I watched The True Story of Troy (The History Channel, 2007) on the History International Channel last night. I try to watch as many documentaries on the ancient world as I can. I was, of course, attracted to the presentation by the mention of Troy and the Trojan War, but was immediately alarmed by the title claiming it to be the true story, as if all others were not so true. Indeed, I found very little in the two-hour production to be original or new; what was interesting was the segment on the underwater archaeology and some background information on the site of Hissarlik and the major players, particularly Heinrich Schliemann and Carl Blegen. I also found amusing the narrator's claim that archaeologists have located what they believe to be the "true site" of Troy in a tone which would lead the viewer to believe that it was discovered last Tuesday. Nothing new there, either. The film footage took us back to that familiar arrangement of stones on top of that hill overlooking that plain which we have all seen before.
I have seen several documentaries on the Trojan War, including Michael Wood's epic In Search of the Trojan War, and there were elements from these presentations throughout this "True Story". One of Michael Wood's episodes involved locating and interviewing modern-day bards and I enjoyed this presentation's segment on the bards in Serbia who can still chant an Iliad-long tale on the Battle of Kosovo back in the 14th century. I wasn't quite sure how the producers were checking their facts when the claim was made these bards were telling the unembellished truth about the historical Battle of Kosovo and that these modern singers-of-heroic-deeds prove that Homer did tell/could have told the truth as well. Big leap there!
The literary story of the war, mostly from Homer, but from other sources as well, was well done and the artwork, most of it applicable, was a treat. Much emphasis was given to the sacrifice of Iphigenia and unfaithful Clytemnestra who avenged the death of her daughter by murdering her husband Agamemenon when he returned home. There was also the brief discussion of human sacrifice among the Greeks, but that it wasn't really human sacrifice because slaves and prisoners of war were not human. Hmm...
I was pleased to watch the attention given to the Trojan Horse and the story told by Vergil. All too often this part of the tale gets short-changed (I guess) because this Roman poet wrote as many years, if not more, after Homer as Homer did after the actual events of the conflict, and he stole the story from the Bard and other Greeks anyway. Satisfying was the mention of Aeneas leading his followers of refugees to Italy and the angle that the Trojans were the ancestors of the Romans. I found interesting the whole segment (again, not new) that the conflict was a clash of East vs. West, that Xerxes visited the site of Troy before storming into Greece as if to seek revenge, that Alexander the Great visited the site before setting off to conquer the Persians as if to bring Greek vengeance against the Persians (and the curious story of Alexander taking Trojan armor [Achilles'?] from some ancient museum and wearing it on his campaign, and finally that the Trojans were reincarnated into Romans who finally conquered and absorbed that Greek and took possession of Asia Minor, all as the story of the Trojan War coming full circle.
I am always drawn to the explanations given for the Trojan Horse. This "True Story" rationalized this gift of the Greeks (with an aside to tell the tale of Laocoon and his sons) as a siege engine. They claimed that the Hittites and others has this technology and that this was nothing new. No mention was made that the Horse was a metaphor for an earthquake, although earthquakes were mentioned soon after. They missed an opportunity there.
What was most intriguing, and a bit academically uncomfortable, to me was the discussion of Homer. I have never dug deep into Homer's origins and was surprised to learn that he was "thought to have been born" in Smyrna or Chios. They played up the angle that he was born near Troy so that helps to make his story more believable. That's another thin thread there. Mention was made of Homer's blindness and illiteracy, but none of how he actually learned the stories. He was at one point in the documentary called a rock star, filling ancient theaters and stadia (exaggeration my own - I wish I could remember the exact reference). What I repeatedly found disturbing about the discussion of Homer was the notion that the Greek alphabet was invented (borrowed and modified from the Phoenicians), and thus Greek writing itself was invented, for the sole purpose of recording Homer's stories. I don't buy it and I don't believe that the documentary made its case at all on this claim.
I also found fascinating the stories about Carl Blegen and Heinrich Schliemann. It seems that ex-patriate Blegen was actually the first archaeologist and had been digging in and around Troy for years before Schliemann arrives on the scene. Blegen had quite a few objects and artifacts to show Schliemann when he comes in search of his boyhood dreams. I was a bit surprised to hear that Schliemann, always the sensational showman, "stole" the hill of Hissarlik from Blegen and claimed to have found Troy when Blegen had already decided it was there. More interesting, and a little disturbing, was Schliemann's background. He was always, uncannily, present and lucky for the discovery of gold and amassing of wealth. He speculated on and benefited from (and participated in?) the Gold Rush in California, he was present at, worked for, and increased his wealth with the Czars in St. Petersburg, and then (strangely), there was some story that Schliemann dressed as a Bedouin, circumcised himself (!?!), and snuck into someplace in the Middle East. These are tantalizing elements for the True Story of Troy.
So, was the story of the Trojan War true? This documentary certainly does not prove the story true. There was certainly not enough new evidence presented to make its case. I would argue that the truth of the story (interesting, to be sure, and admittedly fascinating to me) is not important. When the epics are read and enjoyed, when those thoughts and images and messages from the past are relayed, scientific and historical truth is not needed or even required. Are other works of ancient literature true? How much of the Aeneid can we really believe? How much do we want to believe? Why can't we accept that Homer is just telling a good story? Modern day epics which immediately come to mind are Star Wars and the Harry Potter series. Few will argue that these are not compelling, well-written, and important stories meaningful and entertaining to the modern world. Centuries from now, though, will archaeologists and historians set out to find the true location of Hogwarts Castle or argue over which sandy planet is actually Tatooine? I hope not, because it really doesn't matter in the light of the stories themselves.
Sometimes finding the truth hurts. The "True Story" mentioned a couple times that Schliemann was disappointed in the size of the site of Troy. He kept digging deeper and deeper into the hill so that he could find what he wanted to find, all the while not paying attention that what he was casting aside as rubbish was what he was looking for all the while. What if Schliemann's excavations had, in fact, discovered that the site of Hissarlik was indeed Troy and that bodies and tombs clearly labeled as the key players in the conflict were discovered? What if he had discovered a written narrative, say, a diary, that revealed that a Trojan War actually occurred but not as Homer imagined it? Would it be immensely disappointing to learn that the real Troy was a wide spot in the road, a man named Priam was chieftain over an extended family of horse-breeders, and when one of his sons, while traveling in Greece, had insulted a Greek mafia boss, almost a dozen ships were launched and these two families feuded for a while.
Not knowing the truth about the characters and deeds or the Trojan War, or the true location of the Troy, does not decrease the value of the story, nor would finding them legitimize it. These pursuits of science would strip away the fantasy, the romance, and the other elements which make a story so appealing, even after two thousand years.