Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit
Lost and Found: The 9,000 Treasures of Troy: Heinrich Schliemann and the Gold That Got Away
The Gold of Troy: Searching for Homer's Fabled City Museum of Fine Arts/Abrams
According to Heinrich Schliemann’s keenest detractors, his life was not merely stranger than fiction; it was fiction. But the facts accepted even by those who most strongly suspect his honesty make an amazing story. Born in poverty in 1822, the son of a dissolute and lecherous Lutheran pastor in the eastern German town of Neubukow, he made himself immensely rich through the indigo trade in Russia, dealing in gold in California, and profiteering during the Crimean War. He was shipwrecked off the Dutch coast, and was lucky to escape with his life; he almost perished from starvation in Panama. He was a phenomenal traveler: he knew Jerusalem, Havana, Tokyo, Hong Kong, St. Petersburg, Petra, Odessa, Acapulco, and visited the principal capitals of Europe almost every year. As a linguist he was even more astonishing: he knew fifteen languages well, and others partially: his diaries were written in ten different languages (he commonly wrote in the language of the country he was in at the time); he used ancient Greek as a living tongue, and knew large quantities of the Koran and classical literature by heart, in the original.
Even his method of courtship was exceptional. His first marriage, to a Russian, having failed, he resolved to find a second wife. A Greek would be best, he decided, and so he wrote to an archbishop of his acquaintance, asking him to look out for suitable candidates. Photographs should be sent, he said: as a good reader of faces, he was confident that he could judge a person’s character from her picture. Having picked out a girl of sixteen, thirty years younger than himself, he went to Athens to interview her. After putting the appropriate questions (he asked her when the Emperor Hadrian had visited Athens, and required her to recite some lines of Homer), he proposed and (since he was very rich) was accepted. Nineteen days after their first meeting, they were married. And throughout the marriage, though it was an unconventional and sometimes turbulent one, they remained in their way deeply devoted.
Had Schliemann died just after his second wedding, at the age of forty-seven, he would have lived a remarkable life and shown extraordinary capacities, but no one today would know his name. However, in middle life he made another decision: he would become an archaeologist and uncover Homer’s Troy. As the world knows, he succeeded even beyond his dreams: as the excavator of Troy and Mycenae he became and has remained the most famous of all archaeologists—or in David A. Traill’s more equivocal phrase, “the emblematic archaeologist of all time.” But though he has always been celebrated, he is now freshly in the news again for two quite separate reasons: the exhibition of “Priam’s treasure” mounted this year in Moscow, and the accusation that he misrepresented and perhaps even faked some of his finds.
The three books under review…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.