Troy Story: A Review

LSA CA member Julia Clayton, former Head of Classics at King George V College in Southport and blogger at Classical Clayton, shares with us her review of the British Museum’s 2019-2020 exhibition Troy: Myth & Reality.

Back in the Noughties, Boris Johnson wrote a book, The Dream of Rome (2006) in which he compared the European Union to the Roman Empire (use of a single currency etc).  A suggestion he made in the book was that all students in the EU should be required to read Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid (the section that describes Dido’s affair with Aeneas, culminating in Dido’s suicide) in order to provide every citizen of the EU with a shared cultural experience. It conjured up visions of people sitting in the bars and cafés of Ljubljana, Zagreb and Budapest arguing over the classic A-level question: ‘Who carries the most responsibility for Dido’s death?’ (there’s a long list of suspects, not least Dido herself). 

The Main Gallery of the British Museum Exhibition

This is essentially what the Troy: Myth & Reality exhibition is all about: the idea that the Trojan War cycle (including the Aeneid) acts as a shared language across time and space, through which we can explore fundamental human experiences: family, loyalty, loss, war, friendship, duty, love. This exhibition is far less about the reality of Troy than the idea of Troy, and how every age has sought out the aspects of the story which most closely mirror its own concerns.

If you are expecting an exhibition devoted to the archaeology of Troy, then this isn’t it – although there is a small central section devoted to Schliemann’s excavations at Hissarlik, the site of Troy. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, there’s a suggestion that the reality behind the legends is a bit disappointing.  I particularly enjoyed reading the acerbic comment by William Simpson, an artist who was invited to watch the excavations at Hissarlik in 1877: ‘If I had been told it was the palace of Priam’s pig I would have believed it’. I’ve always loved the story about Alexander (the Great) and his lover Hephaesteion running naked round the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus, whom they saw as role models; however, it’s revealed here that when the ‘Tomb of Achilles’ was excavated in 1787, it turned out to be a rather undistinguished cremation burial from the Classical period, rather than the tomb of a Bronze Age hero. Perhaps it’s just as well that Alexander and Hephaesteion didn’t know the truth. 

Photograph of Sophia Schliemann wearing ‘Helen’s Jewels’, with a 1980s replica

The second reason why it’s difficult to include a lot of material on the archaeology of Troy is the contested nature of Schliemann’s star finds, particularly the group of artefacts he called ‘Priam’s Treasure’.  This included a golden diadem which Schliemann, always a brilliant self-publicist, identified as ‘Helen’s Jewels’. The picture of his wife Sophia adorned with Helen’s diadem was the picture that launched my own childhood fascination with Troy (incidentally, the picture which launched Schliemann’s fascination with Troy is also in this exhibition – Aeneas fleeing the burning ruins of Troy, carrying his aged father on his back, in Jerrer’s Universal History for Children).

Aeneas with his father and young son, fleeing Troy

We now know that this collection of material dates from a period far too early to have any connection with Priam or Helen, as it came from the level of the city now known as Troy II – whereas Troy VII is the strongest candidate to be the Troy of the Iliad. The closest we get to ‘Priam’s Treasure’ here is an electrotype copy of Helen’s diadem – if you want to see the real thing, you’ll have to go to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Herein lies the reason why these items aren’t here, because their ownership is contested by Turkey, Germany and Russia. The Turkish claim rests on the fact that Schliemann smuggled the artefacts out of Turkey. After the British Museum turned down the opportunity to buy them, they ended up in Berlin; during the Second World War, the most precious items were moved to a bunker at Berlin Zoo to protect them from bombing raids. For many decades after the War, it was widely believed that the treasure from Troy had been destroyed. However, the early 1990s it was announced that the artefacts were safely stashed in vaults in the Pushkin Museum. When the Red Army entered Berlin in 1945, they had taken ‘Priam’s Treasure’, amongst other artefacts, as reparations for the damage to the USSR’s cultural heritage inflicted by the German army.  

