Heinrich Schliemann: Maker of History

Photo: Heinrich Schliemann

Heinrich Schliemann: Maker of History

By Danny Stein


Heinrich Schliemann was a self-made businessman and archaeologist whose excavations at Troy and Mycenae made him a founder of modern archaeology. He lived a colorful and unconventional life, starting as a worker in a grocery shop and becoming a wealthy merchant who retired and made a fortune twice over. Schliemann also traveled the globe, taught himself to read, write, and speak fifteen languages, and made some of the most remarkable finds in the history of archaeology. The eminent scientist Rudolf Virchow, a friend of Schliemann’s, wrote, “I can therefore bear my testimony … to the labors of [this] indefatigable explorer, who found no rest until his work lay before him fully done.”[1] In 1886, a student at Oxford wrote to Schliemann, “There is no book outside of the Bible which has exercised so good an influence on my life as your own autobiography in Ilios.”[2] Sigmund Freud once said that Schliemann was the man whose life he envied most.[3] This article describes Schliemann’s life and his importance today.

Heinrich Schliemann was born in the German village of Neubukow on January 6, 1822, to Ernst and Louise Schliemann. He was the fifth of seven children. The family moved to Ankershagen in 1823 after his father, a Lutheran pastor, was transferred to that parish. In his autobiography (published in 1881 as an introduction to Ilios: City and Country of the Trojans), Schliemann gives a charming account of his childhood. “My natural disposition for the mysterious and marvelous,” he wrote, “was stimulated to a passion by the wonders of the locality in which I lived.” He heard stories about the “robber knight” who had lived in the old medieval castle, and also about “vast treasures” buried in the ruins of an old tower.[4] According to Schliemann, his father told him stories about the Trojan War and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He claimed that, as a seven-year-old, they agreed he would one day excavate Troy.[5] In his autobiography, he declared, “I never forgot Troy, or the agreement I had made with my father … in 1830 to excavate it.”[6]

Schliemann alludes vaguely to a “disaster” which befell his family in 1833. The truth is that his father was a violent and promiscuous man who terrorized his wife and even hired his mistress as a maid to live in their house (beginning in 1829). In a letter to her eldest daughter, Louise Schliemann described herself as a “forsaken mother” whose “patience, prayers and entreaties to God in the silence of the night, beseeching him to change my hard lot, have not availed.”[7] When she died in childbirth, two hundred of Ernst’s parishioners assembled outside his home, banging pots and breaking windows to show their disapproval. The family was ostracized and the villagers filed a protest to have Ernst removed from the parish. As the trial dragged on, he was accused of embezzlement and suspended without pay from his office.[8]

Schliemann had been enrolled as a student in the Realschule at Neu Strelitz, but his father’s loss of income forced him to drop out in April 1836. He found work in a grocery shop, where he stocked shelves, swept the floors, and peeled potatoes.[9] One night, says Schliemann, a drunken miller walked into the shop and began reciting lines from the Iliad. As the young Schliemann listened, he “wept bitter tears over [his] unhappy fate.” He made the man repeat the lines three times. “From that moment,” he later wrote, “I never ceased to pray God that by His grace I might yet have the happiness of learning Greek.”[10]

In 1841, Schliemann burst a blood vessel while lifting a heavy cask and could no longer work at the grocery shop. He enlisted as a cabin boy on a ship bound for La Guayra, Colombia, but was shipwrecked off the coast of the Netherlands. (He claimed his possessions were the only ones to survive the wreck, an event which earned him the nickname “Jonah” from the crew.) According to Schliemann, this was a turning point in his life: “I felt as if on that bank a voice whispered to me that the tide in my earthly affairs had come.”[11]

Arriving in Amsterdam, he became an office-boy for one of the city’s merchants, delivering letters and cashing checks.[12] He took lessons in calligraphy and his handwriting improved.[13] As an employee in a trading house, Schliemann decided to study foreign languages. He learned English in six months, followed by other trading languages like French and Dutch.[14] In an 1856 letter to his aunt Magdalena, Schliemann described “My terrific passion for languages, which torments me day and night… For years this passion has been in a bloody struggle with my two other passions, avarice and acquisitiveness.”[15] In another letter, he scolds his Greek teacher for not showing up for their lesson. The letter has markings where the teacher made corrections.[16] According to his first biographer, Emil Ludwig, “Schliemann… was necessarily a more or less abnormal person, who had always to be learning something new without knowing why.”[17] He was a “linguistic genius”[18] who learned fifteen languages—including Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, Slovenian, Greek, Latin, and Turkish—and kept his diary in the language of whatever country he was staying in (in Egypt, for instance, he wrote in Arabic).[19] He translated his own books from German into English and French. As one reporter put it, “The Doctor… is really a marvel of tireless energy and abnormal capacity for work.”[20]

