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Homer’s Trojan War is not strict history, but generally taken to derive from a core of history and to have historical value as one of the few direct sources to survive for the values and behavior of Mycenaean and/or Dark Age ‘Greeks’ (as we now call them in English; ‘Achaeans’ to Homer).

The War as portrayed by Homer was caused by the ‘theft’ of the Greek King Menelaus’ beautiful wife Helen by a Trojan prince. After a long war the Greeks sack Troy in reprisal and get Helen back, restoring Menelaus’ family honour.

However, in the course of the war the Greeks sacked numerous other cities. Achilles boasts of sacking twenty-three cities (Iliad Book 9: twelve taken in seaborne raids and eleven by land) “and took much fine treasure from each”; slaying the townsmen and enslaving the women.

Perhaps attacking other towns in the region served a military purpose towards capturing Troy and getting Helen back. However, Homer’s Greeks (e.g. the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles) seem far more interested in how to share out loot and captive girls from the towns they capture than in any strategic purpose.

Odysseus sacks Ismaros on his way home, after Troy was already reduced to ashes and Helen returned to her husband (Odyssey, early Book 9), so even if the people of that country had been allies of Troy there was no longer any apparent military need to attack them.

So, was the Trojan War, for the Greeks who Homer treats as heroes, a glorified excuse to behave like pirates and rob and enslave a whole country, not minding that they left thousands dead in the process?

If so, I understand that such things attracted less disapproval 3,000 years ago than now.

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    Sacking cities was an acceptable way to wage war; your question effectively reads, "Why did Homer's Greeks engage in warlike activities during wartime?"
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:00
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    I am by no means a scholar of ancient Greek, but I would suspect that troops back then needed at least food and pay to stay in line. I also suspect that they would not be supplied by ship from the homeland; i.e. they "lived off the land", which includes sacking cities. If you look at the Fourth Crusade, that one set out to "liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims", but ended up sacking Constantinople -- capital of a Christian kingdom...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:37
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    To gild the lilly, I think "such things attracted less disapproval 3,000 years ago" should read "such things attracted strong approval and enthusiasm 3,000 years ago". This was a warrior culture - the only valid way to increase wealth and glory was through warfare. Warriors fought wars; all other activities were lesser activities.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:39
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    @MarkC.Wallace: Well, they took the loot, and the women. Call it "spoils of war". Call it "pay". I suspect your troops will be much more happy with that than without...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:41
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    such things attracted less disapproval 3,000 years ago than now There's no need to go as far as 3000 years backwards. For example, think of Spanish conquest of Aztec empire - weren't they basically the same "pirates who robbed and enslaved a whole country" yet treated as heroes by their contemporaries?
    – Matt
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:56

6 Answers 6

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You're looking at this with 21st century eyes. Back then, pillaging and looting were part of war. It was customary to let your troops plunder for a few days (typically three) after winning a siege – doing so basically was how you'd pay your troops.

A few examples of atrocities that shocked by the standards of the time:

  • After the Romans defeated Carthage, they sold its population into slavery, and burnt and razed it to the ground. The event was unusual in that the Romans additionally salted the grounds for good measure.

  • After the Crusaders captured Jerusalem for the first time, they massacred the Muslim and Jewish population wholesale, leaving few survivors behind.

  • The Sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade went down in history as one that a 20th century author described as having been "on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable".

  • The Mongols practiced the "promise" of wholesale execution, which is best described as a form of psychological warfare: they'd massacre every last person in cities that would resist them, bar a few survivors who were then let loose so they could spread the word that resistance should not be an option.

  • During the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-1678, Turenne shocked Europe in 1674 by plundering the Palatinate far and wide, essentially burning the whole region to the ground, in an scorched earth effort to cause logistics-related problems to Imperial troops arriving as reinforcements.

