Blood, bronze, and balony

A video about battles in the Bronze Age

With the recent release of the strategy game A Total War Saga: Troy, there has been a flood of videos about the Trojan War. Sadly, many of them are not very good. The recent video by Extra Credits on “Battles in the Bronze Age” is an example.

Josho Brouwers

On the 13th of this month, the strategy game A Total War Saga: Troy was released. It is the latest entry in the Total War series of videogames. In these games, you manoeuvre across a large map in a turn-based grand strategy layer, not too dissimilar from something like Civilization. But the focus is on warfare, and once you attack or have to defend, you can switch to a smaller scale map and fight a tactical battle.

A Total War Saga: Troy is the first in the series to be set in the Bronze Age, and is a deliberate attempt to historicize the story of the Trojan War. It is based in part on the Iliad by Homer, and the rest seems to have been cribbed form the 2004 movie Troy (about which we did a podcast). I’ve played the game a bit and will prepare a detailed review of the game once I’ve got more of a feel for it. I can see that it’s very pretty. It also has a few problems.

In any case, the release of a major piece of popular culture based on the Trojan War means that lots of people are interested in the Trojan War again. That’s a good thing! It also means that a lot of well-meaning souls on YouTube are creating videos to talk about the Trojan War. One such video which showed up in my YouTube feed was created by Extra Credits and is the second instalment in a series on the Trojan War. This one is on “Battles in the Bronze Age”.

I admit I usually don’t watch videos about the past on YouTube. Most of them are rife with errors. This one has several flaws and errors. It’s a pity, because the artwork is nice and I like the enthusiasm of the narrator. They’re clearly doing this because they love the subject matter. But there are a lot of problems with the video and the worst thing is: it has more than 150,000 views at the time of writing this review. And most of these mistakes can be avoided by simply consulting an expert.

I do appreciate how difficult it can be to make videos on YouTube. I recently worked as researcher and script writer for a series of videos on the Trojan War for Invicta History. The first one deals with Mycenaean chariots. There are some words that ended up in the video that I didn’t write, and some of the illustrations are a little off, but all in all I’m happy with how it turned out. Videos take a lot of work, but most problems, I would say, can be solved in the research and writing stage.

And with this preamble out of the way, let’s dig into this video by Extra Credits.

Achilles in his chariot

The opening of this video is great: Achilles is in his chariot, driving towards the Trojans. I’ll ignore the fact that Achilles would have had a charioteer drive him to the battle, because much of the effect would be lost. The punchline is that once Achilles gets close, he leaps off the chariot to fight on foot, instead of barrelling onwards. This is very much what happens in the Iliad. And it seems likely that this is also how chariots were used in the Aegean, as suggested by Joost Crouwel (1981).

After the message from the sponsor, at around the 0:42 mark, we are told that:

war in the Late Bronze Age was chaotic, violent, and very personal. It wasn’t the organized phalanxes of Classical Greece, marching rigidly to war. No, it was something different. Something more primal.

Comparing this to the “organized phalanxes of Classical Greece” is a can of worms I won’t open. We have an entire series on the website devoted to issues surrounding hoplites and phalanxes, so I would encourage you to check that out.

What is also weird is the suggestion that Bronze Age warfare was somehow more primitive than phalanx warfare (however the creators of this video define it). What is this notion based on? The outmoded idea that Classical Greeks were rational and civilized? The misguided notion, rightfully demolished by Oliver Dickinson (2014), that Mycenaeans were somehow more warlike than other ancient peoples? The dubious notion that human civilization “evolves” from “primitive” to “civilized”, as used by colonizing powers to justify their expansion? Is it based on a superficial reading of the Iliad? We are not told.

Problems with bronze

We are then told to imagine the field of Troy in the blazing summer sun. Then, at around the 1:10 mark, “And in this heat stand thousands of men in bronze.” This is the point where it becomes ever more obvious that the creators of the video are treating the Homeric epics as sources for the Bronze Age. There are some comments about this later on, but for now, suffice it to say that while in Homer the Achaeans (Greeks) are described as “well-greaved” and at least the heroes are all decked out in bronze armour, this is not true for what we know about the thirteenth century BC.

