Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Things That Don't Make Sense. With Pictures!

Herodotus says that Paris and Helen make it to Troy in 3 days. Herodotus is a liar, and here is the proof!

Now, I know that this is a route from Athens to Troy, so keep in mind that it is about 18 hours from Sparta's port to Athens at top speed (9 knots). Even if they cut some time off by not going all the way in to Piraeus, you're looking at some additional hours on top of the 58 hours already accounted for by my not so scientific, but roughly accurate route!

The problem is, sea going vessels in this time period had to hug the coasts to get anywhere since they weren't made for the open waters. If a boat was blown into open waters and lost sight of the shore, it was probably lost forever (See the comments for more on this discussion!). As a result, it took a while to get places. Assuming Paris and his crew rowed/sailed for 12 hours a day (which is probably assuming a lot) we're talking about 5 days of travel. The trip only gets longer if they ran into ANY kind of complication on the way. So three days to Troy? Improbable. Even if everything went perfectly.

There's also a story which says that Helen and Paris stopped in Egypt on the way to Troy-- Euripides even claims that Helen spent the entirety of the war in Egypt. Supposedly, they stopped in Egypt to throw off pursuit, or even to ask for help from Pharaoh. Once there, Pharaoh either refused them, or, offended by Paris's behavior, took Helen into his own custody to return her to Menelaus. The truth of the matter is, Troy by way of Egypt makes little to no sense at all. The proof is on the map!

Not only would a trip to Egypt from Sparta take a solid month, but as you can see, there is no way to go to Troy by-way-of Egypt. It's way out of the way in the opposite direction. I guess it would throw people off the scent, sure, but it seems like a long way to go to accomplish it, and since they would no doubt need to stop on the way back to Troy for supplies along the way, and to spend the night, it would only spread the news of their elopement all over the Mediterranean.

As for Menelaus's return at the end of the Trojan war, again by way of Egypt-- well. If he was blown that far off course, he's lucky he lived at all. He was much more likely to be smashed to smithereens against some cliff-faced-island, and if that didn't kill him, the expanse of the Mediterranean ocean that he would have needed to cross without much in the way of necessary provisions like fresh water and food would surely do the job. If he went by way of Egypt back to Sparta on purpose, I'm only surprised that he had a throne at all when he got there (seven to ten years later on top of the ten years the war took) with Helen in tow.

So there you have it. And all I have to say, is thank God for the gods, or my plot for the sequel would have just gone to an early grave.

(if you want to calculate your own routes around and about by boat, this is the best tool to do so! Just plug in the average speed and it tells you exactly how long it would take to travel! I used it for all my calculations above.)


  1. Awesome post! You're such an engaging professor!

  2. This definitely doesn't make sense. Can never trust those old texts. And I didn't know you were writing a sequel! Are you actually going to talk about the Trojan War?! Veeeeery interesting. We would probably be having similar problems if you did. lol

  3. Thanks Christopher!

    KM: I am not writing it yet, but will begin it in November assuming Helen is finished by then. It will not, I hope, tackle the Trojan war itself. Of if it does, it will touch on just the very beginning of it and won't detail the politics of the Greeks, since it is going to be a book about Paris :) kind of a companion piece to the Helen book. Ideally, it will not even be necessary to have read Helen to pick up the Paris book.

  4. Yep! All legends really, perhaps once originally based on fact..

  5. awesome! i love these little fact-finding missions! fabulous read- thanks!

  6. Fun post, Amalia! But people think more and more that ancient ships did venture out to sea and out of sight of land. Not that this would make either Euripides or Herodotus more plausible.

    The bigger issue is that people in the 5th century would certainly have an idea how far Troy is from Sparta. After all, Herodotus himself came from Halicarnassus which, while not near Troy is nevertheless in Asia Minor. We probably also want to assume that Herodotus was not just saying stupid things to say stupid things. In fact, Herodotus (2.112-120) is pretty careful and critical of both Homer and the Egyptian priests who recount the alternative story of Helen and Alexander. He suggests that Helen was in Egypt or at least not under Priam's control, because Herodotus could imagine no reason why he would have fought such a bloody war when the entire situation could be diffused by simply returning Helen to Menalaus. Since this didn't occur, the Egyptian story seems possible to him.

