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.