Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.53

Gian Franco Chiai, Troia, la Troade ed il Nord Egeo nelle tradizioni mitiche greche: contributo alla ricostruzione della geografia mitica di una regione nella memoria culturale greca. Mittelmeerstudien, 16.   Paderborn:  Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 2017.  Pp. 315.  ISBN 9783506786548.  €98.00.  


Reviewed by J.Z. van Rookhuijzen, Radboud University (j.vanrookhuijzen@let.ru.nl)

This agreeable monograph started its life as the first part of the author’s dissertation from 2002 (the second part on the archaeology and history of the North Aegean in the Archaic period is currently being prepared for publication). It has been reworked and updated to include recent literature. The book sets out to analyse the traditions about Troy, the Troad and the North Aegean to find out who the Trojans were and how their origins and their history were represented in literature. In doing so it manages to discuss and combine most relevant historical sources, surprising strands of Greek mythology and some archaeology of the regions in question. Interest in Troy and its wider region has remained strong in recent decades, not only concerning the archaeology of the city itself and (Greek and Roman) engagement with it, but also concerning its representations in mythology. The work under discussion is an addition to this interest in that it sheds light on the complex Greek perspectives on the origins of the region which featured so heavily in their own culture, and thereby draws in the cults of the Kabeiroi as well as the ‘stratum’ of Greek thinking on the Phoenicians.

Throughout, the book has retained the shape of a dissertation, starting out with a status quaestionis and some paragraphs on key concepts (including ‘myth’ and ‘place of memory’). Here we find some useful presentation of ideas, including deserved discussion of Jan Assmann’s concept mnemotope (p. 22; this term could have been used to describe various phenomena described later in the book, for example the places visited by Aeneas at pp. 127-128). The author also rightfully distances himself from Pierre Nora’s concept lieu de mémoire (p. 27), which has been used in (too) divergent ways.

In the main part of the book, the ample use of headings is of great help in guiding the reader through a (rather bewildering) setup of six chapters and interspersed appendices. In its individual parts, the discussion of the material is usually fine and helped by an enormous and up to date bibliography. Chapter 1 discusses the literary traditions regarding the origin of Troy and the population of the Troad, taking into account traditions about the Teucri and the figure of Dardanos. The author also pays much attention to the unexpected association of Cretan mythology with Troy. He connects, possibly too unproblematically, the myths about the Teucri and Dardanos as an aetiology for the presence of archaeological cultures of Balkan provenance in the Troad. Chapter 2 traces the history and myth of various people present in the Troad along the lines of various testimonies, including Strabo, the Catalogue of Ships, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. The approach here is comprehensive, but the argument runs the risk of being spread too thin as so many different and divergent sources are included. Chapter 3 concerns the presence of the Phoenicians in the North Aegean and contains the observation that there existed two chronologically separate Greek perspectives on the Phoenicians, i.e. first as bringers of culture and subsequently as merchants and pirates (but one wonders what the relation of this observation, valid not only for the studied regions, is for the book as a whole). The reason for discussing the Phoenicians in this book seems to be their connection to the cult of the Kabeiroi in the North Aegean (which is the topic of chapter 5) and the idea that Dardanos, a relative of the Phoenician prince Kadmos, arrived in Troy to found a city there. Chapter 4 analyses the traditions about ‘posthomeric’ Troy to shed light on the perspectives of the Greeks on their Anatolian neighbours. The author here offers the interesting observation that the inhabitants of the Trojans were usually included in the Greek world, or even regarded as Greeks, and only started to be ‘othered’ in the Athenian domain in response to the Persian Wars. Chapter 5 concerns the traditions about the Kabeiroi in the North Aegean. The reason for the inclusion of this chapter seems to be the fact that Demetrius of Scepsis placed the origin of the Kabeiroi in the Troad because he connected these figures with the oronym Kabeiros (a part of Mount Ida in the Troad). But how revealing is this ancient theory for Greek thinking at other times and in other places? The final, more archaeologically focused chapter 6 discusses Troy and the monuments of the surrounding landscape, concentrating on graves and cult places, and how these were formative for the Troad’s cultural identity. This is a topic of great recent research interest. Additional attention could have been paid to the Thracian Chersonese, too, which arguably was part of that same landscape in which monuments of Greek mythological figures such as Helle and Protesilaos were present.

In what follows I would like to present three general points of criticism, which, I underline, should not be taken as dismissive of this good work of scholarship as a whole. My main point of criticism of this book is precisely its structure, which I take to be the result of the book’s origin as a dissertation. In spite of the author’s explanatory notes on it (p. 28ff), the combination of topics and the subsequent division into chapters is difficult to understand. This particularly concerns the book’s geographical demarcation: it not sufficiently clear why the North Aegean (in practice the cult of the Kabeiroi in Samothrace and other islands, chapter 5) deserves special scrutiny when other traditions about Troy, for example those located on the Greek mainland, or even those of the Thracian Chersonese on the other side of the Hellespont, are not discussed. In addition, the different chapters are not equivalent, as we encounter the Phoenicians (3), Kabeiroi (5) or monuments of the Troad (6) in a strange juxtaposition, and the appendices about Cretan mythology seem to be only of tangential relevance to the aims of the book as a whole.

Another problem is that while the book successfully lists many traditions about Troy, the Troad and the North Aegean, their discussion sometimes remains rather superficial and could have benefitted from more contextualisation. It is in many cases unclear to whom those traditions would have been relevant, both in geographical and chronological terms. Such a discussion would have been expected, because the mere accumulation of geographically and chronologically widely divergent sources does not always allow for good claims regarding their importance in Antiquity itself. This is particularly notable in the author’s association of the mythology of Crete to that of the Troad (in particular pp. 53-76). The cited references may be learned ones, or limited in space and time. For example, the mythical origin of the Teucri in Crete (p. 43-44) may merely be an ad hoc aetiology for the double occurrence of the oronym Ida in both Crete and the Troad. One wonders how widespread, and how locally sourced, such ‘sense-making’ on the part of later Greeks was.

My final point of criticism concerns the author’s presentation of myth and history as two largely different categories (p. 15-17). This does not always match the perceptions of the Greeks themselves, who may have seen the mythical past as very real (if chronologically distant). This is especially the case for the legends surrounding the Trojan War. At the same time, it is clear that ‘historical’ events appearing in sources such as Herodotus cannot be taken at face value, but can also be mythologized or wholly invented. For example, Xerxes’ visit to Troy and the offering to Athena (Hdt. 7.43), which the author treats as historical (pp 242-243), may also be regarded as another legendary story connected to the city of myth in, for example, the Athenian imagination, the importance of which the author does recognise on page 97.

Despite these critical remarks, I would commend this fine book to scholars working on the areas the book describes, as well as more generally to scholars interested in the relation of mythology to physical landscapes.

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