    Just a thought...


  7. It's a tricky calculation. Beyond doubt Herodotus has done his numbers using state of the art technology (a trireme), which is meaningless because Paris & Helen were on a dark ages boat.

    In Herodotus' day a top of the line trireme could hit 14 knots max with everyone rowing and a good wind aft. (Which is what recent exact reproductions can do). I have a gut feeling the trip from Euboea to Rhodes could be done in daylight without having to go via Samos.

    In which case, on a classical trireme, it's totally doable.

    But as you say Amalia, on a dark ages boat, not a hope in Hades. I think your 5 days is probably spot on.

    Christian Jacq in his Rameses II books by the way has Rameses meeting Menelaos and Helen when they drift into town.

  8. Hey Bill! Thanks for reading!
    I actually had a fight with Adam about that particular fact-- the leaving sight of land business-- because I could not imagine how one would head out to Egypt on the way somewhere else without venturing across the expanse. His argument was furthered by the fact that they would need to resupply regularly, since there was so little cargo space in a Penteconter, which is probably the most advanced vessel they could dream of having been sailing/rowing, from what I can tell. So wouldn't their distance from shore and movement into open waters still be fairly limited by that need?

    I actually buy the Helen in Egpyt story, to be honest-- it's just a question of figuring out how it happened. And Troy-by-way-of-Egypt as a get-away plan seems AWFULLY unlikely. I can totally see them being brought to Egypt accidentally though. Especially if it happens again with Menelaus, later.

    I need to read that book.

    Yeah, the Trireme would be a different story. I would assume it was a bit more stable too, though it's entirely possible I am wrong about that!

    The boat I'm REALLY interested in is Theseus' which was supposed to have only had 30 oars. Not quite a Penteconter. I have no idea at all how fast or slow or what he could have gone in it, but I'm granting him the benefit of the doubt for being a son of Poseidon. Maybe he just knew how to build a good boat?

  9. Triremes were stable fore and aft but highly sensitive to a cross-wave.

    Not that I'm an expert, but I'd be surprised if pentekonters dated before the beginning of the archaic period. 30 oars sounds right to me. Hull would presumably be rounder and shallower.

    If they're going in a straight line, I think losing sight of shore would be okay, like from Crete to Egypt. The North African coast is kind of hard to miss.

  10. Gary,

    I agree with you about the penteconter business, but for my purposes it's a good place to start for calculations. My bet is that they would not have had anything more advanced than a penteconter, so if I use it as the maximum threshold, I feel like I'm safe enough, accuracy-wise.

    Out of curiosity I just looked up the straight line Crete-North African Coast distance with that tool I linked to, and my guesstimate of 6 knots average speed, and it tells me it would have taken roughly 34 hours! 3-4 days at sea without anywhere to put in for the night. I wish I could go back in time and ask them how they would have gone about making that kind of trip. I can't imagine that they would be able to row straight through the night. The men would be exhausted, and there isn't really room for extra relief rowers. That is a pretty long trip.

  11. DANG. You are amazing. I love your blog!

  12. <3 thank you L.T.! That is very kind of you to say! :)

  13. Amalia,

    Check out the Uluburun Shipwreck (the wikipedia article is fine). It carried 20 tons of cargo including 10 tons of bronze. Surely a ship like this could have stored enough to get from the Peloponnesus to Egypt.


  14. Amalia,

    I have a nice article on the Uluburun wreck, if want to drop me an email.


  15. Thanks, Bill! I'd love that! I'll shoot you an email right now.

  16. This is so fascinating, Amalia. I love that you're obsessive about getting it right. And what a fun tool! I discovered it would be less than a day to sail up to visit my nephew.