Silver vessel from Troy II, in which Schliemann claimed to have found ‘Priam’s Treasure’

So for the minute we are left with less glamorous items, like the rather unprepossessing silver vessel in which Schliemann claimed to have found the jewellery (there are several holes in his story). Perhaps the most exciting artefact, in terms of ‘proving’ the history behind the legend, is a cuneiform tablet from Hittite archives which mentions a certain ‘Alaksandu of Wilusa’ (Alexandros of Ilion, aka Paris). The transition from Wilusa to Ilion makes sense if we remember that early Greek used to have a ‘w’ sound, the letter digamma, which later dropped out of use. 

But enough about what isn’t here, when there are plenty of beautiful and amazing objects to fire the imagination. Many of the objects in the exhibition are from the British Museum (but highlighted in a way which isn’t always possible in the main galleries), supplemented with loans from many other institutions, notably the Naples Archaeological Museum. Many visitors will be familiar with some of the Greek artefacts on display here, especially the vases: the Sophilos Dinos, showing the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, and the vase showing the Sirens, turkeys with women’s heads, dive-bombing Odysseus’ ship. And there’s Exekias’s painting of the poignant moment in the Aethiopis (a lost epic) when Achilles looks into Penthesilea’s eyes, realising that she’s the only woman for him – just at the point when he’s stabbed her to death.

2nd century Roman marble relief of Aeneas, Anchises & the white sow

Many of the Etruscan and Roman artefacts here, however, were new to me. There are several different versions of Helen eloping with Paris: being bundled onto Paris’s ship as a high-status trophy, or wistfully looking back, wondering whether she’s made the right decision. There is a 2nd-century Roman marble relief showing Aeneas with the white sow and her piglets, fulfilling Helenus’s prophecy that he will know when he’s found the site of his future city.  There are some superb Roman silver cups, which travelled all the way to Denmark as a diplomatic gift, excavated from the grave of a Danish chieftain. One cup shows Philoctetes (aka ‘festering foot man’) shooting a crane with the magic bow he inherited from Heracles. Another one shows Priam, looking remarkably like a Parthian ambassador, complete with Smurf cap, supplicating an Achilles who’s a dead ringer for Augustus (not surprisingly, the cup has been dated to the reign of Augustus or Tiberius).   

One of the largest and most impressive items in the show is a huge Roman table support, in dazzling white marble. I sometimes used to challenge students to draw a picture of the monster Scylla from Virgil’s description: ‘She has a human face and as far as the groin she is a girl with lovely breasts, but below she is a monstrous sea creature, her womb full of wolves, each with a dolphin’s tail’ (Aeneid, Book 3, West’s translation, Penguin Classics p60). The Roman sculptor has managed to cram in the fishtails and the baby wolves; it’s not entirely clear how Scylla works anatomically, but who cares, when you can have sculpture as technically brilliant as this?  An even bigger challenge than drawing Scylla is to draw the Shield of Achilles, which takes up three-and-a-half pages of description in the Penguin Classics translation. The final item in the exhibition is a version of the shield made from an incredibly detailed design by the British sculptor John Flaxman.                                                                                  

2nd century Roman table support showing Scylla

The Reception of Troy
The Shield of Achilles forms the climax to the area which was, for me, the most interesting section of the exhibition, exploring the ‘Reception’ of the Trojan War story since antiquity. 

 Flaxman’s ‘Shield of Achilles’

The poster boy for the exhibition is the Filippo Albacini’s statue of the Wounded Achilles (from Chatsworth House), beautifully-lit to bring out the gilded arrow, made especially for this exhibition to replace the long-missing original arrow. Achilles sits on the edge of his shield, his sword dropped uselessly behind him. He has a faintly surprised look, as if he can’t believe this has happened – after all, most people wouldn’t die as a result of receiving a wound in the heel. Perhaps he’s wondering whether he made the right choice from the two alternative fates he was offered: live a long and comfortable life and be forgotten, or die young and end up on the A-level Classical Civilisation syllabus three thousand years later.

