BMCR 2007.06.38

The War at Troy: a True History

, The war at Troy : a true history. Philadelphia, PA: Xlibris, 2006. 299 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 9781425722791. $21.99 (pb).

Spoiler warning: this review deals with a work of fiction; plot and ending details follow.

Over eighty English novelisations of the Homeric poems (or, more precisely, of the stories of the Trojan legend) have been written in the twentieth century, beginning in 1916 with Rex Stout’s (1886-1975) The Great Legend (1916). Remarkably enough, only twenty of them are reworkings of the Odyssey, whereas all the others retell the events of the Trojan War (or parts of it), often with a specific focus on or from the viewpoint of a particular character, Cassandra and Helen being the most popular. Quantitatively, an almost explosive increase can be noted over the last decade, for some 25 of all these novelisations have been published since the turn of the millennium.1

Barry B. Powell’s (henceforth “P.”) The War at Troy stands out from this massive amount insofar as it is written by a professional Classical scholar who has published widely in the fields of Homeric poetry, the history of writing, and mythology.2 Briefly summarised, P.’s book provides a chronological renarration of the Trojan War in 100 chapters which have an average length of about three pages each. The pre-Iliadic events are covered by ch. 1-34, the ones based on the Iliad by ch. 35-88, whereas ch. 89-100 recount the post-Iliadic stories up to the sack of Troy. The main text is preceded by a “Glossary of people and some places” which provides not only condensed information on the ‘who?, whose?, where?’, but also instructions on how to pronounce the Greek personal names and toponyms in Standard English.3 As regards illustrations, there are two small maps as well as eighteen black-and-white photographs showing Greek sites or landscapes of historical interest that are connected with the events or participants of the Trojan War.

Reading this book, a question that arose for me time and again concerned P.s intended readership. As no prior knowledge of Greek mythology or culture is required for a full understanding of the plot as such, the book seems primarily geared towards a non-specialist audience. Therefore, when seen from this angle, a Classicist with a particular interest in Greek Epic poetry (as the present reviewer happens to be) is probably not the best critic, and perhaps a second review written by a non-specialist reader ought to accompany my text in order that a comparison between two (presumably quite different) modes of reception may be offered. On the other hand, it is undeniable that P. inserts a good deal of scholarly and intertextual hints and allusions with the effect that, in the end, Classicists will be those readers who are likely to best enjoy the book. In consequence, I will be dealing with P.’s book from my own point of view, which is a scholarly one, in the first place; however I shall try to take up a non-specialist stance as well whenever this seems necessary and appropriate.

Looking at the overall structure of the plot, it has to be noted first and foremost that P. follows a strictly chronological order. Strikingly enough, the whole of the first third of the narrative is preoccupied with the different events that finally give rise to the war. We learn of Paris’ abandonment, his survival and first marriage to Oinone (ch. 2-4), about Helen’s birth and first kidnapping by Theseus (ch. 5-8), then the whole story of Peleus, starting with his youth and his education by Cheiron up until his marriage to Thetis (ch. 9-14), before we finally reach the famous judgment of Paris (ch. 15). Thereupon follow Achilles’ birth and education (ch. 16-17), Helen’s marriage to Menelaos (ch. 18-20), Paris’ reintegration into the royal family of Troy (ch. 21), and eventually the very event that triggers the war: Helen’s abduction by Paris (ch. 22-23). In these preparatory chapters, P. effectively manages to pull the strings and bring the main storylines and characters together. However, what seems somehow out of place is Helen’s rape by Theseus. Although it is attested that Helen was abducted by Theseus (cf. Apollod. epit. 1.23), the rape as such as well as the notion of Helen being violated by Paris are made up by P. himself.4 Poetic licence granted, this is absolutely inconsistent with the tradition of Greek mythology. It is nowhere attested that Helen was ever raped; moreover, a common pattern of Greek mythology is that the violation of a woman is always followed by an unwanted pregnancy, which is clearly not the case for Helen — Hermione, begotten by Menelaos, is and remains her only child.

Then the actual war preparations begin. They include the recruiting of Odysseus and Achilleus (ch. 25-26) — the first is a particularly vivid and colourful retelling, featuring Odysseus, who pretends insanity, and the cunning, but unscrupulous Palamedes, who unmasks him — and the sacrifice of Iphigenia (ch. 32-33). In between, the Greeks’ first departure fails because they cannot find Troy; instead they disembark on the shore of Mysia where Telephos, its king, is heavily wounded by Achilles and finally, after being cured, reveals Troy’s true location to the Greeks (ch. 29-31).

