The Allies of Priam

I must admit that not so long ago I tended to consider the Trojan War as a legend, with more mythology in it than history: neither in its cause nor in its conduct did this conflict seem to reflect historical events. The cause of the war, according to tradition, was a seduction or abduction of the spouse of one of the Helladic chiefs; and this, we are told, raised the leaders of all Hellas to undertake a mobilization and campaign to the coast of Asia and to endure hardships for ten years, leaving their own spouses to be ravished or besieged by suitors in the meantime. And if Hissarlik is the site of Troy, there is the additional incongruity of a great war effort the goal of which was to capture a fortress occupying not much more than two acres of land (Troy VIIa)—so Carl Blegen, the last excavator of the site. And what of the participation of Ares, Athene, Zeus, and other divinities? The emphasis is on the courage and proficiency of a few single heroes who trace their descent, and in some cases even their parenthood, to various deities and other mythological figures (Thetis in the case of Achilles).

With the end of the siege of ten years’ duration and the fall of Troy, the navy of the Achaeans—of which the second book of the Iliad gives a record enumerating the number of ships that carried the warriors from each of the cities1—is as if no more existent. Victory and triumph are followed by only a few wretched returns home. Nothing is heard of the return to Greece of the Achaeans, victorious in war, as an organized force. We hear of single warriors, like Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition, returning only to find violent death waiting for him in his own town and house or, like Odysseus, spending another ten years striving to reach home by a round-about way. Those of the heroes who succeed in returning find their wives, some faithful, some unfaithful, some in cohort with their scheming lovers and having to be avenged by their children—but little is said of the continuing royal houses, whether of Agamemnon in Mycenae, or of Menelaus in Sparta, or of Odysseus in Ithaca, or of Nestor in Pylos.

Then in a matter of hardly half a generation a curtain descends on Achaean Greece, which presumably for close to five hundred years presents only a picture of void enveloped in primeval darkness. Nothing is known of the subsequent history of these city states, the personal tragedies having ended in family blood-baths. It is as if in the theater the curtain descended for the last time, the lights are extinguished, the hall hurriedly locked, and then five hundred years of impenetrable darkness. Yet a success of the protracted expedition, if undertaken, as some scholars have theorized, to protect the marine route through the Hellespont, across the Black Sea, and to the Caucasian coast, should have made the Hellenes, having forged their national unity in war, exploit the success by expansion of overseas trade and traffic.

The curtain of darkness descends also on Troy—and the void endures there almost as long as in Greece, though it is presumed that some wretched inhabitants settled in hovels, but not before centuries passed. Of the defenders of Troy, from among those who survived the siege, we read also very little—as if they evaporated into thin air—with the exception of Aeneas and his household; and he, like Odysseus, spends a decade or so in wanderings, before reaching Italy.

Strangely, in that substantial portion of the enormous literature on the Trojan War and Troy that I consulted, I scarcely ever found a discussion of the nationality of the people of Troy.2

In the Iliad they are regularly referred to as “the people of Priam,” their king, but this is not an ethnic designation.

Thus while it is known that the besiegers of Troy were Achaeans, also called Danaans, and it is generally accepted that they were Mycenaean Greeks—actually the last generation of them, sometimes designated as the Heroic Generation—the question of which race were the people of Priam was left unanswered by Homer. But at least let us look at Priam’s allies. Here some clear indications come to the fore; and if we are still not helped in our pursuit—which nation did the Achaeans fight at Troy?—at least we see a ray of hope that, by knowing the allies we may be guided to the proper time. By knowing the correct century of the events we may obtain an insight into the interplay of nations and races and perhaps come to realize the true reason for the conflict that summoned the Achaean host to the Troad, the region surrounding Troy.

Phrygians are named as allies of Priam;3 also Ethiopians are counted among his allies. The identification of both these nations carries indications as to the century to which the most famous war of ancient times needs to be ascribed.

Of the Phrygians it is told that their origin stems from Thrace, north of Macedonia, west of the Hellespont. The time of their migration to Asia Minor is not known. No Phrygian antiquities from before the first half of the eighth century have been found,4 and the opinion is expressed that Homer’s reference to the Phrygians is an anachronism. It seems that in one of the earliest waves of the eighth century migrations the Phrygians moved from Thrace over the Hellespont to Asia Minor.

