Ever since Heinrich Schliemann “discovered” Troy in the 1870s, archaeologists have searched for proof that Homer’s Iliad was based on historical fact. Penn Museum Deputy Director C. Brian Rose, who has led excavations at the site for more than two decades, may have found it.
By Dennis Drabelle
“We do care about the authenticity of the tale of Troy!” wrote Lord Byron.
“I venerate the grand original as the truth of history … and of place;
otherwise it would have given me no delight.”
Byron was hardly alone in his venerating. Western Civilization itself has a stake in the historicity of the Trojan War. As best we can tell, Homer composed the Iliad and the Odyssey in the late 8th or early 7th century B.C., about events thought to have taken place five centuries previously. The two poems will mean far more to us if we can be confident they had some basis in fact—a fortified city that stood roughly where Homer says it did, and a war fought there (perhaps over a beautiful woman) by “characters” at least some of whom actually lived. Otherwise, our founding epics are reduced to the level of elaborate folk tales, rather like The Thousand and One Nights or Wagner’s Ring Cycle, except with gods and goddesses instead of djinns and Valkyries.
The urge to ground the Trojan story in reality has kept archaeologists busy for well over a century. In the late 19th century, Heinrich Schliemann became world-famous as the discoverer of Troy, and others have devoted their careers to refining and correcting his work. One of the most energetic current practitioners in the field is C. Brian Rose, who heads post-Bronze Age excavations at Troy. At Penn, Rose is the James B. Pritchard Professor of Archaeology and a professor of classical studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, while also serving as deputy director of the Penn Museum.
The eastern Mediterranean had long been a stomping ground for European lovers of the classics and collectors of antiquities. Starting in the 1860s, however, a more focused student emerged from the pack: the German-born Schliemann, son of a Protestant minister and his wife. Schliemann is not the easiest historical figure to get to know. As he admitted, “My biggest fault [was] being a braggart and bluffer,” and some of the stories he told about himself are fictitious. Until someone writes a definitive biography, the following is no more than a reasonably likely account of the first celebrity archaeologist’s formative years.
Although later renowned as a polyglot, the young Schliemann was no whiz at languages—as a schoolboy, he received an “unsatisfactory” in Latin. The family fell on hard times, and he had to transfer from an academic high school to a commercial one. In any case, he dropped out at age 14.
The adult Schliemann gave out at least two versions of his first contact with Homer. In one, as a 10-year-old he heard the splendid tales of gods and heroes from his father and was hooked for life. But a letter from Schliemann to his father, written when the latter was an old man, casts doubt on this transmittal. In it, the son says, in effect, Be prepared: I’ve been going around telling people I caught the Homeric bug from you when I was a kid. The other version is preferable, if only because we have no particular reason to doubt it: while working as a grocer’s apprentice, Schliemann heard a drunken miller recite Homer in the original and fell in love with the sound. “From that moment,” he commented, “I never ceased to pray God that by His grace I might yet have the happiness of learning ancient Greek.”
In the meantime, Latin was the last language Schliemann ever flunked. He rose through the ranks of various European commercial houses for which he worked, thanks in part to his successive mastery of English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian. (One of his techniques with a new language was to use it exclusively in his journal until fluency came.) By his mid-twenties, he’d gone into business for himself, dealing in such commodities as indigo, tea, coffee, and sugar. Somewhere along the way, the young whirlwind also fulfilled his dream of learning Classical Greek.
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FEATURE: The (Continuing) Tale of Troy by Dennis Drabelle
©2010 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Paintings like “The Burning of Troy” by the 16th century Flemish artist Louis de Caullery testify to ancient Troy’s persistent hold on the popular imagination.