Jean Giraudoux’ 1935 play’s title in English claims “The Trojan War Will Not Take Place,” but his tragedy’s use of the future tense is actually a denial of Cassandra’s prophecy – in the face of all the evidence that an even worse war was to begin shortly. For the sharp-witted French playwright the Homeric/Virgilian parallels were with the foibles, follies and bad faith of the intellectuals and so-called statesmen whose pathetic and sometimes wicked policies and diplomatic efforts led to World War I and hastened World War II.

Fillippo Albacini, The Wounded Achilles

For a moment, I thought I had caught a missed trick by the four curators of the British Museum’s block-busting new exhibition, “Troy: Myth and Reality” (until 8 March 2020, catalogue published by the BM and Thames & Hudson). Not a chance. A glance at the formidable index takes you straight to p.207, where Giraudoux’ contribution to their chapter on “Troy: Enduring Stories” not only explains why Giraudoux (1882-1944) wrote his anti-war play (he was seriously wounded in the Gallipoli disaster, and “deeply affected by the carnage he witnessed”), but also tells us that “its performances [are] still lending a voice to protests against the Vietnam War in the 1970s, the Falklands War in the 1980s and the 1990s Balkan conflicts.” The paragraph above this one cites the great Australian painter Sidney Nolan, and the paragraphs below it poets George Seferis, Christopher Logue and Alice Oswald. And in the show itself are pieces by Cy Twombly, Eduardo Paolozzi, Anthony Caro, Biagio d’Antonio, George Romney, some frescoes from Pompeii, painted Etruscan plaques, a Linear B tablet, a Mycenaean sealstone, a Fuseli drawing, a William Blake watercolour, some Japanese Manga, the Chatsworth marble sculpture “The Wounded Achilles” by Filippo Albacini, an Angelica Kauffman painting, Oliver Messel’s set model for a staging of the musical “Helen!” at the Adelphi Theatre, London and, of course, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting of “The Judgment of Paris.”

Naturally there are manuscripts and printed books on display, and more calyx/kraters than you can imagine, most of them from the permanent collection of the British Library or the British Museum. The Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Berlin, loaned nearly 100 objects that, says the Director, Hartwig Fischer, enabled them to display many of the celebrated Heinrich Schliemann archaeological finds.

“Encyclopaedic” doesn’t quite capture the breadth of this exhibition, which starts by expounding and illustrating the three epic poems that retail the myths of the Trojan War, the return of Ulysses and the founding of Rome, from the opening line of the Iliad, μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος to Virgil’s Arma virumque cano Troiae qui primus ab oris (simply to satisfy myself that I can still remember these schoolboy trifles, though virtually none of the rest of the Iliad, the Odyssey or the Aeneid). Contemporary and historical pieces are mixed in this splendidly designed exhibition – but be warned, it will be crowded, and anyone without very good vision might find the printed leaflets with magnified captions helpful.

The catalogue approaches the myths as topics – the wrath of Achilles, the war as Zeus’s scheme for birth-control, the seizure of Helen, Thetis dipping her infant into the protective stream, Achilles’ passion for Patroclus, the death of Patroclus, the death of Hector, the nay-saying of Cassandra and so on. First, though, the curators argue the case of whether the blind poet, Homer, existed; and there is the evidence of the Roman copy of a 2nd century BC Hellenistic bust and the c.225-205 BC marble relief “The Apotheosis of Homer.” There are plenty of manuscript texts, which Cicero says were decreed by the tyrant Peisistratus (or his son) in the second half of the 6th century BC to be organised in 24 chapters or books, and to be recited in that order. Though the oral origins of the Iliad and the Odyssey are accepted, it is astonishing that we should have the complete texts in its dactylic hexameters. It helps that there is something formulaic about their composition, with dawn being “rosy-fingered,” the sea being “wine-dark” and Achilles always “fleet of foot.” The work of the great Milman Parry (1902-1933) showed that there were living oral traditions of Serbo-Croat epics, where bards recited long poems from memory, aided by the analogies to the Homeric epithets.

The exhibition then moves from literary matters and their concrete illustrations to archaeology, which makes us doubt, pace Giraudoux, that the Trojan War actually took place. Weirdly enough, there is a single hero (or villain) in this regard. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) claimed to have discovered the site of Troy about 1868. The difficulty: he used dynamite in his attempts to get through the nine levels of archaeological excavations, so we cannot be sure that he did not destroy as much or more than he revealed. The story of the multiple digs in Hissarlik in modern-day Turkey is riveting, but there is an insurmountable problem, as the final layer is at least a full millennium older than the presumed-Homeric Bronze Age artefacts and events. Though Priam’s treasures and Helen’s jewellery are fascinating, their identification is about as likely as that of the remains of the Trojan Horse, the Walls of Troy or of the boat in which Odysseus sailed between Scylla and Charybdis.

Even so, this exhibition is Joycean in its Ulysses-like ambitions to tell us everything the curators know about their subjects – and amazingly successful in walking the high-wire between scholarship and popular interest. I have to confess that I was lucky enough to see this stunning display absolutely on my own. I recommend that, before you go, you check carefully to find the less populated times when the show is open.