Tradition has it that the first king in their new domicile was Gordias, and the story of his selecting the site for his capital Gordion is a well known legend.5

The son of Gordias, Midas, is even more than his father an object of legendary motifs—whatever he touched turned to gold, he had the ears of an ass—yet he was a historical figure as well who, according to the chronicle of Hieronymus, reigned from -742 to -696.6

Soon the Phrygians came into conflict with the Assyrians who opposed the penetration of newcomers into central Asia Minor; and Sargon II (-726 to -705), the conqueror of Samaria and of the Israelite tribes, moved westward to stop the penetration of the Phrygians.7 Altogether the Phrygian kingdom in Asia Minor had a short duration.8 Already the Körte brothers, the early excavators of Gordion, noted that of the royal mounds (kurgans) only three could be dated before the Cimmerian invasion of the early seventh century which put an end to the Phrygian kingdom, and probably the number of royal successions did not exceed this number.9 Little is known of its history besides the fact that ca. -687 Gordion was overrun by the Cimmerians.

The Cimmerians came from the north, traversing the coastal routes of the Caucasus; their original homeland is often thought to have been the Crimea in southern Russia. They occupied Gordion, displacing the Phrygians westward, toward the Lydian kingdom and the Aegean coast. While the displaced Phrygians may have continued to live for a time in the western confines of Asia Minor, the year -687 saw the end of their kingdom.

It appears that the Cimmerians did not tarry for any length of time in Phrygia; like the Scythians, a nomadic race from the steppes of Russia, who soon followed them on the coastal roads of the Caucasus, they were but transient conquerors. The time they came from their native land, -687 or soon thereafter,10 makes it quite certain that they were put on their migration by the natural events of that year—described at some length in Worlds in Collision:11 by the world-wide upheavals, earthquakes, frightening apparitions in the sky, as well as by the changes in climate that made many accustomed pursuits and agricultural practices obsolete. -687 (or possibly -701) was also the year that Sennacherib met his famous debacle as described in the books of Isaiah, II Kings, and II Chronicles, while threatening Jerusalem with capture and its population with eviction and exile.

Phrygians as allies of Priam, in the hinterland of the Troad, in conflict with the Cimmerians, themselves pursued by the Scythians, would limit the period of the Trojan War to the years between -720 and -687.

After the passing of the Cimmerians, Phrygia was exposed to the occupation and influence of neighboring states, in particular to that of the Lydian Kingdom to the west, with its capital at Sardis. Lydia was ruled by Gyges, a great king who played a conspicuous role in the politics of the Near East. He was on friendly terms with Assurbanipal, grandson of Sennacherib, king of Assyria; then, feeling the threat of the growing Assyrian empire, he supported Egypt’s rise to independence: he sent Ionian and Carian detachments to Psammetichus, king of Egypt, which enabled that country to free itself from the supremacy of Assyria.

The Homeric epics were created on the Asia shore of Asia Minor; it is most probable that Homer was a contemporary of Gyges, king of Lydia.12

This view was also offered and supported with arguments by Emile Mireaux; moreover, Mireaux ascribed also the very events of the poems to the time of Gyges.13

The allies of Priam also included Ethiopians under Memnon;14 the Ethiopian allies of Priam must date in all probability to the period when the Ethiopians were one of the most honored nations, highly regarded for their military prowess. What is called here Ethiopians were actually Sudanese: in Egyptian history the Ethiopian Dynasty and their most glorious period is dated from ca. -712 to -663, when Ashurbanipal pursued Tirhaka to Thebes, occupied it, and expelled the Ethiopian from Egypt proper. The tradition concerning Memnon, the Ethiopian warrior who came to the help of Troy, would reasonably limit the time of the conflict also to the end of the eighth and the beginning of the seventh century.15 The possibility of an Ethiopian landing at Troy in the days of the Ethiopian pharaoh Tirhaka need not be dismissed because of the remoteness of the place: as just said, close to the middle of the seventh century, and possibly at an earlier date, Gyges, the king of Sardis, sent in the reverse direction Carian and Ionian mercenaries to assist the Egyptian king Psammetichus in throwing off the Assyrian hegemony.

Thus it seems that if the participants in the Trojan War all belong to the eighth-seventh century, Homer, who is thought to have lived at the end of the eighth century or the beginning of the seventh, must have been either a contemporary of the siege of Troy, or separated from it by one generation only.

