The Trojan War: A New History by Barry Strauss

Book Review by Ursus

Rage - Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls...

Homer sung of the fall of Troy some five centuries after the supposed event. Thirty centuries later the tale has become a timeless one, but interpreted variously over the generations. Barry Strauss argues that many of the non-supernatural events and actors in Homer's tale plausibly existed. For those that like to draw a thick barrier between legend and history, Strauss throws down a gauntlet.

At the heart of the matter is how much truth Myth contains? While myths convey a certain internal literary truth, their historical veracity is by definition suspect. Myths are not to be read as history. But neither are myths to be totally discounted; tales that transpire in never-never lands are called fairy tales, while supernatural tales that transpire in the "real world" are called myths. Myths thus presumably embody a shadow of historical truth, but the question becomes how large exactly is the shadow?

When the classics were rediscovered in a Europe recovering from Medieval darkness, it was assumed for generations that Troy was just a story. Then the end of the nineteenth century was astonished to see Heinrich Schliemann, part amateur archaeologist and part self-serving opportunist, discover the remains of a Bronze Age settlement in the area where Troy was reputed to have stood. Myth seemed suddenly less absurd. After World War II, the pendulum of opinion swung back. The archaeology at the time downplayed Schliemann's discovery, claiming the settlement was too small and inglorious to be fabled Troy. The last few decades have swung the pendulum back; new discoveries prove that the settlement was much larger and grandiose than the previous generation could know. Future advances in archaeology may very well reverse the pendulum back depending on new evidence; but as of now, it looks as if Schliemann struck gold and brought myth to light.

A general consensus has emerged among modern scholars. There does seem to have been some great conflict circa 1200 BCE that pitted Greeks against Anatolians. The general thrust of Homer's Iliad seems confirmed, though few believe the details of Homer's poetry is anything but poetic license. Barry Strauss reflects upon the literary details of Homer, and matching it against known data from the Bronze Age era eastern Mediterranean, is willing to give the Blind Bard a lot more credence.

Barry Strauss teaches history and classics at Cornell University. He is the author or editor of eight books on ancient military history. He furthermore seems to have an excellent grounding of ancient archaeology - not just Ancient Greek, but Egyptian, Hittite and Canaanite as well. With credentials such as this it is difficult to dismiss him as a quack.

In fact it is the analysis of archaeological data that helps confirms there is more than just poetry to Homer's tale. One of the forgotten powers of the Ancient world was the Hatti, we whom English speakers call Hittites. Hittite texts refer to an allied town in Anatolia called Wilusa. In early Greek, Wilusa was written as "Wilion" which then later became "Ilion." Ilion, as everyone knows from The Iliad, was the other name for Troy.

The town discovered by Schliemann spoke a Hittite language. From its architecture to its layout to its religious relics, it seems clear Troy was essentially a Hittite community. The Hittites were variously at war with all the other major powers of the ancient East Mediterranean - Egypt, Canaan, Assyria and Babylon. But the Hittite city of Troy was more interested in wealth than warfare. Its chief sources of income were two: a port used as a stop over for merchant fleets, and horse-trading. Its army was comparatively small and its navy even smaller. To compensate for this deficiency, Troy was a vassal of larger and more militarily inclined Hittite towns. But as the other Hittite towns were always at war, they could not be trusted to furnish requisite levies. Troy thus had its own allies in its wealthy pockets. In addition, its defensive walls and fortified citadel were considered second to none in the ancient world. Through a combination of wealth, diplomacy and internal defenses, Troy hoped to fend off any advance.

The Greeks of this time, referred to by most scholars as Myceneaens, are what Strauss calls the Vikings of the ancient world. Around a nominal king (or "Wanax") existed many lesser nobles and their retainers whose interests lay in raiding and warfare (which they often employed against each other). The Myceneaen aesthetic culture was not as advanced as their neighbors, but they were foremost in sea-faring technology, and their people proved to be hardy warriors. A united Greece would have been a major threat to any rival. Fortunately for its neighbors, few things could unite Greece into action.

But there was Helen. The Greek Wanax, Agamemnon, married his younger brother Menelaus to this beautiful Spartan princess. More than the famed beauty of the princess, the Sparta of this time was known for its great wealth. Without Helen, Menelaus has no claim to the Spartan throne, and without the Spartan throne the house of Agamemnon would be considerably weaker.

