Sources of disinformation

Bad reconstructions of Aegean warriors

Playing through A Total War Saga: Troy, Josho is dismayed by the idea of thousands of players being exposed to terribly bad interpretations of what Mycenaean warriors looked like.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

So I have been playing A Total War Saga: Troy, the strategy game that was recently released on the Epic Games Store. It’s been rough going, trying to get a handle on the game’s mechanics, but overall I am having fun with it.

The game relies on the “Mycenaean” interpretation of Homer: it subscribes to the notion that the Homeric epics have anything useful to say about the Late Bronze Age. This is highly problematic, and a line of thinking that hasn’t been current in academic circles for decades. There are occasionally scholars who suggest that perhaps there’s a kernel of historical Bronze Age truth in the epics, but even then, this is often couched in circumspect language.

Then a big-budget game like A Total War Saga: Troy comes along and it’s like a plaster being ripped from a wound that was finally healing. Among general audiences, Homer continues to be associated with the Bronze Age, and a game like this only reinforces that idea. Check out the AMA that Roel Konijnendijk and I participated in on Reddit’s AskHistorians to get an idea of popular notions about the Trojan War and its relationship with history.

I winced the first time I saw pictures of the game and realized what they had done in their misguided attempt to reveal “the truth behind the myth”. Whatever their interpretations of Mycenaean weapons and armour are based on, it has only little to do with any perceived “truth”.

Poor research

The equipment in the game is a weird mix of some archaeological evidence, a lot of Homer, and a healthy dollop of sheer fantasy. The latter includes sources like the movie Troy (2004), which is an entertaining flic, but like this Total War entry makes the mistake of claiming to reveal the “history” behind the myth. In the movie, for example, we get Nestor earnestly asking Agamemnon: “How long before the Hittites invade?”

The movie places the Trojan War, like Total War does, in the Late Bronze Age, when the Hittite Kingdom was at its zenith and perhaps a rival to Mycenaean interests in western Asia Minor. Of course, Homer, didn’t know what a “Hittite” was, and they don’t appear at all in the Iliad. Almost as if Homer, who lived more than six centuries later, doesn’t preserve much in the way of genuine information about the Bronze Age. Take note, movie makers and game developers.

Aside from watching Troy and maybe flicking through a popular book on the Trojan War, the bulk of the research done by the creators of the game clearly consisted of just Googling for ideas. And if there is one major source of disinformation, it’s the internet. If you search for images of Mycenaean warriors, you’re more likely to find nonsense than anything that is even remotely accurate. And many of these images clearly served as the basis for what Creative Assembly created for the game.

Among the main sources of misinformation, I should single out Raffaele D’Amato and Andrea Salimbeti. I feel that they shoulder a lot of the blame for the nonsense we see in A Total War Saga: Troy. Salimbeti has a website dedicated to the “Greek Age of Bronze”, which I won’t link to because Ancient World Magazine is highly regarded and I don’t want Google to think that website is actually a good source of information. You can Google it for yourself: it should appear as one of the top search results, sadly.

D’Amato and Salimbeti have had a slew of books published by Osprey. There are four books in total which have been published: Early Aegean Warrior, 5000-1450 BC (2013), Greek Bronze Age Greek Warrior, 1600-1100 BC (2011), Sea Peoples of the Bronze Age Mediterranean, c. 1400-1000 BC (2015), and Early Greek Iron Age Warrior, 1100-700 BC (2016).

These books are illustrated by Giuseppe Rava, following the instructions he gets from D’Amato and Salimbeti. Many of the pictures from these books have found their way onto the internet, and are widely shared on forums and Pinterest as examples of what warriors looked like in the Aegean Bronze Age and Early Iron Age.

Let me state unequivocally here: these books are garbage.

Osprey is not an academic publisher, but that need not be a problem. What is a problem is that these books by D’Amato and Salimbeti, which all still seem to be in print (or at least haven’t sold out yet), serve as fodder for wargamers, including those who design and manufacture miniatures. This is a serious problem, because the bad information from these books can thus find its way to a large audience who will come to believe that what they see is somehow accurate.

