Historicism, in various new and not-so-new guises, dominates most contemporary academic literature departments. It has become something close to heresy to suggest that any literary work could be studied without close reference to the specific place, time, and culture in which it was produced. Literature does not express timeless truths about human nature— or, at least, you would sound like a simpleton if you said so at an academic conference. Rather, literature articulates the ideas and values of its own time, according to older, Hegelian forms of historicism. Or literature "negotiates" the "power dynamics" of its own time, according to the newer, post-Foucaultian versions. These positions each have something to be said for them: Both respond, in different ways, to the obvious fact that literature is not produced independently of its author and his or her society— as radical forms of literary formalism might suggest. But the triumph of historicism is a pity, not least because the dominance of any orthodoxy tends to deaden the critical faculties.
But let's look on the bright side. The return of historicism has meant that, in some cases, the enterprises of academics have moved an inch or two closer toward the interests of the general public. We want to know how fictions reflect reality.
The Iliad and TheOdyssey excite more historical curiosity than most works of literature. To be sure, the poems contain elements that are obviously mythical. In TheOdyssey, there are the fabulous, ever-fertile gardens of Alcinoüs, the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, or the bow that nobody but Odysseus can string. Although The Iliad has fewer monsters and marvels, its mode is hardly that of realism. Historians' accounts of the fortunes of war do not usually include the councils of the gods, who may whisk a favored hero from battle or blind the soldiers with divine mist.
But both poems include details that apparently reflect ordinary life in archaic Greece. There are princes who co-sleep on windy verandas, royal houses with only one chair, babies frightened by war gear, princesses who do the laundry and like playing catch. Ordinary domestic life gets mixed up with mythical exploits. What, then, of the Trojan War itself? Did it ever take place at all? Modern scholarship suggests that the poems do, indeed, reflect historical events—but in a complex and unhistorical way. Rediscovering Homer—a new book by an independent scholar, Andrew Dalby—offers a concise account of the evidence, including ancient Hittite and Egyptian documents, archaic Greek art, and archaeology. His book is helpful as a more-or-less reliable guide and summation of modern Homeric historical study, which should be accessible to readers with no specialist knowledge.
As Dalby notes, certain aspects of the Troy story probably are based on real events or real people. There really was a city called Ilios, known to the ancient Hittites as Wilusa. The ancient settlement of Troy/Ilios/Ilium/Wilusa was built on the coast of what is now western Turkey. Archaeologists have found more than seven different layers of building on the site, each representing a catastrophic destruction, followed by reconstruction. The heyday of Troy was the second millenium B.C., the period known as Troy VI. This version of the city seems to have withstood all attacks for more than 600 years, between about 1900 B.C. and 1250 B.C., when it suffered a vast earthquake—possibly reflected in the later traditions about the anger of Poseidon, the earth shaker, against Troy and her people. The city was built up again (as Troy VIIa), but probably only about a hundred years later, it was destroyed by fire.
It is, therefore, possible that the fall of Troy VIIa happened more or less as the poems tell it: The Achaeans and their allies sailed in their black ships to Troy, to besiege, conquer, and torch the city, killing and enslaving its inhabitants. Maybe they included a leader called Agamemnon and a hot-headed young fighter called Achilles. Maybe they had some trouble getting back home again. But there is no way of knowing. We can be certain, though, that the poems lump together events that must have been years apart—for example, it places the earthquake and the later invasion in a single narrative framework.