BMCR 2023.01.36

Screening love and war in Troy: fall of a city

, , Screening love and war in Troy: fall of a city. Imagines: classical receptions in the visual and performing arts. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Pp. xviii, 254. ISBN 9781350144231


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


A new volume of essays about classics on screen or, more precisely, a collective monograph in Bloomsbury Academics’ series Imagines, takes on the 2018 BBC/Netflix miniseries retelling the War of Troy. It is edited by well-known reception scholars who already published – together or with other contributors to the volume – important monographs (Spartacus, Rome I and II), edited and/or contributed to collective books, stand-alone or within other on-going prestigious series on classical reception, such as University of Edinburgh Press’ Screening Antiquity or Brill’s Metaforms. In a rare move, the editors secured two non-academic contributions providing an unusual but effective and original frame to the volume. The first opens the book with an obvious and logical choice: the executive producer of the series, Derek Wax, explains, in the Foreword, the rationale behind the creation of Troy: Fall of a City, and why Greek myths are still relevant. The second closes the book, adding a fascinating perspective from today’s management theory reaffirming the significance of classics: Brian Cooke analyzes why Priam failed as a leader and spells out the advice this failure brings to twenty-first-century leaders.

The focus of the volume suggested in the eye-catching title – love and war – is very much present in the series but only partially reflects the sum of the research offered. In fact, the participating scholars respond collectively to all aspects of the series’ purpose stated in Wax’s “Foreword” and David Farr’s interviews. In a significant departure from “the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus,” Farr wanted their Muse to sing the story of “a peasant who finds out he’s a prince, and a queen who is utterly unhappy in her marriage. They fall into a passionate affair and unleash demons” (“Foreword”, xiv). For Wax, the result of this passion was a war conducted on a “flimsy pretext” (xiii), with both sides ready to abandon reason and common sense, an attitude easily recognizable to audiences today.  In another departure from Homer, they decided to tell the story from the Trojan point of view, traditionally neglected in the reception of the epic. However, the Olympic gods, who are often discarded in audiovisual receptions of the Trojan myths, are there as a gesture honouring Homer but denounced for what they are: careless, petty, quarrelsome, envious, cruel, unforgiving, and while truly powerful, powerless against destiny, almost like humans.

After the foreword, the editors provide an introduction, starting with an enthusiastic endorsement of the series as an original episodic recasting of the great epic, explicitly designed for the twenty-first century in awareness and dialogue with previous memorable audiovisual receptions of antiquity. The introduction describes the basic structure of the volume and the content of individual contributions. Sixteen scholars analyze the series in essays grouped in three blocs of five chapters each, focusing first on epic narrative, second on cast and character, and third on the tragic resonances of the story. An epilogue reviewing ancient sources reflected in the series concludes the volume.

As a classicist not entirely enchanted by the BBC/Netflix production, I was looking, with anticipation, to the experience of confronting my impressions with solid scholarly analysis, especially after reading press reviews published after the launch of the series.[1] Diana Burton’s “Epilogue” is a thorough study of Troy: Fall of a City’s roots in ancient literature; it highlights what is old and what is new in the treatment of war on screen and provides a good starting point for my assessment of the scholarly content of the book. The phrase, “Inspired by Homer and the Greek myths”, repeated at the beginning of each episode, cautions that the sources for what follows are not limited to Homer. The story’s scope is larger as it incorporates events before and after the war, and there is a change of emphasis and development of mortal and divine figures. Burton’s inquiry compares the characters in the series with their presence in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in the sources for the myth of the Trojan War, including the remains of the lost epic Cypria, Pindar, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon or Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, Hecuba and Trojan Women, the lost tragedies entitled Alexandros, one by Euripides, one by Sophocles, Hyginus’ Fables, Ovid’s Heroides, and Virgil’s Aeneid, as well as Homeric iconography vibrantly preserved on ancient vases. With great competence – while occasionally with insufficient clarity for readers less familiar with the ancient texts in question – Burton identifies real or potential echoes of these sources and their versions of the myth in the series and, at the same time, discovers elements of the plot or of major and minor characters that belong squarely to the creators’ imagination and reflect their perspective on the myth. These departures from the ancient sources “are interesting variations”[2] based on the ancient writers’ license to re-imagine mythology.[3] Focussed on the ancient roots of the series, Burton does not refer to the fact that its creators did not necessarily rely on them directly; in various interviews, they specifically mention Michael Wood’s 1985 six-episode documentary In Search of the Trojan War, published the same year in a book form and later revised and augmented by the author,[4] and another non-ancient source and acknowledged creative influence, Bettany Hughes’ Helen of Troy.[5] 

