Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Barry Strauss's Trojan War

For centuries, the events portrayed in “The Iliad” were accepted as myth, believed to have had only the most tenuous basis—if that—in actual events from antiquity.

Homer’s epic poem of gods and goddesses, love and hate, retribution and honor, was acknowledged to constitute a rollicking-good tale, but the story itself was assumed to have had no foundation in historic personages or events.

The main event in “The Iliad” was, of course, The Trojan War—and, until the late 19th Century, The Trojan War was accepted as a purely imaginary conflagration.

Scholarly assessments of the myth-versus-reality aspect of The Trojan War began to change in the 1870’s, when amateur German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, during an archeological expedition in Western Turkey, stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient city. After only a few months of digging, Schliemann announced to the world that he had discovered the lost city of Troy.

Archeologists from all over Europe rushed to the scene of Schliemann’s “discovery”, and within weeks were able to confirm that Schliemann had indeed uncovered a great ancient city, a city that in many particulars matched the description of Troy provided by Homer himself almost three thousand years earlier. Even the surrounding topography matched the topography detailed by the author of “The Iliad”.

More curious still, archeologists were able to ascertain that the buried city had been destroyed in a disastrous and cataclysmic fire occurring coincident with a military battle sometime around 1200 B.C. These findings were consistent with the manner of the city’s destruction and the time period portrayed in Homer’s epic poem.

Excavations at Troy have continued for the last 140 years. For over a century, most—but not all—Classics scholars have accepted Schliemann’s site as the city of Troy (stone tablets discovered at the site within the last twenty years bear the name of the city in Hittite, the language in use in Anatolia during the time of The Trojan War).

The rediscovery of Troy required a reexamination of the basis of the Homeric epic. Within a few years of the onset of archeological diggings at Troy, the existence of The Trojan War became an accepted historic event, freed from the chains of myth and enshrined as a genuine—and seminal—event in Western Civilization.

In short, based solely upon archeology at Troy, The Trojan War was elevated from mythology to history by Classics scholars. The Trojan War has been accepted as a real occurrence ever since (although there have always been a few holdouts).

Other than the writings of Homer, and other than the archeological finds that have been uncovered at Troy, very little is known about The Trojan War. Enormous feats of conjecture and guesswork typify the standard histories of the conflict.

Barry Strauss’s “The Trojan War: A New History” attempts to bring Trojan scholarship up to date (Strauss’s massive bibliography is the most valuable portion of his publication), presenting a one-volume treatment of the war, its causes, and its denouement.

Alas, in analyzing The Trojan War, Strauss must resort to conjecture as much as any other Classics scholar—and, to my taste, Strauss often goes too far.

Trying to bring his story to life by the incorporation of mundane detail about life in Greece and Anatolia circa 1200 B.C., Strauss frequently enters the realm of pure fiction. He tells the reader, for example, what clothing Helen Of Troy wore (down to the multi-hued colors of her garments), the jewelry with which she adorned herself, how she coiffed her hair, and the scent of her perfumes. All such details are pure guesswork on Strauss’s part, without foundation or support in historical record.

Strauss seems especially intrigued by the clothing worn in 1200 B.C., whether by the Greeks or by the Trojans, and he harps on this issue at length—a very secondary consideration for his story, all in all—as if a discussion of clothing might bring long-forgotten civilizations to life.

Further, Strauss, like a novelist, actually ascribes states of mind to various principle characters. The reader is told, for instance, what Helen Of Troy was “thinking” and “feeling” at various times in the story, such as when she absconded with Paris to Troy. Such matters are best left in the hands of romance novelists.

Strauss also invokes modern comparisons inaptly. He is especially fond of comparing historic figures with modern counterparts, and these comparisons are often bizarre. (One such instance is the likening of an ancient Greek ruler and his wife to—of all persons—Argentina’s Juan and Eva Peron!) These comparisons do not ring true, and add nothing of value to the presentation of historic figures.

Alarmingly, on occasion Strauss gets detail wrong. Inaccurate detail inevitably makes the reader question the accuracy of scholarship.

