Giant horses on wheels – a Review of The Trojan War by Barry Strauss

Everyone’s heard the legend of the war of Troy, the adulterous love of Helen and Paris, and the eventual destruction of the great city. Something people don’t always consider is that the epic events written about by Homer may actually have taken place. How exciting is that?

Troy as a city certainly existed, with substantial ruins on the coast of what is now Turkey, and in approximately 1200 BC was invaded…quite possibly by Greeks.

In this, ‘A New History’, Barry Strauss uses archaeological evidence to reconstruct a narrative of the infamous siege. But, as he points out, there never actually would have been a siege – the Greeks lacked the superiority in numbers. Many of their men at any one point would have been off raiding for food, or on farming expeditions, which gave the Trojans a definite advantage.

Would the cause of the war really have been the disappearance of Helen? Well, that might have been the trigger, but greed as an overall cause is far more plausible. I mean, Troy was a big, loaded city, just sitting there on the coast line, practically begging to be ransacked by pirates. And if there’s one thing the Bronze Age Greeks were good at… it was pirating.

A coalition between several city states would have been no mean feat but the prize would have been more than worth it in the form of riches galore. Helen may well have carted off lots of Menelaus’ gold as well, and since he was only King of Sparta by marriage to her, his legitimacy and his finances would have been on the line.

Furthermore, in ancient politics, if Menelaus’ wife had legged it off, he would have been bound by duty to trash her adulterer’s city and bring her back – or risk looking like a massive fool and becoming an easy target for anyone else considering taking him down a peg. So while the propoganda reason for the war was ‘Bring me back my wife!’ the Greeks were actually all thinking ‘Let’s get rich quick,’ while Menelaus secretly worried ‘Help! I’ve been emasculated!’

It’s possible that characters such as Achilles and Hector did exist… just without the superpowers and godly influences, of course. And though Achilles almost certainly bore no resemblence to his movie self whatsoever and would have sported an unattractive beard, it’s way more fun to imagine him as Brad Pitt.

About the heel: that detail was never actually mentioned by Homer, and was added by later poets, even though it’s become such a famous part of the mythos of this legendary character.

What character, you ask? Oh, what a shame you’ve forgotten – I’ll have to remind you with more pictures.

Moving swiftly on…

The ‘ten year’ war would only have lasted for about three to four years. A decade long campaign would have been totally inconceivable as even after a couple of years the Greeks would have been getting angry and desperate; unable to muster the numbers to press their advantage against the fighters of a city who could hide back inside their walls whenever they got bored, they would have been longing to go home.

So how did the Greeks finally get through the walls? A ‘Trojan horse’ might have truly been the answer.

Okay, so maybe it wouldn’t have looked like this:

But the fact of the matter stands that to a bunch of tired, starving Greeks, Troy would have been pretty impregnable… unless they could trick their way in. Maybe there was a traitor on the inside, maybe there was a breach in the walls. Maybe ‘horse’ refers to the symbol of Poseidon and is a metaphor for a new Greek fleet. Maybe the ‘horse’ was actually a siege engine (I like that idea).

Or maybe, just maybe… it actually was a horse.

Almost certainly it would not have contained Greek soldiers, but would have been used as a decoy. The Greek fleet would have up sail-ed and ‘parked’ round the back of a nearby island, conning the Trojans into thinking they’d gone. Once everyone in the city was drunkenly celebrating their apparent reprieve, it would have been easy for the Greeks to take advantage. Ah, poetic irony.

Maybe Barry Strauss’ ideas are closer to the real answers than people have previously dared to think. But even if they aren’t, they sure make a fascinating story. 🙂

Clocks can be cool, too – a Review of Longitude by Dava Sobel

Many, many years ago (the early 1700s to be exact) the countries of Europe were in crisis. There was no way for sailors at sea to calculate longitude. (You see, back then, they didn’t have GPS.)

But why did this matter?

