BMCR 2004.04.38

The Trojan War: Literature and Legends from the Bronze Age to the Present

, The Trojan War : literature and legends from the Bronze Age to the present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2004. vi, 241 pages : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0786417374 $35.00.

The stories associated with the Trojan War captured the imagination of ancient authors and their audiences, and — because their popularity did not diminish with the end of antiquity — Diane Thompson (hereafter T.) has written this book “to communicate the extraordinary endurance and variety of Troy stories, so that modern readers can appreciate how ancient, how persistent, and yet how contemporary these stories are” (1). To this end, she begins with an historical overview of Late Bronze Age Greece and Troy, an introduction to and book-by-book summaries of the Homeric epics, and a few comments on major characters, themes, etc. Subsequent chapters also provide introductions, character lists, and (detailed) summaries for a selection of “Troy stories” from antiquity (Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Iphigenia plays, Vergil’s Aeneid) and Medieval Europe (the anonymous Eneas, de Sainte Maure’s Roman de Troie, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde), as well as later authors such as Shakespeare ( Troilus and Cressida), Racine ( Iphigenie en Aulide), Goethe ( Iphigenie auf Taurus), et al. up to the twentieth century. The Trojan War is intended for a non-specialized, general audience and, as a result, features extensive summaries and syntheses of a broad sampling of primary and secondary works rather than new interpretations or insights. The book should indeed be useful to curious readers with little or no familiarity with literature that treats the Trojan War but has little to offer more seasoned readers apart from its bibliographies, which cover essential primary and secondary sources. I found the most useful chapters to be those that deal with post-classical material: in particular, chapter 11, which treats Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, and chapter 14, which provides an extensive list of material pertaining to Troy written, produced, put online, etc. in the last twenty (or so) years.

T.’s introduction provides a brief overview of the reception of various Troy stories, especially the Homeric epics and the Aeneid, from the post-classical period onward to emphasize the popularity of Trojan War subject matter in post-classical European literature. Chapters 1 and 2 form an introduction to the Homeric epics. In chapter 1, T. summarizes life in Bronze Age Mycenae and Troy and considers the major theories advanced to explain the collapse of Mycenaean civilization, with special attention paid to the (so-called) “Sea Peoples.” Chapter 2 explores the oral/formulaic nature of Homeric poetry, the contents of the Cyclical Epics, and the ancient Greeks’ beliefs about Homer; T. omits any discussion of the circumstances under which the Homeric epics came to be written down.

Chapters 3 and 4 treat the Iliad and Odyssey, respectively. Both chapters provide book-by-book summaries and brief comments about Zeus, Achilles, and Agamemnon (for the Iliad) and the underworld, the “hero’s dilemma,” and Odysseus (for the Odyssey). Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the House of Atreus. In chapter 5, T. focuses on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon although she includes a brief discussion of the entire Oresteia, she draws parallels between the Homeric and Aeschylean versions of Agamemnon and explores the characterization of Clytemnestra in light of fifth-century Athenian attitudes towards women. After summaries of Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia at Taurus (with a few remarks about the dates of production), T. emphasizes the themes of bloodguilt and human sacrifice and discusses the (controversial) ending of Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides’ gods, and the literary afterlife of Iphigenia.

Chapter 7 takes readers from Greece to Rome, as T. presents Vergil’s Aeneid. After a brief introduction, which focuses on Vergil’s life and times, she provides a list of characters and book-by-book summary. She then discusses Aeneas’ major attributes (with an emphasis on piety), the affair between Dido and Aeneas, and the role of the gods (whom she treats as characters, rather than symbols or natural phenomena). T. concludes this chapter with a section entitled “Why Read Vergil,” in which she discusses some of the challenges that the Aeneid poses for modern readers — “the main problem is the Latin” (123); “unfortunately, the Aeneid does not translate well” (124) — and emphasizes the unique impact of the Aeneid on the Western literary tradition.

In chapter 8, T. stresses two factors that affected the continuing tradition of Troy stories: the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the division of the Roman Empire into the Greek-speaking East and Latin-speaking West in 395 AD. She addresses the growing divide between East and West, as well as the prominence given to Vergil in the West and Homer in the East, and suggests that the popularity of Dares’ de Excidio Troiae Historia and Dictys’ Ephemeridos Belli Troiani among medieval Christians stems from the de-emphasis of divine (i.e., pagan) elements in both texts. Chapter 9 treats the rise in popularity of the medieval romantic versions of Troy stories, such as the anonymous Eneas and de Sainte Maure’s Roman de Troie. T. points out that these Medieval romances introduced characters from ancient epics into the world of medieval courtly love: “love could debase and destroy a noble lover such as Achilles; love could ennoble a debased lover such as Eneas” (142).

