Strauss Offers Fresh Look at 'Trojan War' Homer first wrote of the Trojan war in The Iliad, a story filled with enduring characters: Helen, Paris, Achilles, Hector and Odysseus, to name but a few. Author Barry Strauss revisits the classic material in a new history.
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Strauss Offers Fresh Look at 'Trojan War'

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Strauss Offers Fresh Look at 'Trojan War'

Strauss Offers Fresh Look at 'Trojan War'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In a few minutes we'll remember storyteller, linguist, teacher and national treasure Esther Martinez. But first, the legend of Troy.

For many hundreds of years, Homer's epic tale of Paris and Helen, the wrath of Achilles and the fall of Troy was regarded as a myth. Even after an eccentric German archeologist discovered the ruins of Troy beneath a mound in what's now Turkey, scholars continue to relegate the conflict that Homer described in the Iliad to the realms of fiction.

Now in a new book Barry Strauss cites what he describes as spectacular new evidence to support the argument that Homer is history. If you have questions about the claim, give us a call: 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Barry Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University. His latest work is The Trojan War: A New History. He joins us today from a studio on the campus at Columbia University. And thanks very much for coming in.

Prof. BARRY STRAUSS (Professor of History, Cornell University; Author, The Trojan War: A New History): You're welcome. Thank you. But actually I'm at Cornell University.

CONAN: You're at Cornell. One of those C universities. We knew that.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Anyway, spectacular new evidence?

Prof. STRAUSS: Yes.

CONAN: And what is it?

Prof. STRAUSS: Well, archeological excavations that have shown that Troy was not a city of half an acre, as we previously thought, but a city of 75 acres. And they've also discovered the harbor of Troy, a settlement there. They've discovered the first writing at Troy from the time of the Trojan War. They've discovered new information about the geography of the area that makes it clear that Homer knew what he was talking about. And they found an anti-chariot ditch surrounding the city.

CONAN: Hmm. Suggesting that there was, at the time when chariots were big time weapons of war, that this was something important.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yes.

CONAN: There are, as I think a lot of people know, many, many layers to the city of Troy. It was built and rebuilt many, many times.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yes. There are - archeologists talk about nine separate layers of the city from 3,000 B.C. to about 500 A.D.

CONAN: And which one of them is Homer's Troy?

Prof. STRAUSS: Well, it's the layer that used to be called Troy 7A and now is called Troy 6I. Not much of an improvement, I have to admit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yes. Exciting labeling there, yeah.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yes, but we're talking about roughly 1200 B.C.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So we know that Troy existed and we know that Homer's description of the city and the area was a lot closer to reality than we thought, but what about his description of the people in this conflict? Why, for example - you write a lot about what might have led Helen to leave her happy home in Sparta and head off with the fellow Paris.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yes. Well, we can't be sure that any of the people in Homer existed. We have no proof of that. But what is striking about Homer is that the kinds of people he describes and the behavior he gives them are in fact fascinating mirrors of what we know about the Bronze Age and the real people who lived then.

For instance, we know that there were - this was a period of powerful queens, of powerful royal women. And the kind of power that Helen wields and the symbolism she has - which to us seems mythical, absurd - actually would have made sense to people at the time. They did fight wars over marriages gone bad. They did fight wars over dynastic issues. And above all, they thought of wars as a way of avenging personal insults.

CONAN: And it was important that Paris not only took Helen away from Sparta, he took a bunch of other stuff too.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yes. You know, Homer is clear about this and later more romantic writers like Christopher Marlowe obscure it. But Homer says that what Paris took was not just Helen but the crown jewels. He took the treasures of Sparta. And the Spartans needed that back as well.

CONAN: Hmm. So the motives for the conflict are thus spelled out. Plus, well I guess that explains the Spartans motives. But what about everybody else? Why would Odysseus come all the way from the other side of Greece to participate in such a conflict?

Prof. STRAUSS: Well we have to remember that the Greeks were really the Vikings of the Bronze Age. They invented the galley, that is a particular kind of war ship, and they were in the habit of going out on raids and missions of conquest in the Aegean Islands and along the coast of Anatolia. For them, Troy would have been a juicy fruit to pick.

CONAN: What about the claim that they spent nine years picking this particular fruit. It seems an awfully long time.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yeah. I don't think we can put any credence in this, and we have to remember that Homer might well be speaking metaphorically. In fact, I discovered in the ancient Near East there's an expression, nine and then 10, which just means a long time; much as we say nine out of 10 or nine times out of 10, meaning most of the time.

CONAN: Or 40 days and 40 nights in the Bible pretty much meaning a long time.

Prof. STRAUSS: Exactly.

