The Siege and Fall of Troy by Robert Graves
The Random House Edition, published 2018
The Siege and Fall of Troy by Robert Graves
The Folio Society Edition, published 2005
The Siege and Fall of Troy
Robert Graves
  • Category:Historical Fiction, Mythology
  • Date Read:23 April 2023
  • Year Published:1962
  • Pages:103
  • 3.5 stars

In his introduction to The Siege and Fall of Troy Robert Graves writes that, “English literature, to be properly understood, calls for as close a knowledge of the Trojan War as of the Bible”. In other words, Graves’s purpose in writing his book was didactic. He states that his plan had been to produce, “the first modern attempt to make the whole story, from the Foundation of Troy to the return of the victorious Greeks, into a single short book for boys and girls.”

Two things can be said about Graves’s intentions. First, is that knowledge of the Trojan War remains necessary to understand some English literature, whether it be Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and the haunting image of the ghostly Helen that Faustus conjures, which sucks out his soul, or whether it be a healthy cottage industry of feminist retellings of the war and its associated myths: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker or the recent Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati are just a few examples. The Trojan War has inspired countless movies, novels, academic studies, documentaries, poems, art and historical inquiry. The search for the site of Troy led to developments in modern archaeology. It is the sheer ubiquity of the story in our culture that makes it familiar, even if you haven’t read its most famous text, The Iliad, attributed to someone called Homer.

This brings us to the second thing to be said about Graves’s comments. Those who haven’t read Homer but have, for instance, seen the 2004 film Troy by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Brad Pitt as Achilles (or other representations of the conflict in popular culture) may have a distorted understanding of exactly what is available from ancient sources, as well as exactly what The Iliad covers of the story. Petersen’s film condenses a ten year conflict into what seems like a few weeks. Everything from the beginning of the war with an impressive fleet of a thousand ships sailing across the Mediterranean to the coast of Asia Minor, to the trick of the Trojan Horse and the final destruction of Troy, are included in the film’s narrative. However, when we read Homer, the most extant source for the war, we find that his poem begins after the war has been in progress nine years. Famous scenes associated with the story do not appear in Homer: the judgement of Paris and his elopement with Helen; the sailing of the legendary thousand ships; the Trojan Horse; the sack of Troy. The Iliad, in fact, ends with the death of Hector, followed by Priam’s negotiation with Achilles to have Hector’s body returned, and finally, Hector’s funeral. By the time The Iliad draws to an end Achilles is still alive (so his famous heel doesn’t come into play) and Troy is still resisting the Greek forces.

Books like The Siege and Fall of Troy are therefore useful for a general reader interested in joining together the disparate details of the story. For instance, those familiar with elements of the story through art will probably be familiar with the Hellenistic sculpture ‘Laocoön and His Sons’.

Laocoön and His Sons, 29–19 BCE. Rediscovered in Rome 1506

This sculpture is so striking that it has become a kind of metaphor for agony and suffering. But it is a part of the Trojan story, too. Laocoön was a Trojan priest, but his story does not appear in The Iliad. Sophocles and Vergil wrote versions of his story: Sophocles in a tragedy now lost, and Vergil in book 2 of The Aeneid. In different versions of the story Laocoön is punished for various reasons, but his being attacked by sea serpents with his sons is common to each. Sometimes they all die, sometimes only the sons. In Vergil, Laocoön tries to expose the trick of the Trojan Horse. He beats the wooden horse with a spear but Priam refuses to believe the horse is a trick. When Laocoön prepares to offer a sacrifice to the gods near the shore, the sea serpents attack. The death of Laocoön and his sons only convinces Priam that Laocoön had been wrong: a fatal mistake for the Trojans.

Another famous aspect of the story is the rage of Achilles. In The Iliad Achilles refuses to fight after Agamemnon takes Briseis from him, a slave girl Achilles has taken as a prize of war. He will not re-enter the fight until later in the epic when his friend, Patroclus, is killed. However, Achilles’s anger is at the loss of status that Briseis represents, not necessarily love: that Agamemnon can take her from him and he has less than others who are less worthy of reward. Reading Graves puts this more clearly into perspective. Achilles, in fact, has set his heart on a Trojan woman, Polyxena, and it is for her sake that he comes close to betraying the Greeks late in the war. Instead, she betrays his secret, the weakness of his heel, which gives Paris an opportunity to kill him. Unfortunately for Polyxena, it is Achilles’s dying wish that she be sacrificed at his tomb. However, Polyxena is never mentioned in The Iliad: an interesting omission which changes our perception of Achilles’s role in the story.

Therefore, what Graves’s book offers is a quick read that allows a modern reader to contextualise so much of the story’s elements as well as fill in details that may be unfamiliar. The advantage here, also, is that the ancient texts that cover what seem to us familiar in popular culture are mostly missing. The Iliad and The Odyssey are part of what is known as the ‘Epic Cycle’, a group of ancient works that, together, covered the Trojan story completely. However, apart from Homer’s works, the epic tales are almost entirely lost to us. For instance, what is now known as the ‘Little Iliad’ covered events after the death of Achilles and the building of the Trojan Horse. However, only about thirty lines of the four books that originally comprised the work now survive. Another work, ‘Iliupersis’, recounts the destruction of Troy. Its tale was told in two books but only ten lines now remain of its verse. Works like these and others in the Epic Cycle are only known to us through their sparse surviving lines, quotations and discussions by other writers, as well as summaries and retellings by ancient authors in the vein of Graves’s own work. They are attested works but no longer directly known.

