on 24 September 2006
Over the years, I've read quite a few books and articles about the Trojan War, but this one really hits the mark. For one thing, Strauss doesn't dwell on the oft-repeated story of Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of the "Mound at Hisarlik," which most archaeologists now agree was the site of ancient Troy. Instead, Strauss dives straight into the narrative in the Iliad and related but lesser-know works, treating Homer's probably fictional heroes as real characters and using them to illuminate the nuances of Greek and Anatolian culture during the Bronze Age.
In this narrative, Troy is a propserous client state of the Hittite Empire and the Greeks are the Vikings of the Mediterranean. The Trojan War may or may not have been about the abduction of a Spartan queen named Helen, but it could easily have been about Mycenaean raids to capture booty and Trojan women. And while today's reader is skeptical of the active participation of gods in battle, Strauss makes it clear that the gods of the Iliad were an integral part of the thinking of Bronze Age warriors, not just a poetic device.
To top it all off, Strauss is simply a good writer. There are other good books about the Trojan War (Rodney Castelden's recent "The Attack on Troy" and Michael Wood's classic "In Search of the Trojan War" come to mind), but Strauss does the best job of integrating the powerful narrative of the Homeric epic cycle with our current knowledge of the Bronze Age world. "The Trojan War" is a fast and compelling read.
This is a superb history book, which happens to be about the siege of Troy. My knowledge of ancient Greece was limited, as was my interest. There is an awful lot to know but where to start? My first illustrated history books (in vibrant colour) were of heroic warriors and beautiful maidens, a wooden horse and the epics of the Iliad and Odyssey. Bronze Age Greece presents complex archaeology, it is easy to forget that archaeology is a modern discipline (post Darwin); its' originators (Schliemann, Dorpfeld, Arthur Evans, Carl Blegan et al) were larger than life. So much has been learnt in Greece and sites continue to yield significant advances in our knowledge. But you have to get excited about pottery shards, the frustrations of layers of history merging and the politics of squabbling city-states.
What Professor Strauss has done is to blend the writings of Homer and the facts revealed by archaeology to tell the story of the siege of Troy (circa 1210-1180 bc). Homer - who wrote five hundred year after the event (700bc) - was writing from an oral tradition. Did Troy exist, did a siege occur, and was Homer accurate? The answers - without spoiling the book - are probably yes. How Strauss reaches this conclusion is what makes the book fascinating. He works through Homer, tells the drama and interprets with empirical data. Strauss is clever enough to apply common sense accepting what we cannot know but seems likely.
What Strauss does well is present and analyse information in such an accessible form. There is a lot of hard data blended into a narrative, he writes with enthusiasm so by the end I was comfortable with Mycenaean and Hittites empires, Linear B, Troys' 1 to ever so many, as well as the characters - Agamemnon to Thersites and more. I am prepared for more Greek history.
This slim book is a work of intellect and imagination, a model for other historians to emulate. Strauss swims in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, confident in his expertise but not drowning us in jargon and footnotes. There is a good chronology, glossary and illustrations. I remember the Michael Woods BBC series "In Search of the Trojan War". Please would some commissioning editor find Strauss and ask him to update this?
on 5 August 2012
This is a bad book. Although the fly leaf to my copy says that the author is professor of history and classics at Cornell University and that he has conducted extensive research in Greece and Turkey, when writing about the late Bronze Age he is writing beyond his field of expertise. The text is an imaginative retelling of the Trojan War but it is ruined by Strauss' unrelenting asides drawing upon unrelated cultures that are hundreds or even thousands of miles distant, and from periods of history as far apart as five hundred years from Strauss' estimated date for the war of 1210-1180. To take one example out of scores and scores: reference to how the Hammurabi may once have addressed his troups six hundred years earlier in far away Babylonia is irrelevant to the mise en scene. Furthermore Strauss' text is peppered with swathes of such conjectural examples, not underscored by archaeology but instead qualified with words such as: possibly, probably, similarly, may have , could, etc., etc. This is both tedious and very frustrating, so much so that I could not finish the book. One gets the impression that Strauss set out to quote as many references as he could - irrespective as to whether or not they are relevant.
Problems immediately arise with the lazy use of this heuristic resulting in systematic errors of judgment leading to demonstrative bias and avoidance of more salient and concrete data. In view of the fact that there were contacts between the Aegean and Anatolia and between the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean Strauss could have attempted to address the history of the region in relation to Troy - the battle of Qadesh, the state of the Hittite empire, the arrival of the sea peoples, the fall of Ugarit and the subsequent collapse of the whole regional system from Greece and Anatolia to Egypt. And where was Ahhiyawa - was it Achaia (mainland Mycenaean Greece) or was it based around Milawatna (the later Miletus) and if so what was its relationship with the state of Arzawa? None of this is adequately addressed.
Strauss also fails to address the situation and relationship of Paris and Helen. Was it about trade, booty or empire? Menelaus succeeded Tyndareos as king of Sparta by marrying his daughter Helen despite the fact the Tyndareus had two living sons - Kastor and Polydeukes. For an analysis of kingship by marriage as a pattern of succession and of hereditary succession through the female line refer to Finkelberg (2005) Greeks and Pre-Greeks ch 4. Paris' abduction of Helen may have given him a right to succession and given the war a completely different flavour.
The book has a ten page index but includes entries from such diverse irrelevancies as Dahomey and the Elamites. It also has a 21 page `Note on Sources' which is really useful. Borrow this book from the library and use Strauss' sources to explore this for yourself.