I have written in the past how the Homeric epics are emphatically not a source about the Late Bronze Age. They were written in Homer’s own age, ca. 700 BC, and whatever relics they seem to contain from the Mycenaean era are few. The most convincing elements that seem to date back to the Mycenaean era mostly relate to language (names, certain words, and so on). The society and material culture described in Homer seems to belong firmly to Homer’s own age. If you want to know more, I will refer you to the article we posted on the Bad Ancient website that answers the question, “Are the Homeric epics an accurate source the Bronze Age Aegean?

But let’s go back to the bronze armour. I’ve written about the Dendra Cuirass, an example of a bronze panoply that dates to Late Helladic IIIA, or the late fifteenth century BC. I also noted that the use of such intricate pieces of bronze armour falls out of use around 1300 BC at the latest. Most specialists ascribe this change to the destruction of the palace of Knossos in Crete at some point in the fourteenth century BC, when the material culture in the Aegean also changes dramatically, with large bronze objects disappearing from the archaeological record.

In other words: if the Trojan War is supposed to be set around 1200 BC, the Mycenaean Greeks who fought in it would not have been decked out head-to-toe in bronze. It is possible, of course, that the Trojan War dates to a different period, and perhaps should be dated to before the destruction of Knossos. But even then, there are problems. One of the characteristics of the period from the Dendra Cuirass onwards down to the late thirteenth century BC is that shields are rare, to the point that we may safely conclude that these had fallen out of use. I have written about this phenomenon, too.

In the video, the narrator says that some of the men “wear great suits of bronze plate mail.” What’s “plate mail”? As far as I know, you can have plate armour, like the aforementioned Dendra cuirass, and there’s also chain mail, which consists of interlocking metal rings. “Plate mail” is not, to the best of my knowledge, an actual thing, except in videogames, where it appears to be very common (just do a search for “plate mail”). In this case, I assume the creators of the video meant plate armour.

“Some of them,” the narrator continues (around 1:15), “wear shimmering scale.” The Trojans, maybe. The Mycenaeans? Almost certainly not. As Fortenberry puts it, “it is perhaps surprising that Aegean warriors, given their extensive contact at this period with Egypt and the Near East, did not take up the idea of scale armor” (1990, p. 60).

In the Homeric epics, there are no incontrovertible references to scale armour, and certainly nothing that would fit the phrase “shimmering scale”. Armour in the epics is either bronze or, in rare cases, linen. The lesser Ajax, for example, wears linen (Il. 2.529), as do at least two Trojan fighters (Il. 2.830).

Fact or Hollywood fiction?

At around the 1:20 mark, we hear that “Each group is centred around a local lord or king, waiting for him to give the signal to charge.” The first part is based on the Homeric epics, where indeed the contingents consist of leaders and their followers, as I recently explained. The term “local lord or king” will do as a translation of the Homeric basileus, which is usually rendered into English as “prince”.

But a “charge”? Maybe I’m nitpicking things, but this comes across as something based on Hollywood battles – which are all terrible – rather than any kind of historical source. Or even the Homeric epics. In fact, Homer makes a point that the Greeks, at least, advance in quiet order to the battlefield (Il. 4.422-432; transl. Lattimore):

As when along the thundering beach the surf of the sea strikes beat upon beat as the west wind drives it onward; far out cresting first on the open water, it drives thereafter to smash roaring along the dry land, and against the rock jut bending breaks itself into crests spewing back salt wash; so thronged beat upon beat the Danaans’ close battalions [phalagges] steadily into battle, with each of the lords commanding his own men; and these went silently, you would not think all these people with voices kept in their chests were marching; silently, in fear of their commanders; and upon all glittered as they marched the shining armour they carried.

The narrator intones that this is mostly an infantry battle, with “no mighty host of cavalry, no great mass of chariots”. This is good. This is what we see in the Homeric epics, and it’s also what seems to fit best with the evidence from the Late Bronze Age (which, I would emphasize, are two different things!). The video then explains that leaders travel using chariots, from which they dismount to fight on foot, repeating a point from the video’s introduction. Again, this is all good, and it’s undoubtedly coincidence that this is one of those things that is true for both the Mycenaean Bronze Age and the epic world of Homer.

