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The [Brief] Story of a Linguistic Genius: SCHLIEMANN OF TROY



Heinrich Schliemann, the legendary excavator of Troy and Mycenae, needs no introduction. A host of publications deal with the last twenty years of Schliemann’s life and the results of his excavations. It is only recently, however, that an interest has developed for Schliemann’s early years, when he was a successful merchant, an obsessive traveler, and a compulsive linguist. How else can we call a man who taught himself to read, write, and speak more than fifteen languages?

Schliemann is no stranger to us. For the past twenty years, together with my colleagues at the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies, we have been curating his large archive, supervising its cataloguing and preservation. To understand and contextualize Schliemann’s linguistic passion, however, one needs to cast a glance at the early years of his life, before he moved to Greece.

Schliemann was born in East Germany in 1822. Although the son of a priest, Schliemann’s childhood was highly troubled. The loss of his mother, when he was nine years old, and his father’s promiscuous life drove young Heinrich soon out of the house. To support himself he worked long hours as a grocer’s assistant, without receiving any education after the age of 13.

At 19 he moved to Hamburg with the intention to immigrate to the United States, but the ship he was in was shipwrecked soon after departure, and he was literally washed out on the sandbanks of Amsterdam. Feeling re-born and with faith to his lucky stars, Schliemann did not return to Germany but decided to stay in Amsterdam working as a clerk for Schroeder and Company.

“The routine nature of my work suited me very well, since it left me sufficient time to attend to my neglected education…,” Schliemann wrote in his autobiography.

During his Amsterdam years (1842-1846), Schliemann learned Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. He impressed so much his employers with his abilities and language skills to the point that he was sent to St. Petersburg to represent Schroeder’s trade interests in Russia. For this reason he taught himself Russian since there were no Russian teachers in Amsterdam.

For the next twenty years, from 1846-1866, Schliemann would establish himself at St. Petersburg as a successful merchant accumulating vast riches. In 1852, he married young Katarina, the niece of a friend. He was 30, she was 18. She had already refused him more than once, but finally accepted him because he had become so rich.

Exhausted from hard work and the risks of it, Schliemann was contemplating retirement by the late 1850s. Schliemann finally retired from business in 1864, at the age of 42. To escape from family unhappiness, Schliemann embarked on a world journey that took him from Tunis and Egypt to India and China, and from there to Japan, Cuba, Mexico, and the U.S.

On his return, a year later, he settled down alone in Paris asking his wife to leave Russia and live with him either in Germany or France. “Never will I leave Russia” was Katarina’s answer. He would divorce Katarina in 1869 in order to marry Sophia Engastromenou a few months later. Schliemann was about to hit the reset button for a third time, with a new life in Greece and two passions: archaeology and Sophia.

But before immersing himself into his new passions, Schliemann had spent years consumed by another passion: learning languages. “My recreation is languages, to which I am bound by a consuming passion. During the week I am continuously occupied in my counting-house, but on Sundays I sit from early in the morning until late at night over Sophocles, whom I am translating into Modern Greek,” wrote the merchant Schliemann in the 1850s.

Writing to his uncle in 1855 in Greek, “the language of my waking thoughts and of my dreams,” and proud of his language skills, Schliemann informs him boastfully, “In the meanwhile, I have learnt Slovenian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Latin, modern and ancient Greek, and thus can now speak fifteen languages in all.”

Emil Ludwig, Schliemann’s first biographer, puzzled by Schliemann’s compulsive need to learn new languages gave his own explanation, said “…Schliemann, with all his remarkable qualities, was necessarily a more or less abnormal person, who had always to be learning something without knowing why.”

The last foreign language to learn was Turkish in the early 1870s before excavating at Troy. “I intend to conduct personally and in the Turkish language all negotiations regarding the land, and all the inhabitants of the Dardanelles and the Troad will be amazed hearing me speak the language, when only three weeks ago I did not understand a word of it.”

Schliemann had his own method for learning languages: “reading aloud, without making any translation, having a lesson every day, writing essays on subjects of personal interest, correcting them under the supervision of the teacher, learning them by heart and reciting at the next lesson the material that was corrected the previous day” he wrote in his autobiography. Schliemann was so confident about his method that he tried to convince other people to use it. We know that it worked with his second wife, Sophia.

When Schliemann was looking for a new, Greek wife, his most important criterion was that his future bride would be “interested in learning, for I think that it is only possible for a beautiful young girl to love and humor an old man if she is enthusiastic about learning.” Though Sophia didn’t know any other languages other than Greek at the time of their marriage, she managed with perseverance and hard work to learn English, French, German, and Italian in a few years.

The emotional pressure for the young woman was so much, however, that she had a nervous breakdown during the first year of her marriage. After Sophia’s attempt to end her life by falling into the Seine, Schliemann finally realized the extent of the pressure he had applied to his young wife, “…I was making her to study French four hours per day. You are right, my marital happiness and the happiness of my life lies on my wife’s health” wrote a remorseful Schliemann to one of his friends in 1870.


WORDS: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan

PHOTOS: Gennadius Library | American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan is an archivist, archaeologist and historian at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She studied Classical Archaeology in Greece (University of Thessaloniki) and the United States (Bryn Mawr College), and has conducted fieldwork in East Crete for many years. Since 1994, she has served as head of archives at the American School of Classical Studies, from which she draws inspiration for most of her writings. She co-edited a volume titled Philhellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece, Hesperia 82:1, (Princeton 2013.) Natalia also co-published another edited volume titled Carl W. Blegen: Personal and Archaeological Narratives (Atlanta: Lockwood Press 2015).


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