by Barry Strauss
August 13th, 2008
First off, I'll confess that the close spacing of the last few reviews should not be taken to mean that I am a lightning-fast reader. I always keep about six books by my bedside and I go through them in random order; I just happened to finish a number of those books just recently.
Much of human history is obscure. For any given historical topic, academics present the story, holes and all, freely admitting those matters that remain unknown. Non-academics don't like this kind of writing; they don't like being cautioned about degrees of confidence of various elements of the story. They just want a nice, clean story. This has spawned a category known as "historical novels", in which a writer deeply knowledgeable in the history of an era writes a novel based on the writer's appreciation of what people must have been like back then. This approach is perfectly honest; it's fiction, nobody's pretending that it's fact, yet there's enough historical truth in the novel to give it a sheen of authenticity. The only problem with this comes when the author tries too hard to show off hard-earned expertise by explicitly highlighting some tidbit that historians or archaelogists swoon over, but others don't really care about.
But in between these two extremes is a newly-developing category. It doesn't have a name yet, but the basic idea is to flesh out historical knowledge with some reasonable judgements as to what was likely. In some cases, the author introduces characters who provide a human touch to all the academic folderol. A good example of this is After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000BC to 5,000 BC by the otherwise excellent Steven Mithen. Dr. Mithen attempted to explain prehistoric mythology through a point-of-view character who wandered across the earth on foot, skipping centuries, and showing up at random locations that just happen to have been excavated in the 20th century. The result was a confusing mishmosh. The science was good but the fiction just got in the way.
This book is a similar attempt to flesh out history. The author certainly has the credentials for it, and the breadth of his scholarship certainly helps the narrative. He skates a good path between the literature -- which is not to be completely trusted -- and the archaeology. He does a good job of interpreting and combining all the sources into a convincing narrative of what really happened at Troy 3,000 years ago.
But Dr. Strauss makes one ghastly mistake: he thinks he can write fiction. Here's how he begins Chapter Three:
Helios the Sun, who sees everything and knows the gods, is beginning his ride in his four-horse chariot, turning the sky a gauzy blue and the sea the color of widow's tears.
Gag me with a spoon!
Despite the gorge-raising purple prose, I learned a good deal from this book. I liked its analysis of the strategic options open to the Trojans, and the strengths and weaknesses of the two armies. I was especially pleased with the book's willingness to trash the Trojan Horse legend as implausible. He recommends a number of alternatives that are more plausible. And his explanation of the likely repopulation of the site was revealing.