    Now all I need is a boat. :)

  17. VR: haha! Well, I think tomorrow or Friday I will have to do a corrected post taking all of this new information into account. I'm really excited at the amount of information that's been unearthed via this blog post-- even better that I'm getting it out of the way before I actually start writing this second book, so I don't have to go back through and fix things in a painstaking manner after the fact. :P

    Of course, now my reputation for being any kind of authority is totally busted!

  18. Crete to Egypt: Boats are more stable when they have some way on, so you definitely don't stop for the night. Wait for when the moon is full or close to it. If the wind is coming from the north, so much the better. If it's coming from the south, don't leave.

    Depart before dawn on day 1 and make as much use of the wind as possible. Row through the night in two shifts. Keep the sail up if the wind is favourable. You'll make landfall before dusk of day 2.

  19. Fascinating conversation--I'm learning as much from the comments as from the post. I don't remember how I came across your blog, but I'm sure glad I did!

  20. It's possible that Menelaus and Helen didn't make straight for home, but spent a while cruising the eastern Mediterranean before they were stranded in Egypt. After all, Menelaus had just had a major falling-out with Agamemnon, and may not have wanted to return to Sparta just yet. Tyndareus was still alive then and serving as king regent, so it wasn't a question of Menelaus still having a kingdom. He had Helen, she was the queen, and that was all that mattered in terms of his being king.

    In The Odyssey, Menelaus tells Telemachus about his various travels in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa; it seems to me that this occurred right after the war.

    1. That's an interesting idea, Laura. If they dallied on purpose that would make some sense, and yes, Menelaus had Helen, but if everyone presumed that they were dead, it wouldn't stop people from usurping Tyndareus, who was, no doubt, getting up there in years, and probably becoming something of an easy target -- aggravated all the more by Clytemnestra's behavior and the loss of most of his allies, his sons, etc. I find it hard to believe that Menelaus wouldn't be worried about a coup back home after having been gone for so long, even if he did return triumphant with Helen. Dallying a little bit, I can see, but an extensive stay away from Sparta would have been asking for trouble he probably couldn't really afford (especially considering his ranks were thinned by the war.)

    2. Menelaus may only have intended to spend the winter months in the eastern Mediterranean, as the war ended, I believe, in the autumn, and was caught in the storm and blown to Egypt on his way home. He could have directed events in Sparta through letters to Tyndareus. Hermione would also have been active at court, as she was grown by then, and had presumably returned from Mycenae where she spent the war years with Clytemnestra. In my novel, I have her acting as a surrogate queen.

      The sources don't mention any trouble back in Sparta with regards to Menelaus's absence. Remember also that he had sons--at least one bastard, Megapenthes, by a slave woman, and at least one legitimate surviving son, Aethiolas (or Maraphius), by Helen. So I think the situation in Sparta was far more stable than it was elsewhere, particularly Mycenae.

    3. But we have no evidence of correspondence by letter for that time period. And sending letters would have been terribly unreliable, even if there were anything that showed us Linear B being used for something other than inventories. Not to mention that if the gods didn't want those letter or messengers getting there, it wouldn't have made a bit of difference.

      I'm thinking of Ithaca, and how things went there in Odysseus' absence. His father didn't step in as king regent, and Penelope was pretty much on her own. Sparta would not even have had a Penelope (fully grown, experienced queen) as a stabilizing force, since Helen had abandoned her people. And, if Sparta was in fact inherited by its daughters instead of its sons, Hermione would probably be swarmed by suitors in the same way Penelope was. (Though, I'm not sure there's any proving the succession thing, either way)

      But I'm really not sure we can assume that Menelaus knew he was going home to a stable and secure government, or that he knew anything at all about what had been going on in Sparta in his absence, outside of what he had set up for his departure -- and the campaign in Troy went on for a terribly long time. I think Agamemnon would make that assumption for himself, because of his Hubris, but Menelaus, after that mess of a war, and with the added delay in his return, can't have been so sure. Certainly he hasn't had much good fortune up until that point -- the gods have not been kind.


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