Schliemann Syndrome

A trireme. A warp-weighted loom. A hike across the mountains of Attica. A peplos. Jumping weights. Hoplite armor.

What do all these items have in common (apart from their connection to ancient Greece)? They are all examples of a phenomenon in classical studies that I have labeled “Schliemann Syndrome.”

Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) is well known as the excavator of ancient Troy and Mycenae. His work, along with that of other pioneering archaeologists like Sir Arthur Evans, pushed back the boundaries of ancient Mediterranean history by thousands of years. But Schliemann was no average dry-as-dust academic.1

Heinrich Schliemann

Most classical scholars of his era believed that the poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were entirely works of the imagination. Nothing like the Trojan War ever occurred, and the Homeric poems were literature and not in any way historical.

Schliemann had a different attitude. He saw Homer as a historian and his account of the Trojan War as a reliable history. Schliemann was not an academic; he was mostly self-taught. But he was fluent in multiple languages, including ancient Greek, and, having made his fortune in business (including in the California Gold Rush!), he had the resources to test his hypothesis.

In 1871, he began his excavation at Hissarlik, a mound on the Aegean coast of what was then the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), one of the possible candidates for the site of ancient Troy. Among the artifacts he found there in 1873 was a cache of golden objects, which he labeled “The Treasure of Priam.”2 Priam was the wealthy and powerful king of Troy during the Trojan War, so clearly, reasoned Schliemann, any treasure found in Troy must be his. Some of the treasure was jewelry, and Schliemann took a photo of his wife Sophia wearing what he called “the jewels of Helen of Troy.” Who wears jewelry? Beautiful women. Who was the most beautiful woman in the world, who, according to Homer, was living in Troy? Helen. Ergo, the jewels were hers.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the “Jewels of Helen of Troy.”

Schliemann believed that having found the remains of a wealthy, hitherto unknown civilization on the site of Troy meant that he had proved his hypothesis, that the Homeric poems were historical. We might see some holes in this argument, but Schliemann didn’t. Instead, having found the home of one side in the Trojan War, he set out in 1876 to explore the home of their opponents. Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek contingent, was called by Homer the King of Mycenae, and so to Mycenae Schliemann went. There, among the artifacts of a pre-classical Greek civilization that would come to be called “Mycenaean,” Schliemann found a hammered-gold death mask. Who would get an elaborate burial with precious grave goods? A king. Who was king of Mycenae? Agamemnon. So Schliemann, naturally, promptly identified it as the “Mask of Agamemnon.”

The Mask of Agamemnon, now in the National Museum of Athens.

Schliemann was an important scholar who made significant discoveries, but as you can see, he was enthusiastic to the point of obsession and tended to over-identify with his subject. For example, he named the two children he had with Sophia “Andromache” (the wife of the Trojan hero Hector) and “Agamemnon.”3 In his honor, I refer to examples of later scholars who behave similarly as exhibiting “Schliemann Syndrome.”

One of the most significant, most studied, and most controversial events in ancient Greek history is the Battle of Marathon. The main source for the battle, Herodotus’ Histories, raises a number of questions. For example, Herodotus states that the Athenian army advanced on the invading Persian force “at a run.” Many classicists have questioned whether it was physically possible for the heavily armed Athenian hoplite phalanx to do this, especially given that the two armies were a mile apart. How to resolve the question? Run an experiment with American college students. In 1973, two professors at Penn State, Walter Donlan and James Thompson, equipped Physical Education majors with 15 lbs. of weight and had them run in formation for 1600 yards; they couldn’t do it. Donlan and Thompson concluded that Herodotus’ account was inaccurate.4

Another Marathonian question arises in the aftermath of the battle, when, Herodotus says, the victorious Athenian army marched back to the city as quickly as possible, hoping to arrive before the (still intact) Persian fleet could round the peninsula of Attica.5 Could they have made it back in the time Herodotus says they did? British scholar N.G.L. Hammond (1907-2001), author of a standard textbook in ancient Greek history,6 writes,

Taking the direct route from Mt Pentelicus, I walked fast from Athens to the mound at Marathon in 6 hours and returned the same day to Athens in 7 hours.7

Based on this experience, Hammond concludes that Herodotus’ account of the timing is plausible.

