Brimming always with acid wit, the 19th-century classicist Benjamin Jowett is supposed to have asked a poet, "And what were they going to do with the Grail when they found it, Mr. Rossetti?" The same kind of temperament might equally wonder whether a century's lucubrations about whether, and where, the Trojan War really happened has any point. Isn't the possibility enough?
"In Search of the Trojan War" is a careful review of the historiography of the famous episode and a dazzling and exhaustive analysis of what we can reasonably infer did "happen." The author's method is simply to cite and analyze historical and archeological evidence for war, and the reasons and preparations for war, along the west coast of Asia Minor during the late Bronze Age. If no evidence can prove the events happened as Homer told the tale of the fall of Troy, still, it can set the context within which they might have happened. And that is reasonable satisfaction for the lay reader who has not read Homer since his sophomore year.
"In Search of the Trojan War" is much heavier weather than "The Iliad." Wood's account is often meaningless unless the reader is almost as avidly knowledgeable as the author. Corroborating Thucydides' narrative of Mycenaean domination of trade in the Aegean between the 18th and 15th centuries B.C., he writes that archeology substantiates Thucydides' account: "British excavations at Phylakopi on Melos showed a Minoan colony there, and another was found at Kythera. American digs on Keos have revealed a fortified town with strong Cretan connections at Agia Irini in the sixteenth century . . . " It is a little like reading a reconstruction of movements and positions of Confederate infantry on the second day of Second Manassas. Unless the reader is unusually familiar with the history and geography of the area, he is often lost.
It is in his account of the life and work of Troy's 19th-century "discoverer," Heinrich Schliemann, in his reconstruction of the formation of "The Iliad," and in his description of the forgotten empire of the Hittites that Wood is most compelling.
Schliemann's obsession was Homer's Troy. Toward fixing its location with precision, he devoted some 25 years with an industry almost monstrously indefatigable. News of his discoveries rippled across Europe and America, embellished often by extravagant claims, if not by faked evidence. Alas, only a few months before Schliemann's death, another archeologist discovered a few shards of Mycenaean pottery that demonstrated decisively that the burned city Schliemann had thought was King Priam's Troy was -- although at the same location, on the Hill of Hisarlik -- a city that lived a thousand years before the "war" happened.
Schliemann in his book "Ilios" recounts the tale of the beginning of his obsession "to prove the truth of Homer's story," as a result of a book given him at the age of 8 by his father. But his mature notion of "Homer" is significantly different from that of modern scholarship. It is today accepted that the poet we call Homer lived in the 8th century B.C., in Ionia, and that he was the most prominent oral compositor of his time. Two centuries later "The Iliad" was probably set down in writing, possibly at the order of an Athenian tyrant determined to celebrate the first undertaking by a united Hellas. He, therefore, paid for the best of the later disciples of Homer to "dictate Homer as truly, as fully and as beautifully as possible to an Athenian scribe."
Indeed, what Michael Wood calls "a forgotten empire," that of the Hittites, and its copious legacy of inscribed tablets, may furnish evidence corroborating a "Trojan War" on the western fringes of its territory. The "may" is as far as current scholarship and archeology can safely go. The author must be content to imagine that "the real Paris, Helen's lover, may not have been the playboy described by Homer . . . but instead a grizzled middle-aged man-of-war, veteran of twenty years of battles from Syria to the Aegean."
*Imaginative inference rooted in meticulous scholarship is the art of ancient history. It provides in the present instance no conclusion, only tantalizing attempts to prove that what may have happened did happen. It does not seem probable that the gap will ever be fully bridged. The historian's frustrations, however, are of small moment to each fresh generation of readers of the noblest legacy ever left by warriors, however it was wrought: "The Iliad."
The reviewer, author of "The Lionheads," was an Army major who served in Vietnam.