A correct historical placement of the Trojan War may contain a clue to its real cause: we can surmise that the Helladic city-states, alarmed by rumors of hordes of Cimmerians, preceded by dispossessed Phrygians, pushing towards the Hellespont, united under the leadership of Agamemnon and moved across the Aegean sea to preclude the invasion of their land, should the migrating Cimmerians or displaced Phrygians attempt to cross the straits into mainland Greece. Troy was located in the vicinity of the Hellespont, crossed by armies in ancient times, by Alexander, by Darius I, and by other conquerors before them.

While the Greek expedition may have had some limited success, its forces were wrecked and dispersed in the natural upheavals that accompanied the fall of Troy.


  1. See below, section “Mycenaean City Names in the Iliad.”

  2. Cf. Strabo, Geography XII.8.7.

  3. Actually, repeated reference to Phrygians as Priam’s allies leaves the question open whether Priam’s people were not Phrygians themselves.

  4. Ekrem Akurgal writes that their “first archaeological traces appear in the middle of the eighth century.” Ancient Civilizations and Ruins of Turkey, (Istanbul, 1970), p. 14.

  5. Arrian, The Anabasis of Alexander, II.3; Justin, XI.7; G. and A. Koerte, Gordion (Berlin, 1904) pp. 12ff.; R. Graves, The Greek Myths (London, 1955), no. 83.

  6. [Eusebius Werke, ed. R. Helm (Leipzig, 1913), vol. VII, pp. 89, 92.] Modern historians usually calculate the date of Midas’ death as -676. It was under Midas that the Phrygian kingdom reached the peak of its power, as archaeology also attests. See R. S. Young, “Gordion: Preliminary Report, 1953” in American Journal of Archaeology 59 (1955), p. 16.

  7. [According to Assyrian records, Sargon’s campaign against Midas and the Phrygians, which took place in -715, was the result of Midas’ conspiring with the king of Carchemish against Assyria. See M. Mellink, “Mita, Mushki, and the Phrygians,” Anadolu Arastirmalari (Istanbul, 1955). E. Akurgal, Die Kunst Anatoliens, p. 70; P. Naster, L’Asie mineure et l’Assyrie (Louvain, 1938), p. 37. Sargon’s expedition was, however, not altogether successful in pacifying the region, and continuing disturbances brought Sargon several more times to the defense of his northwestern frontier; he finally met his death there in battle in -705.]

  8. [R. S. Young, the excavator of Gordion, estimated a period of “a half century” or more for the flourishing of Phrygian culture at the site—“The Nomadic Impact” in Dark Ages and Nomads, p. 54. No Phrygian presence can be recognized in the archaeology until the middle of the eighth century—and soon after the start of the seventh, about the year 676 B.C., the Phrygian kingdom was destroyed in the catastrophic Cimmerian invasion. This is also when Midas met his end (by suicide, according to Eusebius, (Chron. p. 92) and Strabo Geography I. 3. 21), and his capital Gordion was burned to the ground. The Cimmerian destruction level was found in 1956; see Young, Gordion 1956: Preliminary Report” in American Journal of Archaeology 61 (1957) p. 320. Cf. also idem, “The Nomadic Impact: Gordion” pp. 54f.]

  9. [Gustav and Adolf Körte, Gordion (Berlin, 1904). Young, “The Excavations at Yassihuyuk-Gordion, 1950” in Archaeology 3 (1950) pp. 196-199. The non-royal tumuli were much more numerous. A royal tomb, perhaps of Gordias, was excavated in 1957—Young, “The Royal Tomb at Gordion,” Archaeology 10 (1957) pp. 217-219.]

  10. In the Odyssey (XI.14) there is reference to the land of the Cimmerians; and if Homer knew of the presence of the Cimmerians in Asia Minor, then the scene is not earlier than -687.

  11. Herodotus, Bk. IV.

  12. The dates of Gyges’ reign are given as -687 to -652 by H. Gelzer and as -690 to -657 by H. Winckler.

  13. E. Mireaux, Les poèmes homériques et l’histoire grecque, (Paris, 1948-49).

  14. [In the Odyssey (III.111-2) Nestor recalls the death of his son Antilochos who died by the spear of “the glorious son of shining Dawn,” (Od. IV.185-202) which is the epithet reserved for Memnon. Later in the Odyssey the Ethiopian warrior is mentioned by name as “great Memnon.” (Od. XI. 522)

  15. Those called here Ethiopians actually were the inhabitants of what is today Sudan. Cf. Mireaux, Les poèmes homériques et l’histoire grecque, vol. I, ch. iv.