Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From The Independent, November 5 2010

Paul Cartledge reviews
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, By Bettany Hughes

The shining names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes have left a permanent mark in the annals of human civilization". These are not my words, but those of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, and they are unarguably persuasive. Not a bad achievement for a thinker who, in the case of Socrates, left behind not a single unquestionably self-authored word.

Bettany Hughes indeed seems irresistibly drawn to ancient-world characters who when – and if - not frankly mythical are deeply, irretrievably mythicised. Her earlier quest for an at least partly historical Helen of Troy (and Sparta) is followed here by another, almost as chimerical perhaps, for the historical Socrates. From the ancient Greek world's most beautiful woman to one of its self-acknowledgedly ugliest men is quite a step, but one that Hughes accomplishes without breaking stride or pausing for breath.

Her enormous energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She writes up a storm. At the end of the road we may not be any closer to certainty or closure on the biggest issues of Socrates's inordinately rich life and afterlife but, as with the search for the historical Alexander or Jesus, travelling hopefully is quite possibly as good, and as much fun, as arriving. The journey is the reward.

No one before Bettany Hughes, a highly accomplished communicator, has thought to weave Socrates's examined life into quite so rich and dense a tapestry of democratic Athens's teeming high-cultural and mundane experience. Socrates was born in 469BC, too young by at least a generation to experience the highlights of Marathon and Salamis but old enough to profit from the heady intellectual and political and cultural ferment that those victories against the invading Persian empire brewed up.

Athens had become the world's first democracy (of its own unique sort) in around 500; 50 years on, by the time Socrates came of age (officially in 451), the Athenian citizen masses had gained the confidence and had the wit to accept advice from Pericles and many other lesser mortals. They voted funds for the Parthenon and the tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles as well as for a virtually non-stop, and mostly successful, series of campaigns on land and sea against Greeks and non-Greeks alike.

Readers will be drawn by Hughes's beguiling prose into exploring the highways and byways of Athens's topography. She begins programmatically with "Athena's City", and Socrates was nothing if not a denizen of the urban jungle. Archaeology has always been a strong suit of the author. Recent excavations in advance of building Athens's rather charming underground rapid-transit system are properly laid under contribution - especially the plague pits of the early 420s that, as contemporary historian Thucydides unforgettably recorded, threatened to subvert the most fundamental norms of civilised Athenian life.

She is also particularly illuminating on the devices and desires of the world's first democratic regime, towards which Socrates maintained an unfortunately ambivalent stance. On the one hand, he seems to have participated in at least some aspects of the daily round of democratic life, such as being chosen by lot to serve for one year on the 500-strong administrative Council. On the other hand, he must surely have shared to the hilt, if for more purely intellectual reasons, the general distaste of the Athenian elite for a political system that amounted in their eyes to the dictatorship of the (ignorant, fickle, stupid) proletariat. His personal associations with the maverick Alcibiades and, even more, with the arch-oligarch Critias did nothing to enhance his philo-democratic profile.

Hughes shows no less gusto for recalling and describing a Mediterranean world of sex, violence, carousing and great man-made beauty that Socrates sought rather to question than embrace. Who having read the Symposium – Plato's multiplex meditation on erotic desire – can ever forget naughty boy Alcibiades bursting in on the party, half-seas over, and regaling the assembled (fictional) company, including the playwright Aristophanes, with a richly comic tale of failed seduction: his, that is, of the habitually self-controlled Socrates? Yet "I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not in love with someone," Socrates is supposed to have said. Hughes rightly devotes a whole "Act" (one of the eight in her dramatised biographical reconstruction) to "Socrates and Love".

Above all, she does full justice - as perhaps the Athenian people did not - to the religious and philosophical endeavours of a unique career fatally shadowed by the ultimately disastrous Peloponnesian War against a Sparta backed decisively by Persian money (431-404 BC). In 399 Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of the deme (ward, parish) Alopece was indicted for impiety. He was tried before a people's jury court (no judge, or rather 501 amateur citizen-judges) for inventing new gods, not duly acknowledging through worship the gods that the city of Athens did acknowledge, and corrupting key young men who would go on to become traitors and political revolutionaries thanks to – by inference – his teaching of them.

