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Book Review: The Trojan War: A New History (Barry Strauss)

“The Trojan War” is an interesting contrast to some of Barry Strauss’s other works. As always, Strauss is extremely readable and offers fresh insight and analysis. In this book, however, he has to fill in historical gaps to a much greater degree. We know a lot more about Salamis, Caesar and Spartacus, some of the subjects of his other books, than we know about the Trojan War, which we know about from exactly two sources: mythic poetry, mostly Homer, and archaeology.

Strauss in this book re-tells the story of the “Iliad,” while supplementing it with insights informed by modern archaeology. He tries to bridge the gap between myth and history, with the result that he creates less of a history book and more of a commentary on a famous (semi-?) fictional work.

We objectively know very little about Troy in the Bronze Age, and less about the Trojan War specifically. Strauss knows this, of course, but he says that archaeology shows that even if Homer’s characters weren’t real, there existed people like them, and so “this book will refer to Homer’s characters as real-life individuals.” What this means is that “The Trojan War” is largely a dramatic narration of and commentary on events as they might have happened, relying primarily on the “Iliad” as its source. (Strauss does not rely on the “Iliad” as his only ancient source. He also uses other portions of the Epic Cycle, a series of mostly-lost poems by various ancient authors on the Trojan War, of which only the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” wholly survive.) Strauss is pretty good at such dramatic narration (unlike Adrienne Mayor in her awful “The Poison King,” about Mithradates of Pontus, which attempted much the same thing with zero success). But the effect is jarring at times, because it is largely written as fresh, Strauss-written fiction supplementing the “Iliad.”

Despite the jarring, for the most part, Strauss succeeds. He weaves descriptions of Homeric characters as real people with explanations of what informed, or may have informed, their actions in the context of the times, based on objective data. For example, pointing out that we moderns tend to reject out of hand the idea that the Trojan War began purely from a fight over a woman, he notes that “The Bronze Age was an era that preferred to put things in personal terms rather than abstractions,” citing inscriptions of Hittite kings. At the same time, Strauss explains the larger motives of the Trojans by reference to their trade networks and habits, their geographic position, and the allies and enemies around them. And his comments on the techniques of war and the habits of peace bring the era alive, even if we cannot be sure of the complete accuracy of the picture.

As with his other books, Strauss gives excellent and lively descriptions not only of how people in the ancient world acted, but highlights how that was different from and how it was similar to us today. Warfare was constant and nasty, especially to civilians, and expected to be so. Mercy was not a valued or recognized quality. The gods were omnipresent. But if the philosophies were different, people still had the same natures and types that we do, and they are recognizable, which is, of course, why the Iliad has always been regarded as among the great works of world literature. We all know impulsive and arrogant pretty-boys like Paris; aggressive brawlers like Ajax; clever men like Odysseus. If nothing else, even if it is not a “new history,” the reader comes away from this short book with a deeper and more complex understanding of the “Iliad” itself, which is no small thing.

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