Dan Curley (Chapter 1) tackles the concept crucial to popular culture since the pre-Homeric oral tradition: episodic structure and seriality. After a brief incursion into the origin of the term and Aristotelian literary theory, Curley discusses the benefits offered by a longer, episodic format to any audiovisual remake of Greek myths and compares the structural function of an ancient epic author (division into books, their content, sequence of events, chronology, transitions from book to book, etc.), citing Homer, Apollonius Rhodius, and Ovid, to that of a showrunner and head writer in a television series who must do all that but also ensure a balance between episodes and the entire backstory. Curley concludes with a discussion on the limits of seriality and the concept of a cycle, gauging the potential of Troy: Fall of a City becoming the first installment of an audiovisual equivalent to the Homeric Cycle in today’s digital reality with its universal need for sequels and prequels.[6]

“Gods and Religion at Troy” is the topic of the next chapter by Lisa Maurice, who, in her Screening Divinity (2019) repeatedly referred to Troy: Fall of a City with emphasis on the gods’ physical appearance and costumes. Here, Maurice, without neglecting the unusually drab way the Greek gods look and dress in the series, confronts the divine characters with David Farr’s basic premise:

As for the gods, I never saw them as anything that different to humans. They’re equally capricious, passionate and volatile. They’re just part of the brew (D. Farr’s Interview in 2018).

She reviews the divine characters and their behaviour, bringing attention to the only case of a “realistic” interaction with a human, the Judgement of Paris. Otherwise, these gods are visible only to the audience. They seem to observe events to ensure that nobody escapes the pre-ordained fate, gods included. Being willful, they try to circumvent Zeus and the Fates with doubtful results. Humans communicate with gods through prayer and sacrifice, which Maurice calls the “central religious act of the ancient world” (31). Hector and Helen pray to Aphrodite; Hector asks for help defending his people, and Helen begs the goddess to protect Paris. Agamemnon acknowledges his neglect of rituals and, in a horrific scene, sacrifices his daughter to placate Artemis. Gods make their will known to humans through omens, dreams, visions, and prophecies – all within the prescribed Homeric remit.

Monica Cyrino, in “From Judgment to Fall: Aphrodite and Paris”, adds illuminating insights into both characters and demonstrates how the relationship between a goddess and a mortal provides “a structural and temporal framework for the entire narrative” (39-40). In “Sympathy for Troy’s Jezebel” Meredith E. Safran discusses Helen as an ambiguous antihero who evokes sympathy as a captive trophy wife, antipathy for her indifference to her daughter, censure for her silence about Achilles’ visit compounded with lies told in an attempt to hide her role in the destruction of the Trojan supply route from Cilicia, and finally, contempt mixed with loathing for her naïve overconfidence in her ability to negotiate an end to the war on her own. This resulted in Troy’s betrayal, her hosts’ massacre, and their city’s total ruin. Also, after witnessing this tragedy, she is forced to an ignominious return to the life she fled a decade earlier. “What saves Helen from villainy is her lack of intent to do harm and belief that all she does is necessary, if grievous” (62).

Odysseus is a much more important and tragic figure in Troy: Fall of a City than in previous audiovisual retellings of the Iliad, which are brilliantly compared by Emma J. Stafford, who calls the series “a very much Odysseus’ story” (73).  Meredith Prince discusses Odysseus, a devoted family man and a ruthless pragmatist, whose moral code crumbles when faced with political imperatives and who knows there will be a steep price to pay for that.

Other important topics covered include the racial backlash against the series for casting non-white actors (Rebecca Futo Kennedy), the portrayal of women (Kirsten Day), gender and sexuality (Thomas E. Jenkins), costumes and adornments in the series (Walter Duvall Penrose Jr., Stacie Raucci). These matters are all treated in separate chapters but brought together under Part II: Cast and Character, offering a thoughtful and informative analysis of how the creators approached them and what they achieved.

