Homeric Ships

The ships which were the target of Hector’s attack in the Iliad were lightly built, easily launched, easily beached and easily relaunched again. To protect the Greek ships from Trojan assault, Agamemnon was in favour of hurriedly rowing them out to sea. He was dissuaded by Odysseus, but the physical possibility of such an emergency manoeuvre was not in question.

The Homeric ships carried a single sail on a yard suspended from halyards. The prow and the stern were decked, but the intervening space amidships was occupied by rowers’ benches. Odysseus, as a passenger in a Phaeacian vessel, slept in the stern, on the flat surface of the deck – not under it. There was no lower deck.

Already, in Homer times, the construction of a merchantman differed from that of a war galley. References to merchant ships prove that they were comparatively broadbuilt, and they apparently had a normal complement of 20 rowers. Fighting ships, which were also troopships, carried considerably more men. The rowers must, for the most part, have been fighters themselves, and there does not usually seem to have been any distinction between oarsmen and marines, such as existed on Greek warships. We learn that the rowers in Philoctetes’ seven ships were all skilled archers – like their leader. On the other hand, Agamemnon provided ships for the contingent from Arcadia – an inland territory – since the Arcadians were not a seafaring people and did not possess ships of their own. The context suggests that the Arcadians were not called upon to do the rowing either.

Achilles sailed with 50 ships to Troy, and each ship carried 50 men. The Homeric narrative does not specify 50 rowers. Ships of the Boeotian contingent carried 120 men each. One cannot assume that all of them were rowers; if they were, they must have relieved each other at the oar. In any case, the number of rowers cannot always have coincided with a ship’s full complement. Odysseus lost six men out of each of his ships in his fight with the Cicones, those old Thracian allies of Troy, not to mention other casualties incurred at later stages in his voyage. If the rowers were all fighting men, casualties were to be expected; thus, the same ship cannot always have been propelled by the same number of oars.

Warships seem to have been chiefly used for assaulting coastal cities and raiding littoral areas. There is no description of any naval engagement, properly speaking, between Greeks and Trojans. Sea fights, however, certainly took place in Homeric times, and the Greek ships were equipped for such fighting. When the Trojans attacked the ships on the beach, the Greeks met them with long, jointed boarding pikes, of a type used in sea fights. The pike wielded by Ajax was 22 cubits (about 36ft, 11m) long.

The Trojans do not seem to have maintained a standing navy of any importance. When Paris sailed for Greece in search of the world’s most beautiful bride, a special shipbuilding programme was inaugurated. Such at least was the story of the Cyclic poet. Presumably the coastal allies of the Trojans had navies to equal those of mainland Greece. At any rate, ships must have ferried their Thracian supporters across the Hellespont.

Archaeological Evidence

Evidence for the existence of leather-and-felt caps overlaid with boar’s tusks, such as Odysseus wore in the night operations just described, has been furnished by archaeological discoveries. Felt and leather are, of course, perishable, but vanished caps have left their residue of boar’s tusks.

The whole question of archaeological corroboration must now be raised. In the second half of the nineteenth century, first Schliemann and then others excavated many localites which had been celebrated in the Homeric poems. As a result, there came to light the relics of ancient civilizations which corresponded impressively with descriptions given in the Iliad and Odyssey. Apart from sensational gold treasure, Schliemann recovered bronze weapons which had been deposited in the graves of their warrior owners at Mycenae. Characteristic of these Mycenaean weapons was a long, rapier-like sword blade. It had a tang for insertion in a hilt of some other material, but the tang was too frail for the weapon and it must easily have broken on impact. Some such tangs have, in fact, been discovered broken. But breakage in a sword of this kind, occurring at the hilt, would save it from shattering in several pieces, like that of Menelaus in the Iliad. However, another type of shorter sword has also been found in the tombs of the same period. The tang here has been developed into a substantial flanged hilt and represents an improvement in design. Archaeologists assign these weapons to an epoch spanning the seventeenth to fifteenth centuries BC, at least 300 years earlier than the destruction of the ancient city at Hissarlik in Asia Minor which is commonly identified as Homer’s Troy. Spearheads are less common than swords in early Mycenaean graves. Perhaps they were so precious to the living that they could not easily be spared for the dead. The spearheads which survive are of different sizes. The large ones are massive and must have belonged to thrusting weapons, but the smaller ones could well have been fitted to javelin shafts.