When it comes to the Iliadic events (ch. 35-88), P.’s strict chronological order becomes of particular interest to the Homeric scholar. The renarration begins with Protesilaos, who is the very first Greek soldier to die in the Trojan War (ch. 35) — an episode that is only briefly mentioned in the Iliad.5 The teichoskopia where Helen shows Priam all the Greek warriors is shifted to the very beginning of the war where it (chrono-)logically belongs (ch. 36). The same is the case for the duel between Paris and Menelaos (ch. 38) and Pandaros’ shot (ch. 41). The latter becomes the actual impact for the beginning of the war (and is not just a provocation to break a truce, as in Iliad 3), since both the duel as well as the Greek embassy to Troy (ch. 37) have been unsuccessful.

Generally speaking, it is noteworthy how well P. manages to stick closely to the narrative of the Iliad, notwithstanding the numerous rearrangements that become necessary to get the plot in its ‘correct’ chronological order. Apart from some minor changes and adjustments, there is only one major episode (ch. 51-58) where P. radically departs from his Iliadic source and resorts to poetic freedom instead. Taking the Doloneia ( Iliad 10) as his starting point, he has Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, meet king Rhesos at a well outside Troy. Odysseus is heavily harassed by Rhesos and his soldiers, but finally they leave him alone, and he manages to sneak into the city of Troy (ch. 53). As a beggar at the court, he witnesses a rhapsodic performance given by Homer himself, who sings the story of Aphrodite’s adultery with Ares, a reworking of Od. 8.266-369 (ch. 54). P. not only designs Homer’s appearance in accordance with ancient ‘biographies’ about the ‘blind bard’, but he also alludes to the frequent ancient notion of Odysseus as a mise-en-abyme of the poet himself;6 cf. p. 159: “A herald … led a bard into the room by the hand, an old old man who trembled as he walked. The man was blind, the sight long gone from the cavernous sockets of his eyes. Yet he turned his head toward Odysseus and nodded slightly.” Then, Odysseus is called into Helen’s chamber and tells her a cock-and-bull story about his provenance, one which is derived from the life story told by the swineherd Eumaios to the disguised Odysseus in Od. 15.403-484 (ch. 57). At length, however, Helen recognises him because of the scar below his groin — a motive most obviously taken from Eurykleia’s anagnorisis of Odysseus, Od. 19.467-490 (ch. 58). Eventually, Odysseus leaves and returns to his camp, but on his way down finishes off Rhesos and his soldiers as they sleep in the dining hall (ch. 58). This whole ‘digression’ may at first sight appear as a random invention; however it is, as it seems to me, meaningful in various respects. Firstly, P. manages to incorporate some entertaining Odyssean material into his Iliadic narrative. Secondly, he is able to show how storytelling works — how freely, in fact, a professional Greek aoidos may have been dealing with his ‘raw material’. For readers unfamiliar with the Homeric epics will find that these chapters fit perfectly into the whole narrative. Thirdly, P.’s reworking of Rhesos’ homicide almost resembles a ‘correction’ of the Iliadic narrative. For, whereas in Iliad 10 Odysseus and Diomedes kill Rhesos and his soldiers for no obvious reason except for greed and bellicosity, here Odysseus kills them for revenge because they had harassed him so badly. Thus, P. inscribes himself into a long ancient tradition of attempts on how to come to terms with ethical problems caused by the Homeric poems.7

Unfortunately, the quality of P.’s renarration decreases significantly after the Iliadic events, i.e. after Hektor’s death (beginning with ch. 89). By comparison with the preceding chapters, the post-Iliadic events are dealt with rather curtly, sometimes even carelessly swept away. However, ‘lack of sources’ cannot account for this, since Quintus of Smyrna’s Posthomerica (3rd cent. AD) would have offered a treasure equivalent to the Iliad. That P. did not exploit this repository of stories is incomprehensible to me — the most obvious omissions will be mentioned. The arrival of the Amazon queen Penthesileia in Troy is retold very quickly (ch. 89), but the story of Achilles falling in love with her after having killed her and killing Thersites because he mocks him is entirely neglected. Furthermore, king Memnon and his Aithiopians are not mentioned at all. Similarly, Neoptolemos and Eurypylos (Herakles’ grandson), who mirror Achilles and Hektor, are completely ignored.8 Finally, the contest over Achilles’ armour is not a verbal agon between Ajax and Odysseus about who rescued Achilles’ corpse, but — against any tradition — a chariot race, although Posthomerica 5 would have provided a truly wonderful verbal conflict (and, as well, an interesting example of Sophistic rhetoric within an epic narrative).9

