BMCR 2020.10.52

Troy, Carthage and the Victorians: the drama of classical ruins in the nineteenth-century imagination

, Troy, Carthage and the Victorians: the drama of classical ruins in the nineteenth-century imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xix, 383. ISBN 9781107192669 £90.00.

Troy was not consumed by flames, rather it was saved by a fire brigade. Hector did not die at the hand of Achilles, instead the two heroes made peace. Dido avoided suicide and parted with Aeneas quasi-amicably. Nineteenth-century British audiences of burlesque performances and other popular entertainments (such as a theatrical ‘hippodrama’ (126) of the siege of Troy) feasted on transformations of famous classical narratives while contemplating ebbs and flows in the fortunes of great empires. Laughs often concealed anxieties. If Troy was not destroyed, then Rome would not have subsequently been founded, implicitly jeopardizing the translatio imperii to Britain (262, 266).

Rachel Bryant Davies creates a deeply engaging, multifaceted and textured analysis of classical reception in nineteenth-century Britain through the prisms of Troy (the majority of the book) and Carthage (a limited case study, set up as antithesis to Troy). She calls these “paradigmatic ruined cities” (17) and argues that “…there was a wider, more complex circulation of knowledge about the Classics, among more socially varied spectators, than has previously been supposed.” (140). Bryant Davies ambitiously traces transformations of Troy in cultural imagination (primarily through Homer), explores its identification with defined physical places (finalized by Schliemann), and assigns it a prominent place in nineteenth-century popular culture through “the transfer of classical knowledge” (127).

Her approach is interdisciplinary, historically grounded and versatile. It engages visual, material, literary and performance cultures. The book is learned and insightful, filled with archival discoveries and analysis of overlooked source material (130). According to the author, the book “shines a spotlight onto non-traditional and ephemeral material: tour guides, classical burlesque, circus advertisements, theatrical souvenirs and children’s books.” (9)  Though this is true, the book occasionally bogs down in overexuberant examination of ephemera (such as discussion of toy theatres and illustrations of Marius in the ruins of Carthage).

Effective analysis of reception requires mastery of various frames of reference: the original work and its variations, multiple cultural moments and historical contexts, and shifting audience preferences and perceptions. Bryant Davies succeeds handsomely in discussing “active reception” (32) and “active consumption” (33) by various actors. She observes: “…classical antiquity actually mattered for a much wider range of participants, and for a much wider range of reasons, than just class identity: one’s position on Troy’s existence or location, for example, could define what it meant to be a British Christian.” (8).

The anxieties, discoveries, and complexities of the nineteenth century provide a rich backdrop for this study. Bryant Davies argues that Troy and Carthage were didactic lenses through which Victorian society beheld its present moment and conducted its cultural debates. Such uses of history are, of course, not unique to either the time or place she focuses on. Nonetheless, she demonstrates that “…Homer’s Troy underpinned, surfaced in, or was dragged into, many of the central debates of the time.” (23) These ranged from arguments regarding the relevance of classical education to the Iliad qualifying as “a marker of ‘the human race’ as a shared civilization’” (24).

Bryant Davies reminds us that a consensus about the physical location where Troy once flourished only emerged in a peculiar century shaped by industrial revolutions, societal transformations, and economic dislocations.  The question “could and should Homer’s Troy be found?” (74) was far from a simple one.  It was finally answered by Heinrich Schliemann, who cleverly publicized his dig at Hisarlik (103). The timing of his revelation was propitious and the implications were profound. A fuzzy space of cultural imagination could now become a fixed point on the physical landscape. Physical ruins simultaneously corroborated the veracity of Homer’s epic, and by extension the Biblical narrative, and contributed to the ascendance of the discipline of archaeology.  The archeological site, a kind of fossil of a bygone civilization, could even be linked to the emerging popular interest in paleontology.

The ideological underpinnings of this book are egalitarian, subverting elite monopoly on classical knowledge. Distant echoes of cultural Marxism make a stamp on the core structure of the argument (such as preoccupations with class and means of production). Pervaded by a desire to shine a light on the masses (11, 274), the book simultaneously strives to foreground experiences “across the cultural and social spectrum.” (27)

The book consists of 5 chapters. Chapter 1 outlines methodology and the state of the question, while chapter 2 focuses on the debates about the location of Troy and the “consequences of mythology becoming material” (42). Technological advances, such as cheaper print technology and more accessible travel, especially by rail, play an important role in the argument of chapter 2.  These advances made Troy literally and figuratively more accessible to wider audiences. In this chapter Bryant Davies traces “Troy’s simultaneous claims on both the material and imaginative worlds…” (53) by marshalling a wide array of visual evidence (from maps to romantic engravings). The evidence and analysis presented in this chapter are excellent and will be of interest to wide audiences.

Chapter 3 takes on staging Troy at the circus, which delighted the occupants of cheaper seats, referred to as “ignorant barbarians” (137) by classist critics. In this chapter Bryant Davies posits an important aspect of classical reception: “It is this relationship – and the interpretive gaps – between the production and audience responses which is the real site of the classical reception in these examples.” (141). This chapter extensively analyzes the The Giant Horse of Sinon (1833) and its popular afterlife in detailed, engraved, toy-theatre sheets, which recreated costumes, sets, dramatic poses, and key moments of the spectacle (156).

Chapter 4 offers analysis of the burlesque, humorous subversion of the Iliad and Aeneid. Here Bryant Davies highlights “the dense intertextuality of these burlesques” (239) and discusses deliberate anachronisms. Memorable examples include: a cigar-smoking Aeneas (246), Hector surrounded in his study by objects signaling his status as “an idealized English gentleman” (256), Homer-the-journalist using the telegraph to send dispatches from the battle-field (257), Helen divorcing Menelaus immediately in the aftermath of the legalization of divorce in 1857 (253), and Troy being saved by a fire-brigade (258).

Chapter 5 focuses on Carthage and tries to set up its discursive complexity. On the one hand Carthage is an antithesis to Troy as a model of a destroyed civilization that did not produce cultural progeny (336). On the other hand, Carthage, which was destroyed by Romans, “foretold the future ruins of ancient Rome and its successors.” (278). Two episodes in the lives of famous Romans particularly captured the imagination of nineteenth-century audiences: Scipio Africanus the Younger crying at the sight of the destruction of Carthage, which he oversaw at the order of the Roman Senate in 146 B.C.E. (286 ff), and the exiled Roman general Caius Marius, who lived for a time in the ruins of Carthage and contemplated his drastic reversal of fortunes (295 ff). Bryant Davies raises an interesting point about Carthage as a city which “prompts confusion over what constitutes ruins and what [constitutes] desolation…” (324) This chapter could have been published as a separate article, since the preceding nearly 270 pages were almost exclusively dedicated to Troy.

Though the book makes a strong contribution to reception studies, analysis of cultural discourse in nineteenth-century Britain, and the history of popular culture, a few of its grander claims stem from modernist myopia and cannot be fully endorsed. According to Bryant Davies “This tradition of looking to the destruction of earlier cities to predict future destruction was most strikingly adopted within the nineteenth-century British cultural imagination.” (23). The fascination with Troy as a barometer for the ebbs and flows of history was not limited to nineteenth-century British audiences. Nor were the British the only Europeans to use the historical example of Troy to speak to their own anxieties and historical moment. A reader of this book would not be able to discern that the Trojan narrative was sensationally popular in both the literary and visual cultures of the medieval and early modern periods as well. From Madrid to Moscow for centuries Troy and its tragic heroes served as exempla of audacious ambition, ingenious savagery, reversals of fortune, convulsions of civilizations, and foundational moments and movements in history.