The narrator then says that the Trojans are coming, at around the 1:40 mark. What follows, is amazing:

The men set their shields while bands of archers, javelineers, and slingers, who stand behind them, start to loose their missiles. Then, after one final volley, the cry changes. Men start to charge. The two sides slam into each other with unbridled force and it becomes a chaotic melee of speartips and slashing swords.

I have seen this movie, too! It’s Troy (2004), which I’ve already referenced earlier. And I do mean that this is almost exactly what happens in Troy when the Greeks launch their assault on the beach. Check out the picture below for comparison, and note the conspicuous lack of “javelineers and slingers”.

Similarities between what is told and shown in the Extra Credits video (right) and what seems to be the source material, a scene from the movie Troy (left). As an aside, most of the warriors from the Extra Credits video have beards. If art from the Mycenaean era is any indication, beards were actually rare in the thirteenth century BC, when the Trojan War is supposed to have taken place.

I wish it wasn’t necessary to point out, but the way that movies depict battles is not at all accurate. Shocking, I know. I could write about this in more detail, but I don’t have to. The venerable Dr Roel Konijnendijk has written about this issue in reply to a question on Reddit’s AskHistorians community, where he is active as a moderator under the moniker Iphikrates. Give it a read, and be sure to post questions on AskHistorians if you have any. I post there, too: Roel and I even did an AMA recently on the Trojan War.

In any event, this isn’t what we typically see in the Homeric epics. When the two Greeks and Trojans meet on the battlefield, the two armies are drawn up opposite each other, with a strip of no man’s land in between. Warriors may leap from the ranks and shout insults at their opponents, or indeed challenge them, like Paris does in the third book of the Iliad (Il. 3.15-75).

When fighting erupts, it consists of a mix of missile (belea) combat, engagement between promachoi, i.e. fighters in the front ranks, and general mêlée combat (Van Wees 1988, p. 2). Relatively short-range combat between spear-wielding warriors is probably the most common kind of fighting in the poem; archers and slingers are an uncommon sight on the battlefield. There also aren’t, contrary to what the video claims, any dedicated “javelineers” – the spears wielded by Homer’s spearmen can be both thrown or used to thrust.

The narrator continues to dig the hole a little deeper (1:56), adding: “Each man carries a large shield that curves in on either side.” If you check the picture above, with the screenshots from Troy, you’ll have found the origin for this shield. The Hittites used shields that were sort of like this, but that’s about it. No Mycenaean shield looks like this. From the late eighth century BC, there are the so-called Dipylon shields that are depicted on Late Geometric Greek pots as well as the odd figurine, but those too don’t look like anything depicted in the video, with the weird central boss. They even note that the curves on the side make it easier to wield your spear, which seems to riff entirely off what we see in Troy!

At around the 2:09 mark, we learn that:

Even though these were highly disciplined armies for the time, war becomes local. It becomes the band of men you came with, fighting desperately against whoever happened to charge into you. And there, holding you all together, is your local lord.

Again, I’m not quite sure what period this refers to. Were Bronze Age armies “highly disciplined”? Maybe. Were the armies from the Homeric epics? It depends on what you would define as “highly disciplined”. At one point, the poet mentions that the Greek forces were able to co-operate better – “stand massed” – than the Trojans (Il. 17.360-365):

The ground ran with red blood, the dead men dropped one after another from the ranks alike of Trojans and their mighty companions and Danaans also, since these fought not without bloodletting, but far fewer of them went down, since they ever remembered always to stand massed and beat sudden death from each other.

There is also clearly room to manoeuvre. The bodies of fallen comrades can be dragged back to the safety of one’s own lines (e.g. Il. 4.466, 506, 532; 5.164, 435; 6.28, 71; 7.77-80; etc.), and it’s even possible for leaders to leave the fighting and go back to camp to pick up some fresh spears (e.g. Il. 13.247-248 and 13.254-265).

“And perhaps,” the narrator continues (2:26), “your commander calls out their commander. And in the midst of this chaos, a duel ensues.” There are instances in the Iliad where combatants call each other out and engage in combat. But again, the source for this video is clearly the movie Troy, because the narrator claims (2:36) that “everyone knows not to interrupt even though it’s never spoken.” This is what happens in the movie when Hector engages Patroclus (who he thinks is Achilles): everyone else stops fighting.

