New York.- By Vicki J. Yiannias
Asked by e-mail by The Greek News what would be the one thing above all others he would choose to know as fact about the Trojan War, Barry Strauss, the author of The Trojan War (2007, Simon &Schuster), answered from Naples where he was involved in a shoot on gladiators in Pompey for the Discovery Channel, “I’d love to know if Helen really existed and if she really was the cause of the war.”
How much is really known about the Trojan War, one of historyʼs most famous conflicts? Was there a ten-year-long-war waged over the abduction of the beautiful Helen, Queen of Sparta by Paris, a Trojan Prince?
The words of a Greek poet say there was. But are those words true? Granted that ancient Troy really existed, was it anything like the splendid city of Homer’s description? Did it face an armada from Greece? Did the Trojan War really happen? How much is myth, and what reality, or do the two converge?
In The Trojan War, Strauss, a professor of history and classics at Cornell University and a leading expert on military history (as shown in his 2004 book, The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece–and Western Civilization) explores the myth and the reality behind the war, from Homer’s accounts in The Iliad and The Odyssey and other fragmentary ancient writings including Hittite and Egyptian texts, and Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of ancient Troy in the late nineteenth century to more recent excavations that have yielded intriguing clues to the story behind the fabled city.
“What do you think is the most puzzling unknown about the war or about anyone that is thought to have been involved in it?” we went on to ask. “Most puzzling: the Trojan Horse!” Strauss answered.
His palpable fascination with ancient times makes the material Strauss tackles ever more fascinating to read. Although the historical circumstances are thousands of years in the past, all the characters involved have immediacy and human perspective, even the behavior of demi-gods and heroes. We see and hear Achilles, Hector, Priam, Odysseus, Helen, Menelaus and Agamemnon, among many. Although Strauss notes the possible fictional nature of some he treats them as real, and using his knowledge of diplomacy and warfare in the Bronze Age, treats the sacking of Troy around 1200 BC by a Greek naval force credible.
Spectacular new evidence makes it likely that the Trojan War indeed took place, Strauss writes. New excavations since 1988 constitute little less than an archaeological revolution, proving that Homer was right about the city. Twenty years ago, it looked as though Troy was just a small citadel of only about half an acre. Now we know that Troy was, in fact, about seventy-five acres in size, a city of gold amid amber fields of wheat. Formerly, it seemed that by 1200 BC Troy was a shabby place, well past its prime, but we know now that in 1200 the city was in its heyday.
An articulate writer and natural storyteller with a special gift for colorful description, which is rare, if not nonexistent in history books, the Strauss experience can be compared to reading a novel. These are real people with real passions, involved in real circumstances with real consequences. And let us not forget the details: real costumes and jewelry, sacrifices, rituals and prayers, weapons, food, modes of transport and encampment, and then treachery, fear, homesickness, and the gore of brutal battles. Through vivid reconstructions of the battles and insightful depictions of its famous characters, The Trojan War reveals the history behind Homer’s great epic without losing the poetry and grandeur of the epic myth.
Itself, the location of Troy in invites war, says Strauss in the Introduction to the book, “People had already fought over Troy for two thousand years by the time Homer’s Greeks are said to have attacked it. Its location, where Europe and Asia meet, made it rich and visible. At Troy, the steel-blue water of the Dardanelles Straits pours into the Aegean and opens the way to the Black Sea. Although the north wind often blocked ancient shipping there, Troy has a protected harbor, and so it beckoned to merchants — and marauders. Walls, warriors, and blood were the city’s lot.”
The Trojans, it turns out, were not ethnic Greeks but an Anatolian people closely allied with the Hittite Empire to the east. At the time of the Trojan War the Greeks were great seafarers while Troy was a more settled civilization. And while the cause of the war may well have been the kidnapping of a queen — and, more significantly, the seizure of her royal dowry — the underlying cause was a conflict between the Trojans and the Greeks for control of the eastern Aegean Sea.