Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, The Sunday Telegraph, February 25 07

It is AD 5000, and Professor Ostrich, hard at work in his study-pod on Mars, has just made a stunning discovery. Up to that time, it had been assumed that Ian Fleming’s books about the hero James Bond, published some 3000 years earlier, had been fiction. But idly perusing some of the archive material that had been saved from ‘Planet’ Earth, he found that the old Japanese for ‘foreigner’ had been ‘gaijin’. This rang a bell, and on downloading You Only Live Twice from his ear-piece into his brain, he found this was the very word Bond had used for it too. Curious, he looked up Mount Fuji, also referred to in that book. It existed! Becoming more and more excited, he found that ‘Dunhill’, ‘Martini’, ‘White’s’, ‘Boodles’ – obviously silly names, made up for the occasion - and even ‘St James’ Street’ could all be attested from those long-lost times. Incredible! Surely this must mean that the Bond stories, far from being works of fiction, were history! And Bond, therefore, a real person!

An analogous process of reasoning has led a number of businessmen and academics, Professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University among them, to believe that the story Homer tells in his Iliad c. 700 BC offers an accurate account of a real war fought between Greeks and Trojans over a woman in Mycenaean times, around 1200 BC. Excited by recent excavations at Troy (modern Hisarlik) and work on documents (from the nearby Hittite empire) that were contemporaneous with the proposed ‘Trojan war’, Strauss re-tells the story of the Iliad interleaved with political, military and social (but no literary) analysis, as if it had just been just released on the three thousand year rule from Kew. He solemnly adduces political reasons for Paris’ abduction of Helen (Homer gives none), dissects the military tactics of the Greeks and Trojans (no such thing), discusses the economics and domestic politics of Troy (non-existent) and compares it with the Hanseatic League of the late Middle Ages (sounds of helpless laughter). Probingly, he wonders whether Achilles was a war criminal.

‘A new history’, Strauss calls it, and it certainly is that. No history ever paid so little attention to evidence or argument or any of the usual historiographical constraints. No history has ever been so replete with ‘would haves’ and ‘mights’. Was the Trojan king Priam able to look his soldiers in the eye when the Greeks landed? Or would he have been too ashamed of ‘his family’s policy’?

‘We can almost say that if Homer’s heroes had not existed’, Strauss asserts, ‘we would have had to invent them’. Really? Remove the Iliad, and Hisarlik would have remained Hisarlik, an important ancient site in north-western Turkey. No one would have called it Troy, or fantasised that it was the scene of a war between Greeks and Trojans over the beautiful Helen. Why not? Because the Iliad is the sole source of the connection between Hisarlik and a ‘Trojan war’; and it is an oral poem, composed 500 years later, and about as historical as James Bond, whatever accurate glimpses of a much earlier world it occasionally offers. Homer was a poet, in a long line of poets, not a historian. Strauss is making a basic category mistake. It goes without saying that neither the archaeological record nor Hittite documents offer secure evidence for any such event as described by Homer.

So ‘tired fantasy’ would be a more accurate description of Strauss’s book, none more so than the opening pages ‘describing’ Helen of Troy. Naturally, she has ‘pearl skin’, ‘full breasts’, elegant coiffure, and her cheeks glow with health. You certain about that, prof? Or have you just been fantasising about figures on Mycenaean pots?

And that is the point. Had Strauss decided to expound our current understanding of the Mycenaean world from existing sources (when Homer would have had an occasional look-in), he might have written quite an interesting book. Instead, knowing full well that Homer’s characters are mythical and that Hisarlik tells us nothing about any ‘Trojan war’, he puts his head firmly in the sand and treats Homer’s Iliad as if it were a historical document accurately recording life, politics, economics and war in Mycenaean times. This slippery book is a disgrace to the historical profession.

Strauss, by the way, is German for ostrich.

Peter Jones

Mary Beard, The Sunday Times , February 25 07

The study of the Trojan war attracts geniuses and nutcases in almost equal measure — not to mention more than its fair share of charlatans. For the rest of us, it’s hard to decide where brilliant inspiration stops and woeful delusion (or sharp practice) starts. The dividing line between “I have found the actual site of Homer’s epic conflict” and “I have found a few paltry foundations and a handful of arrowheads that I am hyping for all they are worth” is hard to fix.

The 19th-century controversy over the remains of Troy is a familiar one. Heinrich Schliemann, an obsessive, self-promoting sales-man-turned-archeologist, claimed to have unearthed Homer’s city at the mound of Hissarlik in western Turkey. William Gladstone was among the enthusiastic converts who gave Schliemann plenty of the 19th-century equivalent of air-time. Many others remained vociferously unconvinced, partly on the dubious grounds that Schliemann’s mound didn’t match up to Homer’s picture of a grand metropolis.

Schliemann’s reputation has not done too badly since. True, he is acknowledged to have been, if not a simple crook, then at least a good candidate for investigation by an archeological ethics committee. That marvellous “treasure of King Priam”, for example, in which he famously dressed up his young wife, was never the single hoard he claimed. He put it together from all kinds of sources (inside and maybe outside his excavations) to make that publicity shot. On the other hand, his identification has stuck. If the city of Troy is anywhere (and that’s a big if), most people agree that it’s at Schliemann’s Hissarlik.

More than a century later, arguments about the archeology of Troy have erupted again, though outside Germany they have hardly fired the popular imagination. Schliemann’s late-20th-century successor was Manfred Korfmann. Returning to the old excavations, he claimed to have found evidence for a large city of 10,000 inhabitants (reassuring for those 19th-century doubters), a hub of Bronze-Age trade, a real commercial metropolis. Hence the Trojan war could be seen as a prehistoric trade war.

The archeological world degenerated into fisticuffs, almost literally, over these claims. Korfmann was called the “von Däniken of archeology” (a slur that almost landed its maker in court) and accused of pandering to his commercial sponsor (for a long time, DaimlerChrysler), which wanted some spectacular results for its investment. Almost every single piece of evidence has been contested. The supposed defences of Korfmann’s Homeric city are, says the opposition, just water channels. Hissarlik was no thriving hub, but a backwater even by Bronze-Age standards.

But Korfmann (who died in 2005) does have academic followers, among them Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University. 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? I ended the book feeling regretful that Homer himself wasn’t getting his fair share of publicity out of all this. “A military epic of the first order” (as one of the jacket puffs runs) is perhaps a better description of The Iliad than of Strauss’s The Trojan War.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.