Emily Hauser, classicist and author, reviews the British Museum’s Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition for Historia.
It seems that the story of the Trojan War is capturing our imaginations now more than ever before. The past few years has seen an explosion in the numbers of reworkings of the Trojan War myth. My own debut novel, For the Most Beautiful, which retells the stories of the women of Troy and recovers the suffering and the lost voices of the captive women in the Greek camp, was published in 2016.
Since then there has been a veritable storm of Trojan War reworkings: the BBC’s 2018 Troy: Fall of a City, Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018), Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls (2018), Emily Wilson’s new Odyssey translation (2017), and even Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018) (which, in spite of its setting in the Peloponnesian War, contains many a nod to Homer’s epic).
The British Museum’s latest exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality (21 November, 2019 to 8 March, 2020), picks up on this modern surge of interest in the Trojan War – and shows that retelling the myth of Troy, and rethinking ourselves through it, is, quite simply, nothing new. But far from being a problem – far from suggesting that we’re running out of ideas, or simply recycling the same old stories – the exhibition proves just how vibrant and alive and relevant these ancient myths still are for modern problems. And it shows how, each time we turn back to them, we are able to rediscover something new.
The exhibition opens with a striking demonstration of this truth. In a darkly-lit room reminiscent of the tombs of Mycenaean kings, a single spotlight hits one of the most famous ancient artefacts to retell the Trojan War: a vase by the master painter Exekias.
The story: the moment where Achilles, greatest warrior of the Greeks, pierces the Amazon Penthesilea with his spear (yes, there’s a double entendre there) and, as their eyes meet, allegedly falls in love with her. (Incidentally, it’s a myth I retell in my third novel, For the Immortal (2018), with the fateful story of the Amazon warrior-queens and their attack on Troy.)
It’s a classic example of Greek vase-painting, and a poignant mythical moment as Greek meets barbarian, man meets woman on the battlefield. But it’s also, itself, a reception of the Trojan War myth: because this vase was produced around 530 BCE, over seven hundred years after the likely fall of the city of Troy, and around two hundred years after the Homeric epics which tell the tales of the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were written down.
So Troy was already a myth in the ancient world. It was already spawning creative responses from artists like Exekias, hundreds of years after the event: responses which invited new ways of looking at ancient stories.
And nothing has changed. Next to the Exekias vase hangs a vibrant gash of a painting: Vengeance of Achilles, a 1962 work of art by Cy Twombly which abstracts the ‘A’ of Achilles’ name into a gigantic spear tipped with blood. To the right, Anthony Caro’s 1993-4 sculptures The Death of Hector, King Priam and The Skaian Gate bring to rough-hewn life the places and people of the Trojan War. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern forecasts the journey which viewers will take on the exhibition: from the ancient Troy to the myths that have influenced thousands of years of art and literature.
From the opening room staging the journey, the exhibit leads straight on to set the context in its first half: ancient Troy, from Homer and early texts of the Iliad and Odyssey to other classical texts retelling the Trojan story, like Vergil’s Aeneid, into vase paintings and sculptures that narrate different stories from the Trojan War cycle.
A mural splashed across the wall sets the scene with geometric-style ships and a city under siege, with arrows projected raining down the wall; while large letters overhead proclaim the theme of each section (‘Discord’, ‘Fall’, ‘Return’), along with an ancient Greek translation.
Above depictions of the Trojan horse (including a wall-painting from Pompeii where the Trojans drag the wooden horse into Troy) hangs a gigantic wooden ribcage, which cleverly invites the viewers into the horse that led to Troy’s fall and makes us all complicit in the Trojan story.
Where the exhibition winds back on itself, we have the discovery of the historical location of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann, presented in a circular structure upheld by wooden struts that reminds of the description of Achilles’ hut in the Iliad. It’s the perfect transition from the staging of the ancient myth to later receptions of Troy, with the momentous discovery in the late 19th century of the physical site of Troy – the spectacular archaeological revelation that there was, indeed, a ‘real’ Troy to go with the myth. It’s a literal turning point in the history of Troy and acts as a springboard into the post-classical reworkings of the Trojan War myth that follows.
As we move from ancient myth to modern receptions, the chronology does start to become a little confusing. This is an inevitable problem when trying to arrange artefacts by theme rather than by timeline, and for what it’s worth the thematic organization – ‘Journeys’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Women’, for example – is still effective; you’ll just have to work a little harder not to get disorientated in seeing an 18th-century Aeneas next to a 1970s Odysseus.
High points, for me, included the video installation of the Queens of Syria, a 2016 version of Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women where Syrian women refugees gave testimony to their shared experiences with the captive women of Troy; an audio-clip response by a modern-day veteran to Henry Fuseli’s 1770 drawing of Achilles’ grief for Patroclus; and the closing section on the women of Troy, which drew together the stories and images of the Trojan women (Briseis, Cassandra, Polyxena, Helen) who we see peppered throughout the exhibition.
From the dark, winding, labyrinthine voyage through Troy’s myth and reception, in and out of the Trojan horse’s ribcage and Achilles’ hut, the journey ends with a surprise: a bright, shining light, hidden around a corner.
It turns out to be a light installation. Titled The Shield of Achilles (Dawn, Troy, 10/27/02), this radiating star-like sculpture of fluorescent lamps by Spencer Finch captures the quality of the light of Troy at dawn – “the only thing unchanged by the passing of time”, the caption reads.
This dazzling star carries a double message. For sure, there are the landscapes that connect past and present, like the plain of Troy – and the stories which are told and retold across generations, and which continue to shed light on the continuing human drama. But it also contains a warning. In the ancient world, to look at a god was to be burnt to a crisp by their blinding light – as Semele, one of Zeus’ many conquests, discovered to her cost when she sneaked a look at her lover and burst into flame.
As we emerge from the darkness of the exhibit into the bright lights of daily life (and the museum shop), Finch’s installation – almost blinding to the eye – seems to remind us that there is always a limit to what we can see and know about the past, and about myth. But there is also always a tantalizing human curiosity, to see, to know, to find out more.
In other words, there is always more to be discovered about Troy – more stories to tell, more voices to uncover, more images to be unearthed. And that, I imagine, is what will always keep us coming back.
Emily Hauser is a lecturer in Classics at the University of Exeter. She is the author of the acclaimed Golden Apple series, three novels retelling the stories of the women of Greek myth: For the Most Beautiful, For the Winner and For the Immortal, which was published in June 2018.
See also author Hilary Green’s feature about the history behind the Ancient Greek stories: The triumph of Greek myths and the destruction of a civilisation.
Achilles killing Penthesilea by Exekias: photo by aaron wolpert via Flickr
The Siren Vase, attrib the Siren Painter: photo by Egisto Sani via Flickr
Photo of the exhibition: author’s own
Photo of The Shield of Achilles (Dawn, Troy, 10/27/02): author’s own