In a few weeks the game A Total War Saga: Troy will come out, the latest installment in the long-running Total War series. The game’s director, Maya Georgieva, had this to say about it recently:
[W]e decided to draw from [classical-era Greek legend] — very carefully and concisely, by separating the impossible from the still less probable but feasible, until we could filter out a core that could be at the heart of a great new Total War game. We’re guided and reassured in this by the success of pioneers such as Heinrich Schliemann, who believed that there was substance behind those old tales and went on to prove this by excavating the sites of Troy and Mycenae ...
Maya Georgieva in interview, May 2020 (my emphasis)
|A Total War Saga: Troy (2020) uses an ancient technique called ‘euhemerism’ to treat myth as a model of reality. Here, euhemerism takes the form of rationalising the mythical Minotaur as a man wearing a bull’s skull over his face.|
The answers are: not normally, no, and never.
It’s imaginable that a myth might coincide with some things that actually happened. But even in those exceptionally rare situations, the myth isn’t evidence about the historical event. That’s backwards. Evidence is always external — archaeology, or historical linguistics, or documentary records. Without those things, a myth is just a myth.
As a game, Total War: Troy has no obligation to be rigorous. Verisimilitude is fine. No complaint. This verisimilitude is based on popular understandings of the relationship between the subject matter and actual history. But ‘popular understandings’ is the key phrase. My concern here is about two big misconceptions at the heart of the popular understanding:
- The idea that there’s a historical core there to filter out.
- The idea that Schliemann proved there was substance to a legend.
Part 1. ‘The place is real, therefore so is the myth’The first idea is that Schliemann’s excavation proved a legend true. All it really proves is that Heinrich Schliemann was good at PR.
It isn’t exactly unusual for a myth to be set in a real place. Troy is real? Fine! Lerna is real too, but that doesn’t mean Heracles is real and that he actually fought the Lernaean Hydra there. Nottingham is real, but that doesn’t mean Robin Hood is real. New York is real, but that doesn’t mean King Kong, Sesame Street, and the Avengers are real.
That, in a nutshell, is my response to the misconception about Schliemann.
But let’s carry on a bit: the fallacy is especially glaring, because Schliemann didn’t even discover Troy. He obfuscated a real debate. Troy was never lost.
An awful lot of people assume Ilium (to give it its strict name) was an empty hilltop from the Bronze Age until Schliemann ‘discovered’ it in the 1870s. It wasn’t. It was a sizeable city from the 700s BCE until around 500 CE, and it wasn’t abandoned until close to the 1300s. The city was in the northwest corner of Anatolia. Its citadel, or upper city, was on a hill that is now called Hisarlık, but the lower city sprawled far beyond that. There is precisely zero doubt about any of this.
Ancient people were mostly happy to regard their Ilium as the setting of the Iliad, in the same way that New York is the setting for The Avengers. Today, if you want to be a Robin Hood tourist, you’ll visit the real Nottingham: Ilium was like that for the classical Greeks. It was a tourist hotspot, visited by the likes of Xerxes, Alexander, and Scipio. As late as 1463 Sultan Mehmed II toured the ruins and the supposed gravesites of Achilles, Patroclus, and Antilochus on the coast.
But in the 1790s a debate arose, based on an alternate tradition. The 1st century geographical writer Strabo had accepted a theory that Ilium moved around a bit over the ages. Strabo thought ‘ancient Ilium’ had been a few kilometres further inland. In 1785 a French diplomatic aide named Jean-Baptiste Le Chevalier visited, armed with a copy of Strabo, and he decided that Strabo’s ‘ancient Ilium’ was on a hill next to the modern village of Pınarbaşı.
We now know that Strabo and Le Chevalier were wrong, but the argument carried on for a few decades. Ilium itself wasn’t lost. But there was a genuine doubt, at least among western Europeans, that classical Ilium was the same place as ‘Homer’s Ilios’, the fictionalised city in the Iliad. Troy was only really ‘lost’ from 1791 until 1822.
Then in the 1870s Schliemann came along. And somehow everyone got the idea that before him, no one had believed Ilium ever even existed.
The thing Schliemann really proved was that Strabo was wrong: the city hadn’t moved around, it stayed in one spot. But the impression everyone got was that he had discovered Ilium itself, out of thin air. Schliemann didn’t work hard to avoid this misconception. And, worse, he did work hard to conflate the pre-classical historical city with the city where the Iliad was set.
‘Homeric Troy’ is a slippery phrase. It gets used to mean three distinct things: the real Bronze Age city; the real city at the tme the Iliad was composed, which Homer might in principle have visited; and the city depicted in the Iliad. Schliemann exploited that confusion.
Schliemann succeeded in refuting Strabo, and that success got people thinking he was also right about blurring the lines between history and the Iliad — between the different ‘Homeric Troys’. But that isn’t right. It makes no more sense than finding out Hamelin is a real place, then thinking that means the Pied Piper story must have a historical core.
Timeline: Hisarlık vs. Pınarbaşı
- ca. 20. Strabo, Geography 13.1.35, reports a claim that ‘ancient Ilium’ was 30 stadia inland from the classical city.
- 1740. Richard Pococke states that Troy was buried underneath classical Ilium.
- 1769. Robert Wood, after visiting the Troad in 1750, notes that Homer’s descriptions don’t match the real topography.
- 1791. Jean-Baptiste Le Chevalier, after examining the area in 1785, argues that Homer’s Troy was at a hill on the south side of the village of ‘Bunarbashi’, and that classical Ilium was just a stone’s throw from the coast, at the mouth of the Scamander (modern Menderes). He accepts Strabo’s idea that the site had moved over time, but rejects most of Strabo’s details, in the belief that he had a poor understanding of the topography.
- 1795. Jacob Bryant criticises Le Chevalier’s argument, mainly using Homeric references. The argument continues in subsequent years, with Le Chevalier backed up by his former boss, Choiseul-Gouffier.
- 1801. Edward Daniel Clarke visits the Troad and correctly identifies Hisarlık as (part of) classical Ilium.
- 1822. Charles Maclaren argues that both ‘the Ilium of Homer’ and classical Ilium were at Hisarlık.
- 1842. P. W. Forchhammer writes a survey labellng Hisarlık as ‘New Ilium’ (Ilium Novum), Pınarbaşı as ‘Troy, or Old Ilium’ (Troja vel Ilium Vetus), and labels Strabo’s preferred site separately in the hills south of Dümrek.
- 1850s. John Brunton excavates at Hisarlık and finds a column capital and a Roman mosaic.
- 1862. Frank Calvert, after investigating Hisarlık and Pınarbaşı, opts for Hisarlık.
- 1864. Johann Georg von Hahn, an Austrian consul, excavates at Pınarbaşı and finds ‘nothing but the natural soil.’
- 1865. Calvert excavates at Hisarlık and finds parts of a temple and a wall.
- 1868. Heinrich Schliemann arrives in the Troad and investigates Pınarbaşı, until Calvert persuades him that Hisarlık is the correct spot.
- 1871, Schliemann starts uncovering evidence of a Bronze Age city under the classical city, proving Strabo (and Le Chevalier) wrong.
Next time: Euhemerus, Phlegon of Tralles, and Lara Croft.