Homer, Schliemann and the American Connection

Homer as the “teacher of Greece” created one of the most important foundations of the West’s intellectual development. He became the “father of western literature” -resource to the great tragedians, model for Vergil when commissioned by Augustus to create The Aeneid, inspiration for the earliest science fiction, old Irish folklore, Dante, Shakespeare, James Joyce. Plato excluded him from his ideal city, but Thomas Jefferson preferred reading him in the original rather than Alexander Pope’s famous translation. Universities throughout the world continue teaching Homer, and there is a never-ending stream of new translations. Ιn the prophetic words of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, Homer has become “the river from which all literature flows”.

Are Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, a creation of the poet’s imagination or do they reflect historical events? The question was fiercely debated for a long time, and their historical basis widely doubted until archaeological evidence was unearthed that spoke to events as described by Homer. It was Heinrich Schliemann that produced evidence for the historicity of Homer’s epics.

Heinrich Schliemann was a nineteenth century brilliant but highly controversial German businessman, archaeologist, indefatigable traveller with a prodigious propensity for languages -more than fifteen including ancient and Modern Greek- and insatiable capacity for self-promotion. He amassed a huge fortune and retired from business in his thirties to devote his life to discovering “Homer’s Troy”. His extraordinary life had an important American component.

Schliemann claimed -and his claims often were hyperboles and sometimes untrue- that he decided to find Homer’s Troy when as a child he saw an illustration of the Trojan Prince Aeneas carrying on his shoulder his elderly father to escape the city in flames after its capture by the Greeks. He told his father that a strong citadel like Troy with thick walls that resisted the siege for ten years could not have been destroyed completely, and that he would discover the ruins.

In 1846 Schliemann’s German employer assigned him to Saint Petersburg, where he started amassing his fortune, his success abetted by his facility with Russian and other languages.  He also engaged a tutor and learned Greek.

In 1850 Schliemann sailed to the US to handle his brother’s estate, following his death in California during the Gold Rush. In New York, Schliemann indulged in the State’s opulent social scene, took a strong interest in US politics including the slavery issue, visited Washington and heard in Congress many of the day’s outstanding orators, and (he claimed) was received at the white House by President and Mrs Fillmore privately for an hour and a half. He then sailed to Panama, reached the Pacific Ocean overland, and continued on to San Francisco, bustling at the time with the excitement of the Gold Rush. Always eager to make money, he opened a bank in Sacramento and traded in gold, buying gold dust from the miners and selling it to the Rothschild interests in San Francisco. In the eighteen months that he operated his bank he handled almost two million dollars worth of gold dust.

Making money did not prevent Schliemann, the indefatigable traveler that he was, from exploring California. In his writings he often embellished his experiences making them bigger than life befitting his oversized ego. In 1851 a fire destroyed much of San Francisco. Schliemann described in detail that disaster claiming that he was eyewitness -but actually was in Sacramento and his “eyewitness account” was based on newspaper reports. In 1852 having been accused of sending “short weights” to his gold dust buyers he sold his bank and returned to Russia where he married Ekaterina, the daughter of a Russian businessman. He also declared his intention to exercise his right and become a US citizen since he was residing in California when it became a State. This proved crucial years later when he sought to divorce Ekaterina.

Schliemann’s relentless pursuit of wealth included war profiteering –trading during the Crimean War in munitions ingredients, and in cotton during the US Civil War breaking the blockade of Southern ports. Upon retiring to pursuit Trojan War related excavations, he settled in Paris, enrolled in archaeology courses at the Sorbonne (and making real estate trades on the side), and continued his extensive travels -a trip around the world and a visit to Greece with some exploratory excavations. He published his Greek travels experiences in a book, which he submitted along with his curriculum vitae (written in Ancient Greek and Latin) to the University of Rostock in Germany and for this he was awarded a PhD.

The year 1869 was a pivotal one in the life of Schliemann. He divorced his Russian wife and found a Greek wife who would prove a vital partner in his archaeological pursuits. Ekaterina never shared his enthusiasm for endless travels and archaeological excavations, and committed to raising her children in the Orthodox faith and in Russia refused to join him in Paris. Divorce would be impossible in conservative Russia, so he went to Indiana, known as the place of easy divorces. He had to prove five years of residence in the States, which he accomplished with false witnesses. He bought a home in Indianapolis and made local investments, so his lawyers could convince the Indianapolis judge that the rich German businessman would be settling permanently in the US. Once the divorce was granted he immediately returned to Europe.