Some of the inaccurate detail was dumbfounding. My favorite example was Strauss’s misnaming Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, whom Strauss assigned the Christian name Ernst. Goodness!

I do not wish to make too much of such faults. What is good about the book far exceeds what is bad.

Of overriding importance, Strauss attempts to separate fact from fiction in the story set forth in “The Iliad”. This is the greatest value of his book.

Strauss asserts, quite reasonably, that the cause of The Trojan War was not Helen Of Troy’s great beauty but the fact that Helen and Paris had raided Sparta’s treasury and moved it to Troy.

Strauss’s argument that the number of ships sailing forth from Greece—more than one thousand in Homer’s telling—was a gross exaggeration, pure poetic license on Homer’s part, is similarly quite reasonable.

Strauss also ascribes to poetic license Homer’s claim that The Trojan War lasted ten years. Strauss argues, weakly, I believe, that “ten years” simply meant “a very long time” in Homer’s day, and that The Trojan War in fact lasted only a fraction of a decade.

I think Strauss is not on solid ground in making this claim. The Trojan War was the World War II of its era. Even with 20th-Century technology and transportation, World War II required six years to resolve. Given the primitive technology and transportation of The Bronze Age, for The Trojan War to have lasted as long as ten years would have been entirely unremarkable.

Other claims by Strauss are weaker still.

Among the most absurd: Strauss’s analysis of the power and accuracy of archery during The Bronze Age, an analysis that is risible. Strauss’s claims about the art and power of the longbow in 1200 B.C.—which he believes to have been considerable—are impossible to accept by anyone who has studied the technology of archery at Agincourt.

Most controversial of all is Strauss’s assertion that there was no Trojan Horse. Strauss argues that The Trojan Horse was nothing more than a literary device on Homer’s part. Strauss contends that Homer invented The Trojan Horse, intending it to stand as a metaphor for trickery and deception.

To me, this particular claim does not ring true.

Since Homer was writing for an audience knowledgeable about The Trojan War, it is unlikely that Homer would have created from whole cloth such a significant incident, let alone an incident upon which the final denouement of his tale hinged.

I also question whether Homer—who was Greek, and writing for Greeks, the victors in The Trojan War—would have fabricated what was a major turning point in his nation’s history, and have done so purely in the pursuit of literary metaphor. Such a claim strikes me as nonsensical.

“The Trojan War: A New History” is a very frustrating book.

It presents, cogently, what we know about the war from Homer and from modern excavations. The narrative is lively, and the story moves, making the book accessible to non-scholars.

Much of the book’s fabric, however, is fiction, a result of the author attempting to flesh out characters and bring to life for the general reader The Bronze Age. These maneuvers, reader-friendly though they may be, mar the book as a work of scholarship.

I suspect that Strauss’s volume is best treated as a curious reader’s contemporary supplement to “The Iliad”—and I suspect that such is exactly what his publisher wanted.

Nonetheless, I doubt that “The Trojan War” will prove to be of lasting value (other than its exhaustive bibliography). Further, I predict that Strauss, twenty years from now, will wish that he had never written the book.


A prime undercurrent of “The Trojan War: A New History” is the author’s belief that The Trojan War possesses great relevance for today’s world.

Strauss does not strike this theme with a sledgehammer, but the book makes clear that Strauss passionately believes that The Trojan War offers lessons that contemporary decision-makers would be wise to heed.

Strauss portrays the war between the Greeks and the Trojans as a war between rich and poor, civilized and uncivilized, advanced and primitive.

In Strauss’s eyes, the Trojans were wealthy, civilized, advanced and worthy, while the Greeks were poor, uncivilized, primitive—and highly envious of Trojan wealth, culture and power. Indeed, in Strauss’s telling, Greeks were practically barbarians when compared with the people of Troy.

How does a successful society whose wealth and culture provoke strong envy and resentment among its rivals manage to survive in precarious times?

Addressing this difficult question is the subtext of Strauss’s entire volume. In fact, I suspect that Strauss would like to write a book devoted to this very subject.

