Ancient History & Civilisation


Now comes a fairy tale, the story of the poor boy who at the age of seven dreamed of finding a city, and who thirty-nine years later went forth, sought, and found not only the city but also treasure such as the world had not seen since the loot of the conquistadors.

This fairy tale is the life of Heinrich Schliemann, one of the most astounding personalities not only among archæologists but among all men to whom any science has ever been indebted.

It began this way: A little boy stood at a grave in the cemetery of the little village where he was born, far up in the North German state of Mecklenburg. The grave was that of the monster Hennig. He was said to have roasted a shepherd alive, then to have kicked the victim for good measure after having broiled him. For this misdeed, it was said, each year Hennig’s left foot, covered with a silk stocking, grew out of the grave like some strange plant.

The boy waited by the grave, but nothing happened. He went home and begged his father to dig up the grave and find out where the foot was that year.

The father, a poor clergyman, told the boy fables, fairy tales, and legends about, among other things, the battles fought by Homer’s heroes, about Paris and Helen, Achilles and Hector, about mighty Troy, which was burned and leveled. For Christmas 1829 he gave his son Jerrer’s Illustrated History of the World, which contained a picture showing Æneas holding his son by the hand and carrying his old father on his back as he fled the burning citadel of Troy. The boy looked at the massive walls and the great Scæan Gate. “Is that how Troy looked?” he asked. The father nodded. “And it is all gone, and nobody knows where it stood?” “That is true,” the father replied.

“But I don’t believe that,” said the boy, Heinrich Schliemann. “When I am big, I shall go myself and find Troy and the King’s treasure.”

The father laughed.

The prophecy of a seven-year-old became a reality. And at the age of sixty-one, by which time he had become a world-famous archæologist, he was still an enthusiast. During a chance visit to his native village he actually considered digging into the grave of the wicked Hennig. And in the preface to his book Ithaca he wrote:

“When my father gave me a book on the main events of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus and Agamemnon—it was my Christmas present for the year 1832—little did I think that thirty-six years later I would offer the public a book on the same subject. And do this, moreover, after actually seeing with my own eyes the scene of the war and the fatherland of the heroes immortalized by Homer.”

A child’s first impressions stick with him throughout his life, but in Schliemann these impressions soon passed beyond those left by parental recitals of classic deeds. His schooling was finished at the age of fourteen, whereupon he was signed on as apprentice in a grocery business in the little city of Fürstenberg. For five and a half years he retailed herring, brandy, milk, and salt. He ground up potatoes for distillation, and swept up the shop at night. His work lasted from five in the morning until night.

He all but forgot his father’s stories. Then one day a drunken miller’s helper came into the store, hung about the counter, and in a resounding voice declaimed verses filled with the scornful pathos that the once-educated are wont to show toward intellectual inferiors. Schliemann was enchanted, though not a word did he understand. When he found out that the man was reciting from Homer’s Iliad, he scraped a few pfennigs together and bought the drunkard a schnapps to get him to say the verses all over again.

Schliemann’s youth was filled with adventure. In 1841 he went to Hamburg and was signed as cabin boy on a vessel bound for Venezuela. After fourteen days at sea the ship ran into a wild storm and foundered off the Dutch island of Texel in the North Sea. He made shore, but landed in a hospital, exhausted and in rags. A recommendation from a family friend enabled him to get employment as an office boy in Amsterdam.

In a miserable, unheated garret room he began his study of languages. Within two years, by an unusual method of self-teaching, he had mastered English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. “These exacting and strenuous studies,” he says, “within a year had so strengthened my memory that the effort of learning Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese seemed very easy. Six weeks spent on any one of these languages, and I could speak and write it fluently.”

After being promoted to correspondent and bookkeeper with another Amsterdam firm doing business with Russia, in 1844, when only twenty-two years old, Schliemann began to learn Russian. But no one in the city, he found, could speak this most difficult of European languages. The only teaching aids he could pick up were an old grammar, a dictionary, and a poor translation of Telemachus.

