March 1, 2007


Troy story: a review of THE TROJAN WAR: A New History by Barry Strauss (Mary Beard, Sunday Times of London)

His The Trojan War uses Korfmann's findings to offer a full-blown history (sic) of the war that was immortalised by Homer. Strauss is too scrupulous a scholar to pass over the archeological doubts. "A considerable minority of scholars reject a number of the Troia project's conclusions," he grudgingly concedes to those readers who penetrate his appendix on The Sources. But for most of the book, he not only takes for granted the Korfmann view of the city, but assumes the historical existence of the Trojan war roughly as Homer describes it, and of its main cast of characters: Achilles, Cassandra, Helen and the rest.

To be fair, he does sprinkle caveats through the text. "Some sceptics deny the veracity of the Trojan war"; "the reader should keep in mind that the existence [of Homer's characters] is plausible but unproven." But these make little difference to the thrust of the argument: that, if you piece together Homer's text, the recent archeology and some assorted Near-Eastern Hittite tablets (which mention a place that may, or possibly may not, be "our" Troy), you can write a straight historical narrative of the Trojan, as of any other, ancient war.

In Strauss's account, Helen was probably happy enough to elope with Paris, because Bronze-Age women got a better deal further east than under the restrictive conventions of Mycenaean Greece. When she arrived in Troy, she "is likely to have formally divorced Menelaus" ("Hittite law" or not, does he believe we can reconstruct Bronze-Age "formalities" on divorce?). His boldest move is to suggest that even the Trojan horse "might just be true". It may not have been full of men (merely an empty decoy), but Hittite tablets suggest that guile was important in wars of the period. "Unconventional warfare, Bronze-Age style."

With believers such as Strauss, entertaining as they are, it is hard to know how to present the obvious counterargument: isn't fiction best left as that, and not turned into history?

We're deeply dubious of the proposition that there's a difference between history and myth, beyond a patina of rationalist affectation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 1, 2007 4:53 PM

So do you believe that all of the Greek Gods that Homer says talked to the heros of the Trojan War actually existed at the time and spoke to people?

Or is that just a "patina of rationalist affectation?"

Posted by: Brandon at March 1, 2007 5:25 PM

I believe they believed, which is the same thing. 2,000 years from now it won't really matter whether there ever was a Darwin, but it'll be important to know that the Holocaust happened because the Nazis believed they were following his commands.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2007 5:31 PM

Is the book any good?

Posted by: Patrick H at March 1, 2007 8:28 PM

If the Iliad and the Odyssey are fiction, what hope is there for the Old Testament?

Posted by: Pete at March 1, 2007 9:52 PM

The Illiad was not writen by Homer, but by somebody else with the same name.

Posted by: Lou Gots at March 2, 2007 6:33 AM