At the other extreme, history also tells us of milder sacks and unusually generous surrender terms:

  • When the Visigoths sacked Rome, it shocked contemporaries but it was actually restrained by the standards of the time: there was no general slaughter of the inhabitants, the two main basilicas of Peter and Paul were nominated places of sanctuary, and most of the city survived intact – though stripped of its valuables.

  • When the Vandals sacked Rome a few years later, they were a bit more thorough – staying 14 days vs three, with a bit more damage done. But Pope Leo I had persuaded Genseric to not raze the city or kill the population wholesale – certainly a welcome concession.

  • Saladin, in stark contrast with the First Crusaders, offered the Christians surprisingly generous terms by the time's standards when he reconquered Jerusalem. He went as far as allowing many families who could not afford their ransom to leave, against the wishes of his treasurers.

Mindsets and the standards of troop behavior eventually evolved. Restraint was expected by the early 20th century. To illustrate this, consider how Kaiser Wilhelm II sent his German troops to China as part of the punitive expedition against the Boxer Rebellion: he instructed them to show no restraints and basically 'behave like Huns'. The anecdote is particularly telling, but not because it shocked some at the time or because it was used a few years later for WW1 propaganda purposes. Rather, because a few centuries earlier it would have been so commonplace to 'behave like Huns' that it would not have been worth mentioning. Times had changed. Times had changed.

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    "After the Romans defeated Carthage, they sold its population into slavery, and burnt and razed it to the ground. The event was unusual in that the Romans additionally salted the grounds for good measure." The part where they sold the Carthaginians into slavery wasn't shocking. It was the claim of salting the ground and leveling the city. FWIW, I think that's exaggerated, because Carthage became a wealthy territory within the Roman empire. Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 21:34
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    As an addition, earlier in the Punic war in Sicily, the Romans laid siege to and captured the town of Agrigentum, selling the entire population of around 25k people into slavery. The Punic war was a harsh strain on the treasury for all involved and selling conquered populations into slavery to re-coup war costs (or fund continuing war efforts) is relatively commonplace that it wasn't really a shock
    – Twelfth
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 19:48
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Really, the values of that time were pretty different. Every Greek in the war is a bloodthirsty warrior aiming for glory. They all know that gods are likely to bless or curse them if they do something, this is what they call "fate". Even if they are Greeks fighting Greeks, the others that died by their hands "deserved" it, it was the Gods' agendas. Or else they would be cursed afterwards...

So Homer's portrayal of the Greeks as warmongers is pretty much normal. After all, Athena might come to help the innocent bystanders if they are truly innocent, so why bother? It's much better to follow your urges than repress them, at least, in this early Greek portrayal.

Also, "Greece" was not united. Every city could become an enormous empire by invading the others, they weren't really close to each other. This is quite similar to early China (before Qin united everything.). They think they belong to the same cultural core, but each of these is comprised of a subdivision of the Hellenic culture. That's also why life in Sparta was different than life in Athens.

Let's simply say that Homer didn't wish to show Greeks as pirates but more as badasses that are totally able to wreck whatever stands in the way of their desires.

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  • I would suggest revising. The answer seems to speak for the mindset of all Greeks fighting in war. Surely not "ever" Greek was a bloodthirsty warrior? Nor did soldiers all look to Athena and other gods for deliverance or favor.
    – rougon
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:52
  • Oh, I'd like some help in editing then! I was merely talking of the Greeks depicted by Homer
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 13:57
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    Sources would improve the answer - and help to resolve the issue raised by rougon. (I think they had a special name for warriors who weren't bloodthirsty - they called them either "cowards" or "casualties")
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:12
  • That sounds so much like something Conan the Barbarian could say. But well. I'm looking for sources, might take some time...
    – LamaDelRay
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:36
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    Paris following his urges is what started the war, and Homer does not treat Paris well. Agamemnon following his urges and not considering others is what fires the wrath of Achilles, and the Achaeans are decidedly not badasses who beat up everything in their path; much of the plot in the Iliad is how badly everything goes for them when Achilles is not there to help. The character that gets the most sympathy is Hector, who is defending his home and family, and for the most part not out to earn glory or take lands.
    – andejons
    Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 14:44
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You mention correctly that what is described in Homer is not exactly history. But to answer this question we may suppose it is.