He carried on imaginary conversations so loudly that he disturbed his neighbors. The walls shook when he declaimed pieces he had learned by heart from Telemachus. Other tenants complained, and twice he was forced to seek new lodgings. Finally he hit on the idea of providing himself with a critical audience and for this purpose hired a poor man, whom he paid four francs a week. This unfortunate fellow was required to sit on a chair and hear out long passages from Telemachus, not a word of which he understood. After six hectic weeks Schliemann was conversing fluently with Russian merchants come to Amsterdam to attend the indigo auction.

He was as successful in business as in his language studies, though here luck undoubtedly played a part. Yet in fairness to Schliemann it must be said that he belonged to the few who know how to hold fast to the luck that comes everyone’s way sooner or later. The indigent minister’s son, the apprentice, the shipwrecked cabin boy, the office worker—and master of eight languages—became first a small wholesaler, then, with dizzying speed, a royal merchant. Invariably he picked the shortest road to commercial success. When only twenty-four years old he went to St. Petersburg as agent for his firm. This was in 1846. A year later he founded his own export-import business, all of which took time and a great deal of hard work.

“It was not until 1854 that I was able to learn Swedish and Polish,” he writes. He made extensive trips, one to North America in 1850. During that year, while he was there, the admission of California into the United States automatically gave him American citizenship. Like so many others, he was carried away by the gold-rush fever. He set up a bank for dealing in gold. Already he was a man of sufficient status to be received by the President of the United States. “About seven o’clock I was driven to visit the President of the U.S.A. I told him how my desire to see this splendid country and to make the acquaintance of its great leader had led me to travel here all the way from Russia. My first and most important duty was to pay my respects to him, I said. He received me warmly, introduced me to his wife and daughter and father, and I talked with him for an hour and a half.”

But soon thereafter Schliemann came down with a fever. In the end, uneasiness over the weird, lawless customers he had to deal with drove him back to St. Petersburg. In those years he was indeed a gold seeker, just as one of his biographers, Emil Ludwig, described him.

Yet his letters of that period and his two autobiographies reveal him always and everywhere in the relentless grip of that childhood dream to find and explore the distant scenes where Homer’s heroes had performed their great deeds. This obsession even gave him, probably the most gifted student of languages in his century, a peculiar inhibition regarding the study of Greek. Fearing that he might fall under its spell and abandon his business before he had created a sound foundation for the free pursuit of his quest, he did not begin his study of modern Greek until 1856. He achieved it within his usual six weeks; in another three months, he had mastered the intricacies of Homeric hexameters. How did he do it? “I have thrown myself so wholly into the study of Plato that, if he were to receive a letter from me six weeks hence, he would be bound to understand it.”

Twice in the following years he was on the verge of actually treading on earth hallowed by Homeric song. On a trip to the second cataract of the Nile, by way of Palestine, Syria, and Greece, only a sudden illness prevented him from visiting the island of Ithaca. On this journey he learned Latin and Arabic. His diaries are written in the language of the country where he chanced to be. In 1864 he was again on the point of paying a visit to Trojan lands, but instead decided on a two-year trip around the world, the fruit of which was his first book, written in French.

By this time he was financially independent. The pastor’s son from Mecklenburg had developed an uncanny busines sense. “My enterprises had been wonderfully blessed by Heaven,” he says with unconcealed pride, “to such a degree that by the end of the year 1863 I was already in possession of means far beyond my most ambitious expectations.” And to this he added, in a casual tone that would sound overweening in anyone but Heinrich Schliemann: “I [now] retired from business so that I could devote myself entirely to the studies that so completely fascinated me.”

In 1868 he went to Ithaca, through the Peloponnesus and the Troad. The introduction to his Ithaca is dated December 31, 1868. The subtitle reads: Archæological Investigations of Heinrich Schliemann.

A photograph of Schliemann taken during his St. Petersburg days shows him as a prosperous gentleman wearing a heavy fur cloak. On the back of this picture, which he sent to a forester’s wife whom he had known when she was a little girl, is an inscription that reads: “Photograph of Henry [sic] Schliemann, formerly apprentice with Herr Hückstaedt in Fürstenberg; now wholesale merchant in the Imperial Guild of St. Petersburg, hereditary honorary freeman, Judge of the St. Petersburg Commercial Court, and director of the Imperial State Bank of St. Petersburg.”

