The Trojan War: A New History, by Barry Straus
This is actually the second time I have read this book. In fact, although I got this particular volume that I read this time from the library, I own (or at least owned) a copy of this before from my earlier military history reading during the age before I blogged all of my book reviews. Is this work reading twice? It’s an enjoyable and easy to read book by a contemporary classicist and military historian who views Homer as a generally reliable source when it comes to Bronze Age warfare when read carefully, so if you have an interest in Bronze Age warfare , this work is certainly one that is worth reading at least once. In general, this book is revisionist history done right, one that takes ancient sources seriously and comes at the subject with a large degree of context both in archaeology as well as textual history, and which is appropriately careful in not exaggerating evidence and in presenting consistency between textual and material evidence rather than seeing archaeology merely with a confirmation bias. All in all, this book is a good book to read about the Trojan War for those who combine a love of ancient history with an interest in texts and archaeology.
This book, at a bit more than 200 pages of core material, is not filled with fluff, but rather focuses on a close reading of texts, a sound knowledge of geography and material remains, and a shrewd interest in understanding human behavior. After some initial notes and chronological material, the author begins by introducing the Trojan War. After that there is a discussion of Helen (and her theft of Menelaus’ gold bars) as a classic causis belli (1), and the pressure that Agamemnon faced as a wanax to respond to this by mobilizing the strength of Greece against Troy (2). The author examines the struggle the Greeks faced to ensure a beachhead, aided by their naval superiority (3), and looks at the initial failed assault on the walls that they did to try to keep the conflict short (4). The author looks at the dirty war of attacking the logistical basis of Trojan strength (5) and the trouble faced by the army in light of the rivalry between Achilles and Agamemnon (6). There are discussions of the killing fields in the Trojan Plain (7), the night moves that led to the desperate fight at the ships (8), and Hector’s fatal charge that prompted Achilles to fight him and kill him (9). After that the author discusses the remainder of the war (10) and its successful conclusion by a ruse (11), after which the author concludes.
There is a great deal of interest in this book, and the author’s style and approach are winsome enough that even if one does not think that all of the author’s speculations and interpretations are correct that the general picture is at least a plausible and reasonable one. Moreover, the author’s general interpretation is one that values shrewdness and cleverness and that denigrates a meat-headed approach that focuses only on straightforward attacks and glory. By giving praise to moderate and savvy figures (Odysseus and Aeneas come off well here, as does Patrocles), and subtly denigrating those who lack such nuance, like Hector and Achilles and Menaleus and Ajax, the author points to some of the ways in which classic literature can help to inform contemporary approaches to war and conflict by cultivating both mind and body and not neglecting a shrewd understanding of issues of psychology or logistics. As someone who values irregular warfare and also pays attention to matters of psychology and logistics, the author’s approach is definitely one that plays to my own interests in history, in this or any age.
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