The religious charges were crucial. Athenians took their gods deadly seriously and ascribed their defeat by Sparta not least to divine displeasure caused by the presence in their midst of such an influentially bad citizen as Socrates. The combination of alleged impiety and traitorous pedagogy proved fatal for Socrates, who died a martyr to free thought, as a new kind of intellectual hero.

Or so his many fans, among whom Hughes counts herself, have fiercely believed and argued. Whatever the truth (an elusive concept, as Socrates would probably have been the first to confess), Socrates admirably enacted his own rightly famous nostrum – that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being". Aged 70 he died the death of a philosopher by draining the prescribed hemlock dose and facing its consequences with enviable aplomb.

All of the above – and there is a good deal more here too, including an illuminating Act entitled "Socrates the Soldier" - demands reinvestigation and reappraisal. There can probably always be found room for a new book reminding us of Socrates's continued salience in our world of alarmingly unexamined prejudice and terrifyingly blind faith. The Hemlock Cup is, moreover, beautifully produced, filled with a host of stunning illustrations and tricked out most inventively on its endpapers with a plethora of extraordinary Socratic quotations running from Montaigne and Lydia Child (both 1588) to Nelson Mandela. The good life is an elusive concept but, however defined, arguably no search for it would be dangerously impeded by buying this handsome volume and reading it through, critically, as Bettany Hughes's Socrates would have devoutly wished.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From The DailyTelegraph October 30 2010
Tom Payne reviews

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

There’s a charming poem by Seamus Heaney about Socrates’ last day. It expresses a brief surprise that Socrates could believe in dreams. But the poet quickly acknowledges that the philosopher did live in a dream world. Bettany Hughes’s book leaves us in no doubt.

The Hemlock Cup is a biography of Socrates, and also a lot more than that. Yes, it speculates on the walks he would have taken around the Agora in Athens (admittedly with bundles of suggestive evidence); it suggests just what the hemlock would have done to him; and it attributes Socrates’ habit of standing stock still for hours to cataleptic seizures. For all that, Hughes is more concerned with the philosopher’s time and place.

As she unfolds the tale, she brings us an edited history of fifth-century BC Athens, too. This isn’t padding, or even scene-setting (atmospheric though it always is). Without overstating the case, she shows how the city’s life runs alongside the philosopher’s, and then takes a different course.

Socrates would always warn that an acquisitive life was not worth living and that the pursuit of gold is vacuous; meanwhile Athens revelled in becoming an empire, so it conquered more and mined more and showed off more. And then there was an attempt to colonise Sicily.

Out of Athens and Socrates, the former emerges as the more tragic character, with its greed and its failure to learn from its wisest citizen until in the throes of its downfall.

Still, Athens and Socrates have this in common: that we hold both up to be supremely rational entities, yet the mysterious, even the magical, holds some allure for them both. Athens is a town of traditions, superstitions and taboo. And the Socrates Hughes portrays is attentive to his inner voice, his guiding spirit, his daimon. As a result, Socrates ends up inflaming public opinion when his own instincts seem to set him against the pantheon of mischievous Olympians to whom his fellow citizens sacrificed as often as possible.

Now, to present Socrates in this way isn’t easy. It subverts his legacy as a philosopher. Hughes pleads right from the start that her book is about the busy and practical Socrates and that she is more a historian than a philosopher. So readers expecting a life of his mind, and to meet the Theory-of-Forms Socrates will be disappointed.

The author does deal with the ideas, particularly where they apply to love. Love, after all, is a real-world way of glimpsing things whose beauty is beyond this world. But she settles for a quick peek at the thinkers who, she suggests, most directly influenced Socrates: Parmenides and Zeno. The former explains the world by ascribing “being” to it; the latter formulates paradoxes that test ideas to destruction.