Troy fell for a variety of reasons. While Homer ascribes Troy’s fall to the actions of gods and goddesses who repeatedly intervened upon mere mortals (on both sides) throughout the course of the war, Strauss attributes Troy’s fall to its inability to understand the nature of the threat it faced and to act accordingly.

Compared to the Trojans, in Strauss’s telling the Greeks were “thugs”, “fanatics” and “warriors”, prepared to engage in tactics unthinkable to the more civilized Trojans.

In contrast, Troy lacked the tough, hardened diplomacy and warfare necessary to prevail against its more primitive (and perhaps more determined) rival, or so Strauss suggests. Even more fatally, Strauss contends that Troy lacked cunning, a vital component of a winning strategy in any lengthy military engagement.

Strauss does not set forth so much as allow readers to invoke for themselves parallels between the Greek/Trojan conflict circa 1200 B.C. and today’s wars—variously cold, warm and hot—between Western democracies and Islamic radicals.

Nonetheless, it is unmistakable that Strauss harbors grave concerns about the West’s ability and resolve to wage war against barbarians. He implies that willpower and fortitude, as well as belief in the rightness of one’s cause, are necessary elements to bring a long-term conflict to a successful resolution—and he further implies that the West may lack such qualities.

“Soft power” was not successful in ancient times, and is unlikely to be successful today.

Such is the unspoken assumption threaded throughout Strauss’s text.

That, perhaps, is the primary lesson Strauss wants readers to take from “The Trojan War”.


Strauss is an author worth reading. Professor Of History and Classics at Cornell, he has authored several books—as well as numerous scholarly papers—in his chosen field.

I plan to read Strauss’s “The Battle Of Salamis” and “The Spartacus War” in the very near future.

I suspect that those two volumes are not geared toward the “mass audience” as much as “The Trojan War” and, as a result, will be more grounded in ancient texts and less prone to vivid speculation.

I had never previously encountered Strauss.

My father had purchased “The Trojan War: A New History” in 2006, the year in which the book was first published, but he had never read the book. He had skimmed it for half an hour, and had decided that the book was not worth his time.

I took “The Trojan War” with me on our trip—I thought it might be suitable reading for our long flights as well as for down time (if we had any)—and I found the book to be worthwhile if problematic.

As a consequence, and on my recommendation, my father is now going to read “The Trojan War”.

Addendum Of 2 November 2009: A further item of note on "The Trojan War: A New History" appears here.


  1. While 'The Trojan War - A New History' may be a work of useful and diligent scholarship, it is worth the price of the book for the bibliography alone, this passage (starting on page 34) encapsulates all that I think is wrong with this book, both in use the rhetoric, and in the understated ideology.

    They could break an enemy's lance or deceive him with words. They knew how much flour it rook to feed an army and how much wood was needed to burn a corpse. They knew how to pitch camp or launch a fleet, how to debrief a spy or send out an informer. They could draw a bow and spilt a copper ingot like a reed or hurl a spear and pierce the seam in an enemy's armour. They shrugged off mud and snow, towering waves or buckets of rain. They could appraise lapis lazuli with a jeweller's eye or break a merchant's neck with a hangman's hand. They could court a milkmaid or rape a princess. They relished ambushes after dark and noontime charges. They feared the gods and liked the smell of death.

    The blasé description of murder and rape in this section disturbed me. I was reminded of Simone Weil and her perceptive essay on the Iliad, in which she noted that ‘for those who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the centre of human history, the Iliad is the most beautiful and purest mirror’. This book, too full, for my taste with American vaunting, seems to agree with the idea that force is at the centre of history. While it would be hard to disagree that this certainly appears to be the case, it is only too easy to turn this idea on it's head and understand the centre of human history as being cooperation. The authors marauding gangs of 'Vikings' could not have landed, let alone sustained a long war on a foreign land if not for cooperative endeavour.

  2. The rules of grammar leave you flummoxed, don't they?

    Yours is the comment of a moron.

    I read the first page of your blog, and yours is the blog of a moron.

    Please do not comment here again.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.