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The Trojan War: A New History.

The Trojan War: A New History. By Barry Strauss. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. 236 pages. $26.00. Reviewed by Dr. J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., Professor of Military History, US Army War College.

Barry Strauss' new book on the Trojan War is representative of the special category of history that reinterprets old and familiar stories. When done well, reinterpretations are interesting and educational; however, such history can be fraught with peril for both historian and reader. Any historical interpretation that accounts for all the facts is technically valid; however, it is possible to define away inconsistent facts or over-emphasize trivialities to the point of distorting any reasonable interpretation of an event. That is where a reader has to trust the historian. Fortunately, Strauss is a reputable and reliable historian. Reinterpretations often reflect new thinking about what is important--in a sense providing the current politically correct version of history. They sometimes reflect the discovery of new evidence; that is, new facts raise issues about whether accepted interpretations are still valid. In The Trojan War: A New History, we have such a reinterpretation where new facts may challenge the validity of an old and familiar story.

Barry Strauss reexamines the Trojan War in light of evidence primarily from archaeological excavations and Hittite texts. He uses period texts from other societies as evidence of norms of the time. Of course, the traditional interpretation is that of Homer supplemented by other minor or later works. There has long been debate first about whether the events Homer relates in the Iliad and the Odyssey ever happened, and second, if they did, about how accurately Homer depicts them. Strauss answers both those questions in the affirmative--with some reservation. He asserts the ancient Greek city-states may well have waged war against a city they knew as Troy, although it probably was not technically a siege and was certainly shorter than Homer asserts. As for Homer's veracity, Strauss finds his narrative remarkably consistent with what we now know about civilization in 1200 B.C. Whether one considers Strauss' findings a major reinterpretation, a minor adjustment, or a confirmation of Homer is a question of half-empty or half-full.

Heinrich Schliemann, of course, found the remains of Troy in 1871, and archaeologists have been working since then to confirm his find. Excavations since 1991 have dramatically expanded what is known of the ancient city--especially in terms of size. Schliemann's Troy was little more than a citadel; modern digs suggest a prosperous city of approximately 75 acres that dominated fertile surrounding countryside and profited from its location at the entrance to the Dardanelles. There is evidence of a destruction, probably by military conquest, in the correct time-frame. The Hittites called the city Taruisa or Wilusa--the latter being very similar to the early Greek Wilion, which became Illion, the term Homer used for the Trojans. It is clear that Troy was a typical Anatolian city, and as such it was allied with the Hittites. Attacking Troy would have been perilous, even for the early Greeks, whom Strauss likens to the Vikings as wide-ranging traders and colonists as well as vicious seaborne raiders. In its heyday, the Hittite empire was one of the great powers of the ancient world, and it valued the ring of allies with which it surrounded itself. But the Hittites were in decline in 1200 B.C., and their attention was elsewhere. A Greek attack on a Hittite ally was possible.

From studies of contemporary society, Strauss believes it plausible that a coalition of Greek city-states attacked Troy in response to the insult of wife stealing--particularly considering that Paris and Helen stole the national treasure when they fled Sparta. Of course, the lure of Trojan loot would have made forming the coalition easier. Homer's claim of nine years of siege warfare is less believable based on economic and political constraints of the time. Conversely, tales of looting the Trojan countryside, attacking Troy's allies, and selling prisoners and hostages as slaves fit contemporary norms. Because the Greeks failed to completely seal off Troy, Strauss says they obviously did not besiege the city. While technically correct, such a restrictive interpretation of a siege is uncommon. The Union army never completely surrounded Petersburg and Richmond, but its operations there in 1864-1865 are universally considered a siege. Still, the siege probably happened and likely progressed in much the manner of Homer's narrative.

And of the Trojan horse, that most famous of ancient deception plans? Strauss, in opposition to the conventional wisdom, believes it may well have existed even if later generations misunderstood its function. He finds some kind of deceit or stratagem to gain entry into the city highly probably. The Greeks proved unable to breach or storm Troy's walls, and treachery was one of the most common siege techniques of the ancient world. A horse would have been an appropriate gift to leave outside Troy--an admission of defeat in a sense. The shipwrights with the expedition would have had little difficulty fashioning one. That the horse contained nine soldiers is much less probable. The horse, if present at all, probably served as a decoy to distract the Trojans rather than as a means of gaining entry into the city. According to Homer, individual Greeks had slipped in and out of the city earlier in the siege; infiltrating a small party under the cover of a victory celebration accompanied by civic debate over the fate of a horse statue would have been relatively easy. Once inside the walls, the commando team could have easily waited for dark, overpowered the gate guard, and signaled the Greek fleet waiting nearby.

Thus, The Trojan War: A New History is exactly what it claims to be. It is a new way to look at a familiar story. It makes sense; the interpretation accounts for all the facts. It has the added benefit of being both interesting and readable.
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Author:Bartholomees, J. Boone, Jr.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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