Summary of the history

The story of Helen and the Trojan War was a Charter Myth for the Ionian migration in the same way the story of Heracles' children claiming their inheritance was a charter for the Dorian invasion. These stories functioned as political banners and were actively promoted by leaders of those movements, in this case: a channeling of migration from all over Greece to Ionia, through Athens. It is easy to see why: travel through today's western Turkey and you will see that the floodplains of the rivers 'Gediz' and 'Büyük Menderes', then called the Hermus and the Meander, are prize land, larger and more fertile than any land in mainland Greece. A nice powerbase for any clan with royal aspirations. If this is true, it is easy to see that the Iliad is a very political poem and that the poet would need a 'hidden' level of meaning to discuss these topics. Ionia in Homers day was a society under threat of war and Homer was writing about this war. Although he created an epic distance by, for instance, not mentioning Ionia and by stressing the fact that these stories took place a long time ago ("conscious archaization"), he still would have made a lot of enemies by his anti-war stance. He effectively says: "Zeus will give us Troy one day, but not now".
I place Homer in Smyrna, and Smyrna's Troy was Sardis, the main stronghold of the not-yet-unified Lydians. These were the people that Smyrna built its imposing wall against though that did not stop the Lydians sacking their city by the end of the 7th century.

The Iliad, while set in Homer's past, is about a crisis of his present day: the failure of the Ionian migration. "νῦν ἄμμε παλιμπλαγχθέντας : now that we have been rebuffed" (Il 1.59). This was a movement, organized/stimulated by a powerful family in Athens called the Neleids, rulers in Pylos in the past and probably a "great house" dating back to Mycenaean times, even claiming descendance from Poseidon. They found a new powerbase in Athens but they had branches everywhere. In the Iliad they are represented by Nestor and Poseidon).

The aim of this Greece-wide policy was to increase the stability of the mainland by emigration of landless younger sons of nobles and other 'superfluous' men. With these people they would slowly build an army in Ionia, aiming to conquer the two great floodplains of the Hermus and the Maeander. The important Greek cities in this plan, in Homer's time, were Smyrna and Miletus.

map of ionia
from: Bos schoolatlas, Map of Ionia

A glance at the map will show how little they succeeded. After a number of generations of this Ionian migration they still found themselves on a small strip of land on the coast, 'leaning against the shore', as Homer calls it, unable to defeat the inhabitants of the plains who were both numerous and skilled in fighting. This caused a crisis for, while immigration went on, the available land did not grow. So the Neleids' plan had to be put on hold, emigration redirected to other lands. Miletus, for instance, even became the mother city to a large number of settlements elsewhere.


The focus of Homer's story seems to be on Smyrna, situated near the Hermus delta, separated from the plain by mountains. The Hermus plain, later to become Lydia the richest country of the time, was not yet unified but it was led to a degree from a high, impregnable stronghold called Sardis.

the acropolis of Sardis
from: Sardis, G.M.A. Hanfmann

As the poet Mimnermus of Colophon (his name means 'remember the Hermus') testifies, troops from Colophon and Smyrna fought many a battle in this plain, without success.

Sardis is Smyrna's Troy. Homer carefully avoids all mention of Smyrna and Sardis or any open reference to the contemporary situation. We may suppose that the whole cycle of stories about Menelaos and Helen and the thousand ships that sailed to get her back, functioned like a herecharter myth for the migrants to justify their conquering 'Troy'. Living in a city at war, it is a dangerous thing to say "you can't win this" and that is exactly what Homer is doing, as well as criticizing the in-revenge-for-Helen concept. The situation in Smyrna in his day must have been very feverish and tense. While they went on the attack sometimes, the very presence of their enormous city wall also shows that they were under real threat. The story of the second city on the shield (Il 18.509-40) may be a glimpse of the situation. The climax of the Iliad is the freeing of the beleaguered Achaean 'city' (it's a shipcamp with a wall) by Achilles, the 'Hero of the counter-attack'. Its conclusion is: defend your city with all your might, but do not go to the gates of Troy for it will be your death.


The Greeks could not win on the battlefield. There is a simple reason behind this. They were excellent warriors, somewhat later they they became very popular as mercenaries. But the locals were a match for them, if only because there were many more of them. And there were two river plains to conquer so they had to beat two armies. If all the Ionian cities came together as one army of a few thousand men, they could possibly conquer one of the floodplains. But then they would have to leave their cities defended by "old men and children" and open to attack by an army from the other plain. So this never happened.

Homer says (Il 8.557-9): 1000 fires burning with 50 Trojans and allies each. Hanfmann estimates the population size of The Hermus plain in Croesus' time (later than Homer) at 40-80.000. So even if Poseidon could shout like 10.000 men (Il 14.148) it would hardly be enough to conquer one of the river plains.

Homer hints at another policy, the only thing the Greeks could do: wage a war of attrition. See for instance the scene on Achilles' shield "the city at war", Il 18.509-. Also, the repeated mention of the λόχος, the ambush, as the measure of a man's courage (cf. the name Ἀντίλοχος, "good enough for an ambush"). What they probably did was slowly enlarging their territory by terrorizing neighbouring farms and villages, killing the men and abducting the women if they could. If a revenge attack came by a large army, they could withdraw behind Smyrna's strong wall. See Il 5.784- where Hera shouts like 50 men (the typical number for an ambush) and Ares shouts in reply like 10000 men (Il 5.860). There is another hint in the Odyssey, where Odysseus tells (a lying tale) about his "Egyptian" exploits, where they raided coastal villages but the population had inland relatives, more numerous and better armed (Od 17.426-).

The Ionian Migration may have been part of the original plan but at a certain moment (probably halfway the 8th century) it must have become clear that it was not working. Emigration was felt to be necessary but the destination would be elsewhere. This must have caused tension within the Greek aristocracy, after all, all the Neleids' work turned out to be for nothing. Ionia had to "choose the sea" as its domain. This they actually did and it turned out well for them. East was not a way they could go, as proved by the presence of the Lydians and later the Persians. So emigration was rerouted to the west and to the Black Sea.

  1. Every woman in these tales is 'the Prize' for the heroes, but especially Helen, Chryseis, Briseis, and Penelope in the Odyssey. But Homer does go beyond this and depicts the women as actual human beings.