Regarding the relations between humans and gods, P. makes a great effort to stress the insurmountable differences between the θεοὶ ῥεῖα ζώοντες and the mortals in their endless suffering. On the one side, Zeus is depicted as an amateur philosopher who is ineffably bored by the humans and their silly offerings, whereas Hera and Athena are, as ever, continuously working towards Troy’s final destruction. Hephaistos, then, likes “to see how the manufactured products of earthlings are tested in real conditions” (p. 227); to this end, he has “an immense illuminated screen in the hearth room high up in a corner, very like the one Zeus had in his dining hall (but Hephaistos’ was larger and had superior color resolution)” (pp. 226-227). The gods as ‘big brothers’, or just a bit of ‘Star Trek’ in between? Then, on the other side, we can see the humans in their misery, fed-up with the toils of war, falling ill and dying in their own excrement, vying with each other in their mindless brutality. The futility of war is ruthlessly unmasked; cf., e.g., p. 147: “A heavy sun overlay the still and windless sea, mirror to the sick air. A stench rose from the bones and flesh of animals and men, and from the piles of human and animal excrement that lay everywhere, heaped beyond the palisades of the tents. Men lay on their bellies and waited for the dogs who came to scavenge, so they could kill the dogs and eat them.” Agamemnon is but the tip of the iceberg: a sex and alcohol addict, disrespectful to everybody, tired of his role as the leader of the Panhellenic expedition and yet greedy for power — “I am the boss of all the bosses, aren’t I?” (p. 179).

Strong though P. is in his descriptions of gritty realism, he fails when it comes to the really great Iliadic moments. Most notably for me, the renarration of the encounter between Hektor and Andromache in front of the Skaian Gate (ch. 68), as well as Priam’s ransom of Hektor’s body in Achilles’ hut (ch. 88), are in no way comparable to their poetic models ( Iliad 6 and 24). Thus, the general question arises as to whether we can really get to the core of mythology by stripping off its poetic ‘garment’. Admittedly, the unvarnished realism that P.’s renarration displays can help us to recall that mythology is, beyond all scholarship, at its very heart, about human beings and the way they are and act — in the end, thus, about ourselves. However, the poetic ‘garment’ is an important component too. Therefore, P.’s book may supplement the Homeric epics, sometimes perhaps even elucidate them further, but it can never stand up to the grandeur of what we find, for example, in Iliad 6 or 24.

Linguistically, P. shows a unique heterogeneity of style. On the one hand, he uses a strongly colloquial, often even vulgar diction: men call each other “sonofabitch” or worse, Patroklos is Achilles’ “buddy”, Theseus calls Helen a “slut”, Aigisthos is referred to by Agamemnon as a “piss-dog”, etc. Forms such as “whaddya say” or “aren’t ya” are frequent in direct speech. Examples of the (often quite strong) sexual language I shall not give; they can be found throughout the book.10 On the other hand, P. pays great tribute to the language of the Homeric epics, too. Most strikingly, he translates (or ‘transfers’) Homeric epithets: Zeus is “the Great Boomer” ( ὑψιβρεμέτης), Athena is the one “of the glancing eyes” ( γλαυκῶπις), Aphrodite is “laughing” ( φιλομμειδής), and Hera is the one “of the fat cow eyes” ( βοῶπις)). Furthermore, we read of “Odysseus, the man of many turnings” ( πολύτροπος), “Hektor of the flashing helm” ( κορυθαίολος) or “horse-taming Hektor” ( ἱππόδαμος), and Achilles who is “swift like a cheetah” ( πόδας ὠκὺς Ἀχιλλεύς and the like). Additionally, P. incorporates a fair number of similes into his narrative. Some of them are taken quite literally from their Homeric sources; cf., e.g., the faithful adaptation of the famous simile in Il. 22.199-201 that illustrates how Achilles drives Hektor round the walls of Troy (p. 237): “As in a dream when one man chases another but the limbs of each are like lead, as if they run in quicksand and the one can’t get away but the other can’t overtake him — in this way did the two men run.” Then, some Homeric similes are taken up by P. and reworked in his own style, yet they still clearly reveal their origin; cf., e.g., the bee-simile in Il. 2.87-94 which P. transfers thus (p. 190): “The marshals assented and so they all went outside to the place of assembly, and the sound of the host was like the roar of a herd of bison who pound shaggy-breasted through high grass to escape mounted hunters who stab them with stone-tipped lances. Dame Rumor was abroad, urging them on.” Finally, P. also invents his own similes; my personal favourite is the following (p. 130): “A man came up but Akhilleus got him in the eye and the bulb popped from the socket and rolled in the sand like a ball of dough that a woman drops while making pancakes for her many children. She doesn’t mind — she picks it up, encrusted with dust, picks off the dirt with her nails, and cooks it. Even so did the man’s eye roll in the dirt, before he himself fell down and bit the ground with his teeth.” Admittedly, a confirmed Classicist may smile at this; however it cannot be denied how close P. comes to the very nature of many of the Homeric similes, as these are also often based upon a comparison between the distant past of the narrative and the author’s own reality.

