Competing for a Greater Antiquity

The date of Trojan War is traditionally placed in the beginning of the twelfth century before the present era: this tradition goes back to Eratosthenes, a Greek scholar in the employ of Ptolemy III Euergetes in the third pre-Christian century. He calculated that the last year of the ten-year-long siege of Troy fell in the year that in the modern calendar corresponds to -1183.1

This date is still upheld today by many scholars—a very unusual case of adherence to a chronological computation made over twenty-two centuries ago, and dealing with an event presumably nine hundred years earlier.2 In antiquity some other, differing calculations were made, too,3 but that of Eratosthenes survived until our time as the conventional date of Troy’s fall. Only in recent years has a trend showed itself among the Homeric scholars to remove the date in question by a few decades into the past4—into the thirteenth century: with the chronological scheme arranged according to the timetable of Egyptian history, certain advantages were seen in moving the Trojan War to greater antiquity than the inroad of the Peoples of the Sea into Egypt, computed to have taken place in -1174.5 Eratosthenes, however, did not connect in any way the events that took place in the days of Ramses III with the Trojan expedition.

Was there any special intent in Eratosthenes’ effort to place the Trojan War more than nine centuries before his own time? If his motive was to prove that the Greeks were an ancient nation, then his reasoning should be viewed as tendentious. This is, in fact, the case.

When the Greeks under the leadership of Alexander of Macedon subjugated Mesopotamia and Egypt, and soon thereafter established there Greek dynasties of Seleucus and Ptolemy, and introduced the Greek language and Hellenistic civilization, the erudites in what was once Babylonia and equally so in Egypt felt an urge to prove to their conquerors that they, the conquered, belonged to cultures more exalted, because more ancient. Berosus, a Chaldean priest who flourished in Babylon in the first part of the third century, wrote his famed Babyloniaca, or, us History of Babylonia and Chaldea, and in it he stretched the history of his land and nation to a gargantuan length. In order to do so he ascribed unnatural lengths of reign to earlier kings and also invented kings (his list largely disagrees with the cuneiform king-lists).6

Manetho—a Greek-writing Egyptian, and a contemporary of Berosus—composed under Ptolemy II Philadelphus the story of his nation, and a few passages from it are preserved by Josephus; his genealogies of kings and dynasties are preserved in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, Pamphilius, Eusebius, and Julius Africanus.7

The regnal years ascribed to single Manethonian dynasties (30 in number until shortly before the arrival of Alexander in Egypt) are excessively long: kings are often invented—no monumental confirmation of the existence of many of them was ever found; complete dynasties were invented by him, too. Like Berosus, Manetho tried to impress the Greek masters with the fact that his nation was already ancient when the Greeks only began to emerge from their barbarous state.

Such an attitude toward the Greeks was already expressed almost three centuries earlier in the narrative of the priest of Sais to Solon as told in the Timaeus by Plato. Because of written records stored in their temples, the Egyptians were aware of the past of their land, “so this is why among us here oldest traditions still prevail, and whenever anything great or otherwise noteworthy occurs, it is written down and preserved in our temples, . . . [but] you and other nations that chance to be but recently endowed with the art of writing and civilized needs at stated turn of years there has recurred like a plague brought down upon you, a celestial current, leaving only an unlettered and uncivilized remnant, wherefore you have to begin all over again like children, without knowledge of what has taken place in older times in our land or in yours. . .”8

The same pride in the antiquity of the nation is found also in the narrative of another priest of Sais, a hundred years later, who gave the following account to Herodotus: From their first king until Sethos, the king-priest who was about to meet Sennacherib in battle when the latter’s host was destroyed by a natural cause, 341 generations passed. Calculating three generations to a century, Herodotus found that it would comprise 11,340 years9—quite a long time if we should consider that from the foundation of Rome to the present day not even a quarter of such time has passed.

When the Egyptians came under foreign domination they experienced an even greater need to impress their masters with the excellence of their culture and its duration, in order not to be counted as barbarians; they wished to provoke and sustain a feeling of admiration on the part of the subjugators. Such claims could produce in the Greeks a feeling of their own inadequacy and inferiority—they had, since their first contacts with the Egyptians, developed for them a feeling of respect bordering on awe, whereas to the Persians, despite the magnificence of their court and bearing, the Greeks applied the name “barbarians.” With excessive claims as to national antiquity the orientals were combatting their own feelings of shortcomings as politically subordinate nations.10

