Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Guest Post: The Fall of Troy (by Peter Ackroyd)

Today's post is a guest post by Emma Wohlfart, an independent ancient historian with a degree in Classical Archaeology and a background working in Heritage Education. She currently runs her own freelance writing business. Her areas of special interest include ancient magic, warfare and Hellenistic dynasties. She also has a terrible obsession with cultures that are spelled with a hyphen.

The history of Classics, the science itself, has some larger than life characters. Of those none is larger than Heinrich Schliemann, so it’s not surprising to find that there is actually a novel based on his life.

Nowhere on the jacket of Peter Ackroyd’s The Fall of Troy does it actually say that this is a novel about Heinrich Schliemann, but it is hardly a well-kept secret that Ackroyd’s Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Obermann is based on the real life Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Schliemann.

For those who are unfamiliar with Schliemann, which might be just about anyone who is not a Classicist these days, he is famous for excavating Troy, Mycenae (home of Agamemnon) and Ithaca (home of Odysseus). He gave us the treasure of king Priam, the jewels of Helen, and the death mask of Agamemnon.

None of these amazing treasures had ever belonged to the people they were named after, of course, but it captured the imagination of the entire western world and helped launch the science of Classical Archaeology. It was an amazing legend that went largely unquestioned for a century: a young German boy hears Homer recited in Greek and swears to find Troy, and so he does and much more.

Now that we have considered why anyone would consider writing a book based on Schliemann in the first place, let us consider the premise of Ackroyd’s book:

It is the late 1800’s and Heinrich Obermann is an older German gentleman with a Russian business background and a passion for ancient Greek archaeology. Obermann wants nothing more than to excavate Troy and to be accompanied by a lovely and loyal Greek wife who reads Homer.

When the novel starts, he is just about to meet and marry Sophia Chrysanthis. She fits the bill and even if she happens to be in her late twenties, and is thus something of an old maid, that is all right because Obermann, of course, is a much older bachelor.

They barely have time to be married before they set off for the Dardanelles where Obermann is currently excavating Troy with a team of peculiar characters, including a blind Classics professor and a mysterious Russian with the nickname Telemachus.

As the novel progresses, Sophia learns more about her husband and what is means to be Frau Obermann. He is an archaeologist, but one that considers it an art and as such he is little interested in the science of it.

The scholarly community is sceptical, the Ottoman officials are distrusting, and Sophia is concerned about her husband’s health, his swinging moods, and the way little lies keep coming undone. And then little unfortunate accidents start to happen.

Heinrich Obermann is nothing short of a megalomaniac, bordering on psychopath.

The real-life Heinrich Schliemann has in recent years been accused of much the same. Without giving away too many important plot points, let’s compare Heinrich Obermann with Heinrich Schliemann:

Obermann and Schliemann were both born in Germany, where they had a not very privileged upbringing, and went on to make a fortune in tsarist Russia.

They both married a Russian woman, and they both married a Greek Sophia with a solid knowledge of Homer for whom they had great archaeological ambition.

Both men were seemingly compulsive liars, if not archaeologically then at least in their private accounts. Their claims were consistently refuted by contemporary scholars, and both hid important finds from the authorities.

Both men also held the Iliad to a religious standard and performed religious rituals reciting the ancient hexameter in the original Greek.

There are also some ways in which the stories of Obermann and Schliemann differ only slightly:

For example, Sophia was not an old maid when Schliemann married her. In fact, it was scandalous for completely different reasons: she was only 16 when he asked her father for her hand.

Ackroyd’s Obermann was already an established archaeologist at the beginning of the book and had excavated at the Ithaca of Odysseus, whereas Schliemann married his Sophia while not yet an archaeologist and only excavated at Ithaca after he had been banned from Troy for smuggling antiquities.

The real Schliemann eventually became less obsessed with the “truth” of Homer, and he presumably did not challenge his wife’s suitors to run around Troy in a quest to mimic the Iliad. He did, however, spend some time running around hills on the Trojan plain, like Achilles in the Iliad, and figured out which hill was, in fact, Troy all by himself.

And while Obermann also calls only those closest to him by mythical Greek names, Schliemann made his servants respond to Greek names.

All this said, The Fall of Troy is clearly a fictional account of what could have happened. Please don’t come away from Ackroyd’s novel thinking Heinrich Schliemann might have tried to murder anyone. It is a fantastical portrait, but one that I find surprisingly resonant. Ackroyd has captured Schliemann’s character, even if Obermann does things we can only hope Schliemann never did.

Thanks to Emma! More Harry Potter to follow later this week.


  1. Great write-up Emma! I find Schliemann an interesting fellow, there is something very Barnum & Bailey about him :)

    Do you have your own site as well?

    Kind Regards

  2. Hi H,

    Thank you for the kind comments! He really was a peculiar character. One Schliemann essay I have read even argued that he might have been a clinical psychopath, by comparing the definitions of a diagnosis with events in Schliemann's life. But, who hasn't done something that in 100-150 years might look callous or unmotivated?

    Alas, I no longer have a blog of my own but I have an occasionally updated web-presence at http://epwohlfart.com and an all too often updated one on Facebook and Twitter.

    All the best,


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