My Scholarly Interests

Diane Thompson

My primary interest as a scholar is in the past 3,000 years of stories about the Trojan War. Why the Trojan War? Because, aside from the Bible, there is no other set of written stories that have been retold for such a long period of time. Not only are there many great stories about this ancient war (such as Homer's Iliad, Euripides' Iphigenia, Virgil's Aeneid, and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde), but strangely enough, stories of that war continue to be retold, right up to the edge of the 21st. century. The Trojan War came at the end of the long, wealthy, stable Mediterranean Bronze Age. Troy, and the other great cities of that time were destroyed by war and many were never rebuilt. The time was an end of civilization; everyone lost: the winners as well as the losers.

My interest in Troy began in graduate school and I wrote my dissertation on Troy stories from Homer to Shakespeare. My question at that time was whether any of the great writers who had told stories about the Fall of Troy had any useful answers about why and how great civilizations can destroy themselves and who was responsible. I really found no answers, except the sad acknowledgement that Troy fell because rulers and their advisors made rather small mistakes that grew into major disasters. It took me years to realize that I was asking the wrong question, one to which there will never be any good answers.

I no longer look for truth in Troy, but for a record of how many different writers, over a very long period of time, have used the event to tell their own stories of love and war, loss and death. It's a fascinating story and the continuity of the Troy traditions helps readers to see what has remained the same and what has changed. For example, Virgil used the destruction of Troy to represent a kind of "fortunate fall." The small band of Trojan survivors, led by Aeneas, struggled from Troy to Italy, where they became the founders of the Roman people. A very different use of Trojan material is Goethe's idealistic use of the story of Iphigenia. Goethe transforms the daughter of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek armies against Troy, into a perfect being who can lead less perfect human beings into enlightenment, peace and freedom.

I have written a book, The Trojan War: Literature and Legends from the Bronze Age to the Present McFarland, 2004; second edition 2013). The book starts with the archaeological "reality" of the Mediterranean Bronze Age and the actual (or probable) Trojan War, and follows the path of stories about Troy from Homer through the Greek tragedies, Virgil, the Middle Ages, into Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe and to America in the twentieth century. The final chapter looks at uses of Trojan legends in current popular culture. The book is aimed at general readers, not specialized scholars. I hope to communicate my interest and pleasure in these stories to people who will enjoy the history of 3,000 years retold through great stories.

I have developed a course about these stories, HUM241, "Stories of the Trojan War," which I first taught at the Woodbridge Campus in the spring of 1997. The students enjoyed the reading material and found it surprisingly relevant to their own experiences and concerns. I now offer this as a WWW course through the Extended Learning Institute of NVCC.

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© Diane Thompson; updated 05/26/2014