Is it not a fairy tale? That a highly successful businessman should burn all his bridges behind him in order to make a youthful dream come true? That, armed with little but his knowledge of Homer, he should dare challenge the science of his day? That he should pit his beliefs against the doubters and the philologists, preferring pick and shovel to the bookish approach?

In Schliemann’s day, Homer was thought of as the legendary bard of a prehistoric age. Scholars took no more stock in his facts than they did in his very existence. Until that much later time when someone boldly called Homer the first war correspondent, his reporting of the struggle for Priam’s citadel was rated, for historical accuracy, about on a par with the ancient sagas, if not relegated to the shadow realm of myth.

For does not the Iliad begin with the story of “far-darting Apollo,” who set a deadly sickness into the Achæan ranks? And did not Zeus himself intervene in the Trojan War, and likewise “lily-armed Hera”? And did not gods turn into mortals, susceptible to fleshly injury? Even Aphrodite was not immune from the cut of a bronze spearpoint. Myth, saga, legend—illuminated by the divine spark of one of the world’s greatest poets!

In the Iliad Greece is portrayed as a highly cultured land. Yet when the Greeks appeared in recorded history they were a simple and numerically small people. Their kings were not powerful, they did not have great fleets of vessels. And so in Schliemann’s day it was much easier to believe that Homeric Greece was a poetic myth than to give credence to the idea that a Homeric epoch of high culture had preceded the youthful barbarism out of which, by historical record, the noble Hellenic culture unfolded.

Such considerations failed to shake Schliemann’s belief, dreamer as he was in Homeric mists. He read Homeric poetry as bare reality. He believed implicitly. This was as true when he was forty-six as it had been when, as a boy, he had been fascinated by the picture of the fleeing Æneas.

When Schliemann read Homer’s description of the Gorgon shield of Agamemnon and was told that the buckler strap had been decorated with a figure of a three-headed snake, he accepted all this as gospel truth. The chariots, weapons, and household articles portrayed in detail by Homer were for him part and parcel of ancient Greece. Were all these heroes—Achilles and Patroclus, Hector and Æneas—and this pageant of friendship, hate, love, and high adventure, nothing but mere invention? Schliemann did not think so; to his mind such people and such scenes had actually existed. He was conscious that all Greek antiquity, including the great historians Herodotus and Thucydides, had accepted the Trojan War as an actual event, and its famous names as historical personages.

Carrying his belief in Homer before him like a banner, in his forty-sixth year the millionaire Heinrich Schliemann set forth directly for the kingdom of the Achæans, not even bothering, en route, to explore modern Greece. It is of symbolic interest that almost the first native Greek he got to know was an Ithacan blacksmith whose wife was introduced to him as Penelope, his sons as Odysseus and Telemachus. We can only imagine how he must have been fired by this auspicious omen.

Incredible as it may seem, this actually happened: the rich and eccentric foreigner one evening sat in the village square and read the Twenty-third Book of the Odyssey to the descendants of those who had been dead for three thousand years. Overcome by emotion, he wept, and the villagers wept with him.

The majority of contemporary scholars believed that the site of ancient Troy—if Troy had existed at all—was near a little village called Bunarbashi. This remote hamlet was distinguished, as it still is today, by the odd fact that each house had as many as twelve stork nests on its roof. At Bunarbashi were two springs, on which account some more daring archæologists were inclined to give credence to the idea that eventually ancient Troy might possibly be located thereabouts. For it is written in Homer, in the twenty-second song of the Iliad (verses 147–52):

“… And [they] came to the two fair-flowing springs, where two fountains rise that feed deep-eddying Skamandros. The one floweth with warm water, and smoke goeth up there from around us as it were from a blazing fire, while the other even in summer floweth forth like cold hail or snow or ice that water formeth.”

For a fee of forty-five piasters Schliemann hired a local guide and rode out bareback to have his first look at the land of his boyhood dreams. “I admit,” he says, “that I could scarcely control my emotion when I saw the tremendous plain of Troy spread out before me, a scene that had haunted my earliest childhood dreams.”

