After reading Bettany Hughes’ meandering and detailed book on Helen of Troy, this promised to be a little more direct. Subtitled A New History, my expectations were a book with a strong narrative backed up with more recent archaeological evidence. Unfortunately it didn’t quite gel like that. The narrative portions essentially feel like an inferior re-write of Homer; and the archaeology is patchy. I understand that our evidence can be slight, but Strauss does not do as good a job as Hughes at stretching that out and forming it into a coherent book.
On the plus side, there is good context setting with the portrayal of the war as a sideline to the great civilisations of the Hittites, Assyrians and Egyptians. But this isn’t a book on the Hittites. It doesn’t provide a tight focus on Bronze age warfare. It isn’t quite a book on Greek society. It dabbles in many topics but none of them really satisfy. Strauss touches on a lot, but this lacks the depth and detail of Bettany Hughes’ work.
Subtitled Goddess, Princess, Whore. This book tries to show the different sides of the infamous Greek beauty Helen of Troy – the figure of worship for many Greeks, the (possible) historical person, and the “bad role model” for women in the eyes of so many writers over the years. To be honest I was expecting a little more focus on literature, but the book actually mostly concentrates on archaeological findings both for Helen and the world she would have inhabited. That turns out to be good thing, as these are the best sections of the book.
I really liked Bettany Hughes’ book on Socrates, The Hemlock Cup, but this one (the earlier of the two) didn’t impress me in quite the same way. At times it feels a bit muddled, with occasional travelogue introductions or personal anecdotes that don’t go anywhere or add much to the book. Hughes’ style of many short chapters means that there’s usually a change of approach coming along shortly, but this can be a bit frustrating at points. The narrative gets broken up constantly by digressions and details and ends up feeling a little long-winded.
Nevertheless the book is packed with detail about Mycenaean Greece. About childhood, royal life, palaces, trade, diplomacy, war, religion. It isn’t quite a biography of the woman herself, but it’s the next thing to it. The discussion of symbolism feels like a good introduction – not entirely complete but that would probably require a much longer book. In all, it’s a solid introduction but it could have been better. The book promises a lot, but only delivers in certain areas.