Without longitude, every one who got on a boat to sail anywhere at all had no way of locating themselves once they were on the open ocean. This meant that thousands of pounds, not to mention thousands of lives, were being lost on a regular basis as ships got lost, sank on reefs, or ended up grounding hundreds of miles from where they were trying to go. That’s not even counting the ones that were eaten by sea monsters or sucked into giant whirlpools.

This problem got so huge that the English parliament at the time offered, in todays money, a $12 MILLION reward to anyone who could solve it!

Fortunately, a bloke named John Harrison turned up to save the day.

Harrison devoted his life to solving the problem, eventually beating the odds to come up with a viable solution. His work had some stiff competition in the form of star charts (for which the first astronomer royal was commisioned) … and some less stiff competition in the form of ‘Powder of Sympathy’. A wounded dog would be put aboard ship, and the dog’s bandage left ashore where every noon it would be dipped into the powder, causing the dog, wherever it may be on distant tides, to yelp in pain.

Make sense to you? No, me neither. It gives a good impression of quite how desperate the situation was, however. Eventually Harrison came up with the solution – accurate clocks without pendulums, which do not change their speed even in changing temperature.

They’re quite pretty clocks in all fairness. They’re on display at the Royal Observatory outside London, and they’re worth the visit so that you can say you’ve stood at 0 degrees longitude, if not because you’re a clock geek.

Version one, which was fairly dodgy (apart from the fact that it was an incredible invention and nothing like it had been seen before).

And here, version four, the finished marine chronometer.

The tragedy is that the sneaky board of sneaks who were giving out prize money continually wrangled the rules so that poor old John, who basically saved the lives of countless seafarers of the future, never actually got more than about half the cash. Boo!

Not going to lie, before I’d heard of this book, I’d had no idea how much of an issue longitude actually was. It seems silly to us nowadays, we take knowing our location for granted, but imagine getting on a boat and having to put all your faith tof getting home safely in, well, nothing. It’s like going into a bus depot with a blindfold and getting on the first one that swings by – you have no idea where you’ll end up.

I was all in all surprised by how fascinating this little tale turned out to be, despite the fact that it is essentially about a load of old clocks. Yes, so I know that these clocks are vitally important, and changed the face of seafaring (not to mention the invention of Greenwich mean time!) but they are still just… clocks.

But just think, if only Odysseus had had one of those clocks, he’d have been home to Ithica in no time! Columbus might actually have landed on the right country! Captain Nemo might not have got the Nautilus sucked into that giant whirlpool!

See what I mean? I rather think three cheers to Mr. Harrison are in order from all of us. 🙂

Big Nose and Shorty – a Review of Napoleon & Wellington: Clash of Arms by Robin Neillands

I have this fascination with the Napoleonic wars which I think, stems from my immature childhood imaginings…

Redcoated Georgian soldiers in funny hats exploding the French in glorious battle, while the officers canter around brandishing swords and yelling ‘At ’em, men! We’ll give those blasted Froggies what for, eh!’ Meanwhile, Sir Arthur Wellesley stands on a hill and surveys all with a spy glass, occasionally pausing to make a witty remark about how short Napoleon is.

I decided I’d better find out the actual facts, and read this military history of the Peninsular War, and Napoleon’s 100 Day bid for freedom/world conquest.

It was pretty stodgily written, which made it drag a little by the fiftieth battle, but I still enjoyed all the nitty gritty details of French formations what, how many of the cavalry died in so-and-so attack, and, most importantly… what the 95th Rifles were doing.

Evidently, they were lounging around and looking badass.

In fact I had way too much fun imagining guerillas taking potshots at Napoleon’s marshals, and the army being persecuted through Spain by mardy Sean Bean and his bunch of sharpshooters.

Ah, Sharpe, how I love you and your hilariously awful temper, even though you don’t actually exist. I know you weren’t actually at the battle of Talvera. I do, honestly. Stop looking at me like that. I’m a serious historian now!

Quick, a fangirl! Somebody shoot it!

So, the inevitable question – who was the better general, Napoleon or Wellington?