CONAN: And it's important - the archeological evidence that you talk about comes not just from Troy, it comes from Greece of course as well. But Troy was part of a system. There were states supporting it, allies, other important kingdoms in that area.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yeah. One of the most exciting things is the Hittite evidence, and unfortunately when you say the Hittite evidence, people say who?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STRAUSS: The Hittites were one of the great powers of the ancient world around the year 1500 to 1200 B.C. They ruled a great kingdom. It's capital is at a place called Hattusha, pretty much near Ankara in Turkey today in central Turkey. And they extended their - their writ ran all the way to Troy and to what is today western Turkey. Luckily for us, they have left thousands of documents; some of them are letters, treaties, narratives, chronicles. And among the things they tell us about are the adventures of the city of Wilusa, which we thing was Illian - that is Troy - and the people of Ahhiyawa, which we think are the Achaeans - that is the Greeks.

CONAN: So they document - the outsiders document the adventures as well. Let's get a caller on the line. This is Brandon(ph). Brandon's calling us from Savannah, Georgia.

BRANDON (Caller): Yes. I was wondering if Dr. Strauss could speak a little bit to the actual historical figure, Homer, and a little bit about the oral tradition, since the Iliad, we believe, you know, was built up over centuries from various oral traditions and ballads and how that would affect his interpretation.

CONAN: Yeah. Homer may be history, but it certainly wasn't journalism. Homer came quite a bit after this.

Prof. STRAUSS: Right. Homer was a bard who was working, as the caller says, in a long oral tradition stretching back centuries and whose job was to tell the old stories, the classic ones, but often with new twists. So we can imagine that, as in a game of telephone, many details would change over the centuries. But it's important to realize that there's a lot of evidence that Homer lived in what is today Turkey in a Greek colony. And there he had access to written records as well as oral ones. In fact, he might have even had access to a Trojan version of the Iliad. So he had more sources than simply an oral tradition.

CONAN: Brandon, Thank you.

BRANDON: Thanks.

CONAN: I was interested also in your description of the character of the war, and we think of it as a siege of Troy. In fact, quite a bit different from your look at Homer and from your look at the surrounding area around Troy.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yeah. If we look at what Homer says, and if we also look at what we know about warfare in this period of history, we get a different picture than the usual one. Homer never says that the Greeks surrounded Troy and cut it off from the world. In fact, he specifically says otherwise. What the Greeks did was they landed in Trojan territory and they set up a camp, much as the Vikings would land in, say, Ireland or Normandy and set up a camp. And then the main thing they did was raid.

They went after easy pickings: unfortified towns or ones that were not well defended. And every now and then they went after a difficult fruit to pick, like Troy itself. But they did not lay siege to the city. Assaults rarely happened. What we get in the Iliad looks like a sea of battles, but in fact Homer only describes four days of battle in what he claims was a 10-year-long war. He makes it clear that for most of the time what the Greeks are doing is raiding.

Achilles says he raided 23 cities. Odysseus likes to be called a sacker of cities. That I think was the real Trojan War.

CONAN: So they were going after Troy's allies and friends in the area, the places it got supply from. All right, but what about the Trojan horse? I mean even the Romans were saying, come on, nobody would fall for that kind of a deal. This must've been a siege tower or something else.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yeah, everybody's skeptical of the Trojan horse, and they look for, as you say with a siege tower, they look for an easier-to-swallow explanation. But the fact is that if we had a manual of warfare in 1200 B.C., if we had the Bronze Age Doctrine Handbook, we would see that one of the best ways to take a city was to use a trick to make the inhabitants think, for instance, that your army has left, while in fact you're around the next hill or, in the case of the Greeks, the next island, poised to spring on the unsuspecting inhabitants.

That, to me, is the real meaning of the Trojan horse. The Trojan horse is just a symbol that the Greeks are gone.

CONAN: And that we overlook a man named Sinon, if I'm pronouncing that correctly. He was the other thing that was left behind when the Greeks got in their ships and left.

Prof. STRAUSS: Yes, this of course is not in Homer, but in Virgil. The Greeks leave behind a man named Sinon to say to the Trojans, we're really gone. Believe that the Greeks are gone. And though we can of course not be sure that Sinon really existed, we do know from the Hittite and Egyptian and Assyrian documents that espionage was a major part of warfare in this period.

So somebody engaging in a trick like Sinon's is highly credible.

CONAN: Glad things have changed so much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STRAUSS: Yeah.

CONAN: Barry Strauss, thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. STRAUSS: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Barry Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University. We've posted an excerpt from the book at our Web site, the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. The book is The Trojan War: A New History.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

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