Filippo Albacini, Wounded Achilles (Chatsworth House)

A painting which always sends shivers down my spine is John Collier’s Clytemnestra, from the Guildhall Art Gallery in London.  For readers of this blog who are familiar with the Atkinson Art Gallery in Southport, this is the same John Collier who painted Lilith and In the Venusberg.  Clytemnestra strides across a threshold, holding a blood-stained double-headed axe; she’s wearing a diadem based on ‘Helen’s Jewel’s’.  Behind the curtain we can only glimpse a dimly-lit room, but we know that Agamemnon’s body lies inside. The caption in the exhibition comments on Clytemnestra’s ‘androgynous appearance’ – it’s my understanding that Collier’s model for the painting was a male student playing Clytemnestra in a Cambridge University production of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon – perhaps appropriate, given that Clytemnestra’s ‘crime’ for which she is murdered by Orestes is daring to behave like a man in a man’s world, taking a lover and setting herself up as ruler of Mycenae during her husband’s long absence. 

   John Collier, Clytemnestra (1882)

Quick rant: why can artists never seem to do justice to Helen, the most beautiful woman who ever lived?  She’s never attractive enough.  Examples here included a rather insipid marble bust of Helen by Antonio Canova (who could normally give the best Greek sculptors a run for their money), where he’s managed to make her look like a bookish younger sister sitting at home during the Napoleonic Wars.  Edward Poynter used Lily Langtry (mistress of the then Prince of Wales) as his model, but all he’s succeeded in producing is a rather weedy, doe-eyed woman looking bemused at why she’s wearing ‘exotic’ jewellery based on Indian motifs, rather than something based on Schliemann’s finds (the actual jewellery used in the painting is displayed alongside it).  The artist who comes closest to my concept of Helen is Evelyn de Morgan (wife of the potter William de Morgan), whose paired paintings of Helen and Cassandra will delight anyone who likes the Pre-Raphaelites. 

But the two items which stick in my memory most are the two most recent artworks, demonstrating how the story of Troy can be constantly repurposed to reflect contemporary concerns. In her lithograph Te Whiti & Titokwaru Discuss the Question, ‘What is Peace?’ (2011), Marion Maguire has transposed Exekias’s image of Achilles and Ajax playing a board-game (represented in this exhibition in a vase by the Lysippides Painter) to a village in nineteenth-century New Zealand, where the Maori chief Titokowaru faces the dilemma of how to respond to the threat posed by European settlers.                                                     

The most entertaining modern version is Eleanor Antin’s photographic tableau, which recreates Rubens’ painting of the Judgement of Paris in terms of modern gender stereotypes. Country hick Paris is a caveman in a bearskin; Hermes is a camp cowboy in pink drapes, offering an orange in lieu of a golden apple ‘for the fairest’. Athene is in combat gear, with an assault rifle.  Narcissistic Aphrodite, in evening gown and long satin gloves, ignores her child Eros who hugs her skirt. Best of all, though, is Hera, a Stepford Wife who has stepped straight out of a 1950s advert for household appliances.                                                         

I always think that a good measure of the success of an exhibition is what people are talking about as they wander round, as this shows how far they’re inspired or engaged by what they’re seeing. From this point of view, this exhibition is certainly a success.  During my visit I overheard people arguing over which was the best translation of the Odyssey (Emily Wilson’s recent version won); a discussion of a recent production of Euripides’ Trojan Women; comments on Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which rewrites the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope and the ‘disloyal maids’; and a recollection of a visit to Gallipoli (‘my grandfather was killed there’). One of the most moving things in the exhibition is a handwritten poem written by Patrick Shaw Stewart, a soldier at Gallipoli in 1915, including the lines: ‘Stand in the trench, Achilles / Flame-capped, and shout for me.

During my years as a Classics teacher I always used to say that the best thing about my job was being paid to talk about the Odyssey every day. This exhibition, and the conversations it triggers, shows that the Odyssey and its related epics are still intriguing and exciting readers thousands of years after they were originally created.”


Do follow Julia’s blog to read more excellent pieces on classical reception and ancient art. In February 2020 we were treated to a talk by broadcaster, historian and author Professor Michael Wood on the historical background to Troy, a summary of which you can read here.