The glory that was Greece
For me one of the stand-out exhibitions of last year was Troy: Myth and Reality, which I saw at the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. There are some stunning objects – the vases in particular – and it was wonderful to revisit the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I had a grammar school education which meant doing five years of Latin, but looking back I feel it would have been more useful and interesting to have studied Classics more broadly and to have read texts in translation. Through my degree in English Literature and History of Art I did become familiar with the Greek myths and legends, but it wasn’t many years later on holiday in Greece that I decided to read the Iliad from beginning to end and just experience it as the fantastic story that it is. A couple of years later on holiday in Crete I did the same thing with the Odyssey.
There is something very special about reading a story in the place where it originated. In my journal I transcribed this passage from the Odyssey: ‘Alcinous ordered Helias and Laodomas to dance by themselves since no one could compete with them. Polybus, a skilled craftsman, had made them a beautiful purple ball, which they took in their hands, and one of them, bending right back, would throw it towards the shadowy clouds, and the other, leaping up from the ground, would catch it skilfully, before his feet touched earth again.’ I noted that the next day on the beach I saw two bronzed young men in tiny swimming trunks doing the exact same thing as Homer had described it somewhere around three thousands years ago. My copy of the Penguin Classics edition with its creased spine and water-stained pages is a momento of a great holiday.
The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 8 March. It retells the stories through objects and paintings, examines the historical basis for the existence of Troy, and draws parallels with the present day realities of brutal warfare and its victims. I thought it was wonderful.