Enter the Trojan prince, Paris. He comes to Sparta as a guest of state. Then while Menelaus tends to other affairs, Paris steals Helen back to Troy, taking Helen's dowry with him. It is obvious what Paris wants; a beautiful wife, the riches she possesses, and an embarrassment to the ruling family of Greece that may very well diminish its power. As to how Helen may profit, the status of royal women in Troy is better than in Greece. She would be more of a partner than a submissive beauty symbol. The two adulterers carry on a relationship of mutual exploitation. Strauss believes the tale of Helen and Paris is real, but he doubts love had anything to do with it.

The House of Agamemnon is forced to respond. Their honor has been slighted. Their riches have been stolen. Their ruling position in Greece is now precarious. They summon the other warrior nobles of Greece to join them on an expedition of revenge. Why do the other Greek chieftains cease their own petty quarrels to unite behind the Wanax? Because the riches of Troy beckon. The motivating factor for many an ancient army was not loyalty to the crown, but promise of plunder.

Homer portrayed the Trojan War as a divine quest to punish Paris for the two taboos of adultery and betraying hospitality. Strauss obviously does not give credence to literal interpretations of divine agendas, but he argues the Greeks themselves believed it. In addition to the aforementioned reasons of power and plunder, most Greeks would have sincerely believed the Olympian gods would be on their side for punishing Paris' sacrilegious expedition. Indeed, Strauss points out that every passage of divine guidance in Homer's tale did not happen literally, but is a reflection of what the Greeks themselves believed was happening on a divine level.

The stage is then set for the invasion of Troy. The Greeks defeat the Trojans and their allies in an initial encounter to establish a beachhead. There was however, no siege of Troy. Much of the Greek force is actually engaged in fishing, farming and foraging for food supplies to feed the vast army. Instead the available Greek forces probe the Trojan defenses for weak points. Finding few weak points in the famed walls of Troy, they are bloodily repulsed. The Trojans adopt a defensive posture, hoping that in time a war weary Greek coalition will disburse and sail home.

The Greeks are forced to engage in what Strauss calls a "dirty war." They attack the outlying areas of Troy, sacking towns and killing civilians. They hope to deny Troy valuable supplies and cut off its allies. In this manner the conflict would have endured for a long time, though Strauss is not sure if Homer's ten years is fact or a literary exaggeration (he leans toward the latter). The point, though, is that the Greeks resorted to protracted irregular warfare, or what we moderns call guerrilla warfare, in order to wear down their adversaries.

After some back and forth between the two sides, culminating in the death match between their two great champions, Achilles and Hector, the Greeks realize final victory cannot be achieved except through stealth. Strauss calls the Trojan Horse the Trojan Red Herring. He doubts there was a giant wooden horse in which Greek soldiers actually hid. However, he believes the Greeks did retreat just out of sight in a feigned departure. Possibly the Greeks did leave some kind of wooden horse as a deceptive recognition of defeat, for Troy's wealth did depend on horse-trading and that is exactly the kind of trophy they would have accepted. Later that night, the Greeks would have sailed quickly back into the region. Spies within Troy would have opened the gates and signaled the approaching Greeks via torchlight. The rest is history. The archaeological evidence indicates the town of Troy was in fact suddenly destroyed by fire around 1200 BCE.

If the above seems incredulous, you will just have read the book and analyze Strauss' methods. What he does essentially is take choice passages of The Iliad (using Alexander Pope's famous verse translation) and places them within the context of history and archaeology. By identifying commonalities in Bronze Age culture and warfare, Strauss paints a plausible portrait that many of the Homeric details could have happened, and probably did happen in said manner if they happened at all. All that Homer would have done then is embellish the action for effect, and add a pronounced divine element which transformed it from a war of piracy to a heroic epic.

Strauss is a decent writer, not on the level of Tom Holland, but clear and entertaining. He assumes the reader has little knowledge of history, archaeology and ancient cultures; anyone can thus readily immerse themselves in the book. The book itself is a fairly short read and flows quickly. I am not convinced of his central thesis, but I enjoyed the book anyway. I learned quite a bit about Bronze Age warfare and Hittite culture. And I was entertained by the ensuing action and unfolding personalities, be they real or fictitious.

Only Homer paints a better picture of whatever really happened on the plains of Ilium. Myth does not have to be true. When myth passes into history it becomes history in effect; the eternal expression of a culture's soul. There are some things that spades cannot uncover, nor museums exhibit.

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