Finally, two objections unrelated to the contents. One of these is the spelling of personal names and toponyms: P. has decided to go for a strictly ‘phonetic’ transcription of all Greek. This is entirely logical and to be welcomed from a scholarly point of view; however, for me — and probably for many other readers as well — the Achaians’ bravest hero is just not “Akhilleus”, but “Achilles”, the most beautiful woman in the world is not “Helenê”, but “Helen”, and so on. Thus, from the perspective of a more general audience, one unfamiliar with Greek, P.’s choice may have some disadvantages. The second objection concerns the pictures: eighteen small black-and-white photographs of very low quality, without any accompanying explanatory texts, scattered throughout the book quite randomly, are of no use to anyone. Non-specialist readers can neither aesthetically enjoy them (for lack of quality) nor understand their meaning regarding Greek mythology and culture (for lack of explanation), whereas specialist readers may simply be annoyed because some of the sites and places they love so much have been so badly reproduced.

To sum up, I would like to refer to the last sentence of the blurb which runs thus: “If you’re in the right mood, this is the funniest book you will ever read.” Probably, the publisher did not intend to make a pun on the double meaning of the word “funny”. However, after having read The War at Troy, I cannot help but understand it in both ways. Readers will have to come to their own conclusion as to which meaning they consider predominant. In any case, P.’s book is definitely worth reading — if you’re in the right mood.11

Addendum: quibbles noted by the reviewer

Major characters missing in the glossary: Alkimedon; Amphiaraos; Andromache; Bellerophontes; Deïphobos; Deukalion;12 Euphorbos; Eurypylos;13 Gaia;14 Glaukos; Herakles; Hyperenor; Iphigeneia; Iulus/Ascanius; Kreüsa; Little Aias; Lykaon; Memnon; Menelaos; Telemachos; Telephos; Teukros; Tyndareos.

Factual errors in the glossary:

— Antigone is defined as Oedipus’ daughter. However, it is not she, but her namesake, i.e. king Eurytion’s daughter and first wife of Peleus, who appears in P.’s renarration (cf. ch. 9-10).

— Penthesileia did not attack Troy, as stated in the glossary, but she helped the Trojans to fight against the Greeks (cf. ch. 89), albeit unsuccessfully. It is true that, according to Il. 3.188-190, the Amazons once attacked Troy, but this incident is to be imagined as being at least one generation before Penthesileia’s kingship (Priam was then in his prime).

— The youth named Sarpedon who is killed by Patroklos (cf. p. 221) is not “a son of the Kretan Minos, who migrated to Lykia in southern Anatolia”, as stated in the glossary, but his namesake, i.e. a son of Zeus and Laodameia (daughter of Bellerophontes).

Typing errors:

— Missing full stop at the end of a sentence: p. 40, l. 20; p. 96, l. 19; p. 146, l. 28; p. 169, l. 7; p. 182, l. 2; p. 183, l. 7; p. 236, l. 21; p. 239, l. 13; p. 258, l. 17; p. 272, l. 11; p. 292, l. 25.

— Missing quotation mark: p. 14, l. 42 (after “wine-man”); p. 81, l. 41 (before “what”); p. 134, l. 17 (at the end of the sentence); p. 137, l. 38 (ditto); p. 237, l. 2 (ditto).

— Redundant quotation mark: p. 24, l. 20 (before “answered”); p. 81, l. 41 (after “anxiety”).