In 1844, Schliemann secured a job at B.H. Schroder & Co., one of the leading trading houses in Europe. As the only Russian-speaking employee, he became their agent in St. Petersburg, making money off the indigo trade. In 1851, Schliemann sailed for California, where his brother Ludwig had opened a store during the Gold Rush but later died of typhoid fever. Stopping in Washington, D.C., he saw Henry Clay and Stephen Douglass debate in the Senate. He claimed (possibly true) to have met President Millard Fillmore[21] and later (falsely) to have been in California on July 4th, 1850, when it became a state[22]— which would have made him a U.S. citizen. In Sacramento, he founded a bank that bought gold dust and sold it to the Rothschilds.

After this partnership with the Rothschilds broke down,[23] Schliemann returned to St. Petersburg in 1852, where he married Katerina Lyschin, the daughter of one of his Russian business associates. The couple had three children, Serge (1855-1940), Natalia (1858-1869), and Nadeshda (1861-?), but their relationship was a disaster from the start. In a letter to a friend, Schliemann admitted, “She contents herself with representing me to everyone as a terrible tyrant, a despot and a debauchee … After [the first pregnancy] she resisted my approaches every night, screaming that I wanted to kill her.”[24] According to biographer David Traill, Schliemann’s attempts to gain a liberal education—his interest in classical languages and even his transformation into a scholar and archaeologist—may have been an effort to convince his wife and her family that he was a gentleman: a “tragic irony,” if true.[25]

Meanwhile, Schliemann made a fortune trading indigo, saltpeter, brimstone, and metals during the Crimean War (1853-1856).[26] In 1858, still only thirty-six years old, he retired and traveled to Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Egypt, Jerusalem, Petra, Syria, Smyrna, the Cyclades, and Athens. In the notebook in which he practiced languages, he wrote, “I yearn to travel and visit Greece … I plan to go to Greece and Egypt with Homer and Thucydides in hand, and visit Ithaca, the Peloponnese, the plain of Troy, the Skamander … and other worthy ruins of antiquity.”[27] As he passed the coast of the Troad in June 1859, Schliemann noted in his diary, “In my mind’s eye I saw the city, the citadel, the tents of the Achaeans and the priest Chryses, who, shamed and dishonored by Agamemnon, prays to Apollo for vengeance.”

A lawsuit briefly forced Schliemann out of retirement. Back in business, he made large profits during the American Civil War trading cotton and tea. He retired again in 1864 and traveled to Tunis, Egypt, the East Indies, China, Japan, India, California, Mexico, Cuba, South America, and Italy. In 1866, he enrolled as a student at the Sorbonne in Paris.[28] He also attended lectures at the College de France, Bibliotheque Imperiale, Geographical and Ethnographical Societies, and the Society for American and Oriental Archaeology, declaring, “Here in Paris I find that fanaticism is much more contagious even than yellow fever … I am surrounded by fanatics for knowledge, who have made me a fanatic also.”[29] In 1868, Schliemann traveled to Rome where he noticed excavations taking place “everywhere” on the Palatine. He visited Pompeii and Herculaneum and spoke to the director of the excavations.[30] Later that year, he made his own small excavations on Ithaca and Mycenae, publishing the results in Ithaca, the Peloponnese, and Troy (1869). In an early indication of his future methods, after finding five small jars on the summit of Mt. Aetos in Ithaca, Schliemann remarked, “it is quite possible that in my five little urns I have the ashes of Odysseus and Penelope and their descendants.”[31]

Schliemann briefly moved to Indianapolis in 1869, taking advantage of the state’s liberal divorce laws to obtain a divorce from his wife (who refused to allow either herself or their children to leave Russia).[32] Two months later, he married a 17-year-old Greek girl named Sophia Engastromenos, a relative of his friend the Archbishop Theokletos Vimpos. Heinrich and Sophia had two children, Andromache (1871-1962) and Agamemnon (1878-1954).[33] Despite his German origins, Schliemann adopted Greece as the family’s new home, building  a mansion in Athens called the Iliou Melathron (“Palace of Ilium”), where he hosted social gatherings of up to 600 people.[34]