If one of these leaders dies, the narrator says, their side might run because their morale dropped like a brick. This sounds like a game mechanic, and it is indeed a feature in A Total War Saga: Troy. But it’s also something that we see in the Iliad. If a leader gets killed, the chances are that their followers, their hetairoi, will scatter. The narrator then adds that if one side runs, the other will chase them down, which is probably overstating things.

A matter of sources

Then suddenly, we get this (2:49):

But much of that is conjecture, pieced together from the archaeological records we have and the few written sources we have that describe war of this era.

I assume that with “this era”, the narrator refers to the Bronze Age. There are no “written sources” that describe what warfare was like in Mycenaean Greece. None. What we do have is archaeological evidence in the form of fortifications, weapons and armour, and iconographic sources like wall-paintings and vases with figurative scenes. But the Mycenaean texts, written on clay tablets in Linear B, don’t “describe war” in any meaningful sense.

And then it gets worse (2:55), because the narrator says: “one of those principle sources we have is Homer.” He then wonders what could be “fact” and what could be “fiction”, and that this has plagued us “for ages”. In truth, the historicity of the Homeric epics was never seriously in question in the ancient world. In the modern era, scholars were sceptical, and today the consensus among specialists is that whatever period might be reflected in the Homeric epics, it’s almost certainly not the Bronze Age apart from a few minor details that may, conceivably, date back to the Mycenaean era.

In popular accounts of the Mycenaean Bronze Age, Homer keeps getting dredged up. Back in 1983, Oliver Dickinson gave a lecture that “was intended to suggest that the world of the Homeric poems, insofar as it had any relationship with reality, was more likely to reflect the conditions of the Dark Age than those of Mycenaean Greece, and it was born of increasing frustration at the dominance of what I will call the ‘Mycenaean’ interpretation of Homer, particularly at the popular level” (1986, p. 20).

But the narrator is not deterred, stating outright that “some of it is clearly fact – or at least a pretty good rendition” (3:02). He then says that the use of chariots in Homer is “true” in the sense that this was most likely how the Mycenaeans used chariots in war, before adding that it’s “shocking” Homer got this “right”. Why? Because “Greeks in his time” supposedly didn’t use chariots, which is something that Peter Greenhalgh (1973) would agree with, but on which scholarly opinion is divided, with most, like myself, arguing that there is nothing inherently implausible about the use of chariots like this even in the Archaic period.

Fortunately, the discussion of chariots and why they weren’t used in the Aegean in the same way that they were in the ancient Near East and Egypt is correct. But then the narrator claims, around the 3:54 mark, that Homer describes the chariots “with a bit more grandeur” than would really have been the case. This is a weird statement. The major difference between Homer and the Bronze Age is that chariot teams in the Bronze Age consist always of two horses, whereas in Homer – as in the Archaic period! – the teams consist of four horses.

The narrator then expresses surprise that Homer got this detail right considering he lived “600 years” after the events he described. Leaving aside the issue of whether there ever was a “historic” Trojan War for Homer to describe, this statement is interesting. The default date for the latter is usually ca. 1200 BC and for the former is ca. 700 BC, which by my reckoning ends up being around 500 years. But perhaps they use a wide range of dates, e.g. 1250 and 650 BC, which works out to 600 years.

The narrator then lists things in Homer that are “plain wrong” (4:10). An example is the use of cremation in the Iliad, which the narrator explains is a tradition that wouldn’t “evolve” for hundreds of years. Aside from the misleading use of the verb “evolve” here, this is essentially correct, but considering that much of the world described in Homer is clearly based on his own time, the very foundation of the statement is wrong. Again, check out the article over on Bad Ancient about Homer and history.

Homer knew little of history

We then get the claim that Homer sometimes “forgets that this is the Bronze Age” (4:25) and has characters use iron tools. It is true that iron makes a few appearances in the Homeric epics. But Homer had no idea that there had ever been a “Bronze Age” or that people in the past only used bronze weapons. Homer didn’t have a library of history books at his disposal! The Mycenaean era was long gone. Instead, the Greeks of the first millennium BC created a past of their own populated with gods and heroes (see, e.g., Boardman 2002). The story of the Trojan War is set in this imagined past, not in what we today refer to as the Bronze Age.

However, the ancient Greeks also organized their past into different “ages”, and it’s easy to see how this might be confusing. The poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, wrote in his epic poem Works and Days that the human past consisted of several ages, moving from Gold to Silver to Bronze to Heroic and finally to Hesiod’s own age, the cold and cruel Age of Iron.