Eratosthenes was a contemporary of Manetho and Berosus. Born in Cyrenaica, he was of Greek origin. In his calculations of the time of the Trojan War he was evidently guided by the same motive as Berossus and Manetho, namely, to show the antiquity of his nation; the date of -1183 for the end of the Trojan War served that purpose.11

The “Dark Age” inserted between the Mycenaean and Ionic ages originated in the old calculations performed by Eratosthenes as to the time of the Trojan War, and on the reliance of modern historians of Greece on Egyptian chronology and order of dynasties as offered by Manetho; both them lived in Egypt in the Ptolemaic age in the third century before the present era. It is not excluded that Eratosthenes based himself on Manetho.12

However, neither Eratosthenes, nor before him Homer, nor any other Greek historian or philosopher ever referred to such a Dark Age;13 it is a creation of modern historians. But they found support for its historical existence in the Egyptian chronology built on Manetho’s list of dynasties—the Mycenaean Age was dated by the archaeologically documented contacts of Mycenaean sites with Egypt. Thus Eratosthenes found support in Manetho and Manetho in Eratosthenes.14


  1. Eusebius, Chronicle in Eusebius, Werke (Leipzig, 1913), vol. VII, p. 60. Cf. J. Forsdyke, Greece Before Homer (London, 1956) pp. 28ff.

  2. [A. R. Burn, Minoans, Philistines, and Greeks: B.C. 1400-900 (London, 1930) pp. 52-54: “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the traditional date of the Trojan War, 1194-84, adopted by Eratosthenes and more or less tentatively accepted in so many modern books, is absolutely worthless” being based on Eratosthenes’ “wild overestimate of the average length of a generation.” Cf. idem, “Dates in Early Greek History,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 55 (1935) pp. 130-146. Cf. also D. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad (University of California Press, 1959) p. 96, n. 159: ” (the date) given by Eratosthenes is nothing but a guess proceeding from flimsy premises which could not possibly have led to a scientific calculation.” Another writer adds: “sober historical judgement must discard the ancient chronological schemes in toto; they are nothing more than elaborate harmonizations of myths and legends which were known in later times and have no independent value whatever for historical purposes.” (G. Starr, The Origins of Greek civilization: 1100-650 B.C. (New York, 1961) p. 67.]

  3. Herodotus, for instance, put the Trojan War a little more than 800 years before his time, or ca. -1250. Appian dated it after the founding of Rome, traditionally put at -753 or -747.

  4. C. Blegen et al., Troy, vol. IV (1958) pp. 10-13 and idem, “The Mycenaean Age. The Trojan War, the Dorian Invasion, and Other Problems,” Lectures in Memory of Louise Taft Semple (Princeton, 1967) p. 31. Cf. also G. Mylonas, Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age (Princeton, 1966) p. 215.

  5. See I. Velikovsky, Peoples of the Sea, (Doubleday: New York, 1977).

  6. P. Schnabel, “Die babylonische Chronologie in Berossos Babyloniaca,” Mitteilungen, Vorderasiatisch-ägyptische Gesellschaft (1908). See also F. Cornelius, Berossus und die Altorientalische Chronologie, KLIO 35 (1942) pp. 1ff.

  7. See the volume Manetho in the Loeb Classical Library.

  8. Transl. by Rhys Carpenter in Discontinuity in Greek Civilization (Cambridge University Press, 1966) p. vii.

  9. Herodotus II. 142.

  10. Isaac Newton (The Chronologyes of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, [London, 1728]) recognized this hidden intent of Berosus and Manetho and therefore refused to give them credence as chronographers. Cf. Frank Manuel, Isaac Newton, Historian (Harvard University Press, 1963).

  11. [Eratosthenes allegedly relied on the Spartan king-lists to establish his chronology; in part he may have been influenced also by Manetho. But since the date he gives is identical to that computed by Ctesias, it is acknowledged that it was Ctesias’ writings which actually formed the basis of Eratosthenes’ system. Since antiquity scholars have questioned the reliability of Ctesias. Cf. the opinion of Plutarch in his Life of Artaxerxes; also Forsdyke, Greece Before Homer, pp. 68-79.]

  12. [Eratosthenes became librarian of the Library of Alexandria in -240, and must have had access to Manetho’s writings.]

  13. V. R. d’A. Desborough, The Greek Dark Ages (London, 1972) p. 321; A. M. Snodgrass, The Dark Age of Greece (Edinburgh, 1971) pp. 1-21.

  14. [As early as the fifth century, writers like Hekataeus and Herodotus (II.145) put the Trojan War into the 14th-12th centuries—they, too, were misled by the Egyptians. See for example the above-mentioned story told to Herodotus by a priest of Sais.]