In The Trojan War: A New History, (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2006, $26), Barry S. Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University and author of The Battle of Salamis, investigates a topic from Hellenic prehistory. A significant event of its time, though its exact century is disputed, the siege and destruction of Troy is best known from the blind poet Homer’s epic The Iliad. More recently, a 21st-century generation has been exposed to it through the disastrous film Troy, in which King Menelaus of Sparta is portrayed as a kind of Mediterranean Daniel Boone, King Agamemnon of Mycenae as an ancient Scarface, Odysseus as his consigliere and Achilles as an angel-faced serial killer.
Professor Strauss researched the facts for his new history of the conflict in the light of recent archaeological information. About the end of the 19th century Erich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist and master linguist, followed Homer’s descriptions to discover first Troy, then Mycenae, Tirynth and Orhomenos. Schliemann was also interested in excavating the hill where he suspected Knossos had stood, but local farmers asked him for too much money. Consequently, the honor of exploring the Minoan civilization passed to Welsh archaeologist Sir Arthur John Evans, who began excavating the site of the palace on March 16, 1900, and later discovered Knossos.
In the mid-20th century, Michael Ventris, an architectural engineer and amateur archeologist with great linguistic abilities, broke the linear B code from tablets found in the palaces of Pylos, Mycenae and Knossus, and proved it was an ancient Greek text. In addition to that past research, Strauss referred to tablets found in Hattusas, capital of the ancient Hittite kingdom, reporting an alliance with the city of Williusa (Ilium, or Troy) and others that mentioned kings named Alaksadu (Alexander) and Paris-iziti (Paris).
From the Hittite archives we know that Achaeans—Greeks—were already making piratical raids along the Anatolian coast and sending ultimatums to the Anatolian kings for lands that belonged to their predecessors. Strauss’ new history, therefore, follows the latest written sources, but also still makes primary use of Homer, who probably memorized the tales and poems of other poets before him. In 11 chapters Strauss analyzes step by step what The Iliad tells us about those events.
Strauss suggests that one reason Troy lost the war was its lack of a permanent battle fleet to stop the Greeks at sea. He connects that incident with such later failures of sea power as Japan’s until the late 1870s and of the Netherlands’ naval eclipse by England in the 17th century. Those examples are not entirely valid, since Japanese pirates had in fact terrorized its coastal waters, and England prevailed over the Dutch because of superior guns, rather than ships.
A more glaring error, in view of Strauss’ expertise in ancient history and prehistory, was his forgetting that while funeral pyres were customary among the Greeks in the Iron Age, Bronze Age Greeks buried bodies. He notes that only in the death of Ajax, but he regards it as an exceptional case, for the death of a king. Strauss also omits the role of Cyprus, which did not contribute soldiers or ships to the pan-Greek campaign against Troy, but aided in the Greeks’ preparations with all the bronze and weaponry it could produce. That aside, the author does a good job of describing the famous siege and providing historic background for all the personalities described by Homer, as well as elements of the everyday life of Bronze Age people.
Troy finally fell, but the time and resources spent on the long war ultimately brought ruin and misery to Achaean Greece. Civil conflicts and attacks by sea raiders reached disastrous proportions. About 1200 BC the Mycenean palaces in Pylos, Mycenae, Tirynth and Orhomenos were abandoned. Eighty years after the Trojan War another Greek tribe, the Dorians, armed with iron swords, finally brought down the Achaean civilization. By the age of Thucydides, nobody in Greece knew where Nestor’s old capital of Pylos, once second to Mycenae in naval power with 90 ships, even stood.
Barry S. Strauss is a good writer and a historian who did his best, for the most part, in using the latest information at hand to reconstruct details of the conflict and the people who fought it. As such, The Trojan War: A New History is a worthwhile updated primer for readers interested in learning about the peoples of the eastern Mediterreanean during the Bronze Age, and the cataclysmic struggle that helped hasten the end of that era.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.