UW symposium seeks to separate fact, fiction of Trojan War

Sept. 7, 2004

by Barbara Wolff

English poet Lord George Gordon Byron observed in the early years of the 19th century that the reality of the Troy legend had come to be in doubt.

At the other end of the same century, amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the remains of Troy, and proved its existence beyond all doubt.

The portrayal of the city's devastation by the Greeks in Homer's "Iliad," however, remains open to a bit more speculation, and archaeologists like William Aylward dedicate their lives to chipping away clues in the ruins of Troy to discover what might have happened there - and, perhaps, why.

Aylward, an assistant professor of classics at UW-Madison, has joined colleagues at UW-Madison and around the country to organize a major symposium on "The Trojan War: The Sources behind the Scenes," Friday and Saturday, Sept. 17-18. Aylward says that the scope of the discussion will include art, cinema, language and myth - ancient and more recent - as well as archaeology.

"The epic of Troy is a story for all time. The occasion of a new Hollywood film [Wolfgang Peterson's "Troy," out last spring] based on Homer's 'Iliad' provides a chance for us to reflect on its meaning for popular culture, just as audiences 50 years ago did at the release of the now-classic film 'Helen of Troy,' which we will present at the symposium," he says.

"Helen of Troy" will be shown on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. in 2650 Mosse Humanities Building. Preceding it will be a keynote address, "3,000 Years of the Trojan War in Myth and Art" by Jon Solomon of the University of Arizona and an introduction to the film by Barry Powell, UW-Madison Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics. Powell also will speak Sept. 18 on bringing Homer's epics to the screen.

Aylward will discuss "The City of Troy: Homer to Hollywood" on Sept. 18. Also on Sept. 18, Silvia Montiglio, associate professor of classics at UW-Madison, will consider "Why Did Odysseus Fight the Trojan War?," a topic she says has special relevance for the 21st century.

"I will discuss [French philosopher] Simone Weil's controversial interpretation of Homer's 'Iliad' as one of the few texts in world literature that denounces the blindness of war," she says.

Aylward, Powell and Montiglio will join scholars from the British Museum, University College London, Yale University and Williams College in Massachusetts in a quest to discover the impact Homer's epic has had on popular cultures of various times and places.

For a complete schedule of events, visit the symposium Web site, or call the UW-Madison Department of Classics, sponsor of the event, (608) 262-2041.