Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War: Dialogues
on Tradition
Jan Haywood and Naoíse Mac Sweeney
Bloomsbury
240pp, five black & white illustrations
Hardback, £85

The events of the Trojan War, particularly Homer's poetic telling of them in the Iliad, have had a powerful influence on countless artists, writers, poets and scholars over the centuries, and this continues to this day. While the epic is hailed as a touchstone of Western civilisation, in Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War: Dialogues on Tradition, Jan Haywood and Naoíse Mac Sweeney bring together a broad range of cultural material that shows how the Homeric text is part of, not the sole root of, a wider tradition. Across the book, the two authors – Jan Haywood, Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University, and Naoíse Mac Sweeney, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Leicester – engage in a 'dialogue' that reflects the pluralistic and dynamic nature of Classical tradition; it is not simply a one-sided relationship between Homer and the rest of the world. Each chapter explores a broad theme with two focused case studies (one by each of the authors) on particular works, be they ancient texts or Greek vases.

The approach is a stimulating one, and the pairings of related works draw insightful connections that span time and space. In the discussion on visual depictions of social roles propagated in the Trojan War tradition, for instance, we encounter archaic pottery and also Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 1863 painting Helen of Troy. The scenes painted on vases still within antiquity, in the 6th century BC, showcase male roles at a time when the Iliad was still establishing itself at the heart of the Trojan War tradition, a position it had firmly occupied for millennia when Rossetti created his work that engages with some of the Iliadic notions and ambiguities of female power.

Conflict – a vital part of the action of the Trojan War – is examined in two dramatic works by Euripides and Shakespeare, while careful scrutiny of Herodotus and Schliemann, whose works bear some similarities in their aim and approach, offers a chance to see how historiography has helped the Iliad become such a canonical text.

Perhaps the most surprising pairing is Godfrey of Viterbo's 12th-century prose and verse history of the world, the Speculum Regum (Mirror for Princes), and the 2004 Hollywood film Troy. Both these works take an interest in the cultural ownership of the Trojan War, whether through genealogy leading back to survivors of Troy (as in Speculum Regum) or more general poising as the heirs of Classical Greek civilisation (as in the case of the film Troy). Intriguingly, both also examples of works in which ideas about the Iliad and the Trojan War were more important than the actual poem; Godfrey had no access to the text, nor is Troy intended as a faithful adaptation of the epic.

When considering tradition, historical context is of the utmost importance, and the book provides an interesting account of the filming of Troy against the backdrop of the 'War on Terror' and post-9/11 American foreign policy. Should we see the Greeks as the USA and the Trojans as the Middle East? The book's analysis deftly puts forward the case for the film's political edge, with its quest for the causes and motivations of the conflict and its critique of Greek leadership that is, Haywood argues, harsher than in the Iliad. Covering such diverse engagements with the Trojan War tradition, this is a thought-provoking, carefully considered series of case studies that make it a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in Classical reception.

Lucia Marchini

 

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