It’s an efficient move because it helps her persuade us that Socrates is at once a gadfly and also enlivened by the belief that things have a reality beyond our experience in this world. And it gives Hughes a chance to entertain a little gossip, and hint that Parmenides and Zeno were an item. She’s also keen to establish that there was more to the relationship between Socrates and the seductive Alcibiades than readers of the Symposium might think.

Often this is a book about gossip and quite right too. It was gossip that did for Socrates, as he told the 500 jurors who judged him. Hughes puts his fame in its Greek context, where the word’s root, pheme, means talk. Talk was everything in Athens, and Socrates was a constant topic. Why would he teach behind closed doors? Why did he hang out with the half-Spartan Alcibiades, who was so amused by the populace?

Early in Hughes’s story, we’re shown the binding nature of the blood sacrifice before the trial, and at the end, when Socrates must die, she calls him a scapegoat, while discussing the need that his execution be ritually pure.

It’s tempting to take these implications further, and see Socrates as a luminary who tickles his audience for a while and then is voted out, a sacrificial victim himself with no way back, so that Athens is too late to realise its mistake.

The author elegantly resists this and gives us a compelling study of an exceptional man’s relationship with the one community that had a hope of understanding and accepting him.

There’s some terrific and passionate writing about a philosopher whose heroism is unquestionable (though that heroism resides in a constant questioning); and as lively and learned an introduction to classical Athens as you could want.


From The Sunday Telegraph October 24 2010

Peter Jones reviews THE BATTLE OF MARATHON, by Peter Krentz (Yale 230pp £18.99)

The second couplet of the Greek tragic poet Aeschylus’ epitaph reads: ‘The grove of Marathon could tell of his famous valour, and the long-haired Mede knew it well’. Being one of the Marathonomachai of 490 BC was the one thing the man who composed the Oresteia wished to be remembered for.

He was not alone. The Persian Empire stretched from western Turkey to India. Its king, Darius, ruled some 70 million people. Athenians may have been foolish to stir to revolt some of the Greeks living under this mighty empire, but that’s the Athenians for you: a freedom-loving lot. There was now a price to pay. The Persian general Datis, the expedition leader, was under orders to bring the Athenians back in chains.

The chains remained unoccupied. On that late summer morning, 6,400 Persians were killed, and 192 Greeks. A visitor to Athens 600 years later, surveying all the monuments, commented ‘I reckon this is the victory of which the Athenians were most proud’. Some have argued it saved Western civilisation. Those who think it was not worth saving are free to try president Ahmadinejad’s vibrant alternative.

Next year we celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of this encounter, dated in our calendar to September 13th. If the American academic Peter Krentz’s is the only book published on the subject—somehow one thinks not—it will make a fitting memorial. Written with commendable clarity and good humour, it submits all the evidence to careful scrutiny, and adds a good deal more, to present a pretty convincing picture of what happened and why.

Our primary source is the Greek historian Herodotus, writing some sixty years after the event. To take a few of the problems. Herodotus says the Greeks ran 8 stadia (.9 of a mile) before attacking: the first time that had ever been done. Was it possible in full hoplite gear? Assuming with Krentz that such gear weighed c. 40 lbs (not the assumed c. 60 lbs) and that the run was a jog at 4.5mph and not the assumed 7mph—Krentz demonstrates the likelihood of both—the answer is ‘yes’.

But why did they run? Herodotus does not say. But he had said that the Persians landed at Marathon because it was wide enough to deploy their cavalry. Krentz shows that the Greeks attacked at speed in order to anticipate that deployment, adding that, had it been the Persian archers they were worried about, running the last stadion would have sufficed.

Herodotus says the Greek centre was driven back, but the wings won and turned round to attack the Persians from the rear. Some have argued this was too sophisticated a manoeuvre. But it was surely an entirely natural thing to do, even if, as Krentz argues, it was not in strict phalanx formation.