The Roman poet Ovid would later unite the Bronze and Heroic Age into just the Age of Bronze: the time of the Trojan War, the Theban War, the exploits of Heracles and Perseus and others. The fact that we today have a Bronze Age that preceded an Iron Age is coincidence.

Furthermore, Homer clearly picked bronze as the material of choice for his heroes not because he wanted to deliberately archaize. As Hans van Wees has convincingly argued (1994, p. 134), bronze was chosen simply because of its lustrous appearance, not because it evoked the past, or was somehow superior over the iron weapons that Homer must have been familiar with from his own time.

Boars’ tusk helmets and more

The narrator then discusses some items that coule be genuine relics of the Mycenaean era (4:37), such as Meriones’ boars’ tusk helmet worn by Odysseus in the tenth book of the Iliad. This is true, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the helmet in the Iliad is a genuine memory rather than, say, an heirloom. The narrator later, at around the 5:24 mark, suggests that “one of the Homeric poets” had heard of one of these helmets and incorporated it in the Iliad. What the video is referring to here is the oral tradition that may be at the root of the Homeric epics.

It is claimed that you would need “like fifty boars” for one helmet (4:52). This is actually a reasonable guess. Fortenberry suggests a single helmet required the tusks of between 25 and 75 boars (1990, p. 121). As a result, it is claimed that wearing such a helmet would convey the status of the wearer, but there are frescoes from Pylos that depict what look like regular soldiers (palace guards?) wearing them. Perhaps, then, such helmets were standard issue for certain troops, provided to them by the central authority.

Certainly, the statement in the video that these helmets started to disappear around the time of the Trojan War (5:03) is false, as these helmets are encountered all through the Late Bronze Age. The narrator even claims that they were replaced by “bronze helms” (yuk), but evidence for bronze helmets in the Late Bronze Age is slim. Aside from the bronze helmet from Dendra, some examples are known from Knossos and Tiryns (in Late Minoan/Helladic II and the Submycenaean period), and some bronze cheekpieces are found elsewhere, but that’s about it (Fortenberry 1990, p. 101).

Show me the numbers

The video then asks: “How big, really, was the Trojan War?” They reference the Catalogue of Ships from the second book of the Iliad, all the vessels together and end up at a total number of 1,186 ships for the Greek fleet. This is correct. But they then suggest that the total number of Greek troops at Troy numbered a staggering 142,320 men.

Where does this number come from? The video doesn’t make it clear, but one trip to Google is sufficient to figure out that the source for this number is the Wikipedia entry on the Catalogue of Ships. There, it reads: “Using the Boeotian figure of 120 men per ship results in a total of 142,320 men transported to the Troad.”

The problem is that the Boeotian ships are not typical as far as the size of their crew complement is concerned. In the Catalogue, their vessels indeed have 120 men each, but this is not representative for the Greek fleet as a whole. The number stated in the video, based on Wikipedia, is grossly misleading.

Instead, the normal crew complement for a Homeric warship is around 50. This is a number we also encounter elsewhere: the crew of the Argo, famously captained by Jason in Greek mythology, generally numbers 50 men, not including the oarsman. If we assume some ships would have been smaller (as per e.g. the Odyssey), we arrive at around 59,300 men.

Hurtling towards the end

The narrator notes that “the places he says the ships came from seem accurate. They are all Bronze Age cities”, he continues, “including places that had been wiped off the map by Homer’s time.” It’s true that often the political geography depicted in the epic world is said to resemble the Mycenaean situation, but this is misleading.

Some places also feature prominently in Homer that played no role of significance in the Mycenaean era, such as Argos. There are also no places, to the best of my knowledge, mentioned in Homer that existed only in the Bronze Age. Of course, Oliver Dickinson has pointed out that these places are said to exist in the Bronze Age because we have identified these sites based on Homer (1986, p. 31)! A nice example of how the Homeric epics have been abused over the course of time.

What follows, suggesting that scholars believe that the numbers mentioned in Homer might be somehow informative (around the 6:40 mark), is of course utter nonsense. The idea that the Mycenaeans invested so much in war – let alone a specifically Trojan war – that it contributed to their downfall is based on very little.