But this first impression was enough to convince him, believing literally in Homer as he did, that Bunarbashi was not the site of ancient Troy. For the locality was fully three hours away from the coast, and Homer describes his heroes as able to travel back and forth several times daily between their moored ships and the beleaguered city. Nor did it seem likely to Schliemann that a great palace of sixty-two rooms would ever have been built on such a small knoll. The setting was not right for cyclopean walls, breached by a massive gate through which the crafty Greeks entered in a wooden horse.

Schliemann examined the springs of Bunarbashi, and was surprised to find that in a space of 1,650 feet he could count not merely two—the number mentioned by Homer—but thirty-four of them. Even so, his guide assured him that he had miscounted. Actually there were forty. For that very reason, the guide pointed out, the region was called “Kirk Giös”—that is, “Forty Eyes.”

Schliemann made a careful survey of the countryside in his Iliad and reread the verses telling how Achilles, the “brave runner,” chased Hector three times around the fortress of Priam, “with all the gods looking on.” Following Homeric directions as best he could, Schliemann traced out a likely course about the hill. At one point, however, he encountered a drop so steep that he had to crawl down it backwards on all fours. Since, in Schliemann’s view, Homer’s description of the landscape was as exact as a military map, surely the poet would have mentioned the incline had his heroes scrambled down it three times “in hasty flight.”

With watch in one hand and Homer in the other, he paced out the road between what were purported to be the two hills securing Troy, this road winding through the foothills to the shore off which the Achæan ships were supposed to have been anchored. He also re-enacted the movements of the first day of battle in the Trojan War, as portrayed in the second to the seventh songs of the Iliad. He found that if Troy had been located at Bunarbashi, the Achæans would have had to cover at least fifty-two miles during the first nine hours of battle.

The complete absence of ruins clinched his doubts about the site. He could not even turn up any potsherds. Elsewhere, in Ithaca, potsherds had been found in such quantity that someone had remarked: “Judging by the archæologists’ findings in graves, the ancients must have spent most of their time patching up broken vases. Low creatures that they were, before going out of existence they smashed everything to smithereens, to be sure to leave their finest pieces behind in the form of jigsaw puzzles.”

“Mycenæ and Tiryns,” Schliemann wrote in 1868, “were destroyed 2,335 years ago, but their ruins are of such solid construction that they can last another 10,000 years.” And Troy was destroyed only 722 years earlier. It seemed highly unlikely that the cyclopean walls described by Homer would have disappeared without a trace. Yet in the environs of Bunarbashi there was not a sign of ancient masonry.

Ruins there were aplenty, however, in other not too distant places. Even the untrained eye could not miss them at New Ilium, now called Hissarlik—which means “Palace”—a town some two and a half hours northward from Bunarbashi and only one hour from the coast. Twice Schliemann examined the flat top of the mound at Hissarlik, a rectangular plateau about 769 feet long on each side. This preliminary survey pretty well satisfied his mind that he had located ancient Troy.

He began to cast about for proof and discovered that others shared his opinion, among which minority was Frank Calvert, American vice-consul, but English by birth. Calvert owned a part of the mound of Hissarlik and had a villa there. Having excavated on his own account, he was inclined to agree with Schliemann, but had never given much thought to the consequences of the idea. The Scottish scholar C. MacLaren, and Eckenbrecher, a German, were other voices that had called out unheard in the wilderness.

And how about the wells mentioned in Homer, which were the main prop of the Bunarbashi theory? For a short while Schliemann wavered when he found no springs at all at Hissarlik, in striking contrast to his discovery of thirty-four at Bunarbashi. It was Calvert who helped him over this difficulty. Calvert pointed out that in this volcanic region he had heard of several hot springs suddenly drying up, only to reappear after a short period. And so Schliemann casually cast aside everything that hitherto had seemed so important to the scholars. Moreover, the running fight between Hector and Achilles was plausible enough in the Hissarlik setting, where the hill sloped gently. To circle the city three times at Hissarlik they would have had to run nine miles. This feat, Schliemann thought, was not beyond the powers of warriors caught up in the heat of a grudge fight.

Again Schliemann was more influenced in his thinking by the judgment of the ancients than by the scholarship of his day. He recalled how Herodotus had reported that Xerxes once visited New Ilium to look at the remains of “Priam’s Pergamos,” and there to sacrifice a thousand cattle to the Ilian Minerva. According to Xenophon, Mindares, the Lacedæmonian general, had done the same. Arrian had written that Alexander the Great, after making an offering at New Ilium, took weapons away with him and ordered his bodyguard to carry them in battle for luck. Beyond this, Cæsar had done much for New Ilium, partly because he admired Alexander, partly because he believed himself to be a descendant of the Ilians.