Perhaps the most dramatic instance of Schliemann Syndrome that I have come across is also connected to the Persian Wars: the reconstructed trireme Olympias. Ancient historians had many questions about the trireme, the three-oared warship that brought the Athenian navy victory in the Battle of Salamis in the 2nd Persian War in 480 and was the foundation of their fifth-century empire. For one, how were the “3 oars” (the literal meaning of “trireme”) arranged? If there were three levels of oars, how was the ship constructed so that they didn’t get tangled up with each other? How easy was the ship to maneuver? How fast could it go?

Another British scholar, John Morrison (1913-2000), hypothesized that the 3 levels of oars were cantilevered out from the hull. He tested his hypothesis by building a full-sized replica of an ancient trireme and then launching it in the Aegean Sea beginning in 1987. I brought Ford Weiskittel, one of the organizers and volunteer rowers involved in this effort, to Mount St Mary’s to speak back in the 1990’s. I took him to dinner before his talk and told him about the concept of Schliemann Syndrome, and then somewhat hesitantly suggested that Olympias was a manifestation of it. He immediately replied, “oh, absolutely.”

The trireme Olympias.

Not all instances of Schliemann Syndrome are military. While preparing a class on ancient Greek athletics, I learned about the practice of using halteres, or “jumping weights,” in the long jump event. Curious about how these worked, I discovered a study undertaken at Texas Tech University in which scholars constructed some weights, gave them to student athletes, and measured their efforts.

The history of textiles is another area that lends itself to Schliemann Syndrome. Looking for images of Minoan artifacts, I came across not only the so-called Snake Goddess figurines uncovered in Crete but also modern re-creations of the costume.

The Penelope Project, named for the wife of Odysseus in the Odyssey who tricks her suitors by unraveling by night the shroud she weaves by day, explores the technology of ancient weaving. I’ve also found patterns and videos for making a peplos, the dress worn by ancient Greek women.

I wanted to show a clearer representation of the peplos to my students, so I made Peplos Barbie.8 Uh-oh—I think I’ve caught the Syndrome.

Getting Medieval: An Intellectual Journey

In memoriam Brian Tierney, part 1

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t yet done any posts on a medieval topic, my actual scholarly specialty (or, you could say, the one thing I’m not a dilettante in). My dissertation director (or Doktorvater, as they say in German), died recently, so now seemed like a good time to remedy this situation. These entries will serve as my memorial to Brian Tierney, medieval history professor emeritus at Cornell University, who died on December 1, 2019, at the age of 97.

Back in 1990 I gave a paper at a medieval studies conference in New Hampshire. One night there was a dinner for the participants, most of whom didn’t know each other. Someone at my table decided to do an icebreaker and asked everyone to say what had inspired them to go into medieval studies. People gave only two answers: everyone either said it was reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or having an inspiring teacher. At that point I had not yet read Ivanhoe; my answer was “inspiring teachers,” namely, Thomas Turley, the medieval history professor at my undergraduate institution, Santa Clara University, and Brian Tierney.

Me and my undergraduate advisor, along with some other Tierney students from his generation, at the American Historical Assocation convention in San Francisco in 1983.

I didn’t start college with the intent of becoming a medieval historian, or indeed any kind of historian, or even any kind of academic. After taking a school trip in ninth grade to Washington, D.C. and visiting the Smithsonian, I’d dreamed of becoming a museum curator, and I entered Santa Clara University planning to do an interdisciplinary self-designed major that would prepare me for that. In the meantime, I got myself a job as a student worker at our university museum, the De Saisset.

You couldn’t propose the self-designed major until sophomore year, so at the beginning of that year I was still undeclared. I signed up for a course in Ancient and Medieval History, taught by Tom Turley, to fulfill a requirement for the University Honors Program; I also registered for the first course in the Philosophy sequence (also required for the Honors Program) and the first course in the Art History sequence (which I figured would be useful for a future museum curator).1 In other words, I was studying ancient Greek history, philosophy, and art all at the same time, and similarly throughout the rest of the term. Many years later, when I began teaching at Mount St Mary’s, we would call such paired courses (we only did two at a time) a “cluster”—we clustered history courses with either art or literature. Back in 1977, I didn’t have a name for what I was doing, but I knew I loved it.

