Thursday, March 23, 2006

Remember the Lesson of Troy

Commentary by Martin Kelly
May 21, 2004

The Greeks didn’t win, according to the history written by those who claimed to be descended from the Trojans. The universally bad reviews of Troy have focussed on the liberties that Wolfgang Petersen has taken with the Iliad, but the story does not stop with the fall of Troy into ruins. It’s never stopped.

The conflict had been long and attritional, resulting in huge losses on both sides. Hemmed in on the coast of Turkey, the Trojans felt that, although Paris might have been wrong in wooing Helen away from Menelaus, their honour as Trojans had to be defended when the Greeks, a motley collection of nation states, united in alliance to bring her back. Not all Greeks were in favour of the war – when Agamemnon, brother of Menelaus, called to enlist his support Odysseus feigned madness, trying to plough a field with an ox and an ass. Only when Agamemnon placed his infant son Telemachus in the plough’s path did Odysseus reveal himself to be sane.

The real star of any movie about the Trojan War should, by rights, be Odysseus, the smartest, funniest and most charismatic mortal in mythology. The strategist who dreamt up the Wooden Horse failed, of course, to develop an adequate exit strategy for himself, resulting in a 10-year journey home to Ithaca, a journey of which he was the only survivor.

However, as Troy burned, the Greeks sailed off having crushed their enemies, mission accomplished. No nation building or reconstruction for the Trojans, the outright losers of a war that many on both sides believed to be totally pointless. But as the undisputed Big Dog of Greek politics, Agamemnon felt that his family’s honour had been slighted, a slight that only war could rectify, and the rest of them had better fall in line.

According to legend the Trojan nobleman Aeneas, bearing his father Anchises on his back, fled the burning city with some companions. For 10 years he also sailed the Mediterranean. He encountered Dido, the beautiful Queen of Carthage at its infancy, who loved him so much that, according to Virgil, ‘she fed with the wound with her life blood and was wasted by the fire she kept hidden’. When Aeneas chose his people over her, she swore everlasting enmity between Carthage and his descendants, a legend later used in their own causes by those who claimed to be of his line.

Eventually, Aeneas and his followers settled in a pleasant area of seven hills in central Italy. He passed into myth, until a great city grew up on the spot where he settled. It became known as Rome, and the Romans always invoked their Trojan roots when the occasion arose.

After the great victory of Troy, the Greeks never stopped fighting, either against the Persians, the Macedonians or each other. For them, there was no end to war. Eventually came Alexander the Great, whose dream of Empire from the Danube to the Ganges lasted only a few years after his early death. As time passed, the Romans became stronger, and the descendants of the Trojans returned to Greece as conquerors, where they stayed not for a decade but for centuries.

Beware the fate awaiting those who wage specious wars for family honour.