In this later period of his life, Schliemann entered the field of archaeology. He had visited the Troad in 1868 and met Frank Calvert, the U.S. vice consul who owned part of the mound of Hisarlik. It was Calvert who convinced Schliemann that this was the location of Homer’s Troy (most contemporary scholars favored another location, Burnabashi). Schliemann began excavations in 1871, employing 100-150 workmen. In his eagerness to find Troy, he decided to dig a trench through the center of the mound, obliterating large portions of the ancient buildings in its path. “The single object of my excavations from the beginning was only to find Troy,” he remarked.[35] An American visitor to the site, Francis Bacon, found “Dr. Schliemann” to be “very pleasant, [he] made me come into his room, had the servant bring coffee, etc., and showed me what he had found lately … He took me all over the excavations, and was very enthusiastic. He swears by Homer!”[36] Schliemann discovered pottery, pythoi, bracelets, terracotas, and, most dramatically, the “Treasure of Priam,” which he (falsely) claimed he and his wife dug out of the ground to protect it from being stolen by their workers. In the process, he destroyed important remains from the cities above Troy II, including, ironically, the remains of Troy VIIa, the most likely candidate for a city that could have been involved in a historical Trojan War.

Schliemann published romanticized accounts of his excavations in books like Troy and its Remains (1875) and Ilios: City and Country of the Trojans (1880). “During the day,” he wrote, “we could to some degree bear the cold by working in the excavations, but in the evenings we had nothing to keep us warm except our enthusiasm for the great work of discovering Troy.”[37] Among other colorful episodes from the dig, Schliemann described putting down a mutiny among the workers[38] and discovering an antidote against attacks from poisonous snakes.[39]

After an 1876 lawsuit with the Turkish government over smuggling Priam’s Treasure out of the country, Schliemann left Turkey and began excavations at Mycenae. The site was well-known, since Bronze Age ruins were still visible above ground. Nevertheless, Schliemann unearthed a series of concealed shaft graves containing a large quantity of gold and bronze objects, including inlaid daggers and gold death masks. When he pulled the first mask off of a mummy, he supposedly telegraphed King George of Greece: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” This was the greatest discovery of his career. As David Traill notes, Schliemann had finally “uncovered signs of a civilization that seemed to match in grace and sophistication the world of the Homeric heroes.”[40] He instantly became an “international celebrity,”[41] publishing the results of his excavations in 1878 as Mycenae: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenae and Tyrins. An 1882 article in The New York Times, “Dr. Schliemann at Home,” reported, “The interest of most modern travelers who visit Athens is probably about equally divided between the Parthenon and Dr. Schliemann. Of these two attractions the latter is much the less accessible; for the ‘Discoverer of Troy’ is … overrun by visitors.”[42]

Schliemann, celebrity though he was, continued to excavate: at Ithaca (1878), Orchomenus (1880), Tyrins (1884), and Troy (once in 1878-1879, again in 1882-1883, and finally in 1889-1890). A young archaeologist who met Schliemann in 1881 recalled that Schliemann “could think and talk of nothing else” besides his work. As Schliemann explained, “I am getting along in life—have only a few years more to live—and shall give them all to prehistoric work.”[43] In 1890, after surgery on his ear, Schliemann developed an infection and collapsed on a street in Naples, dying the next day.

Schliemann has a controversial legacy. Scholars have demonstrated a long series of contradictions and lies in his writings, bringing his reliability into question.[44] For instance, he minimized the role of Frank Calvert in identifying the site of Hisarlik as Troy. He also lied about his childhood fascination with Troy: no reference to Troy appears in his diary until the late 1850s. Schliemann’s haste in excavating, particularly at Troy, led to the destruction of valuable archaeological material. In 2004, National Geographic called him a “German adventurer and con-man.”[45] Yet at the same time, Schliemann’s archaeological reports are generally reliable and have been verified by later archaeologists.[46] His methods also improved over time.[47]

It is clear that Schliemann does not meet modern standards for a professional archaeologist. But as a later excavator of Troy, Carl Blegen, wrote, “To Heinrich Schliemann must be awarded full credit for … arousing immense interest in Homer and archaeology not only on the part of classical students but of the educated world and of the general public.”[48] It was larger-than-life personalities like Schliemann who made archaeology exciting, bringing it into the public eye and paving the way for more refined forms of research in the future. They encouraged a new generation of students to engage in archaeology and classical culture. Unlike some of his stories, Schliemann’s love for Troy was no lie, and his ability to transmit it to others was his most lasting legacy.


Daniel Stein (C’25) is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Neuroscience, Classical Studies, and Near Eastern Civilizations.



[1] From Virchow’s Preface to Heinrich Schliemann, Ilios: The City and Country of the Trojans (New York: Arno Press, 1976), ix.