One conclusion I drew was that Napoleon was a really, really bad planner. Reading about the disasterous retreat from Moscow was so tragic that it actually brought tears to my eyes. As well as the almost 500,000 troops who freezed to death many thousands of camp followers including women and children were stranded to the midwinter and the cossacks after the crossing of the Berezina. Many of the men were walking bare foot through snow in sub zero temperatures and tried to survive by drinking the blood of the dying horses. So, now we know what a dumb idea it is to start a two front war and invade Russia in the winter, we use history to learn from our mistakes and never do it again.

Isn’t that right, Adolf?

Tactically, Wellington was pretty smart with getting the lie of the land incorporated into his battles, using ridges to shelter his men behind so they didn’t get slaughtered by artillery. Napoleon liked to boast that he never used the same tactics, but there are a few elements which did crop up reasonably often – one being the infamous infantary column. This would march slowly towards the enemy banging drums, yelling ‘Long live Boney’ (or words to that effect) with the intention of scaring the English away. The problem is it didn’t actually work… hence the success of several of Wellington’s battles against French marshals.

I’m not going to go down the wild and woolly route of trying to analyse these two men strategies, but I think it’s probably fair to say that since Wellington did, when it came down to battle, beat Napoleon, you’ve got a pretty fair argument there for saying that he was the boss.

What I don’t understand is why marshal Ney is something of a hero, the ‘bravest of the brave’, when to me he seems to have been a bit of an idiot – for one thing purposefully ignoring his master’s explicit orders on several occasions when he really ought to have done as he’d been told. Also he changed sides twice, which really has never inspired any confidence in me that he is deserving of his reputation. Personally these marshals seem a bit dodgy to me, they spent most of their careers losing battles for Napoleon. No wonder he wanted to do all the work himself.

Could Napoleon have won Waterloo? Almost definitely. Basically, the fate of Europe was down to a doddery old German bloke who’d been sat on the previous day by his charger. Three cheers for Blucher!

If the Prussians hadn’t turned up, Napoleon would have broken Wellington’s line. If it hadn’t rained and the ground in the morning had been dry enough for artillery then the battle would have been over before the Prussians arrived. If Napoleon hadn’t been feeling ill and had actually left his tent to direct the battle straight away then he probably would have sorted out the mess his marshals were creating before the Prussians arrived. If he hadn’t (in a moment of utter dimness) sent marshal Grouchy (who’s name I am utterly incapable of getting over) off into the forest to chase the Prussians then he would have broken Wellington’s line before … you guessed it… the Prussians arrived. If said Grouchy had actually chased the Prussians and stopped them from fighting at Waterloo, then … the Prussians wouldn’t have had arrived, and Napoleon would have won! You know why Grouchy didn’t?

Because he was grouchy! Wahey!

So was the allied victory down entirely to DESTINY? Nah, it was down to Napoleon being a midget. (That joke was in poor taste. I’ll shut up now.)

You’ve got to give it to the man though, I mean, he conquered vast swathes (oh I like that phrase, let’s say it again, VAST SWATHES!) of Europe not to mention dabbling in Egypt and the like. Most impressively in my opinion, after he’d already been officially removed from power and put in exile, he casually left the island with a couple of hundred men, and took back France simply by landing on the shore and being so awesome that all the royalists came flocking to his cause. The newly reinstated (and very podgy) King nearly weed himself with fear and took off in a carriage before anyone had even asked him to. Wasn’t that kind of him?

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Napoleon, a product of the revolution who believed in the power of the people, liberty, equality, fraternity and so forth, actually ended up just as much of a power crazed dictator as any of the regimes he fought against. Well, I guess that’s the way of the world: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely – the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Eh, Adolf?

Sorry, Adolf. Didn’t mean to offend you by suggesting you bore similarities to a man who didn’t stoop to mass genocide. (Just to make it clear, I’m not comparing the two – I just thought that cat looked funny…)

Until next time! 🙂