Schliemann found fragments of boar’s tusks but no metal helmets at Mycenae. The Mycenaean gold breastplates, though beautiful, were frail and obviously intended for ornamental purposes. Excavations at Mycenae yielded a large number of arrowheads made of flint and obsidian. The material, not common in mainland Greece, suggests that they were imported. Representations of shields were discovered, notably on an inlaid Mycenaean dagger blade. Such shields appear to have been made from bull’s hide and two designs are conspicuous: the oblong, tower-like shield and the narrow-waisted, figure-of-eight shield. Both are large, long shields, capable of covering the user from chin to ankle. The former readily suggests the shield of Ajax described in the Iliad. Even the figure-of-eight type might qualify for that epithet of “circular” or “well-rounded” which Homer commonly applies to shields. After all, its form is that of two adjacent convex circles.

Mycenae and Crete

Later developments in Mycenaean culture were revealed by the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans in Crete. This phase is generally known as the “Palace Period” and its weapons often represent a structural improvement on those of the earlier epoch, correcting original weaknesses in design. The tombs from which the weapons have been recovered seem to be those of aristocratic warriors, with whom it is easy to associate the heroes of the Iliad. But one notable change exhibited in this period is the development of bronze armour and bronze helmets. Arrowheads remain common, being made of flint, of obsidian and of bronze. One entire panoply of plate armour and fragmentary evidence of other panoplies, such as are associated with the Cretan Palace culture, have also been discovered in mainland Greece. They featured bronze shoulder pieces and gorgets, which anticipate the plate armour of a medieval knight. Such panoplies are heavy and must have considerably restricted the mobility of the wearer. The agility displayed by the heroes of the Iliad is quite inconsistent with their use, and they may be dated 1450–1350 BC.

Archaeologists also recognize a later period of Mycenaean civilization which is distinguished by an abundance of less splendid, smaller weapons. One has the impression that the heroic age has passed and that the armourers are concerned to produce weapons for a great many commoners rather than for a few aristocrats. At the same time, Mycenaean civilization seems more widespread and its characteristic culture is detected westward as far as Sicily and the Lipari islands and eastward as far as Cyprus and the Syrian coast. For the tendency to produce more and worse, economizing on raw materials and cutting costs, we perhaps have an analogy in the industries of our own day. But the weapons produced were perhaps more efficient, if less splendid. The whole Mycenaean period covers roughly the latter half of the second millenium BC.

Pictures and Writing

When archaeologists discover and decipher an ancient writing, they extend the period of history backward into an era which was previously prehistoric. This has happened in connection with Mycenaean civilization. Written records of the period have been discovered at many sites in association with Mycenaean cultures. The language of these records is Greek, though the Greek is not written in the letters of the Greek alphabet. The archaic script used is that which archaeologists have classified under the title of “Linear B”.

Following up the work of Schliemann, Sir Arthur Evans discovered at Knossos in Crete a multitude of baked clay tablets impressed with Linear B writing, though the script was not then deciphered and was not thought to be Greek. In addition to the writing, these tablets often carried pictographs, comparable to the diagrammatic pictures which advertise the amenities of our motorway parking areas. These pictographs supplement the written records and thus helped in a complicated process of their decipherment.

Unfortunately, no historical records have so far been discovered. The clay tablets are largely records of accounts and inventories. But it is of present interest that many of these refer to the contents of the Palace armoury or ordnance depot at Knossos. The number of chariots stored in use in time of war ran into hundreds. Chariots also appear on sculptured bas-reliefs at Mycenae, apparently in battle scenes. There is no evidence that the Mycenaeans ever rode on horseback; another circumstance which connects them with the people described in Homer. It is interesting, also, to find evidence of chariots which seem to have been a standard issue to troops, not merely the personal property of aristocratic leaders. The method of storing chariots was evidently systematic – records are interpreted to mean that the car of a chariot was normally stacked separately from its wheels, or even dismantled into smaller components. One certainly gains the impression that chariot-fighting as practised by the Knossos régime was a much more highly organized form of combat than it appears to have been in Homer. At the same time, armies in peacetime normally present a more organized appearance than they do when examined in the heat of battle.

Chariots apart, the clay tablets provide information about arms and armour of various kinds. Some of the pictographs are more realistic than others; but even with these, difficulties of interpretation arise. Swords, for instance, cannot be easily distinguished from daggers. Even the Greek word which in Homer normally means a sword is suspected in its Mycenaean context of indicating specifically thrusting weapons, which would include daggers. Objects which are more difficult to represent, such as protective body-covering, present even greater problems to the archaeologists.


The ruined city now identified as Priam’s Troy was first excavated by Schliemann on the hillock at Hissarlik in north-west Asia Minor, where ancient Troy is traditionally supposed to have stood. It shows signs of having been destroyed by fire and violence and stands on the ruins of earlier cities, one of which appears to have been shattered by an earthquake. Greek legend also tells of an earlier Troy which was destroyed by Heracles. According to the story, the god Poseidon, who presided over earthquakes as well as the sea, contributed to the disaster. Archaeology confirms the existence of massive walls on this site – a further endorsement of the ancient tradition.

