One of the advantages of adulthood over youth is the freedom to avoid the pedagogic bore, the classroom claustrophobe, the obsessive teacher with the glassy eye and a simple message that somehow no one has ever properly understood. J. V. Luce is just such a man. His message is that the author of the Homeric poems was a punctilious war reporter, that the poet of the Iliad described his battle scenes as though he were a Nato briefer, and that the key to understanding the fundaments of western literature lies in the mud, silt and rocky streams of modern Turkey.
It would, I suppose, have been easy for me to avoid him. Although Celebrating Homer's Landscapes is a fine-looking book to possess, generously illustrated and well published by Yale, I could have resisted this invitation to review it. Unlike the members of Professor Luce's archaeological tours, or the cruise-ship holidaymakers for whom he lectures, the reviewer is not a captive audience. But he got me with his gimlet gaze, and I could not escape until he had led me up every Trojan mountain, along every dried-up river bank, past water-pumping stations that might once have been the source of divine Scamander and along coastlines that did not even exist when Achilles killed Hector. It was an exhausting trip, even in an armchair. It was persuasive in small parts, pointless in many more but peculiarly hypnotic in its own way.
The Trojan war took place some 3,000 years ago, and since that time Greek civilisation has paid dearly for its victory. From the days of Xerxes in 480bc to the 1450s and the Ottoman Turks, various enemies of Greece have visited what they thought were the great sites of Homer and promised to avenge the deaths of Priam's people. Often, they have succeeded, inflicting destruction on the descendants of Odysseus and Agamemnon far in excess of the rapine and pillaging inflicted on Troy by Greeks in the late Bronze Age.
But the Iliad itself, the epic poem that was the real Greek booty won by its ancient heroes, for many centuries remained reasonably safe from assault. Homer was revered as a poet of imaginative genius and near-divine powers. Demetrius of Scepsis, a local antiquary of the second century bc, seems to have used Homer to boost the claims of his village to be the home of Aeneas. Augustus hoped to achieve greater political ambitions and sponsored Virgil to undertake an epic Roman homage to Homer. The emperor Caracalla liked the Achilles sections so much that he is said to have cremated his best friend at Troy like a latter-day Patroclus. But not until the 18th century did literary visitors begin to pick over the rocks and river-beds on the south side of the Dardanelles and wonder which particular feature Homer had in mind when he described the ebb and flow of war.
Even then, the ambitions of the geographer critics were decently limited. In 1785, a French adventurer, Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, thought that he had found the pair of warm and cold springs that Homer places at one of the gates of Troy. A few years later, Lord Byron had high hopes of identifying ancient poetry and place within his own genius. But, for the most part, it was a sufficiently bold ambition to prove that any kind of Troy had existed at all. To show that Homer had no more imagination than a cartographer was not part of the game. The discoveries of Schliemann, when they eventually came in the 1870s, did not kill the poetry of Homer. Indeed, they stimulated new popularity for the Iliad which, like the Bible in a different desert at about the same time, was also being shown to have some small sure basis in recoverable, physical fact.
Luce has a different aim. He wants to show that the audience of the Homeric poems would have been outraged if a geographical error had crept into the performance. He envisages a bardic tradition in which the heroes' speeches were imagined, but their places of action faithfully recorded down to the last rock, watercourse and fig tree.
Luce puts his faith in the ponds of Pinarbasi. Successive generations of thermometer-wielding scholars have tried to adopt these murky spring sources as both the washing places of the Trojan women and the death site of their prince. But Luce, unlike Chevalier, knows that the citadel of Troy, as discovered by Schliemann, is some miles from Pinarbasi. So he envisages Achilles chasing Hector not in the circular sprint around the Trojan walls but in a long, lozenge-shaped marathon run from city to warm and cold springs and back.
Perhaps that is precisely what Homer had in mind. But the specific details of the landscape are surely present in order to highlight how Hector is fighting for his own beloved homeland, not in order to satisfy some well-travelled first-millennium pedant. As Oliver Taplin has written, "it is poetically important for the springs of the great river to be right by the city walls, however unrealistic in terms of physical geography". That is all that needs to be said.
Luce has visited the Troad many times, with cruise ships and without; he has climbed cliffs and mountains; he has plundered geological bore holes; he has compared modern Turkish pumping stations with 19th-century pond maps. He sets out a useful case for how the battle outside Troy might have taken place to the south and west of the city rather than on the northern land that, 3,000 years ago, almost certainly did not exist. He takes us to Ithaca, too, where a few islands have to be rearranged and a few heights and shapes adjusted so that the Homer of Odysseus's homecoming can be as accurate a marine chart-maker as the Homer of Troy is a recorder of military terrain.
This omnivorous map-making has no bounds. Once he has decided on the physical scenery, there is no obstacle in Homer's text, no example of simple creative genius, nothing that a judicious edit, a glorious reinterpretation or a deep breath and a stare cannot will away.
His method of argument is aimed at a reader whose potential to resist has already been removed. The vividness of a simile about marsh birds in flight is explained by the poet's "personal memory" of a visit to Ephesus. "In much the same way, we may deduce a visit by Homer to the great early Ionian folk gathering on Delos," he goes on, stretching the use of the term "deduce" almost as much as he stretches the patience of the reader who believes in artistic imagination.
Despite the author's powerful self-belief, I doubt that many will be swayed by such relentless piling of certainty upon certainty. How many lovers of Homer want to see such a sacrifice of poetry on the geographer's altar? Great writers make places seem real when they want to make them seem real. That is the skill of great writing - a simple truth that is too simple for Luce to grasp.
Peter Stothard is editor, The Times .
Celebrating Homer's Landscapes: Troy and Ithaca Revisited
Author - J. V. Luce
ISBN - 0 300 07411 5
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £22.50
Pages - 255