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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“The Trojan War: A New History”, by Barry Strauss

288 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0743264426

The Trojan War (c.1200 BC) is a conflict shrouded in mists of myth, fragmented historical evidence and often-inconclusive archaeological clues. Most of our views on the war are shaped by Homer's heroic epics, not recorded history. In his book, The Trojan War: A New History, Cornell University Professor Barry Strauss attempts to depict this conflict as a coherent historical narrative, accepting much of Homer as a starting point, but embellishing the tale with other neglected literary sources and all currently available archeological evidence. This is not a stuffy academic tome on Homer but rather, an attempt to depict Helen, Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Paris, etc. as real historical characters and the author succeeds in this effort. On the one hand, this is a pleasing effort that brings life to our otherwise hagiographical image of these characters. On the other hand, the reader is constantly brought to wonder what the author has surmised and what he has simply invented whole cloth. Since we are not even sure of the existence of many of these characters – did Homer invent some of them? – it is disconcerting to see the author describing their appearance, thoughts and actions. Although this book provides wonderful insight into the Trojan War, I found myself torn whether I should consider it history or historical fiction; there is a huge gray area at the heart of this book.

The author's narrative is clean and strait forward, laid out in 11 chapters that begins with Helen's flight from Sparta with Paris to the fall of Troy. As a starting premise, the author accepts much of Homer's The Iliad as based upon real events, but he notes exaggerations and omissions that make certain sections suspect. Although the author can only guess at the dates – they fall within a 30-year period – readers will sense that the Professor Strauss has attempted to impose the historical structure of Thucydides upon the literary form of Homer. As the author notes, greed not jealousy was the cause of the war: “Helen was not the cause but merely the occasion of the war” and “Agamemnon rallied the Greeks to attack a gold mine.” Readers will also note that the author attempts to be more balanced to the Trojan point of view than Homer permitted, although ultimately the author criticizes the Trojans for surrendering the strategic initiative to the Greeks.

One of the author's main hypotheses is that Troy was indeed sacked by the Greeks but there was no formal siege. Instead, the author maintains that the Greeks, frustrated by the seemingly impregnable walls of Troy, turned to small-scale attacks on the villages around Troy and her weaker allies. The author is hindered in testing this hypothesis by his limited understanding of military theory, referring to the period after the initial Greek attack on Troy failed as “low intensity conflict.” This was in fact a switch in Greek tactics from counterforce (i.e., destroy the Trojan Army) to counter value (i.e., destroy the Trojan economy and alliance network), but the commitment of thousands of troops on these raids indicated that they were far from low-intensity. Nor does it help when the author fumbles military references from other eras, such as a comparison to “Ernst Rommel” (that is, Erwin Rommel). The author also strongly criticizes the Trojans for not attempting to launch counteroffensives to take advantage of Greek mistakes, but the evidence for or against this is far too weak. Given our limited knowledge of the war and the Greek-centric nature of what sources are available, I don't believe that we have enough information to condemn the Trojan strategy as faulty. The author also tends to blame the Trojans when they did counterattack, accusing Hector of being vainglorious and reckless in seeking combat. This seems to be contradictory.

Nevertheless, the author's descriptions of Greek assaults upon the walls and furious fights upon the plains of Troy are thrilling to read. I just wish we had a better idea if they are based upon fact or this author's imagination. It is never really clear. When the author suspects that Homer exaggerates, he simply deletes or ignores those passages. This kind of `pick and choose approach' makes sense, but it also risks including some ideas that were false but sound reasonable while excluding true improbables. Would readers 3,000 years from now believe that the American Revolution was decided by an almost-unheard of French naval victory over the Royal Navy? The author does provide some nice maps and photographs of the terrain, as well as notes on sources. Overall, this book is a very good read and the author achieves at least partial success in laying out his hypotheses, although there are too many lingering doubts to call this a definitive work. 

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