by Roderick Conway Morris

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Epics that have shaped our world


By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 3 January 2020
National Archeological Museum, Naples
Helen leaving Sparta for Troy in wall
painting from Pompeii, 45-79 AD
 

 

 

The importance of Homer's 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' to ancient Greek culture and sense of identity could scarcely be overestimated - nor the enduring potency of these epics nearly 3,000 years after the two poems, almost certainly originally orally transmitted, were first written down.

Indeed, it seems likely that the Greeks adopted and modified Phoenician script, till then used for commerce, above all in order to preserve the works of Homer for future generations.

What Homer meant to the Greeks and what these multifaceted stories of love and war, divine intervention and human intrigue, heroism and atrocity, victory and defeat, have meant to western cultures over the centuries, is the ambitious subject of 'Troy: Myth and Reality', told through art and artefacts spanning over three millennia.

Two of the most telling objects in the first section of the show, devoted to ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, friezes, frescoes, painted vases and decorative arts, are two of the humblest. The first is a simple 8th-century BC clay drinking cup found at an ancient Greek colony on Ischia with an inscription reading: 'I am Nestor's cup, good to drink from; whoever drinks from this cup, immediately desire of fair-garlanded Aphrodite will strike him.' But this geometric-patterned cup is extraordinarily precious, given it is one of the first known examples of Greek writing and bears an obvious reference to Homer. It is also a waggish joke, as Nestor's gold cup is described in the 'Iliad' as so heavy that none but its owner could lift it. This putatively aphrodisiac bowl originated in Asia Minor, a supposed birthplace of the poet - so could have been a souvenir brought back to the Bay of Naples by some intrepid antique tourist or mariner.

The second object is a schoolchild's wooden writing board from 5th-century AD Hellenistic Egypt, on which a pupil has inscribed several lines from the 'Iliad', a palpable testimony of how absolutely central the study of Homer, whom Aristotle described as 'god-like', was to Greek and, later, Roman education.

Feasting and singing are the themes of these lines and many of the beautiful examples on display here of bowls and vases with exquisitely painted Homeric scenes would have been used as serving vessels, decorative objects and conversation pieces at convivial gatherings and banquets at which the Iliad and Odyssey would often have been recited and discussed.

Even for the Greeks the events of Homer's epics had taken place in a dim, distant Heroic Age, and even they debated their historical veracity. After being inhabited for thousands of years, what remained of Troy was abandoned after 600 AD and the site absorbed back into the landscape. By the 19th century historians were consigning the Trojan War entirely to the realms of myth.

Ironically, this coincided with the rise of more systematic archeological excavation - the subject of the second section of the exhibition. The wealthy German businessman Heinrich Schliemann managed to claim most of the fame for the rediscovery of the city during the late 19th century but, as we learn here, a number of others deserve to share the credit, several of them British. The upshot of these investigations, which continue to this day, is that few now doubt that Troy did exist and could well have been besieged and destroyed between around 1400 and 1200 BC, the period within which the 5th-century BC ancient historian Herodotus calculated that the Trojan War had occurred.

Knowledge of Homer more or less disappeared in Western Europe during the Dark Ages, but enjoyed a revival in the Middle Ages, thanks to the recovery, from the 14th century onwards, of the skills to read Greek - the profound effects of which are explored in the last section of the show.

It was literature that was initially most influenced by the rediscovery of these masterpieces, giving rise to Romance versions, such as 'Le Roman de Troie' and John Lydgate's 'Troy Book', represented here by gorgeously illuminated manuscript versions, and Christine de Pizan doughtily came to the defence of the female protagonists of Homer's epics in her 'City of Women', of 1405. The first printed volume in English, of around 1474, was William Caxton's 'Recuyell of the historyes of Troye'.

The Renaissance saw a rapid rise in imagery inspired by these Homeric tales, illustrated here by works including some lovely panels from 15th-century Italian wedding chests, depicting the Death of Hector, the Wooden Horse and Odysseus and Penelope; and a Lucas Cranach the Elder's unashamedly titillating 'Judgement of Paris'. The multiple manifestations of the story of the Trojan War in the visual arts since the Renaissance could on their own constitute the subject of an exhibition and are more fully covered in the catalogue than in the show itself.

But there are some engaging pieces here bearing witness to Homer's continuing fascination for modern artists. 'The Siren Song' is one of a series of captivating collages by the African-American artist and blues composer Romare Bearden (1911-1988), which relocates the drama to a lush tropical setting, reworking the narrative as a Black African Odyssey. And for sheer wackiness, it would be hard to beat American feminist artist Eleanor Antin's photographic tableau vivant of the 'Judgement of Paris' (after Rubens), in which Pallas Athene appears as an assault-rifle totting guerrilla fighter, Aphrodite as an evening-gowned vamp and Hera as a pinnied housewife with vacuum cleaner.

Troy: Myth and Reality; British Museum; London; 21 September 2021 - 14 August 2022


First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022