Troy myth and reality.
At the beginning of 2020, I spent a week in Naples and visited the fateful ruins at Pompeii where you have to think about the disaster that befell the folks there in in the year 79 AD when the volcano Vesuvius erupted. Little did I know then that the year 2020 too was also going to be an annus horribilis. I walked round the ruins out of season when there are seldom many visitors in this, one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. The sun shone and I thought of things ancient, mostly Roman and Greek. I thought about those ancient Greeks and Romans knowing that when I returned to England, I was going to a much-praised exhibition at the British Museum, Troy myth and reality.
While in Naples I visited the National Archeological Museum, a giant building that contains, amongst other things, many artefacts from Pompeii. There was also an exhibition of ancient classical statues that had been rescued from the bottom of the sea around Italy and Greece. I thought this guy looked like King Agamemnon, King of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army during the Trojan Wars. Actually, of course, I don’t think anyone knows what Agamemnon looked like – so grizzled and bearded will do
I played King Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks during the Trojan Wars in a student production of a new dramatisation of Chaucer’s epic Trojan War poem, Troilus and Cresyde (written in the mid-1380s). I still have a production shot taken during the rehearsals. Maybe, without the John Lennon glasses and the roll-neck pullover, I was a dead-ringer for the old king, who knows. I got to sit on a throne and make sonorous speeches about battles and warriors – more fun than the real thing, I suspect, and it began a long fascination with the Trojan Wars, a subject, which until I sat on Agamemnon’s throne had, if I am honest, seemed a bit, well, academic. I was fully won over to Homer when I read, on a Greek beach, Alexander Pope’s English translation of The Iliad. So, it was a special pleasure when I went to the British Museum’s Troy exhibition, to see Pope’s handwritten first draft, complete with his diagram of Achilles’ shield. Oddly, perhaps, it was Alexander Pope, Geoffrey Chaucer, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare who first introduced me to their great predecessor, Homer, and the story of the Trojan Wars.
I knew about Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, and Agamemnon’s sister-in-law, who was either abducted, seduced, or simply fell in love with the young Trojan prince Paris, son of Trojan King Priam, who took her home to Troy, infuriating the Greeks and causing one of the most famous wars, that may never have happened.
I had seen Elizabeth Taylor as Helen of Troy in the imperfect 1967 film of Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus (1592), and, at that time, it was Elizabeth Taylor’s turn to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Marlowe’s Helen was the ultimate erotic temptation, a role she has taken through the centuries.
The Chaucer poem, Troilus and Cresyde, was based on a relatively minor character in Homer’s The Iliad , the earliest and, for most, the greatest account of Troy. Troilus, another young prince of Troy, son of King Priam, brother of Paris and Hector gets embroiled in the war between Trojan and Greek when he grows jealous of his betrothed, the Trojan princess, Creseyde , who is flirting with a Greek warrior. Shakespeare knew the Chaucer poem and wrote a play using the same plot line, Troilus and Cressida. I came to the Shakespeare by way of Chaucer on my way to Homer. A roundabout journey I know. Just like this blog where I am on my way to the Museum’s Troy exhibition that finished just before the UK pandemic lockdown in March 2020.
To give you a taste of the Shakespeare and also a brief catch up on the Trojan Wars, here’s the prologue to the play – rousing stuff.
Shakespeare rushes through the famous names from the Trojan Wars, we’ve heard of most of them even if we don’t know all their stories – Helen and Paris, poor old Menelaus, king of Sparta, Helen’s deserted husband, and his brother King Agamemnon, and the two superhero warriors Trojan Hector and Greek Achilles,
Most of what we know about these characters comes from three sources – Homer’s The Iliad and its post-fall of Troy sequel The Odyssey.
The Odyssey describes the various journeys of Odysseus (latin name Ulysses) who was another of the Greek warriors at Troy.
Odysseus tries to get home to his famously patient wife Penelope but the journey takes years and he has to endure many ordeals inflicted on him by the gods and by sorceresses, monsters, giants and seductive nymphs like the Sirens. When he finally gets home to Penelope he has many a good story to tell her about his odyssey.
The third important book on the aftermath of the Trojan Wars is the Roman epic poem Virgil’s The Aeniad (29 – 19 BC) which takes another famous Trojan hero, Aeneas on his escape from Troy to his destiny in Italy where he has to build a second Troy – Rome.
But, maybe after Helen, the famous famous figure from these books is the ultimate warrior, the almost invulnerable Greek hero, Achilles. the son of Peleus, the King of Phthia and a Nereid (a sea nymph), Thetis, who was said to have dipped her baby into the River Styx to make his body invincible, only to forget the heel that she was holding, the legendary Achilles’ heel, and thus laying him open to the fatal arrow shot by Paris, Hector’s brother and Helen’s lover.
Achilles’ other vulnerability was his love for his friend Patroclus and his grief and rage when Patroclus was killed by Hector.