Chapters 10 and 11 treat Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, respectively. According to T., Chaucer, as a medieval Christian, blends romance, with which Troy stories were already associated, with a message of Christian morality: “Chaucer medievalizes the story of the Trojan War, combining ancient pagan history and Medieval interest in love within a Christian philosophical framework” (155). Troilus, a pagan, is incapable of understanding a God-centered universe and where his own sufferings fit in. T. also includes a discussion of some important background information, such as “Courtly Love” and, in particular, the influence of Boethian philosophy (which she handles skillfully, with an emphasis on Boethius’ concept of Universal Causation). In chapter 11, T. (uncharacteristically) provides little summary in favor of exploring various aspects of Troilus and Cressida in greater detail. Unlike Chaucer, who places imperfect characters and an imperfect world within a perfect, God-centered universe, Shakespeare explores the human causes for the fall of Troy and asks his readers to consider, “what are human beings, who can destroy a civilization?” (168). The discussion that follows is T.’s finest, as she examines the three kinds of values with which the characters in the play struggle (“absolute, relative, and the direct objects of appetite,” 169). Through the character of Hector she examines the notion of absolute value, “that worth is intrinsic to a person, not dependent on what he/she does” (169), and through the character of Ulysses she examines the notion of relative value, “that each person is worth more or less only in relation to other human beings” (170). It is the appetite, however, “which ultimately dominates and controls human action” (174). T. explains that appetite’s impulses are ideally governed by reason, but, because there is no “recognized scale of values” among the Trojans by which reason can govern, chaos ensues. Unlike the faithlessness of Chaucer’s Creseyde, which suggests, “that men should turn from love of women to love of God,” Shakespeare’s Troilus “takes Cressida’s faithlessness to be proof that the very bonds of the heavens have ‘slipped, dissolved and loosed'” (176). T. concludes by suggesting that Shakespeare’s attitude is rooted in Elizabethan society and its preoccupation with understanding causality in human terms.

In chapter 12, T. revisits her discussion of the Euripidean Iphigenia plays (chapter 6) in her treatment of Racine’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1674) and Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Taurus (1787). In her introduction, she emphasizes that the gods who figure so prominently in the Greek plays have a far smaller role in these modern versions: “the origin of the problems may lie with the gods; the solution must be human” (179). Accordingly, the human characters in the plays of Racine and Goethe ultimately succeed or fail on their own merits, without the benefit of a deus ex machina.

Chapters 13 and 14 take us into the twentieth century: chapter 13 treats two works that explore female-dominated societies (Marion Bradley’s The Firebrand [1987] and Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country [1988]) and chapter 14 documents recent treatments of Troy stories in various media, such as literature, TV, film, video, and the internet. Chapter 14 concludes with a review of how societies have adapted Troy stories to reflect contemporary interests and issues. T. is confident that Troy’s legacy will not diminish in the twenty-first century: “future times will have their own, as yet unimagined, uses for the story of Troy, which will enrich the twenty-first century just as it has the previous three millennia” (217).

The book is well written with few errors,1 covers a broad sampling of Troy stories from Homer to the twentieth century, and provides a useful synthesis of secondary material. The strengths of the book are its emphasis on why different societies focused on particular aspects of the Trojan War and its extensive and detailed bibliography of Trojan War material. The Trojan War should appeal to a general audience (its target audience), although it will have limited appeal for the college classroom, as there is far too much summary and only cursory discussions of even the most significant issues for each work — with one notable exception: T.’s thoroughly engaging discussion of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. In fact, whereas T.’s overviews, lists of characters, and detailed summaries of each and every work (often taking up the majority of a chapter) become tedious to the point of distraction, her analysis of Troilus and Cressida, which is highly original (to judge from the very few citations of modern critics), not only makes for very enjoyable reading, but even made me dust off my own copy of the play. Admittedly, I am not a general reader — although when it comes to Shakespeare I am hardly a specialist — but her discussion of Troilus and Cressida makes me question the value of her summaries, if they come at the expense of more detailed (yet not necessarily overly technical) analyses of the themes that give most of these works their timeless appeal.


1. E.g., “Calchus” for “Calchas” (twice on 132) and no English translation for the Latin titles of Dictys and Dares’ Trojan War accounts (130).