Had they all been misled by a dream? By the bad reporting of their day?

At the end of a chapter in which he has piled up evidence in support of his views, Schliemann abruptly abandons his scholarly argument to gaze, enchanted, at the ancient landscape. He writes, as he might have cried out when a boy: “… and this I should like to add, that no sooner has one set foot on Trojan soil than one is astonished to see that this noble mound of Hissarlik seems to have been intended by Nature herself to be the site of a great citadel. If well fortified, the location would command the whole plain of Troy.In the whole region there is no point comparable with this one.

“Looking out from Hissarlik, one can see Ida, from whose summit Jupiter looked down on the city of Troy.”

And now a man possessed went to work. All the energy that had made him a millionaire, Schliemann concentrated on realizing his dream. Ruthlessly he squandered his material means and strength.

In 1869 he had married a Greek girl named Sophia Engastromenos, who was as beautiful as his image of Helen. Soon Sophia, too, was absorbed in the great task and was sharing his fatigues, hardships, and worries. He began to dig at Hissarlik in April 1870. In 1871 he dug for two months, and another four and a half months in the two succeeding years. He had a hundred workers at his disposal. All this time he was restlessly active. Nothing could hold him down, neither deadly mosquito-borne fevers and bad water nor the recalcitrance of the laborers. He prodded dilatory authorities, he ignored the incomprehension of narrow-minded experts who mocked him as a fool, and worse.

The Temple of Athena had stood on the highest ground in the city, and Poseidon and Apollo had built the walls of Pergamos—so it was recorded in Homer. Therefore the temple should be located in the middle of the mound, Schliemann reasoned, and somewhere round about, on the original level ground, would be the walls constructed by the gods. He struck into the mound, boldly ripping down walls that to him seemed unimportant. He found weapons and household furnishings, ornaments and vases, overwhelming evidence that a rich city had once occupied the spot. And he found something else as well, something that for the first time caused Heinrich Schliemann’s name to speed around the world. Under the ruins of New Ilium he disclosed other ruins, under these still others. The hill was like a tremendous onion, which he proceeded to dismember layer by layer. Each layer seemed to have been inhabited at a different period. Populations had lived and died, cities had been built up only to fall into decay. Sword and fire had raged, one civilization cutting off another, and again and again a city of the living had been raised on a city of the dead.

Each day brought a new surprise. Schliemann had gone forth to find Homeric Troy, but as time went on he and his workers discovered no less than seven buried cities, then two more; nine glimpses, all told, of primitive ages that previously had not been known to exist.

The question now arose which of these nine cities was the Troy of Homer, of the heroes and the epic war. It was clear that the bottommost level had been a prehistoric city, much the oldest in the series, so old that the inhabitants had not known the use of metals. And the uppermost level had to be the most recent, and no doubt consisted of the remains of the New Ilium where Xerxes and Alexander had made sacrifice.

Schliemann dug and searched. In the second and third levels from the bottom he found traces of fire, the remains of massive walls, and the ruins of a gigantic gate. He was sure that these walls had once enclosed the palace of Priam, and that he had found the famous Scæan Gate.

He unearthed things that were treasures from the scientific point of view. Part of this material he shipped home, part he gave over to experts for examination, material that yielded a detailed picture of the Trojan epoch, the portrait of a people.

It was Heinrich Schliemann’s triumph, and the triumph, too, of Homer. He had succeeded, the enthusiastic amateur, in demonstrating the actual existence of what had always counted as mere saga and myth, a figment of the poetic fancy.

A wave of excitement coursed through the intellectual world. Schliemann, whose workers had moved more than 325,000 cubic yards of earth, had earned a breathing spell. Presently, his interests meanwhile having turned to other projects, he set June 15, 1873 asthe date for the termination of the diggings. On the day before the last shovelful of earth was to be turned, he found a treasure that crowned his labors with a golden splendor, to the delight of the watching world.

