Naoise Mac Sweeney

Bloomsbury (2018) p/b 224pp £19.99 (ISBN 9781472529374)

Behind its well-dressed walls, visitors to Hisarlik, the modern site of Troy, can soon become so perplexed by the apparent jumble of its layers of archaeology, and so frustrated by the damage wrought by Schliemann’s enthusiastic excavations, that they find it difficult to marry reality with the romance of myth. Yet, as S. proclaims, Troy ‘is a name to conjure with, a name which carries a rich tangle of associations, invoking stories, images, and ideals’, and in this elegant, compelling book she succeeds wonderfully in disentangling what at first sight can seem contradictory myths and histories, while not only establishing Troy as ‘a real city of bricks and stone, inhabited by real people of flesh and blood’ but exploring the ‘small town’s’ ‘long shadow’.
S. wisely divides her material into the three sections that feature in the title. In the first she explores the myths of Troy familiar from the Iliad and Epic Cycle (whose literary creation in the eighth and seventh centuries BC coincided neatly with both diaspora and a shift in politics, helping to provide a common heritage to scattered Greeks), the story of Troy’s discovery, and the evidence for the truth (or otherwise) of a Trojan War. The second section takes the reader through the city’s ‘nine lives’, exploring the archaeological evidence for Troy’s fluctuating fortunes from 3000 BC to the seventh century AD, including its several destructions whether by earthquake, fire or war and its renaissance under first Alexander the Great and his successors and then Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty. In the final section, S. includes examples from art and literature to focus on four key themes in Troy’s reception: how subsequent ages saw the fall of Troy as the end of the mythical world and the beginning of history, a ‘big bang’ to which powerful classical and mediaeval dynasties sought to trace their lineages; Troy as a vehicle for examining love and war; and modern (twentieth and twenty-first century) responses to the Trojan myth. 

There’s a lot of material here, and S. packs it into a mere hundred and fifty pages, but nowhere (except perhaps in her overview of mediaeval claims to Trojan ancestry) does it seem overly dense. Indeed, S. has succeeded brilliantly in making ‘hope and history rhyme’ with her clear style, judicious use of quotations (for example, Byron’s ‘where I sought for Ilion’s walls,/The quiet sheep feeds, and the tortoise crawls’ or Shaw Stuart’s spine-tingling ‘Stand in the trench, Achilles,/Flame-capped, and shout for me’) and peppering of memorable anecdotes—not least the Ottoman/Turkish embracing of the Trojan myth as seen in Mehmed II’s vow to ‘avenge the sack of the city by subduing the Greeks’, or Atatürk’s remark after ‘The Great Catastrophe’ of 1922 that ‘Now we have taken revenge for Hector’.
With three maps, a chronological table and twenty six illustrations, this book is to be highly commended and warmly recommended, an invaluable addition to the library not just of anyone—undergraduate, academic or general reader—interested in Troy, the Trojan War and the ever-changing responses to one of the most potent of all myths, but of all visitors to the site. And the icing on the cake? Thanks to its being published before the series aired, there’s not a mention of the BBC’s ‘Troy: Fall of a City’.
David Stuttard

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