So Graves’s intention that he tell the “whole story” makes sense, and that’s what his book does: Graves starts the story as far back as the foundation of Troy by Prince Scamander, and continues to the end of the war and the wanderings of Odysseus (covered mainly by the other epic poem attributed to Homer, The Odyssey) in thirteen succinct chapters. The narrative is written in clear concise language that one might expect to see in many popular adult novels today. The language is not difficult at all, but it is not simplified as we may sometimes assume. Graves is a sober narrator, as opposed to other accounts written for children I have, that summarise Homer for modern audiences. There are no gimmicks. Graves does not attempt to be humorous. We sense that the narrative should be enough. What Graves does to accommodate his audience, however, is skip long lists and long speeches and he includes only the bare bones of the story. So the long list of ships and fighters from the second book of The Iliad is omitted, as are long speeches and repetitions used by Homer. Graves sticks with the salient facts and only includes truncated versions of conversations when they are needed to explain the story and character interactions. The fact that Graves includes an index for this short book, which purports to be for children, hints at its didactic purpose; even suggesting it might be used as a reference book without reading it in its entirety.

If you’re considering reading The Siege and Fall of Troy it is useful to remember that Graves was, other than for this book, an author for adults and a classical scholar. Graves read Homer at school, which is unlikely today. His expectations of the needs of pupils and their interests are likely at variance with most students’ interests now. Adults may find the book useful if they have an interest in this subject, although it does not have the appeal of his Claudius novels. I read it in the latter half of an afternoon. However, some may find more recent books on the subject more appealing, like Stephen Fry’s Troy, which attempts to give the same broad scope for the entire story. As a familiar media personality and comedian, Fry’s voice is more accessible, his style more colloquial and his work is, in fact, more detailed.

The Siege and Fall of Troy was republished by Random House in 2018. Random House claims it had been out of print for three decades. Nevertheless, it should be readily available, if not in a bookshop, then across the internet. I would suggest, however, if possible, also looking for a Folio edition of the book, which is the edition I read. Like all Folio editions, it is hardback, well-presented with beautiful illustrations, as well as nicely drawn maps of Greece and Asia Minor for the endpapers.

There is an ongoing project on this website to read Homer’s Iliad in some detail. Several books of The Iliad already have pages but at the time of writing the project is incomplete. It will continue to be added to over time. Click here to view the main page of The Iliad Project on the Reading Project.

Original Theatrical Trailer for Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 film version of the story of the Trojan War
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Robert Graves
Robert Graves
Robert Graves was an author and classical scholar. His most famous works are Goodbye to all That, an account of his experiences in World War I, and the Claudius novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which are highly entertaining historical fictions based upon the writings of Suetonius. He also published The Golden Fleece, which is a novel based on the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. His academic writings are somewhat idiosyncratic, however. His published work focuses around myth and history. In particular, he published a very useful reference work, The Greek Myths, in two volumes, as well as The White Goddess, which argues the centrality of a single figure in pagan and European myths, as well as works like
The ruins of Troy
The tale of Troy is embedded in Western culture. The search for Troy and the discovery of its site in the 19th Century helped develop archaeology into a modern discipline, despite the disasterous excavations initialy carried out by the amateur archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann
Troy by Wolfgang Peteren
Modern retellings of the Troy legend can give audiences a false impression of what Homer’s Iliad actually is about, especially since many of the most famous aspects of the tale do not appear in Homer’s telling of it. Wolfgang Petersen’s version maintains many of the key moments of The Iliad, but it compresses the chronology and makes the prophecy of Achilles’s fate, that his name will live forever but that he will lead a short glorious life, the central premise of the story. Homer, however, ends with the tragic death of Hector.
The Trojan Horse
Wolfagang Petersen’s 2004 Troy maintains the legend of the Trojan Horse in its story, even though it purports to be inspired by Homer’s The Iliad, which does not feature this aspect of the tale. The detail of the wooden horse, which Graves speculates may have been a siege engine covered with horse hides, appears in other texts now mostly lost to us from the Epic Cycle. The ‘Little Iliad’, attributed to Lesches, features the Trojan Horse, as does The Aeneid by Virgil.
Children’s Editions
Children’s editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey are easy enough to source. Graphic novels, picture book versions as well as retellings are available. This edition of The Odyssey, a retelling by Joanne Mattern, features a dog, Wishbone, as a guide to the story for young readers. This is in contrast to Graves’s retelling of the Trojan War story for children, which does not attempt to engage at this level, but rather is aimed at more serious children. Lawrence Norfolk, who introduces the Folio Society edition, states, “I believe he had in mind one young person in particular: himself.” The idea that Graves was writing this book for his younger self makes entire sense.