While waiting in Indianapolis for his divorce he took steps to fulfill his dream of finding a Greek wife. He placed an advertisement in an Athens newspaper, and he solicited the help of his friend and former Greek language tutor, bishop Theokletos Vimpos, to find a suitable bride. He stipulated that his future wife should be beautiful, well educated, and above all “she must be enthusiastic about Homer, and a rebirth of my beloved Greece.” His Eminence provided photographs of potentially suitable candidates, and Schliemann selected Sophia Egkastromenou, the bishop’s niece. The 17 year-old Sophia, thirty years younger than Schliemann, as a graduate of the Arsakeion had indeed a good education, and her family, eager to marry into great riches, made sure that she was able to recite Homer. She came to share his enthusiasm for archaeology, and bore him two children, Andromache and Agamemnon. He acquiesced to their Orthodox baptism, but during the ceremony he held a copy of The Iliad over their head and recited scores of Homeric dactylic hexameters to supplement the baptismal hymns.

Schliemann, with Sophia as an invaluable partner, The Iliad always on hand as a trusted historical document augmented by Pausanias’s accounts of sites and monuments, his own uncanny capacity for selecting excavation sites and crucially valuable collaborators (the brilliant Wilhelm Dörpfeld and Frank Calvert), devoted in earnest the last twenty five years of his life and fortune to fulfill his dream of discovering “Homer’s Troy” and the palaces of the leading Greek warriors as well. In the process he made some extraordinary discoveries, and gained enduring fame and recognition that he craved so much. He also made some terrible mistakes.

Schliemann’s two most famous discoveries were “Priam’s Treasure” in Troy and “Agamemnon’s death mask” and other artifacts in the Palace at Mycenae. Significant as the discoveries of the thousands of gold, silver, bronze artifacts of stunning beauty and superb artistry were, Schliemann’s attributions of the finds to Priam and Agamemnon were erroneous. “Agamemnon’s death mask” has been dated to be three hundred years and the “Priam’s Treasure” about 1000 years older than the Trojan War.

Schliemann described his spectacular discovery of “Priam’s Treasure” with flair and added some unverifiable details. He wrote that he dismissed the workmen when he saw the precious artifacts, and together with Sophia wrapped them in her red shawl -but at the time of the discovery Sophia was in Athens attending her father’s funeral. Schliemann smuggled the artifacts out of Turkey to avoid having to share them with the Turkish authorities as his Excavation Firman stipulated. However, being eager to gain the recognition and fame on account of his success, he circulated the famous photograph of Sophia wearing the “Jewels of Helen of Troy.”  That got him into trouble with the Turkish and Greek authorities, but he paid a fine and eventually presented the treasure the city of Berlin, and he was made honorary Berliner. Russian troops removed the treasure to Moscow in 1945. In 1996 the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, home of the treasure, exhibited it and published a stunning catalog, “The Gold of Troy, Searching for Homer’s Fabled City”.

Schliemann described in a similarly flamboyant manner his other spectacular discovery, the artifacts of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae (now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.) A gold death mask that covered a skeleton caught his imagination, and he declared it to be the death mask of King Agamemnon. He telegraphed King George, “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon”, and congratulated him on the discovery of his ”ancestors” (the King was a Dane).

On Christmas Day 1890 after an unsuccessful ear operation in Germany and while returning to Athens he collapsed and died in Naples. He is buried in the First Cemetery in Athens in a family mausoleum designed by the famous architect Ernst Ziller and featuring Homeric scenes. His home, Iliou Melathron, also by Ziller, stands on Panepistimiou Street housing the Numismatic Museum, and its courtyard, a delightful Athenian café.

Schliemann had failed to find “Homer’s Troy” per se, but as a great pioneer made spectacular advances in discovering Bronze Age historical Greece and establishing the fact that the Homeric epics reflected real historical expeditions and military campaigns of heroic proportions.

Leonidas Petrakis holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley; has taught at various universities—in the US, France and Greece; was Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory; and worked in the private sector. He specialized in energy and environmental issues, and has authored, coauthored, or co-edited six books and more than one hundred and fifty scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals. He divides his time between Oakland, CA, and Athens