The remaining chapters deal with the portrayal of Greek (not Trojan) warriors and a comparison of this theme to previous retellings (Anastasia Bakogianni), with the tragic vulnerability of Homeric women, whether maiden or matron, focussing on Helen and Iphigenia (Amy L. Norgard), as well as with the attitude of two kings of men towards their daughters: Odysseus and his infant daughter from the scene of simulated madness on Ithaca (contrary to the ancient sources, Telemachus is here a much older boy whom the departing father asks to care for his mother and sister; this innovation is discussed by Meredith Prince, 169-170 and by Krishni Burns, 198-200), and Agamemnon and the teenage Iphigenia, culminating in the sacrificial killing and unredeemable remorse (Krishni Burns).

To conclude, on a personal level, I willingly admit that this well-rounded volume helped me better understand and appreciate the series.

Two comments addressed to Bloomsbury Academics: 1. The book has an attractive cover and good size, but the layout is not easy on the eye, with small margins and pages packed with print often without indents or subsections. 2. Endnotes, as opposed to footnotes, do not increase the ease of reading or consulting the book and as such should be avoided by publishers. A third comment concerning illustrations is addressed to both the press and the authors: of the twenty-six black-and-white pictures, none does justice to what the images look like on screen, and only half make sense to readers who did not watch the series.


Authors and Titles 

Monica S. Cyrino, and Antony Augoustakis,  Introduction: Screening Love and War in Troy: Fall of a City

PART I. Epic Narrative
1. Dan Curley, Binge for Me, O Muse: Episodes, Books, and Cycles

  1. Lisa Maurice, Delineating the Divine: Gods and Religion at Troy
  2. Monica S. Cyrino, From Judgment to Fall: Aphrodite and Paris
  3. Meredith E. Safran, Sympathy for Troy’s Jezebel: Helen as Antihero
  4. Emma Stafford, The Curse of Troy: Odysseus’ Story

PART II. Cast and Character
6. Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Racist Reactions to Black Achilles

  1. Kirsten Day, Pussy Politics: Women and Power in the Homeric Patriarchy
  2. Thomas E. Jenkins, Queering Troy: Freedom and Sexuality
  3. Walter D. Penrose, Heroic Hairstyles and Manless Amazons at Troy
  4. Stacie Raucci, Costume Changes: Dressing Helen of Sparta and Troy

PART III. Tragic Resonances
11. Anastasia Bakogianni, Fallen Heroes: Recasting Ajax and the Greeks on Screen

  1. Meredith Prince, Family vs. Compassion: Odysseus and the Ethics of War
  2. Amy L. Norgard, Bloody Brides: Iphigenia, Helena, and Ritual Exchange
  3. Krishni Burns, Kings of Men and Sacrificial Daughters
  4. Brian Cooke, Lessons for Leaders: Destiny, Devotion, and Self-Deception

Diana Burton, Epilogue: Troy: Fall of a City and its Ancient Sources.



[1] For example, Famureva, Jimi. (February 17, 2018). “Yes, Achilles in Troy: Fall of a City is black, and yes it’s a big deal. It’s what Homer would have wanted” (online); Farr, David. (February 17, 2018). “Troy: Fall of a City writer David Farr reveals how he’s putting a new spin on the ancient myth,” Radio Times (online); Fullerton, Huw. (February 17, 2018). “How accurate was Troy: Fall of a City episode 1 compared to the original myths?” Radio Times (online); Fullerton, Huw. (February 17, 2018). “Troy: Fall of a City preview – is it a hit or a myth? Radio Times (online).

[2] Burton, 223.

[3] What we do know is what Homer and Euripides and Virgil handed down to us. It’s all layers of myth and story. It liberated me a little. They invented. They completely re-imagined. It allowed me to do a little bit of the same… David Farr in his February 18, 2018 interview.

[4] The edition I consulted was published in 2008 by BBC Books and it contains an additional chapter. The series is available on DVD released in 2005 by BBC Home entertainment.

[5] Bettany Hughes. Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005; see Wax’ Foreword, XV.

[6] There was a report of David Farr writing a sequel based on the Odyssey in April 2018 which has not been confirmed later.