Book Review: “Helen of Troy” by Bettany Hughes

Have you ever experienced cognitive dissonance reading a book? Where you recognize the parts but not the whole the authors shapes them into?

This was my experience reading Bettany Hughe’s Helen of Troy. It felt like watching toddlers play with a rubix’s cube. They seem to be making all the right moves, but it’s effectively a pointless exercise beyond personal gratification.

The book claims to be a “lively search for the real Helen of Troy.” In hindsight, both the title (Helen of where?) and the blurb expose the book’s foundational problem: Its launching point is a manipulated fantasy that a “real” Helen, if she ever existed, is recoverable to us. If the myths derive from a seed of truth, that seed bloomed into a wild garden of infinite variations over the centuries when they were passed down orally. The written versions that have come down to us represent a fraction of what existed and cannot be taken as representative. Further, the Bronze Age historical period may be the period during which the myths began to take shape, but it is not to be confused with the Age of Heroes in which the myths are set.

Hughes makes none of these fine distinctions. Her project is another Arthur Evans creating the palace of his imagination at Knossos. I would not like the tone of this book any more as a novel, but at least labeling it as fiction would be intellectually honest.

Ideally, popular historians function as mediators between scholars and the interested lay public, synthesizing the intricate, esoteric work of scholarship and crafting from this compelling insights into human nature and experience. We shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of this work, or its import.

What’s lacking in Helen of Troy is the curiosity that animates scholarship. To be sure, Hughes presents facts for miles; it’s harder to get a grip on what her purpose is, what genuine question drives her. It feels, from early on, that she is not launching from a sincere desire to learn or understand but marshaling evidence to prove a foregone conclusion. One does not feel, reading her book, the thrilling sense of discovery that great scholarship conveys in spirit.

Hughes gluts you with facts upon facts upon facts, and just as you think she must have rung the well of history dry, she unloads a fresh round. She lurches back and forth through various historical periods and across geographic areas—the Bronze Age Mediterranean, the Renaissance, classical Athens, etc, etc. It hardly seems possible that someone with such a vast army of historical factoids, as Hughes repeatedly reminds us that she has, can be so utterly devoid of insight into ancient Greek history and culture. But it makes a kind of sense since Hughes seems incapable of grasping paradox and duality, two characteristic features of ancient Greek identity, thought, and culture. In brief, to be Greek means to participate in the cultures (plural) of Greek speakers; thus to be Greek means something both broad and highly specific.

Overall, the book is a chaotic, tedious mess devoid of empathy and humility—a historian’s most valuable tools—and thus of insight and wisdom.

A few things I found especially egregious:

She talks about Helen and other figures from myth as if they were real people, inserting them into Bronze Age and classical Athenian history, projecting thoughts and intentions onto them, and judging them. I hope that I don’t need to explain how manipulative and fundamentally disingenuous an exercise this is for a work that calls itself a history.

She claims ancient Greece as the “blueprint” for “western society.” This is like Heinrich Schliemann saying he found Helen’s jewel’s at Hisarlick. To be fair, Hughes is not unique in making this claim, and ironically, it has been invoked by opposing ideological camps. In any case, I find it romantic (not in a good way) and revisionist. Knowledge of ancient Greek died away in the west after the collapse of the western Roman Empire and did not return until scholars fleeing the collapse of the eastern Roman Empire brought it back in the late Middle Ages. We can argue about it, but the idea that there is a direct line from ancient Athens to the development of western Europe is dodgy.

From claiming ancient Greece as the root of the west, Hughes then cleverly authorizes herself essentially to lay the blame for modern social problems at the feet of ancient Greece. For example, she repeats the frequent accusation that classical Athens “invented” (her word) “xenophobic proto-nationalism.” First, the idea that ancient Athens can be compared to a modern nation is highly questionable. As for xenophobia, I don’t even know what this means. If you were in a constant state of violent conflict with your neighbors, who appealed to and received help from powerful neighboring empires with designs on your space, you too might be selective about who you trusted and who you permitted to participate in community life. Who can say for certain until they have lived it?

Further, if Hughes had any ability to analyze human history honestly, not just spout factoids, she’d recognize that social problems in any age are rooted in the same human weaknesses, fears, and flaws. It’s called human nature, and it’s why we can recognize similar problems in the ancient world that we still suffer from today. It’s also why the same beliefs and practices can arise spontaneously around the world. The “homecoming husband,” for example, can be found across cultures not through transmission but because the circumstance of a husband leaving home to work or fight in a war recurs.

And finally, a cherry for our sundae: she refers to the Middle Ages as the “the medieval Dark Ages.” That’s just rude.

Ancient people did not exist to provide us with scapegoats for our problems. They wrestled with their own challenges and concerns that they handled sometimes well and sometimes badly, much like ourselves today. The work of history is the study of dynamics at play in good and bad decisions and outcomes, not moral grandstanding. This book manipulates history then deploys that manipulation to nurture modern grievances, rather than using the complex and contradictory evidence that comes down to us from the ancient world to make us more nuanced, compassionate readers of both the past and our own time.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: “Helen of Troy” by Bettany Hughes

  1. Wow, a scathing review (though I know it could be worse) :-). I haven’t read the book and don’t have enough knowledge of the topic to say much about it, but I am with you on the “Dark Ages” thing – and also the xenophobia accusation – like, unfortunately, isn’t fear or mistrust of the “other” a part of human nature, too? Alas.

    Also, thank you for the prhase “a chaotic, tedious mess”. That is exactly what I am this morning. At least your review gave me something to think about and a way to escape from the challenges of real life.

    1. Thank you, Alysa! And I hadn’t actually thought of it that way, but I think you are right that, tragically, fear/mistrust of the other is part of human nature, and circumstances can either amplify or extinguish it. Thank you for giving me something to think about, as always, amidst everything. I am sending you lots of strength and positive energy 🧡

  2. Really appreciate your thoughts on this one, and it really makes me interested in a book that would take such a nuanced view of history! Your review has made me much more interested in learning about this history, even though this book was a miss.

    1. Thank you, Sam! This is just about the best thing I can hear 🙂 I’m trying to think of a history text that I can recommend to you. If you’re interested to learn more about Homer and the epics, one that is on Scribd in audio and ebook is Homer: A Very Short Introduction by Barbara Graziosi. Another more general history is Introducing the Ancient Greeks by Edith Hall. Both are short and accessible. I haven’t yet found any books specifically about Helen, but if/when I do, I will definitely let you know!

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