And what about those famous ‘Marathons’, first (to no avail) to get Spartan help, and then to announce the victory, run by Philippides, or was it Pheidippides, or, er, Eukles or perhaps, um, Thersippos? Read this compelling book and find out.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From The BBC History Magazine, October 2010
Michael Scott reviews
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good life

The Hemlock Cup is another vibrant and atmospheric work from this well-known promoter of the ancient world.

Bettany Hughes has taken one of history’s great enigmatic figures, the philosopher Socrates, and made him her guide to one of the world’s most interesting and important cities, Athens, during a glorious and yet highly turbulent periods of its history.

As Hughes makes clear in her introduction to the book, to write about Socrates is to rely on second-hand accounts, which need careful sifting and weighing to generate a reliable picture of the man and his world. This Hughes enhances with her welcome vivid descriptiveness (“Athens is a kingfisher’s whisper from the sea”; “they were lines of snails in an electric storm”) and her fast-paced narrative.

The book starts at close zoom on Socrates’s day of judgment. It then pulls back to examine Athens during his early life, his career as a soldier, his time as a middle-aged man, and as a lover, before finally returning to a dramatic retelling of his condemnation and execution.

By following Socrates in this manner, Hughes combines the difficult literary evidence with the archaeological remains to produce an enjoyable and thought-provoking tour through Athens’s major physical, historical and cultural landmarks and flash-points of the fifth and early fourth centuries BC.

Within such a rich text, there are only a few points that give pause. The focus on talking only about locations and themes that can be tied in some way to Socrates’s life means that Hughes misses out on some key features of Athens and her empire. It is difficult to understand the statesman Pericles’s building programme without thinking about its vast Attica-wide geographical scope, with buildings at Eleusis, Sounion and Rhamnous for example.

The footnotes to fantastic insights (particularly from the archaeological evidence) also sometimes frustrate you when trying to follow them to learn more (there are no references to the excavation publications of the Kerameikos, for example, in chapter ten on
the Kerameikos cemetery).

Perhaps the most difficult to swallow, though, are the headline-grabbing statements about Socrates himself: “He is hailed as humanity’s first-recorded ideological martyr” (without any footnotes to articulate the claim) and “the first man for whom we have an extant record who explores how we should all live in the world”.

Such phrases not only do an injustice to the balanced tenor of the rest of the book, but give a picture of ancient Greece isolated from other important ancient civilisations that surrounded and preceded it.

Despite these points, this is an exciting book that puts the reader into the footsteps of Athenians of the fifth century BC. It documents the slide from empire to defeat and political instability with passion and imagination, complemented by pull-no-punches descriptions of the modern landscape of Athens.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

From the Observer, October 24 2010
Tom Holland reviews
The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure does not tend to be rated as one of cinema's profounder treatments of the relationship between present and past. The story of two Californian slackers with a time machine who, for complicated reasons, have to assemble assorted celebrities from history in order to pass a high-school project, it is chiefly remembered for bringing Keanu Reeves to the attention of a mass audience. Classicists, however, will always cherish it as the only film ever to combine the music of Van Halen with Greek philosophy. When Bill and Ted embark on their quest, what should be their first destination if not classical Athens, and who should be the very first "historical dude" bundled into their time machine if not a bald-headed man in a sheet whom they persist in calling "Soh-kraytz "?

Even to metalheads, then, the philosophy of ancient Greece serves as something that is both primal and emblematic of civilisation as a whole. Socrates, in particular, the "lover of wisdom" who insisted that the most fundamental presumptions of his countrymen should be subjected to experimental investigation, and who ended up being made to drink hemlock for his pains, has always been admired as the very fountainhead of rationalism. Yet when it comes to identifying what he taught and believed, there is a problem, on which Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, rather unexpectedly, puts its finger. Socrates, transplanted to 1980s California, can only communicate with his abductors by gesturing and gurning – since Bill and Ted, it goes without saying, speak not a word of ancient Greek. Even the miracle of time travel, it appears, cannot serve to alter what is, for any historian, a most awkward fact: that it is impossible to be certain of what Socrates actually said.

