BMCR 1998.09.04

The World of Troy: Homer, Schliemann, and the Treasures of Priam

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In spite of the recent announcement that Homer has been killed, interest in the person, his epic poems, and the site known as Troy flourishes. So numerous are recent developments that one is hard pressed to keep pace with new publications. This printing of the proceedings of a seminar examining the world of Troy is a small jewel that answers that difficulty: in 110 pages, readers learn results of present-day excavations at Troy; discover the continuing allure of legendary Troy; see Troy in its larger Bronze Age context; are given two assessments of the troublesome Schliemann; and experience the on-going re-appraisal of the historical base of the Trojan War epics. Suggestions for additional reading are included with every essay.

The authors of the contributions are as central to Homeric studies as their subjects: Deborah Boedeker, joint director of the Center and professor of classics at Brown, organized and moderated the colloquium and edited the volume of proceedings. To participate in the seminar sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of the Greek Heritage, she attracted Manfred Korfmann, professor of prehistory and Bronze Age history at the University of Tübingen and director of the current excavations at Troy; Brian Rose, associate professor of classics at the University of Cincinnati, and Donald Easton, a key figure in the debate over the authenticity of the Trojan treasures (both members of the current excavation team at Troy); James Wright, professor of archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, an expert in Bronze Age Aegean archaeology; Susan Heuck Allen, specialist in Anatolian pottery and the history of early excavations at Troy, currently visiting scholar at Brown University; and Kurt Raaflaub, professor of classics and history at Brown University and joint director of the Center for Hellenic Studies.

Deborah Boedeker’s introduction defines the recent reappearance in Russia of “Priam’s treasures” as the inspiration of the seminar and, fittingly, Donald Easton’s essay begins the review of current issues by asking whether the treasure’s discoverer was a hero or a fraud. Though Easton has been a supporter of Schliemann against the strong criticism of the man and his archaeological methods, his account is balanced. “Schliemann is known to have been less than completely honest” (p. 5), Easton admits. As an archaeologist, he had weaknesses as well as strengths. Still, Schliemann should be credited with opening up Aegean prehistory, thereby changing the picture in a whole field of study. According to this definition of “hero,” Easton concludes, “I think he might pass” (p. 15).

As Susan Allen tells the story, Frank Calvert, the man who served as U.S. consul at the Dardanelles from 1874-1908, would not have agreed. Calvert, who owned the eastern portion of Hisarlik and had carried on excavations there, demonstrated its importance to Schliemann. “In the interest of science,” Calvert decided “to make an enormous personal sacrifice by offering to let Schliemann excavate on his land” (p. 23). Even though he accepted the offer, Schliemann repaid his benefactor by treating him as his adversary. On reading Allen’s essay, some will be reluctant to grant Schliemann even Easton’s qualified definition of hero.

By contrast, the director of the current excavation at Troy passes the test easily. In guiding the uncovering of a lower city with an area of some 200,000 square meters and a population of between five and ten thousand, Manfred Korfmann shares Schliemann’s admirable qualities without his predecessor’s faults. In the bargain, the results offer new bases for “the Trojan War.” Korfmann’s essay, “Troia, An Ancient Anatolian Palatial and Trading Center,” provides an essential perspective to an understanding of Troy’s role in the Bronze Age. (It was my good fortune to hear a public lecture on this thesis in Liège in April, 1998). Like Schliemann, Korfmann was denounced: the charge was ignoring the Greekness of Troy’s significance. Unlike Schliemann, Korfmann quietly explained that the excavations are not a case of Greece versus Turkey, West against East, but the discovery of the actual character and significance of a famous site that happens to be located in Anatolia.)

The third essay, by James Wright, gives an even wider perspective in situating Troy among the civilizations of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean, extending our vision beyond Anatolia into the Near East, the Aegean basin, and mainland Greece. Pointing to natural traffic routes by land and sea, Wright concludes that “evidence … argues for Troy’s importance and centrality as a producer and transmitter of objects and technology” (p. 47), even while sensibly reserving final judgment until additional evidence becomes available.

Nor has the question of the historical reality of Homeric account of the Trojan War been settled. Kurt Raaflaub asks “how — if at all — Homer’s Iliad and the ruins of Troy are connected” (p. 77). Reviewing the archaeological evidence, Bronze Age documentary material, and the nature of oral transmission, Raaflaub has drawn up a balance sheet of reasons that support the historicity of the “core tradition” on the one hand and those factors that militate against it on the other. His own inclination is that the transforming character of oral tradition makes it likely that the epics do not portray events of the late Bronze Age but rather “reflect the outlook, ideology and culture of the eighth century” (p. 94).

The case is not closed, in part due to its longevity. In the book’s concluding essay, Brian Rose summarizes the history of the interplay between the legend of the Trojan War and the topographical developments discernible on the site known as Troy. In its brief compass of a dozen pages, his account can emphasize only the main events, but they serve well to demonstrate the thesis that the legend has often been “co-opted” for current needs. The last description of the view of contemporary residents of the area near Troy is charming. Let me tempt only by revealing that it has to do with the Judgment of Paris.

Read it and you will know that Homer is not dead!