[2] Quoted in David Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit (London: John Murray, 1995), 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Schliemann, Ilios, 1.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Quoted in Emil Ludwig, Schliemann: The Story of a Gold-seeker (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1932), 9.

[8] Traill, Schliemann of Troy, 16-17.

[9] Schliemann, Ilios, 6.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] “[M]y work consisted in stamping bills of exchange and getting them cashed in the town, and in carrying letters to and from the post office.” Ibid., 9.

[13] “His later handwriting is less elegant but decidedly more legible.” Traill, Schliemann of Troy, 21.

[14] “Necessity taught me a method greatly facilitates the study of a language,” wrote Schliemann. It involved “reading a great deal aloud, without a translation, taking a lesson every day, constantly writing essays on subjects of interest, correcting these under the supervision of a teacher, learning them by heart, and repeating in the next lesson what was corrected on the previous day.” Schliemann, Ilios, 9.

[15] Quoted in Traill, Schliemann of Troy, 27.

[16] Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, “Schliemann of Troy: The Story of a Linguistic Genius,” April 2, 2015, https://nataliavogeikoff.com/2015/04/02/schliemann-of-troy-the-story-of-a-linguistic-genius/

[17] Quoted in Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Elizabeth Carvalho, “Heinrich Schliemann, the linguist,” 236, http://www.aegeussociety.org/images/uploads/publications/schliemann/Schliemann_2012_234-237_Carvalho.pdf

[20] “Dr. Schliemann at Home: His Palatial House And The Manner Of His Life In It,” The New York Times, April 23, 1882, second column, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1882/04/23/102775360.html?pageNumber=6

[21] Christo Thanos and Wout Arentzen, Schliemann and the California Gold Rush (Sidestone Press, 2014), 30-31.

[22] Schliemann, Ilios, 12.

[23] Over accusations that Schliemann was short-weighting his shipments of gold dust. Traill, Schliemann of Troy, 25.

[24] Quoted in Ibid., 31.

[25] He writes, “the crucial conversion from merchant to archaeologist that was effected between 1856 and 1870 may have found its original impetus in the impossible task of pleasing a woman who despised him.” Ibid., 31.

[26] Ibid., 25.

[27] Quoted in Susan Heuck Allen, Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 113.

[28] Classes included 16th century French poetry, Arabic language and poetry, Greek philosophy, Greek literature, Petrarch and his travels, comparative grammar, Egyptian philology, archaeology, and modern French language and literature. Traill, Schliemann of Troy, 30.

[29] Ibid., 35.

[30] Cavaliere Fiorelli, the “best field archaeologist of his day.” Fiorelli was the man responsible for pouring plaster into the air pockets at Pompeii to recover the shapes of people, animals, and doors. Ibid., 38-39.

[31] Quoted in Ludwig, Schliemann, 105.

[32] Stephen J. Taylor, “‘So She Went:’ Heinrich Schliemann Came to Marion County For A ‘Copper Bottom Divorce,” Hoosier State Chronicles, March 11, 2015, https://blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/so-she-went-heinrich-schliemann-came-to-marion-county-for-a-copper-bottom-divorce/

[33] In 1914, Agamemnon became the Greek ambassador to the United States.

[34] Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, 227.

[35] Schliemann, Troy and its Remains (New York: Arno Press, 1976), 80.

[36] Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, 191.

[37] Schliemann, Ilios, 26.

[38] Schliemann, Troy and its Remains, 107.

[39] Ibid., 117.

[40] Traill, Schliemann of Troy, 160.

[41] Ibid., 164.

[42] “Dr. Schliemann at Home: His Palatial House And The Manner Of His Life In It,” The New York Times, April 23, 1882, first column, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1882/04/23/102775360.html?pageNumber=6

[43] Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan, “‘All Americans must be Trojans at Heart:’ A Volunteer at Assos in 1881 Meets Heinrich Schliemann,” From the Archivist’s Notebook, August 1, 2015, https://nataliavogeikoff.com/2015/08/01/all-americans-must-be-trojans-at-heart-a-volunteer-at-assos-in-1881-meets-heinrich-schliemann/

[44] William M. Calder III, “Schliemann on Schliemann: A Study in the Use of Sources,” GRBS 13, 335-353, 1972.

[45] Stefan Lovgren, “Is Troy True? The Evidence Behind Movie Myth,” National Geographic, May 14, 2004.

[46] Traill, Schliemann of Troy, 7.

[47] Carl Blegen, Troy and the Trojans (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963), 27.

[48] Ibid., 24.