D’Amato and Salimbeti believe in the literal truth of the ancient sources: vase-paintings and frescoes are, to their mind, as good as photographs, and Homer is of course a historical source for the Late Bronze Age who can be taken literally. So if Homer suggests, in their reading of the Iliad, that all warriors were covered from head to toe in bronze, then obviously that was the case for the Mycenaeans, too. Any piece of Bronze Age archaeological material is immediately seized upon as representative of the whole: there is little attempt at discerning regional variation, and all evidence, regardless how slim, is taken to be representative, especially as it fits their interpretation of the Mycenaean – and therefore Homeric! – Bronze Age.

Needless to say, D’Amato and Salimbeti have received no formal training when it comes to the periods that they write about. Raffaele D’Amato is a lawyer, who has a PhD in Byzantine law, and one in Roman (!) military archaeology. Salimbeti works for the space programme. Still, they claim expertise in the field of Aegean warfare. An example of their hubris is that, in their Early Aegean Warrior book, they offer a “reconstruction” of an “Indo-European” warriors (pp. 24-25). If that doesn’t set off any alarm bells, I don’t know what will.

Sadly, the D’Amato and Salimbeti books have pushed out the one book that Osprey published on Mycenaean warfare that was actually good. It’s Nicolas Grguric’s The Mycenaeans, c. 1650-1100 BC (2005). Unfortunately, the book is no longer in print. If you can find it second hand, I would recommend you pick up a copy. It’s based on the only types of evidence we have for the Mycenaean Bronze Age: the material remains of weapons and armour, contemporary figurative evidence (e.g. frescoes and vase-paintings), and the Linear B tablets.

Lest my ire fall only on D’Amato and Salimbeti, I should also point out that there are a few others that also deserve blame. A prominent example is illustrator Christos Giannopoulos, whose illustrations of supposedly Mycenaean warriors are only partially based on the archaeological evidence, with perceived gaps filled in with nonsense culled from the Homeric epics, interpreted in the most literal fashion imaginable. A favourite of mine – if you can call it that! – is his reconstruction of a warrior in the Dendra panoply, leaning on a giant tower-shield that seems made out of solid bronze!

Looking for origins: Peter Connolly

What are these bad reconstructions of Mycenaean equipment based on? To my mind, all the bad ideas regarding Mycenaean warfare can be traced back to a single source. That source is the late, great Peter Connolly (1935-2012). It’s a pity that we have to drag him into this, since his work is leagues ahead of what I have discussed so far.

Connolly wrote and illustrated popular books such as The Ancient Greece of Odysseus, originally published in 1986 as The Legend of Odysseus. Connolly’s influence on the popular image of the Mycenaean Bronze Age cannot be overstated. If you Google for images on Mycenaean warriors, or indeed Homeric heroes, you’re likely to find quite a few scans from his books, too.

But the main difference between Peter Connolly and his mediocre would-be successors is that he is much more circumspect. Witness, for example, his discussion of helmets on pp. 19-20 in Odysseus: he prefaces it by noting that “Homer’s warriors seem to be a jumble of Mycenaean traditions padded out with details from the poet’s own day (c. 750 BC).”

The idea that the Homeric epics contain a mix of elements from different periods has been proposed by archaeologists like Anthony Snodgrass, back in the day. This is, after all, 1986 that we’re talking about. But isn’t it strange, then, that more than three decades later we are still subjected to the same kind of outdated notions by hacks who clearly haven’t put in even half the research that Connolly poured into his work?

Remember that illustration by Giannopoulos I mentioned earlier? If you want to know what he based it on, look at the cover of Connolly’s book, which is taken from page 27: it depicts Ajax defending the Greek ships against the Trojans. Note the shield he is equipped with? That’s right: it’s a tower-shield covered in bronze. It’s nonsense, but Connolly doesn’t pretend it’s based on anything other than the Homeric epics.

