In 1870, Heinrich Schliemann went to the Troad, the northwest corner of Asia Minor­, and made up his mind, against all current scholarly opinion, that Priam’s Troy lay buried under the hill called Hissarlik…

In the year 1822, a lad was born in Germany who was to turn the spade­ work of archeology into one of the romances of the century. His father had a passion for ancient history, and brought him up on Homer’s stories of the siege of Troy and Odysseus’ wanderings…. “With great grief I heard from him that Troy had been so completely destroyed that it had disap­peared without leaving any trace of its existence.”‘ At the age of eight, having given the matter mature consideration, Heinrich Schliemann an­nounced his intention to devote his life to the rediscovery of the lost city. At the age of ten, he presented to his father a Latin essay on the Trojan War. In 1836, he left school with an education too advanced for his means and became a grocer’s apprentice. In 1841, he shipped from Hamburg as a cabin boy on a steamer bound for South America. Twelve days out the vessel foundered; the crew was tossed about in a small boat for nine hours, and was thrown by the tide upon the shores of Holland. Heinrich became a clerk, and earned a hundred and fifty dollars a year; he spent half of this on books, and lived on the other half and his dreams. His intelligence and application had their natural results; at twenty-five, he was an independent merchant with interests on three continents; at thirty-six, he felt that he had enough money, retired from commerce, and gave all his time to archeology. “In the midst of the bustle of business I had never forgotten Troy, or the agreement I had made with my father to excavate it.”‘

In his travels as a merchant, he had made it a practice to learn the language of each country he traded with, and to write in that language the current pages of his diary. By this method, he learned English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Swedish, Polish, and Arabic. Now he went to Greece, studied the language as a living speech, and was soon able to read both ancient and modern Greek as fluently as German.[1] Henceforth, he declared, “I should find it impossible to live anywhere but on classical soil.'” Since his Russian wife refused to leave Russia, he adver­tised for a Greek wife, laid down precise specifications for the position, and at the age of forty-seven chose a bride of nineteen from among the photo­graphs he received. He married her almost at sight, and unwittingly in the ancient style of purchase; her parents charged him for her a price com­mensurate with their conception of his fortune. When his new wife bore him children, he reluctantly consented to baptize them, but solemnized the ceremony by laying a copy of the Iliad upon their heads and reading a hundred hexameters aloud. He named them Andromache and Agamemnon, called his servants Telamon and Pelops, and christened his Athenian home Bellerophon. He was an old man mad about Homer.

In 1870, he went to the Troad, the northwest corner of Asia Minor­, and made up his mind, against all current scholarly opinion, that Priam’s Troy lay buried under the hill called Hissarlik. After a year of negotiations, he secured permission from the Turkish Government to explore the site; he engaged eighty laborers, and they set to work. His wife, who loved him for his eccentricities, shared his toil in the earth from sunrise to sunset. All winter long an icy gale from the north drove a blinding dust into their eyes and swept with such violence through the cracks of their frail cottage that no lamp could be kept lit in the evening. Despite the fire in the hearth, the water froze nearly every night. “We had nothing to keep us warm except our enthusiasm for the great work of discovering Troy.'”

A year passed before they were rewarded. Then, blow by blow, a workman’s pick exposed a large copper vessel, and this, opened, revealed an astonishing treasure of some nine thousand objects in silver and gold. The canny Schliemann hid the find in his wife’s shawl, dismissed his workmen to an unexpected siesta, hurried to his hut, locked the door, spread out the precious things on the table, linked each one fondly with some passage in Homer, adorned his wife with an ancient diadem, and sent messages to his friends in Europe that he had unearthed “the Treasury of Priam.'” No one would believe him; some critics charged him with having placed the objects where he found them; and, at the same time, the Sublime Porte sued him for taking gold from Turkish soil. But scholars like Virchow, Diirpfeld, and Burnouf came to the site, verified Schliemann’s reports, and carried on the work with him until one buried Troy after another was uncovered, and the problem was no longer whether Troy had existed, but which of the nine Troys exhumed had been the Ilios of the Iliad.