It happened dramatically. Even today, reading about this amazing discovery takes one’s breath away. The discovery was made during the early hours of a hot morning. Schliemann, accompanied by his wife, was supervising the excavation. Though no longer seriously expectant of finding anything, nevertheless out of habit he was still keeping close watch on the workmen’s every move. They were down twenty-eight feet, at the lower level of the masonry that Schliemann identified with Priam’s palace. Suddenly his gaze was held spellbound. He began to act as if under compulsion. No one can say what the thievish workers would have done if they had seen what met Schliemann’s astonished eyes. He seized his wife by the arm. “Gold!” he whispered. She looked at him in amazement. “Quick,” he said. “Send the men home at once.” The lovely Greek stammered a protest. “No buts,” he told her. “Tell them anything you want. Tell them today is my birthday, that I’ve just remembered, and that they can all have the rest of the day off. Hurry up, now, hurry!”

The workers left. “Get your red shawl!” Schliemann said to his wife as he jumped down into the hole. He went to work with his knife like a demon. Massive blocks of stone, the debris of millennia, hung perilously over his head, but he paid no attention to the danger. “With all possible speed I cut out the treasure with a large knife,” he writes. “I did this by dint of strenuous effort, and in the most frightful danger of losing my life; for the heavy citadel wall, which I had to dig under, might have crashed down on me at any moment. But the sight of so many immeasurably priceless objects made me foolhardy and I did not think of the hazards.”

There was the soft sheen of ivory, the jingle of gold. Schliemann’s wife held open the shawl to be filled with Priam’s treasure. It was the golden treasure of one of the mightiest kings of prehistory, gathered together in blood and tears, the ornaments of a godlike people, buried for three thousand years until dug from under the ruined walls of seven vanished kingdoms. Not for one moment did Schliemann doubt that he had found Priam’s treasure-trove. And not until shortly before his death was it proved that Schliemann had been misled in the heat of enthusiasm. Troy lay neither in the second nor in the third layer (see this page). The treasure had belonged to a king who antedated Priam by a thousand years (see Plate III).

Like thieves the Schliemanns spirited their find into a wooden hut on the site, and there spread everything out on a rough wooden table. There were diadems and brooches, chains, plates, buttons, golden wire and thread, and bracelets. “Apparently someone in Priam’s family had hastily packed away the treasure in boxes and carried them out without even taking time to remove the keys from the locks. Then, on the walls, this person met his death either directly at enemy hands or when struck down by a flying missile. The treasure lay where it fell, and presently was buried under five or six feet of ashes and stones from the adjacent royal house.”

Schliemann, the fantast, took a pair of earrings and a pendant and put them on his young wife, ornaments three thousand years old for the twenty-year-old Greek. He stared at her. “Helen!” he breathed.

What to do now with this golden hoard? Schliemann allowed news of the find to get out, but by various adventurous means, aided by his wife’s relatives, was able to smuggle the treasure to Athens, thence out of the country. When Schliemann’s house was searched and sealed on orders from the Turkish Ambassador, not a trace of gold was found.

Was he a thief? The law regulating the disposal of antiquities found in Turkish territory was loosely framed, and highly subject to interpretation according to the caprice of local officials. Having sacrificed his whole career to the fulfillment of a dream, Schliemann could hardly be expected to be excessively scrupulous at this point in the game. He was determined to preserve his hoard of golden rarities for the delectation of European scholarship. Seventy years before, Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, had set a precedent of sorts when he deliberately removed invaluable sculptures from the Parthenon. In Elgin’s day Athens was still Turkish, as was Hissarlik in Schliemann’s. Elgin had been given a Turkish firman, or license, that contained a clause stating that “nobody may hinder him from removing carved figures from the Acropolis, or inscribed blocks of stone.” On the strength of this clause Elgin acted boldly. Two hundred cases filled with material from the Parthenon were shipped to London. The legal battle over ownership of this incomparably beautiful collection dragged on for years. The marbles had cost Elgin £74,240, but the compensation voted him by Parliament amounted to only £35,000, not even half of his expenses.

When Schliemann retrieved the “treasure of Priam” from its hiding place, he felt that he had reached the pinnacle of his life. Could such brilliant success be improved on?

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