The description of the Mycenaean fortifications is largely correct, and Greeks of the historic era did indeed suggest that they were built by Cyclopes. The suggestion that the only way to take a city was to starve it out (7:23) is misleading. Starving out a city was undoubtedly something patient aggressors would do. But both Mycenaean objects, such as the Siege Rhyton from one of the Shaft Graves in Mycenae, as well as the Homeric epics, suggest that assaulting or storming a city was also an option.

The fact that the Trojan War lasted ten years actually has an explanation that the video doesn’t mention. According to prophecy, the Trojan War was only supposed to be decided in the tenth year, so the first nine years we see the Greeks mostly spinning their wheels, and engaging in raids like the ones Achilles boasts about. The real fighting didn’t start until the tenth year, which is of course when the Iliad takes place.

The final comments about the Trojan Horse (7:37) are accurate. The video concludes at around the 8:17 mark that “most likely, the truth of the battle of Troy is lost to the mists of history.” That would have been a good point to end, but instead the claim is made that “the myth of the battle does provide us with additional insight into Bronze Age war”. I think by now it should be clear that this is a dubious claim to make.

The video ends with this bold claim (8:25):

reminds us that when studying history, we shouldn’t always dismiss myths as totally fantastic, because maybe history and myth have more middle ground than we originally thought.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

If you want to claim that myths have something useful to say about history, you need to demonstrate how. Some have indeed tried to read ancient stories as history, such as Margalit Finkelberg (2006), but it’s tough to convince an academic audience of this. It’s even worse when you unleash this on a YouTube audience of non-experts, who may not parse this idea in the correct way.

Closing thoughts

Making videos is hard, especially when it comes to a subject that requires specialist knowledge. Sadly, this video by Extra Credits falls short when it comes to providing good and accurate information. Parts of the video seem inspired by Hollywood, most notably the movie Troy, and at least one statement, present as fact, is taken uncritically from Wikipedia.

As I’ve done in the past, it is worth reiterating that there is a reason a proper education in history or archaeology requires you to attend university for several years, and that becoming fully qualified (with a PhD) takes even longer. Becoming a trained professional in any field is not a matter of just cracking open some books and reading a lot. Historians and archaeologists and classicists – to name but a few – are trained professionals.

When it comes to a highly specialized subject like Bronze Age warfare, you need specialist knowledge. Unfortunately, this video’s creators have not engaged with the subject matter in a deep and meaningful way. The errors that have been made could have been easily avoided if only they had consulted with an expert at an early stage. No video needs to be perfect – otherwise, what would we moan about? But many of the errors that I have flagged in this review are basic in nature, and should not have made it into the final product.

It may seem that I’m ragging on this video, but I’m not. The creators of this video clearly love the subject matter. The intent was to convey information about Bronze Age and heroic combat: the problem is that the video ends up as a bit of a confused mess that is based mostly on Homer, treating the epics as a historical source, rather than making use of the evidence we actually do have for Mycenaean warfare.

This isn’t a case of an academic telling an enthusiast to shut up, but rather of a trained professional getting frustrated about wrong and misleading information being shared with a large audience. Many people will watch this video and walk away with some weird notions about what Bronze Age warfare may have been like. It makes the work that professionals do – especially those of us engaged in outreach – that much harder. Read the comments to the video to see what people pick up from this video. Or better: don’t.

Think about all the misleading or plainly wrong information that has been spread about the coronavirus, including by none other than the current occupant of the White House in the United States, the leadership of the United Kingdom, and the president of Brazil. But misinformation about the coronavirus has also been spread by regular people, who refuse vaccines or who believe the outbreak is part of some far-fetched global conspiracy. Not listening to medical experts has led to the avoidable deaths of countless people.

Not listening to those who are experts when it comes to the ancient world may not immediately kill people, though the power of (material) culture, and the role it plays in reinforcing the structural violence inherent in contemporary society, was recently hammered home by the worldwide protests following the death of George Floyd, and the toppling of statues of oppressors and slave traders.

The bottom line is simple: knowledge should be treasured, and experts should be valued. Most of us academically-trained experts are also an approachable lot, so don’t be shy about reaching out if you want us to fact-check your work, give some advice, or even help out with research or writing. In the end, we all want the same thing.