A city founded on a C-list Trojan's back

Troy Between Greece and Rome
February 22, 2002

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, Troy was their Waterloo, their Gettysburg, their Stalingrad; it was also their Hollywood. The fields around Troy were not just the sites of battles; they were fields of dreams, dreams that, as Andrew Erskine shows, were every bit as disputed as Priam's citadel itself.

Except to those entangled in the squabbles of warlords where the Aegean meets the Sea of Marmara 2,800 years ago, what really happened in the so-called Trojan war has never been known. Vast efforts have been made to understand where Agamemnon fought, where Achilles sulked and how the heroes could have reached the athletic heights that the Homeric poems attribute to them. Of much fresher interest is Erskine's theme of how the warriors from Troy became characters in the minds of later generations, the first international stars, the A-list to C-list celebrities of the age.

An archaeologist may ask what impact the fighting around Troy had on the economy of the late Bronze Age: scholars in AD5000 may ask the same of Lincoln and Napoleon. Erskine, who teaches classics at University College Dublin, investigates instead how classical Greeks and Romans exploited old memories to boost their interests, how connections were uncovered, imagined and combined to create legitimacy and its opposite. These are tactics that his readers still see today.

He begins his book with the bit of the story that he expects us to know best, the opening lines of the Aeneid in which Virgil sets out his subject, the Trojan Aeneas who "long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy". This, the poet proclaims, was "the beginning of the Latin race and the high walls of Rome". Aeneas, Erskine reminds us, was not originally a top-flight Homeric hero. He was a young man of ambition but indifferent luck. For a man credited with the founding of Rome he was something of a loser from the Trojan war's vanquished side, a man most famous for running out of the ruined city with nothing on his back but his aged father.

Virgil did not, however, have a wholly free hand. Like all sensible Romans of his time, he professed a vigorous loyalty to the Emperor Augustus. The first family, prompted by Augustus's adoptive father, Julius Caesar, claimed Aeneas for its ancestor. Any story that boosted the role of Aeneas was good for the regime, even though many among the first audience for Virgil's work thought that Romulus was already a perfectly adequate founder for the city.

Before Virgil began work, what did Augustus's subjects think of Troy? It was plausible enough for the poet to write sonorously of "the great effort required to found the Roman people"; but how much effort was needed to present a defeated princeling as a worthy ancestor of his boss?

Erskine examines how the Greek and Italian communities of the years before Augustus viewed the events of the Homeric poems. In Rome itself, he concludes, Aeneas was "relevant but marginal": Cicero, as he points out, refers to the Trojan war many times but not at all to the fate of the Trojans who fled the defeat. Virgil's genius was to shift his master's man up the heroic league table.

As for the successors to Agamemnon in Greece, how did they see the Trojan war? The evidence that is most widely read today, that of the 5th-century Athenian playwrights, suggests a dubious view. Athens and its allies had recently triumphed over the Persians of Darius and Xerxes, an enemy that shared with the Trojans the same stock attributes of immorality, love of incest, native untruthfulness and obsession with sex. Just as a noble Greek cause triumphed at Troy, so did it at Marathon and Salamis: that was the official message.

Erskine argues that the story of Troy became a hinge on which two great civilisations swung back and forth in appreciation of their past. But, on these first considerations, it might seem a somewhat rusty and unhelpful hinge. An aim of Augustan Rome was to absorb the culture of Greece and promulgate an enhanced Roman virtue to the world. If the emperor's family were proud Trojans and the Greeks treated Troy as an imperialist Sodom, prospects of harmony would be poor.

But it was not that simple. Erskine, with barbed arrows aimed at fellow scholars who put literary evidence above all else, shows that the Attic tragedians were not the only Greek voices with a significant view of the Trojan war.

Greek communities, widely scattered throughout Greece and Italy, wanted heroes, local boys-made-good and other celebrity ancestors whose veneration might bring them fame and wealth. A triumphant Greek ancestor might be better but a losing Trojan hero would do. After all, the Greeks and Trojans at Troy fought under the auspices of the same Olympian gods. If we look at Greek vase paintings, what they kept in their kitchens rather than what they read at school, we see Greeks and Trojans in the same dress.

There were, of course, more exotic Trojan allies: the Thracians and Scythians who did not fit the Greek mould. But their role was to fill that eternal need for a people beyond the pale. Barbarians were all around. An Ajax or Odysseus was the best forefather for an ambitious colony. But a minor Trojan gave at least some lesser legitimacy from history.

There are times, such as in Athens after the Persian wars, or even Washington and London following our experiences last September, when it is tempting to exaggerate historical and cultural differences for political purposes. The other times, when peoples take more note of what they share than what they do not, are forgotten.

The audience for the original tragic productions may not have been as hostile to the Trojan cause as critics have claimed. The patriotic Athenian writers may have been ahead of their public in oriental xenophobia. The Greek tragedians had a semi-official responsibility too and may have wanted to shift attention away from the Trojan war itself, in which Athens played only the tiniest part, and on to the wider metaphorical struggle between civilisation and barbarism in which Athens was the modern leader. Athenians could never hear enough of the naval victory over Persia at Salamis and, even more, the battle of Marathon in which Athens, almost alone and just shoulder-to-shoulder with its single Plataean ally, had held off the forces of evil.

Greeks and Romans had a shared sense of their past in the Trojan war that the propagandists of the Emperor Augustus could develop. Some modern scholars have argued that their ancient scholastic counterparts in the libraries of Alexandria manufactured even the basic links on which the Roman imperialists would build. Erskine, in a detailed and spirited sifting of evidence, concludes that although there were subtle and different ways in which communities selected their past, the sense of the Trojan war was widespread and real. Within the stories that we know best from Homer and Virgil, and that the ancients knew in so many other forms, was a genuine hinge in the history of Greece and Rome.

Peter Stothard is editor, The Times .

Troy Between Greece and Rome: Local Tradition and Imperial Power

Author - Andrew Erskine
ISBN - 0 19 924033 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 303

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