Like D’Amato and Salimbeti and others, Connolly had received no formal training with regards to the ancient world. But he was cautious where others are rash: in his Odysseus, he maintains a clear distinction when discussing the Homeric epics from the archaeological material of the Mycenaean Late Bronze Age. Connolly’s work was recognized in academic circles, and he was even awarded an honorary research fellowship at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London in 1985.

The problem with sharing pictures on the internet is that the context is usually lost. Illustrations ripped from Connolly’s book no longer have the accompanying text that makes clear what the picture is – or isn’t – based on. Connolly’s surveys of the evidence for helmets, other armour, shields, and chariots, are cast to the wayside. As a result, his illustrations of Homeric warriors get to live a life of their own.

Closing remarks

The equipment shown in A Total War Saga: Troy is clearly based on dubious, second-hand sources, mostly pictures found on the internet that are often poor copies of Peter Connolly’s work. The game relies on the “Mycenaean” interpretation of Homer, which has fallen out of favour in academic circles as more and more evidence makes clear that Homer has very little, if indeed anything, to say about the Bronze Age.

There is also another problem that I want to highlight briefly. In writing about the Mycenaean Late Bronze Age, there is a tendency to regard it as a monolithic period. But we’re talking about a period that spans several centuries, from ca. 1700 BC down to at least 1100 BC. The equipment shown on artefacts from the Mycenaean Shaft Graves, dated to the seventeenth century BC, are completely different from what we’ve found in the Dendra tomb of ca. 1400 BC, which is different again from what we find in wall-paintings of the thirteenth century BC.

The dynamic nature of developments in the Mycenaean era is lost entirely when tower-shields of the Shaft Grave era are mixed with the panoply from Dendra and the chariots of the wall-paintings. The result is something that doesn’t belong to any period in particular. Add some of the fantastical stuff from Homer and you end up with a mixture that is entirely a-historical. It may make for an interesting picture, but it’s bad history.

Add to this the simple fact that the Bronze Age is less well-known among general audiences than the Classical era of Greece and Rome. A lot of the most interesting research into the era is also locked away in peer-reviewed journals or in unpublished PhD theses, such as Diane Fortenberry’s Elements of Mycenaean Warfare (University of Cincinnati, 1990). Fortenberry’s PhD thesis can, however, be found in many academic libraries, and is sometimes also offered as a PDF. There are also older books that are hard to find, but which are also good, such as Paola Cassola Guida’s Le armi difensive dei micenei nelle figurazioni (1974).

In short, the research on warfare in the Aegean Bronze Age is there, if you’re willing to look for it. Historical advisors are also not in short supply: I think everyone who writes for Ancient World Magazine, anyone who answers questions on Reddit’s AskHistorians, or any of the legions of academics who post on Twitter, would be more than happy to help.

But there are also good books available that deal with the Mycenaean era, though sadly these are often not illustrated as lavishly as the Osprey books. Anthony Snodgrass devotes part of his Arms and Armour of the Greeks (1999 [1967]) to the Mycenaean era. Tim Everson does the same in his broad survey of the archaeological evidence in his Warfare in Ancient Greece: Arms and Armour from the Heroes of Homer to Alexander the Great (2004).

My own PhD thesis covered the Mycenaean era in the first chapter, which is available for free. There are parts that I would change, but overall it’s a good survey, I think. My PhD forms the basis for my Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece (2013), published when I was editor of Ancient Warfare and features some custom illustrations created by stalwarts of that magazine.

A full review of A Total War Saga: Troy is coming, though I don’t know when exactly, as my spare time is at present rather limited. But I couldn’t resist writing about how problematic the game’s depiction of weapons and armour is. More can be said about other aspects, such as the fact that the Mycenaean towns feature walls with towers; as a rule, Mycenaean walls didn’t have towers. But that’s something for another day.

For now, suffice it say that as far as its depiction of the Late Bronze Age is concerned, A Total War Saga: Troy definitely does not reveal “the truth behind the myth”.