The general principle is that when seriously discussing history one should not impose the modern labels, and discuss it in the terms and notions of the time when it happened. Yes, they were "slave traders" in the sense that they captured slaves and traded (exchanged) them. But at that time, this was a completely normal activity. And in many much later times, and in many other cultures. Same applies to sacking cities and killing all inhabitants. This was just a normal practice for many thousands years everywhere. Of which we have abundant evidence in the literature. In the Bible, for example.

The society notions on what is good and bad, and what is admissible change with time.

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  • Alex, thanks for your reply. I can see why up to a point "one should not impose the modern labels, and [should] discuss it in the terms and notions of the time when it happened." However, we can take that too far. If we were really to discuss this purely in the terms of the time, we would have to do so in Homeric Greek. English words you use like 'slave' or "city" may not mean quite the same as the equivalent words in Homer's Greek. I think we can still say e.g. "that seems to us piracy, and cruel, but people at the time would find it acceptable because..."
    – Timothy
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 17:06
  • I ran out of space to complete my last comment but (and it is hard to express my thoughts precisely) I think we can accept that values then were different from now but still distance ourselves from values then. Silly to condemn Achilles for not having the views of a modern Human Rights lawyer, but callous not to acknowledge that his values may have been cruel. Also, my original question was not primarily about moral judgment but motivation. Was sacking cities with looting, slaughter of men, enslavement of women etc. merely a consequence of the Trojan War, or the main reason to go to war?
    – Timothy
    Commented Aug 19, 2016 at 17:15
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Why did Homer’s Greeks sack so many cities in the Trojan War?

"Why" questions can have many different answers that involve different modes of explanation. LamaDelRay's answer gives an explanation mainly in terms of the culture's religious beliefs, which clearly makes a lot of sense if you take Homer as a description of how people really thought the universe worked.

A whole different mode of explanation would be game theory and biology. In terms of game theory, it's risky to carry out violence against another group unless you wipe them all out. If you leave some of them alive, even the children, then they may take revenge on you later. Biologically, evolution selects for behaviors that enhance reproductive success. Kidnapping the women and using them as sex slaves could clearly serve this purpose. None of this is nice, and it doesn't provide a moral justification, nor do these explanations require that the actors consciously understand them. (Chimpanzees display similar behavior, and they probably don't understand why they do what they do.)

By the way, Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of our Nature has a lengthy discussion of Homer on pp. 4-6. In it, he talks about the religious factors pointed out by LamaDelRay. Elsewhere in the book he gives the game theory and biological explanations for genocide and mass rape. (His main point in the discussion of ancient cultures seems to be to attack the myth that total war and genocide are a modern phenomenon, or that modern war is more deadly than war was in the ancient world.)

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  • I have not yet read Steven Pinker's book but I have recently read Jonathan Gottschall's little book 'The Rape of Troy' which also applies evolutionary and anthropological explanations to the kinds of behaviour portrayed by Homer, to me convincingly. One of his conclusions is that for men to habitually gamble their lives in war and raiding in hope of capturing slave women concubines and winning wealth & prestige to make themselves desirable marriage partners makes most sense in a society there is a shortage of women, suggesting infanticide predominantly of girls was already being practiced.
    – Timothy
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 13:11
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Think Bronze Age Collapse. The entire civilized world of the late Bronze Age went down in about 1077 BCE. Of the existing civilizations (Hittites, Assyrians, Canaan, Ugarit, Sidon, Tyre, etc,) all collapsed and only the Egyptians did not. They nevertheless fought the "Sea Peoples".

