The Ecphorizer

The Uses of Troy
Gareth Penn

Issue #35 (July 1984)

They don't make wars like they used to

I was having dinner with [fellow Ecphorizer contributor] Paul Healy, who was lamenting the decline of education in our time. He told me about a general knowledge test that contained the question, "Who dragged whom around what?" Somebody had

We are still acting out the myth that Homer created 3,000 years ago.

[quoteright]become irate about the inclusion of this question because it was felt to be too obscure. Of course, anybody who had graduated from high school prior to abouut fifty years ago would have been able to answer it without any difficulty.

It was the man with the vulnerable heel who dragged the proverbial bully around the walls of a city whose fall was predicted by a woman who was foredoomed not to be heeded. This was before the people who should be feared even when bearing gifts bestowed on that same city a horse within which combat troops were concealed. Afterwards, one of the victors undertook a long and eventful journey home. And thousands of years later, one of the city's defenders became known as the archetypal procurer.

Whoever it was that objected to the question for reasons of obscurity was dead wrong. The context was one of the best known events and perhaps the most important event in the history of the world, which may, paradoxically, never even have taken place: the Trojan War.

The scholarly consensus by the mid-19th century was that not only had the Trojan War never taken place, but that the city of Troy had never existed, either. The archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann proved, to the consternation of his critics, that Troy did in fact exist, and that it was right where Homer had said it was. Then he proceeded to transform the jumble of rubble that stood on the site of the ancient city into an even more confusing jumble. Schliemann was an intuitive genius but short on methodological Sitzfleisch At any rate, he did prove the existence of Troy. His detractors' skepticism was rooted in the belief that had been prevalent in Western Europe since the early Middle Ages that Homer was a liar.

Homer was unpopular in medieval Europe mainly because he was Greek. The Greeks, to hear the Latin Catholics tell it, had brought on the schism that divided Christianity into two warring camps. Anything Greek was suspect simply because of its country of origin. Moreover, he had, by his own account, not actually been present at the hostilities on which he was reporting. He did not have, therefore, the authority of being an eyewitness, and auctoritas was everything to the medieval mind. In the very early Middle Ages, Western Europe invented its own version of the Trojan War by "discovering" eyewitness accounts attributed to Dares the Phrygian and Dictys the Cretan. These accounts, which really derived from Homer anyway, purported to tell about the war from the Trojan point of view. Dares and Dictys established a line of thought to which the West has adhered for most of the Christian era: that the Trojans were the good guys, the Greeks, the bad guys. They were successful forgeries and were considered authentic for centuries, until the Humanists exposed them for what they were. But even so, they have had an enormous impact on our culture.

In a way, Virgil had started the tendency to side with the Trojans. He had flattered Lugustus by giving him a pedigree in the Aeneid that went back to the Trojan War, which was the first known event in history in those days. Romans generally felt a bit culturally inferior to the Greeks, anyway, and by attributing to the Trojan D.P. Aeneas the origins of the Julian house and the line of the Caesars, Virgil not only made Augustus' ancestry incredibly ancient, but derived also from the adversaries of the Greeks.

Antipathy to the Greeks (and others) prompted a number of authors to resort to the same fiction. The first was Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain, composed in the late twelfth century, traced the ancestry of King Arthur back to a Trojan refugee named Brutus (according to Geoffrey, Britannium was a corruption of "Brutannium"). Geoffrey was a Welsh nationalist, and he wanted to establish a historical pedigree for his country that made his compatriots superior in historical rank, if not in military power, to the Saxons who had invaded his homeland. The Cornish were not slow to follow suit, and soon the origins of their country were attibuted to another Trojan eponym, Corynaeus. Before long, every country in Western Europe had a Trojan ancestor to be proud of.

Achilles spends the frst half of the Iliad sulking in his tent over the loss of a Trojan girl named Briseis (oblique form, Briseide). As "Briseide," she found her way into Dares and Dictys, then into Boccassio, where an English poet named Chaucer found her in the late 14th century. In the meantime, she had fallen prey to scribal error. Somewhere along the line, a copyist had read "Briseide" as Criseide." She had only a bit part in Homer, but she and a couple of other minor characters from the Iliad, Troilus and Pandarus, were thrown together into what Norman Lear was to come to call a "spinoff," the romance (to use Shakespeare's spelling) of Troilus and Cressida. Troilus' uncle Pandarus, who plays matchmaker between the two lovers, eventually gave his name to the world's second-oldest profession.

Besides all the proverbial people, such as Cassandra and Hector, Homer produced something that was far more subtle and even more pervasive of our way of thinking and writing about things. He wrote two books about the war and its aftermath. One of them had as its focus the fate of Achilles, who was strong in war but none too swift in counsel; the other had to do with the travels of one who was noted for his wiliness more than his skill in combat, Odysseus. A substantial part of world literature since Homer has been organized around the juxtaposition of these two types, the physically strong and the mentally agile. Think of fierce Roland and his wise sidekick Oliver. Then there's the idealistic warrior Quixote and his crafty henchman Sancho. You find it even in Conan Doyle. It is Holmes who tracks the malefactor to his lair; it is Dr. Watson who breaks down the door. And there are other reflections of the Trojan War throughout our 1iterature. The late-movie reminds every so often of Achilles as Bogart sulks in his Maghribian night club over the loss of Bergman (or is it Cergman?) only to he persuaded in the end to emerge to fight on the side of righteousness. In fact, the Trojan War has provided an enduring myth that still has not ceased to mould our civilization.

There probably was a Trojan War. For that matter, there were probably a number of them. Even after Schliemann had muddled the evidence with his unmethodical digging, it was apparent that there were nine different cities at Troy, each of them built on the ruins of the last one. The reason is obvious if you visit the site. From the highest point atop the mound of rubble, you can see the sun glinting off the waters of the Dardanelles, the westernmost part of the passageway between the Aegean and Black Seas. It was a strategic chokepoint, and whoever possessed the territory around Troy controlled the trade between those two bodies of water and their hinterlands.

There was, then, natural reason for antipathy between anyone who controlled the Straits and the sea power to the west. Only after the original inhabitants had been subjugated and the area successfully colonized by Ionian Greeks did Troy cease to have its old strategic importance. But before that happened, the warring parties, who were separated by a large body of water, came to think of everything in terms of an East-West dichotomy. This eventuated in the traditional division of Europe from Asia at the Straits, and the subsequent and ineradicable geographic fiction that Europe and Asia are separate continents. "Asia," in fact, used to mean only the area on the southern side of the Dardanelles. It now extends from the Urals to the Mekong Delta.

That's not all. Just as the nations of the West had, because of historical fictions like Geoffrey's, taken themselves to be the historical successors to the Trojans, when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Greek Empire found a self-proclaimed successor in the Russians, who declared themselves to be the new Byzantines. The Greek Emperors had called themselves Romanoi; the ruling family of Russia took the name Romanov to cement the succession. And the Soviet Union, the modern successor to the Romanovs, still aspires to that world-historical position, the archenemy of the Trojans - and their successors. We are still acting out the myth that Homer created 3,000 years ago. Not only may the Trojan War never have happened; it may still be going on.

From current events to events long past, you can bet that Gareth Penn can unearth an interesting angle about any happenstance.

More Articles by Gareth Penn

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