— p. 11, l. 2: “Menelaüs” should read “Menelaos” as everywhere else in the book.

— p. 12, l. 21: “Melager” should read “Meleagros”.

— p. 15, l. 15: “Patroclos” should read “Patroklos” as everywhere else in the book.

— p. 15, l. 22: “Penthesileea” should read “Penthesileia”.

— p. 20, l. 2: “with the pleasure” should read “with pleasure”.

— p. 64, l. 22: “oft” should read “often”.

— p. 100, l. 23: “family’s” should read “families”.

— p. 190, l. 41: comma instead of full stop required after “sea”.

— p. 204, l. 10: wrong quotation mark before “Hello”.

— p. 221, l. 6: “Poluymêlos” should read “Polymêlos”.

— p. 256, l. 25: “miss” should read “missed”.

— p. 279, l. 15: “really” should read “Really”.


1. I owe these figures to Dr Nick Lowe (Royal Holloway, University of London) ( website). They were presented at a conference on receptions of Homer at University College, London (Institute of Classical Studies, 27th April 2007). I would like to thank Dr Lowe for his kind permission to reproduce these pieces of information in my review.

2. Of P.’s numerous publications, I mention only some of the most important ones: Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet, Cambridge 1991 (cf. BMCR 1991.05.15); Classical Myth, Prentice Hall 1995 (cf. BMCR 1995.05.03); (ed., together with Ian Morris), A New Companion to Homer, Leiden 1997 (cf. BMCR 1998.5.20); A Short Introduction to Classical Myth, Prentice Hall 2002 (cf. BMCR 2002.02.18); Writing and the Origins of Greek Literature, Cambridge 2002; Homer. Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World, Malden 2004 (cf. BMCR 2004.04.20).

3. E.g. “Aiakos ( eye -a-kos), father of Peleus, king of Aegina, judge in the underworld” or “Phthia ( thi -a), region in southern Thessaly, home of Achilles”. This service will prove particularly helpful to non-native English speakers (as the present reviewer is), since it is often hard (if not virtually impossible) to guess how to pronounce a Greek personal name or toponym in its Anglicised form. However, it has to be noted that the glossary is neither free of errors nor by any means complete; for details cf. the “addendum” at the end of my review.

4. That Helen is being violated by Paris is suggested by the title of ch. 22: “Helenê Of Lakedaimôn, Raped Again”.

5. Cf. Il. 2.695-710. Protesilaos becomes popular in the Second Sophistic. For example, he is the main character in Philostratus’ dialogue Heroikos, where he comes back from the dead and reveals the whole ‘truth’ about the Trojan War.

6. The concept of Odysseus as Homer’s mouthpiece, as a mise-en-abmye of the epic ‘I’ within the plot, is already (implicitly) present in the Odyssey itself, most prominently in the hero’s first-person Binnenerzählung ( Odyssey 9-12). This notion is taken on and further developed in the Second Sophistic; cf., e.g., Philostr. Her. 43.12-14.

7. It has been suggested that Quintus of Smyrna (3rd cent. AD) ‘corrects’ the Homeric poems from a philosophical point of view in his Posthomerica; cf. Maria Henderson Wenglinsky, The Representation of the Divine in the Posthomerica of Quintus of Smyrna, PhD Columbia 2002.

8. Neoptolemos does turn up briefly (cf. ch. 98), but not as an opponent to Eurypylos.

9. Cf. Q. Smyrn. 5.180-316.

10. For those who wish to find some good examples, I refer, exempli gratia, to pp. 30; 37; 68; 122; 166; 176; 265; 269; 282. Reconsidering the question as to P.’s intended readership, we can clearly say who it does not include: The War at Troy is not a children’s book — parents who are considering it as a birthday present for their kid should think twice …

11. I would like to thank Prof. Ewen L. Bowie (Corpus Christi College, Oxford) and Prof. Dr Manuel Baumbach (Universität Zürich) for their many helpful suggestions to this review.

12. Deukalion ought to be mentioned as Pyrrha appears in the glossary and is defined as “wife of Deukalion”.

13. Neither Eurypylos the Greek commander (mentioned on p. 210) nor his namesake who helps the Trojans (grandson of Herakles; passed over completely in P.’s renarration) appears in the glossary.

14. Gaia ought to be mentioned as Uranos appears in the glossary and is defined as the “primordial god who united with Gaid ‘earth’ to father the race of gods”.