It starts with droughts and fires followed by earthquakes. Displaced seagoing people become marauders. They head off looking for cities to sack, since their own City States are in chaos and can't sustain them.

Cities that collapsed in Anatolia: Troy, Miletus, Hattusa, Mersin, Tarḫuntašša.

In Cyprus: Palaeokastro, Kition, Sinda, Enkomi.

In Syria: Ugarit, Tell Sukas, Kadesh, Qatna, Hama, Alalakh, Aleppo, Emar.

And, in case you were thinking that it was all right back home for Agamemnon's followers, these Greek cities show evidence of collapse: Teichos Dymaion (el), Pylos, Nichoria, Menelaion, Tiryns, Mycenae, Thebes, Lefkandi, Iolkos, Knossos, Kydonia.

My source for the list of cities above is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Bronze_Age_collapse

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    Wasn't the Trojan War supposedly about 1250 BCE, which would put it some 70 years before the collapse you're describing?
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 10:55
  • I have no idea. Was it then? The archaeologists place the fall of Troy within the Bronze Age Collapse. The date 1077 is only accurate for Egypt as I understand it, and the collapse was protracted - but 173 years is a stretch. Eratosthenes gives 1184BCE for the Fall. This article suggests 'around 1200BCE'. theconversation.com/fall-of-troy-the-legend-and-the-facts-92625
    – Mike Cope
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 13:55
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    Might add to your answer that wikipedia considers greeks as a possible source of the sea people. Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 14:03
  • Thanks. The Iliad records that Achilles sacked 25 cities. Mr Sacks. That is certainly up there with the Sea People and I am open to the possibility that parts of the Collapse's turmoil produced "Achilles" and other parts the Sea People or the marauders who burned Ugarit.
    – Mike Cope
    Commented Nov 11, 2021 at 14:28
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The Achaeans and others sacked many hillforts because "state of Troy" was an area of about 450 hillforts.

Also, the conquerors were frustrated and hungry because the war persisted for 10 years (I am talking about theory – Troy is in Istria).

Many of the hillforts were placed near the rivers and sea gulfs. The city of Ismaros you could recognize in the northern part of Istria, in Slovenian city Šmarje (Ismaros = I-SMAR-OS = Smar-ios = Šmarje).

Also, the Kikonians have today's toponym-village Kikovija in the highlands in the east of Istria. Achilles was angry at Agamemnon, and he wanted his part.

Another problem was: they had to bring something to their homes after ten years of war.

Some critics say Homer's story is not exactly history (because location of Hisarlik is not adequately), but when you read Homer with vision of Istrian peninsula, everything is in harmony.

One important fact: It is not a story of the Greeks; Homer never used the word "Greeks". The Achaeans came from Dalmatia.

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    The Achaeans came from Dalmatia Does that includes Menelaus, Agamemnon or Ajax ?
    – Evargalo
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 13:11
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    Sources would improve this answer :) Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 14:07
  • Very good question.That includes Agamemnon and Menelaus. .Agamemnon's state was near Omiš in Dalmatia,there is a surname -Jadrijević,-means -Atreus,and surname -Menalo -means Menelaus.Sparta of Menelaus was near Dalmatia, in Herzegovina .Aiax (big) came from todays Pelopones,Little Aiax maybe from land near Dubrovnik (Locrida-Lokrum near Dubrovnik).Homeric Mycenae is not the acropolis city,it is posted in the valey. Wrong Schliemann's Mycenae is one of the hillforts of Argos.
    – historicus
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 14:14
  • Description of Mycenae is very poor (zero).Homer says in Agamemnon state only Gonoesa is acropolis-hill fort.Homer is source,but he says "Mycenae reach with gold",only this.In front of coast of state Agamemnon's Mycenae there are -GIR rocks,todays island ŽIRJE in Dalmatia (GIR=ŽIR).
    – historicus
    Commented Mar 7, 2018 at 18:23

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