Troy: Myth and Reality at the British Museum

Jim Crawley visits an often superb, well-staged and ambitious show, which uses ancient and modern art to explore the enduring power of myth

We’ve pretty well forgotten about Troy these days. We might remember the Trojan Horse and perhaps Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships. But despite the extraordinary, perhaps unique, significance of the story of the Trojan War in popular culture over the last 3000 years, my guess is that most of us would struggle to remember much more than this. And it’s this deficit that the BP Exhibition Troy: myth and reality now on at the British Museum corrects in thrilling fashion.

The ‘and’ in the title is important because the show argues that Troy and the story of its wars is both myth and reality. The city of Troy probably existed but its 10-year war probably didn’t and neither did the wooden horse, at least as Homer described them. And in any case, Homer probably didn’t exist either. He might have been a she or a succession of storytellers who retold the epic over the centuries. But none of this complex reality can detract from the power of the narrative that surrounds the Trojan War.

Bust of Homer Roman copy (2nd century AD) of Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

To cover both myth and reality, the show is divided into three. In the first part of the show, art and artefacts from Classical times tell the story. The Trojan prince Paris abducts Helen, the wife of Menelaus King of Sparta, and hauls her back to Troy. The Greeks hotfoot it after them and besiege the city in revenge. For ten years, the siege is unsuccessful until Odysseus dreams up the ruse of leaving a gigantic wooden horse filled with soldiers outside the gates of Troy. Foolishly, the Trojans drag the horse inside, only for the Greek soldiers to emerge at night and butcher the hapless Trojans. Odysseus and the victorious Greeks then start the long journey back to Sparta but are so beset with perils that only Odysseus survives to make it home. There are no winners in this war.

But these few words to summarise the story don’t do justice to the multitude of ways in which the characters have been portrayed or to the truly breathtaking art they inspired. Take the Greek hero, Achilles, the bravest warrior of them all. We first see him at the start of the show on an Attic jar from 530BC. Dressed in glinting black armour, he is dispatching Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons, with a spear through her neck only to fall in love with her at the moment of her death. Later there’s tender Achilles mourning the death of Patroclus, his closest companion and possible lover, on the side of a sarcophagus from 250-60AD lent by Woburn Abbey. Then psychotic Achilles appears on a storage jar from 520-500BC to avenge Patroclus’s death by killing Hector his murderer and dragging the corpse behind his chariot until Hector’s body turns to pulp.    

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora, c.530BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Or take Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world if we are to believe the myth. On a water jar from 380-70BC, she is admiring her pert breasts and snub nose in a mirror. On a funeral urn from 125-100BC, she is indistinguishable from the crowd and is being pushed aboard a Greek ship, just like any other prisoner of war. Then on an Etruscan wall painting from 560-50BC, she sports a vast nose and chin, has hair to her knees and looks distinctly displeased.

Was Achilles a brave and chivalrous warrior, a tender gay lover, or a psychopathic killer? And was Helen abducted or did she go willing? Was she a beautiful gift from the gods or just another casualty of war? In truth, they and all the characters – Priam, Aeneas, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Penelope, names that echo down the centuries – are these things and much else besides. This part of the show is not about historical accuracy but about demonstrating the hold that the story of the Trojan war exercised in Homeric times.

Detail from a Roman sarcophagus lid depicting Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot c. AD175-200; Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The section at the pivot of the show is devoted to Troy as a real place. The city’s location, even its existence, had been disputed for centuries, but in 1822, Scotsman Charles Maclaren proposed Hisarlik on the west coast of modern Turkey as the most likely location. Englishman Frank Calvert who part owned the site excavated there in 1863, but it was German Heinrich Schliemann who took the plaudits. More showman than archaeologist, he had money, resources and zeal, and struck lucky, discovering a treasure trove to confirm the city’s existence. In his rush though, he dug indiscriminately and it was only realised later that much of what he found pre-dated Homeric Troy by a thousand years. Careful analysis though has determined the chronology of the finds and these are wonderfully displayed in semi-darkness layer upon layer as they were when the archaeologists first found them.  

And for those of us wanting to believe the myth is based on reality, these finds provide tantalising evidence. Arrowheads and traces of burning were found at the seventh level of the city dating from around 1180BC. This matches the estimated date of the mythical Trojan War and seems evidence of a war. But whether this is proof for the Trojan War, who knows!        

Installation view: The British Museum room displaying the discoveries made by Heinrich Schliemann; Photo Guy Bell, Rex Shutterstock

Heading into the third section, the show reminds us of the enduring power of the myth and the inspiration it has provided to artists since the Renaissance. To be honest though, this section is a mixed bag with only a few stand-out pieces.  There’s the fabulously homoerotic statue of The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini, where the hero lies on his shield, fatally wounded by an arrow to his heel. His face is a mixture of shock and agony (and ecstasy?). There’s The Judgement of Paris (1530-35) by Lucas Cranach the Elder with the most quizzical horse in art history peering over the fence. The section notes again of the power of the Trojan story as narrative with William Caxton’s The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy (1473). The first book ever printed in English, it highlights how the Troy myth was co-opted into the creation of British nationhood. And finally dominating this section is the sensationally fierce portrait of Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, by John Collier (1882). Clutching a bloody axe in her hand, she wears the golden diadem once owned by Helen herself if we are to believe Schliemann.

Filippo Albacini (1777-1858), The Wounded Achilles (1825) Chatsworth House; photo © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth; reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

This is a wonderfully well-staged and lit show, with scholarship aplenty if you wish to delve deeper. There’s the odd misstep mainly at the ends of the show. I didn’t much care for the Antony Caro installation or the Cy Twombly painting at the start. Neither had sufficient impact to pull you into the show. And the last couple of exhibits seemed downbeat and unimpressive, when there should have been a final epic flourish. But much else in between is superb.     

So this is a big show that needs big words to describe it – sweeping, ambitious, thrilling. It doesn’t glorify war. Instead the show encourages us to examine how emotions like love, duty, desire, and revenge, can bring out the best in us and the worst, and it uses the most beautiful objects of the ancient and modern worlds to do so. We might have forgotten much of the myth nowadays but the story of Troy is a reminder of our capacity for good and evil. And for this warning, we should be grateful.         

The BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality is at the British Museum until 8 March 2020. For more information, visit the exhibition website here.    

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