In 1876, Schliemann resolved to confirm the epic from another direction­ to show that Agamemnon too was real. Guided by Pausanias’ classic de­scription of Greece,[2] he sank thirty-four shafts at Mycenae in the eastern Peloponnesus. Turkish officials interrupted the work by claiming half of the material that he had found at Troy. Unwilling to let the precious “Treasury of Priam” lie unseen in Turkey, Schliemann clandestinely dis­patched the objects to the State Museum at Berlin, paid the Porte five times more damages than were required of him, and resumed his digging at Mycenae. Again, he was rewarded; and when he saw his workers carrying up to him skeletons, pottery, jewelry, and golden masks, he telegraphed joyfully to the King of Greece that he had discovered the tombs of Atreus and Agamemnon.[1] In 1884, he moved on to Tiryns and, guided again by Pausanias, unearthed the great palace and cyclopean walls that Homer had described.

Seldom had any man done so much for archeology. He had the faults of his virtues, for his enthusiasm drove him into a reckless haste that de­stroyed or confused many exhumed objects in order to reach at once the goal that he sought; and the epics that had inspired his labors misled him into thinking that he had discovered Priam’s hoard at Troy and the tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae. The world of scholarship doubted his reports, and the museums of England, Russia, and France long refused to accept as genuine the relics that he had found. He consoled himself with vigorous self-appreciation and went on digging courageously until disease struck him down. In his last days, he hesitated whether to pray to the God of Christianity or to the Zeus of classic Greece. “To Agamemnon Schliemann, best beloved of sons, greeting!” he writes. “I am very glad that you are going to study Plutarch, and have finished Xenophon…. I pray Zeus the Father and Pallas Athene that they will grant you a hundred returns of the day in health and happiness.”[2] He died in 1890, worn out by climatic hardships, scholastic hostility, and the incessant fever of his dream.

Like Columbus, he had discovered a world stranger than the one he sought. These jewels were older by many centuries than Priam and Hecuba; these graves were not the tombs of the Atridae, but the ruins of an Aegean civilization, on the Greek mainland, as ancient as the Minoan Age in Crete. Unknowingly, Schliemann had proved Horace’s famous line­ vixerunt fortes trnte Agamemnona—“there lived many brave men before Agamemnon.”[3] Year by year, as Dörpfeld and Muller, Tsountas and Stamatakis, Waldstein and Wace dug more widely into the Peloponnesus—and still others explored Attica and the islands, Euboea and Boeotia, Phocis and Thessaly—the soil of Greece gave up the ghostly relics of a culture before history. Here too men had been lifted from barbarism to civilization by the passage from nomadic hunting to settled agriculture, by the replace­ment of stone tools with copper and bronze, by the conveniences of writ­ing and the stimulus of trade: Civilization is always older than we think; and under whatever sod we tread are the bones of men and women who also worked and loved, wrote songs and made beautiful things, but whose names and very being have been lost in the careless flow of time.

This excerpt originally appeared in The Life of Greece: The Story of Civilization, Volume II, by Will Durant.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] “In order to acquire quickly the Greek vocabulary,” Schliemann writes, “I procured a modern Greek translation of Paul et Virginie, and read it through, comparing every word with its equivalent in the French original. When I had finished this task I knew at least one half the Greek words the book contained; and after repeating the operation I knew them all, or nearly so, without having lost a single minute by being obliged to use a dictionary….Of the Greek grammar I learned only the declensions and the verbs, and never lost my precious time in studying its rules; for as I saw that boys, after being troubled and tormented for eight years and more in school with the tedious rules of grammar, can nevertheless none of them write a letter in ancient Greek without making hundreds of atrocious blunders, I thought the method pursued by the schoolmasters must be altogether wrong…. I learned ancient Greek as I would have learned a living language.”

[2] Pausanias traveled through Greece about A.D. 160, and described it in his Periegesis, or Tour.

[3] Towards the end of his life, Dörpfeld and Virchow almost convinced him that he had found the remains not of Agamemnon but of a far earlier generation. After many heartaches, Schliemann took the matter good-naturedly. “What?” he exclaimed, “so this is not Agamem­non’s body, these are not his ornaments? All right, let’s call him Schulze”; and thereafter they always spoke of “Schulze.”

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email