According to archaeological evidence, also, the burnt city of Troy must have flourished at the same time as did Mycenae in mainland Greece. Like Mycenae, other Mycenaean sites are characterized by the massive construction of their walls. These are built in a style known as “Cyclopean”; for the Greeks of later antiquity believed that they were the work of the Cyclopes, a legendary race of giants. Cyclopean walls are constructed of huge rough-hewn rocks piled one upon another, with smaller stones inserted to fill the inerstices which were inevitably left by their irregular contours. Near a gateway, however, blocks are often squared and laid in horizontal courses.

In distinguishing the gate areas thus, the Mycenaean builders may have had an eye merely to appearance; but they may also have been providing a more solid defence. In the ancient legends, an attempt to storm a city meant an attempt to storm a city gate. At Mycenae, a bastion projects near the main gate, from which missiles could be launched obliquely against an enemy in the gateway. Achilles, according to the testimony of the Cyclic poet, was killed while attacking the Scaean gate of Troy. A later legend had it that he was hit in the heel. Those who told the story obviously envisaged the fatal arrow as coming either from the flank or the rear.

Bastions flanking gateways can be found elsewhere in Mycenaean fortifications. This is wholly consistent with the literary evidence on early storming tactics. In the Theban War, which reputedly took place a generation earlier than the Trojan War (to cite the story on which the Greek dramatists based their works), each of the seven commanders who led the assault on Thebes selected one of the city’s seven gates for attack. All seven leaders were unsuccessful, and six were killed.


When we compare archaeological with literary and traditional accounts of the Homeric world, we are faced with notable points of resemblance, as well as points of difference. Our assignment, therefore, of the Homeric epics to the realm of historical fiction seems justified. One cannot claim for these poems the status of history. Outstanding poetic merit is in itself an obstacle to the historian. For a poet tries to breathe the life of his own day into the dry bones of the remembered or recorded past. In striving to fuse the past with the world of his own immediate experience, he is inevitably hard put to avoid producing anachronisms.

In English literature, the romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table afford a comparable instance. They are purportedly based on the exploits of a Romano-British king whose legend dates from the European Dark Ages, but Arthur and his paladins wear the armour and assume the behaviour of French knights in the medieval age of chivalry. In addition to these diverse ingredients, it is also easy to detect in the Arthurian romances elements which derive from the history and religion of the pagan Celts of pre-Roman times. Such syncretism is often to be expected in traditional epic compositions.

Even in the drama of a historic period, much the same process may be detected. We do not condemn Shakespeare for alluding in Julius Caesar to a doublet, a clock and a book with pages; and in our own century, T. S. Eliot, as if to vindicate a poet’s freedom in this respect, deliberately introduced anachronisms into his treatment of a historic subject.

To expect Homer or any other poet who portrays a past epoch to provide us with history is to misunderstand the nature of literary art. However, the situation remains tantalising. There may often be elements of history in epic compositions, for the poet has neither the time nor the patience to invent his own history. But without the aid of external evidence it is impossible to distinguish history from fiction, even though we are certain that both are present. The difficulty arises wherever epic works have survived their sources; and archaeology, though its testimony may be uniquely vivid, only becomes a substitute for documentary tradition when it can point to history in the form of inscriptions or writing on some durable material.

Scholars are perennially tempted to relate homeric descriptions to archaeological discoveries in Greece and the Aegean area, because in many instances literary and archaeological evidence closely correspond. In other instances, however, they are strikingly discrepant.

Archaeology apart, discussion as to the date of the composition of the Homeric poems encounters a semantic difficulty. What is meant by composition? From a poetic point of view, Shakespeare’s description of Antony’s meeting with Cleopatra on the River Cydnus is Shakespeare’s composition, and Plutarch’s description of the same scene is the raw material with which he worked. But if our interests were entirely historical, we might claim with equal truth that Plutarch, or even one of the earlier writers on whom Plutarch based himself, was the composer of this record and that Shakespeare merely adapted it.

Our esteem for the Homeric poems of course derives from their poetic merit, and it is natural to adopt the language of literary criticism when discussing them. However, if we attempt to extract history from Homer, then this terminology may well prove misleading. At least, the meaning of the word “composition” must change, and when we talk of the date of a composition our meaning will change correspondingly. Not a poet, but his source lies closer to the contemporary accounts on which history is ultimately based.


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