Like Jesus and, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad, he never wrote down a word. As a result, it is exceedingly difficult to know anything definite about Socrates as a historical figure. True, we have extensive accounts of what he said and did, and granted, these were composed much closer in time to his execution than were the gospels to the crucifixion, or the first biographies of Muhammad to the death of the prophet. Proximity, however, does not necessarily spell transparency. No matter that the historical Socrates does indeed seem to have patented the dialogue as a form of philosophical inquiry, the surviving accounts of his conversation are very far from being a documentary record. Most of them – perhaps regrettably, from the biographer's point of view – were composed by a man who just happened to be the most influential philosopher of all time, and a supreme literary artist to boot. Write about Socrates with the aim of disentangling the man from the myth, and it is almost impossible to tell where Socrates ends and Plato begins.

This, then, is the treacherous bog into which Bettany Hughes, with her new biography of the snub-nosed philosopher, has fearlessly plunged. She writes as a historian, and her focus, as she is careful to make explicit, is not Socrates's philosophy, but rather how it "evolved in his time and his place". So it is that the life of her hero becomes a peg from which to hang a vivid depiction of Athens in its golden age, from the pinnacle of its greatness to the abyss of its ultimate defeat. To this end, all the talents honed by years of making high-class documentaries about the ancient world are formidably on display. Hughes's prose is the literary equivalent of CGI, re-creating for the reader a sense of the clamour and dazzle of the classical city that has rarely been bettered. Not only that, she is expert in knowing when to alter and vary her focus. Sometimes we are led by her through the streets of modern Athens, sometimes across an archaeological site, and sometimes down into the basement of a provincial museum, where rare treasures lie hidden. She spares no effort in bringing the world of Socrates alive. Describing Athens amid the death-agonies of the Peloponnesian war, Hughes comments that it "must have been reminiscent of Kabul 2002-10: ragged, war-torn, veiled women in the streets with no husbands, brothers or sons". Hers is an ancient Greece that is authentically cutting-edge.

All of which only serves to emphasise the degree to which her book is frustratingly like Hamlet without the Prince. The skill and judiciousness with which Hughes puts together assorted fragments of evidence when writing about Athens is bewilderingly absent from her portrait of the man who is ostensibly her subject. To include great chunks of Plato's dialogues as though they were the ipsissima verba of Socrates himself is cavalier enough. Even more tendentious, however, is the degree to which everything quoted appears designed to make him acceptable to the sensibilities of her readers. That Socrates was a great man is not in doubt; but he was not a great man because he valued women, had his doubts about slavery, or believed in the redemptive power of love. Just as Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure shows Socrates enjoying the local mall like any west coast teenager, so The Hemlock Cup gives us a portrait of him as a liberal Observer reader. Situated as it is in the midst of such a wonderfully rich and nuanced evocation of the city in which he lived, Hughes's Socrates ends up seeming, if anything, even more anachronistic than does "Soh-kraytz".

Literary Review, October 2010

Peter Jones reviews THE HEMLOCK CUP: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes

Athens in the fifth century BC was a place electric with intellectual energy and excitement. It was the perfect setting for the Athenian self-professed gadfly Socrates (469-399 BC), about whom three things stand out. He irritated a large number of people with his insistent questioning about their beliefs, especially what ‘goodness’ meant; he was executed for refusing to recognise the state's gods, introducing new gods and corrupting the young; and he never wrote a word.

His contemporaries Plato and the soldier-essayist Xenophon hero-worshipped him, while the comedian Aristophanes travestied him for laughs. His near contemporary Aristotle—born 384 BC and no admirer of Plato—went clinically to the heart of what he achieved philosophically: Socrates concerned himself solely with ethics, and we should ascribe to him ‘inductive argument and general definition’. Not that Aristotle was arguing that Socrates *invented* inductive reasoning; rather, that he was the first person to recognise its importance and use it systematically. But where do ethics come in?

