let the raiders take what they would. Now collective manpower was sufficient to face the raiders and stop them before they could do harm.  The farmer, not trained as a heroic fighter, found that by combining his strength with others, and fighting side by side, close together to share the coverage of a shield and concentrate their spear points they could now face and defeat those who would take the fruit of their labor away from them. 
       As they grew the farms were capable of producing a surplus.  The ability to produce a surplus meant it was no longer necessary for an individual to spend every waking moment of his life struggling to survive.  Individuals had leisure time.  Leisure time meant individuals could invest in becoming artisans and craftsmen.  The craftsmen who could specialize in working the raw materials of the land, could create new styles of pottery, and could carve stone to decorate their buildings, or represent their gods, and invest the time it takes to learn an alphabet so records could be kept. The surplus could be traded for such things as decorated pottery, iron tools, or build walls of stone.  Now prosperity came not only from farming but also from trade.  Strong communities grew up with societies capable of organized government, organized defense and organized trade.
       But not everything from the past had been lost.  No matter how close to a bare subsistence level one comes, there is always a yearning for a connection to the rest of humanity; a yearning for stories that can evoke shared emotions, and that can connect one to one’s ancestors.  The Rapsodes may have disappeared for a while, but the stories they told did not.  Somewhere, some how, they were preserved.  Now some 300 years later, those stories of the heroes who had set off in search of glory on the plains of Troy had grown, and grown, and grown.  Stories were invented to explain how it all began with anger of the gods at the folly of men.  Stories were invented to justify the great expenditure of men and wealth that had been the cost of The Trojan War. 
       Can you imagine, in a world without any entertainment other than games, singing, dancing, and physical contests, how valuable a storyteller would be?  Here is a man who carries in his mind the ability to re-create action, adventure, fear, love, heart breaking sadness, laughter, all the emotions the human heart is capable of, and at the same time instruct, to share the wisdom of generations of man as to behavior most likely to bring happiness or grief.  And this ability, this treasure, cannot be stolen or commanded by any other, no matter how rich, powerful or strong he may be.  The storyteller is immune from tyranny.  He cannot be coerced or forced to give up his treasure.  Only rich reward will assuage him to bring from him the riches he holds in his mind.
       Probably on the island of Chios or at least somewhere on the west coast of Anatolia a young man with a phenomenal memory began collecting and remembering these stories.  He could hope someday to become a professional storyteller a Rapsode. One who could travel the whole known Greek-speaking world living well off of his talent as a storyteller.  One who would synthesize these stories into two great stories, which would preserve for man for all time the record of that Great War that had brought about the end of the Achaean world.