We all know Achilles, Londoners see his 18 foot statue every time they take a bus round Hyde Park. Brad Pitt fans too, are familiar with Achilles’ particular type of masculinity
If The Iliad ends with blood, death and war, it begins with love and sex, Aphrodite (Latin name Venus), the goddess of love, taking part in a beauty contest with two rival goddesses, Hera and Athena, to find out who is the most beautiful of all the immortals. The judge is to be Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, and the prize will be the most beautiful mortal woman in the world who is, or course, Helen of Troy who is already married to the King of Sparta, Menelaus, brother of King Agamemnon, the Greek leader. Paris takes his prize, Helen, back home to Troy. and the Greeks go in swift persuade to win her back. The result is, as we know, the Trojan War.
The heroes, heroines, victims and villains from Troy were all in London for the British Museum’s extraordinary exhibition, Troy myth and reality, their stories retold in works of art from four thousand years until modern times, and still retaining their fascination for us today.
Here’s the great man himself – well we don’t know that for sure any ore than we know what Agamemnon looked like – here’s the blind poet, Homer, another grizzled bearded one, who may not have been blind, who may never have existed or who might have been at least two different people, one the author or The Iliad and the other of The Odyssey. Whoever wrote these two epic poems probably did so between the years 800 and 750 BC – a very long time ago but several hundred years after the Trojan Wars that, sorry about this, might not have happened either, but if they did, it was some time between 1260 and 1180 BC. The City of Troy may or may not have existed either, but, since the late 19th century most archeologists believe that it did and that it was situated in a place known as Hissarlik in Asia Minor.
To an untutored eye, one ruined city looks much like another, so after Pompeii, I have to take the experts’ word on whether this is, or was, the ancient city Troy, four miles from the Aegean sea and four miles from the narrow waterway known as the Dardanelles, or in ancient times, as the Hellespont. Homer, whoever he was, had started something – ever since his time, people have craved to know where Troy was and what it was like. Maybe it wasn’t unlike that terrible battle also fought there in 1915.
It was also, maybe, the beach where Hector died.
The most famous archeologist involved in establishing the site of Troy, was also the most smooth-tongued and entrepreneurial, of the several Troy hunters roaming Asia Minor in the second half of the 19th century. the German Heinrich Schliemann, no beard this time, and not at all grizzled. He betted his, er, moustache, on Hissarlik being the place and, we now know that he was right.
Schliemann dug and he dug and, amazingly, in 1871, he started to find stuff. Artefacts, sometimes called plunder, known in his sensational language as The Treasures of Priam, most of which is now in a museum in Berlin – and some of it was exhibited at the British museum’s Troy, myth and reality.
The exhibition looked fantastic there in the museum, the lighting and design, in particular, but the captions, low down near the ground, caused a few problems for the crowds that were milling round each exhibit. Captions are a bit of a bore in general at block-buster exhibitions because it encourages clustering round the notices and blocking the view of the artworks. That is a mild complain, minuscule when compared to the battle that was going on outside.
In front of the building and sometimes inside, too, heroic warriors and a spectacular Trojan Horse, were fighting their own war. This time it was against the British Museum’s sponsors, those controversial oil-spillers, BP. I hear that the next exhibition, the global-warming conscious Arctic, will no longer have BP as a sponsor. Hurrah.
And then there were those pots! Grecian Urns, a veritable sideboard of ancient crockery.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I knew Keats’ poem Ode on a Grecian Urn and I had certainly seen many red-figure and black-figure pots in various museums, but somehow I was unprepared for the glory, originality, minimalism and weirdness of these Trojan paintings. Sorry, if I offend, but I thought these two thousand year old pots upstaged all the other artworks in the exhibition. Judge for yourselves as you scroll down and look at the Trojan stories in these amazingly powerful paintings .
The Achilles stories were memorably displayed too, in three-dimensions First on an ancient silver cup, and then with various impressive and movingly carved sarcophaguses (sarcophagi) where the tragedies of The Iliad were recreated with an emphasis on grief.
Moving too were these carvings of the patient Penelope waiting mournfully for Odysseus.
I have tried to show some of my favourite exhibits and to do justice to the post classical period where possible and without giving the impression that nothing good happened in the arts after the year 100 AD. I have to say though that I was overwhelmed by the power of those works of art dating back thousands of years.
Achilles, Helen, Ulysses and the others live on, of course, in the work of modern artists in many genres – I am tempted to define modern as sometime the end of the 18th century, but forget I said that. Here are some of my favourites. Cy Twombly’s 1962 savage reduction of Achilles to a bloody arrowhead seething with anger was especially memorable.
I was intrigued too by Romare Bearden’s 1977 collage with its New World irony.
I also liked Eleanor Antin’s 2007 picture of the Judgement of Paris for its cunning mix of politics, wit and kitsch.
It was impressive how so many modern genres have found something new to say about those Greek heroes, whether it was graphic novels, Manga comics or the wonderful Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch, built around lighting readings made at the beach were so many Trojans and Greeks fell,
Troy myth and reality was a comprehensive survey of so much art that has been inspired by Homer and Virgil in these four thousand years that I resist leaving out one of my passions – opera. Two Trojan French operas from the mid-10th century, one Offenbach’s classic send-up of the whole Trojan epic, La Belle Hélène, and the other Berlioz’s sublime and gigantic Virgil opera Les Troyens, where the catastrophe of Troy is powerfully caught when Cassandra and the women of Troy commit mass suicide at the end of act two. Try them, you might be surprised.
The amazing thing about writing this blog is just how much I have had to leave out….well that’s epics for you.