When we got to the medieval part of the history course, Turley assigned us the book Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, written by his own Doktorvater, Brian Tierney. Crisis is an anthology of primary sources on the medieval conflicts between empire and papacy, introduced by Tierney’s own historical commentary. I was hooked. I had known nothing about this topic; I probably just assumed that back then the pope ran everything. I had never heard of events like the Investiture Contest. I found it all fascinating, and loved reading both the primary documents and Tierney’s clear and insightful analysis of them. I thought to myself, “I wish I could do something like that.” This was the beginning of my conversion to the academic life.

The edition of Crisis of Church and State that we used back in 1977. It has since been reprinted in the series “Medieval Academy Reprints for Teaching.”

By the end of that year, I’d ditched the idea of an interdisciplinary major and declared a history major (I’d decided that even to prepare for a museum job I could benefit from the rigor of disciplinary study). The next year I signed up for Turley’s medieval history course and wrote my first history research paper on the eleventh-century pope Gregory VII, whom I’d first encountered in Crisis of Church and State. That summer, at Turley’s suggestion, I expanded my Gregory VII paper from 10 to 25 pages. We didn’t have a required senior project in either the history major or the Honors Program; I didn’t do the expanded version to fulfill any requirement or even for course credit. I did it because I thought it was worth doing.2 By this point I found myself thinking how much more I enjoyed research and writing than I enjoyed working in the museum, and eventually I decided to pursue an academic calling. When it was time to apply to graduate school, I figured I’d probably end up at UC Berkeley, just 50 miles up the road, but just for fun I also applied to Cornell University, where Brian Tierney taught (I liked the idea of studying with my teacher’s teacher). Much to my surprise, Cornell not only accepted me but also made me a better financial offer than Berkeley. So off to Ithaca I went.

That was one of the best decisions I ever made. I loved living in Ithaca. I even loved the winters and took up ice skating to take advantage of them. I loved my courses. I didn’t end up writing my dissertation about Gregory VII; I chose a new topic after hearing about it in a course on medieval and Renaissance Florence taught by another inspiring teacher, John Najemy. I loved my topic—the political thought of the Florentine Dominican Remigio dei Girolami—and I loved working with both Tierney and Najemy on it. And, of course, I also found love—I met my husband in a Cornell dining hall.

NEXT: What I learned about the Middle Ages from Brian Tierney.

Asking Historical Questions: Wait, that’s Redundant

One of the history courses I took as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University was History of California with the late Father Jerry McKevitt, S.J.1 The class was very interesting, and I enjoyed doing my research paper on Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th-century reformer whose novel Ramona became known as the “Indian Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”2 I didn’t go on to study California history in graduate school or to teach it in any of my classes. I do, however, frequently make use of something I learned in the class. One day Father McKevitt was returning graded papers to us, and they must have been pretty bad, because I remember him saying, “Listen, people. History answers two questions: ‘What happened?’ and ‘So what?’” (I assume that this particular set of papers had not done a good job of answering one or both of these questions.) I remember thinking to myself, “Whoa. That’s so true.” In just about every one of my history courses, at some time or other I quote Father McKevitt to the students.

Father Gerald McKevitt, S.J.

Approaching the study of our discipline by means of asking questions is particularly appropriate for historians. Of course, practitioners of any scholarly discipline might say that they begin by asking questions. But for us historians, it’s right in our name. The first writer to use the word “history” in the context of the study of the past was the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, known as the “Father of History.” The English title of his work is Histories, a translation of the original ancient Greek Historie, meaning “inquiries” (from the verb historien, “to inquire”). This is his opening sentence:

“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.” 3

Because what Herodotus inquired about was the events of the past (“the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians”), and because he presented the answers to his inquiries in book form (“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus”), the word historie came to mean not just the act of inquiry but also the subject of the inquiry (the history of the Persian Wars) and the result of the inquiry (A History of the Persian Wars). But students of history should always keep in mind that doing history begins with asking questions. And make sure that your historical writing clearly and completely answers both the “what happened?” and the “so what?” Father McKevitt said so!