Prof. Peter Green

University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA | Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics

In the matter of Troy, then, serious scholars are moving cautiously toward acceptance of a basic core of historical facts. With the Iliad being thus dragged, step by step, into ascertainable history, conservatives are likely to remain more convinced than ever that the Odyssey, at least, is pure imaginative romance. This is terrain where the odds against a heterodox outsider getting a sympathetic hearing are very long indeed…


Thus when the amateur Robert Bittlestone felt an urge to tackle – and then became convinced he had solved – one of the most vexed Homeric problems in the entire canon, he must have had a good idea of what he was up against.  He knew very well, when he began, just what kind of a hornets’ nest he proposed to upset, and took a number of unprecedentedly sophisticated steps to insure himself against the inevitable fallout… His title page lists two coauthors: John Underhill, a distinguished professor of stratigraphy, and James Diggle, the formidable Cambridge classical philologist, editor of Euripides and, most recently, Theophrastus. Consultants who throng his pages (many also accompanying him during his explorations on Ithaca) include, in addition to various scientific pundits, no-nonsense archaeologists such as John Bennet, James Whitley, and the redoubtable Anthony Snodgrass.


But one last thing, and that the most important, he learned from Schliemann: that nothing will get you further than being triumphantly right. None of his careful cultivation of experts would have got anywhere had he not offered them a persuasive, and dramatic, solution to the “Ithaca Question.”…


Bittlestone’s theory is fundamentally simple, and starts, as did those of Schliemann, from the firm assumption that Homer was telling the truth. Thus when he says that of the island group comprising Ithaca, Samê, Doulichion, and Zakynthos, Ithaca was low-lying and furthest to the west, furthest to the west is where we must look for it, and not (for example) go off northward to Leukas, as Schliemann’s assistant Wilhelm Dörpfeld did, or torture Homer’s Greek into saying something other than its plain meaning.


The Augustan elegist Propertius identified Odysseus’ home as Doulichion. A persistent tradition arose that Doulichion and Ithaca were identical, confirmed by several post-Renaissance travellers such as Tommaso Porcacchi and Jacob Spon, who claims that the modern port of Vathy was once known as Dolicha. If we accept this identification (and there is ample reason to do so) then Homer’s islands all fall neatly into place: pre-seismic Ithaca (the modern Paliki peninsula) immediately west of Samê, with Doulichion (modern Ithake/Thiaki) to the east, and Zakynthos away in the south.


This, in a nutshell, is Bittlestone’s solution to the “Ithaca Question,” and it is almost certainly correct.


Bittlestone’s real achievement – and by far the most interesting aspect of his book – is the methodical way in which he marshals scientific and philological expertise to examine and, with luck, confirm his central thesis…This confirmation of literary inference by the heavy weapons of modern science and technology is a major triumph, and Bittlestone deserves full credit for it. World experts in both science and literature are cited as concurring. “Reading the Odyssey,” says that eminent Homerist Gregory Nagy of Harvard, “is unlikely ever to be the same again.”


And in the last resort, of course, the nay-sayers cannot prove that the topography of Ithaca was not drawn from life, or even that there was not a real Trojan War veteran named Odysseus whose return home – bow-stringing, vengeance, marital reunion, and all – is evoked in the later books of the Odyssey. For Bittlestone to leave us even considering the possibility of this is a minor triumph in its own right.

The New York Review of Books, November 2006