The reader’s curiosity about where historical fact ends and where imaginative license begins from chapter to chapter is provoked from the very opening of the book, and it remains a concern until the concluding pages. In the first paragraph of “The Trojan War: A New History” by Barry Strauss, the author introduces the reader to Helen, the protagonist both of his book and of the war itself. “Helen is dressed," he writes, “in a flowing, woolen gown… in black, taupe, and crimson stripes… The…sleeves leave exposed the pearl skin of her lower arms…." (Strauss 13). Strauss imagines still more: the way that Helen’s hair is groomed, the specific notes of “oil of iris and carnation" that define her “delicate perfume," and the jewels she uses to adorn herself (13). She is such a striking figure that, as stated in one of the important quotes from “The Trojan War: A New History” by Barry Strauss“Love runs after her like puppies" (Strauss 13). The details are vivid, rich, and evocative, and the reader can easily generate a mental image of Strauss’s Helen.
These descriptions make the “The Trojan War: A New History” by Barry Strauss dramatic and engaging, but the critical reader has to think about whether such facts are true. How does Strauss know what Helen looks like? How does he narrate as if he was a fly on the wall? It is easy to avoid asking these questions because the writing is so lovely, but to fail to ask the questions and, by extension, to fail in an attempt to answer them, signals irresponsibility on the part of the reader. Strauss’s history of the Trojan War compels us to ask important questions about the very construction and diffusion of history and of knowledge, how we determine what is “true," and what the implications of purporting truth may be. Strauss writes about Helen as if he is narrating from her very side, as if she were known to him intimately. Because he writes so well, it is easy to believe that what he writes is true. Yet in “The Trojan War: A New History” by Barry Strauss the author never really situates his argument within a larger historical or academic discourse. He does not caution the reader, at least not directly or overtly, about the possibility that The Trojan War: A New History may be more a work of historical fiction than a work of historical fact, and what it might signify if the book is one versus the other.
Interestingly, Strauss’s descriptions of the other main characters of the Trojan War are more tentative. “Paris and Menelaus are probably each wearing a linen tunic," he writes, but the “probably" may be overlooked by the reader’s consciousness, for Strauss has already established himself as authoritative a writer as if he had been a first-hand witness (14). Strauss uses words such as “likely," “perhaps," and “might have" to introduce the possibility that the scene he describes was other than he envisions it; however, with respect to Helen he strikes a note what he hopes will be unassailable authority, and does so by using Homer as his primary reference. Strauss’s interpretation of Homer is by no means dry; summarizing the way in which Homer depicts Helen, one might think that Strauss is a gossip-column writer rather than a historian: “…Helen was passionate, intelligent, and manipulative,"
Strauss writes in a summary of Homer’s account of her. “Helen was nobody’s plaything," he continues, “[and] [a]lthough she was young…she was not without experience," he adds tantalizingly (Strauss 16). Strauss recognizes that “the modern reader is skeptical of Homer," who, in Strauss’s words, reduced the motives of the Trojan War down to “a case of wife-stealing" (Strauss 17). Strauss affirms Homer’s authority, though, and, in doing so, simultaneously reaffirms his own, by stating, “…Homer is not mistaken but merely authentic" (Strauss 17).