To generalise: philosophers before Socrates were mainly interested in what we would call natural science, the origins and workings of the cosmos. Socrates was not. He thought it much more important to ask what humans beings were for and what made a good (i.e. moral) and therefore happy one.

He began from an analogy with experts in crafts. They have a body of knowledge with its own rules, procedures, techniques etc. that enables them to produce material goods. By the same token, Socrates argued, there must be an expert in producing moral beings. What, then, is the knowledge that such a one will possess? Here comes the induction: let us inspect individual acts that we call ‘good/moral’ and see what is common to them all. That way we will find out what goodness is (the ‘general definition’). Bingo. But once we know what goodness is, does it follow that we shall do it? Yes, claims Socrates. If we really *do* know it, we will be unable to do anything else. In a sense, then, goodness and knowledge are inseparable.

Of course, Socrates never does find out what goodness is. Nor is the method sound: for how can we know that the acts we choose to examine are in fact ‘good’, if we are examining them in the first place to discover what goodness is? But what stands out about Socrates is that he was convinced there was such an objective entity as ‘goodness’; that it was the key to human happiness; that we would find it only by abandoning any pretensions that we possessed it and looking in the right direction for it; and that it was essential for men to pursue that objective to the exclusion of everything else, and be prepared to take the consequences too, if man was to be good (and therefore happy). It is a heroically idealistic and wholly impractical vision, and it killed him. Martyred him, some would say.

In her exuberant account of Socrates’ life in Athens in the fifth century BC, Bettany Hughes, Channels Four’s favourite classicist, barely touches on any of this. To that extent, one wonders why Socrates is the central figure at all: for it is his philosophical stance that makes him significant. Without it, he is just another Athenian.

Further, her approach can lead her astray. For example, she quotes Socrates as saying in Plato’s *Symposium* ‘Love [*ta erôtika*] is the one thing in the world I understand’, and suggests he ‘promoted the unifying power of love within human society’. This is simply not true. By *ta erôtika*, Socrates meant not sexual desire (which is what it is assumed to mean in the *Symposium*), nor ‘love’ in the Christian sense (which is what she seems to be getting at), but desire for what we lack, especially knowledge of the good. Without the philosophy, it is easy to make this sort of mistake.

The proviso, then, is to check the sources that Hughes extensively quotes. One can then plunge enthusiastically into the seething world of Socrates that she creates for us, following ‘the clues in Plato, Xenophon and Aristophanes to the physical reality of fifth-century Athens and therefore the physical reality of Socrates’ life...To this end I have used the latest sources—archaeological, topographical, textual—to construct a life for a man we can all benefit from getting to know a little better.’

That, in fact, is too modest a claim. This is the grand sweep of Athenian history during its most politically inventive and culturally exciting period, and (like her *Helen of Troy*) it is history written with the rich invention of the novelist, clothing in living flesh—sweet, sweating, stinking, sensuous—the words on pages 2,500 years old. Socrates is a sort of ‘phantom’ figure, constructed out of everything contemporary sources have to say about him to guide us through the period.

This clearly creates an academic problem: where is the ‘real’ Socrates in all this? In a venture of this sort, Hughes is right to bat it away. She concentrates instead on what people made of Socrates. However different a picture of Socrates Xenophon may paint from Plato’s, Xenophon’s view is still history: a history of his feelings about and reaction to the man. Indeed, one could argue that other people’s reactions to Socrates give a far more instructive a picture of the man than any self-serving autobiography ever could.

It all makes for a rich mixture: Socrates’ early days as a keen natural scientist, his military career, his growing sense of what is important in life, his political scrapes, his trial and execution are played out in the company of Plato, Xenophon, Pericles, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, Aspasia, free and slave, shoemaker and sculptor, intellectual and thug—a cast of millions—against the setting of fifth-century Athens with its markets, back-streets, gymnasia, temples and rivers, its political battles, military engagements, theatrical performances, plague, triumph and disaster. Channel Four must be licking its lips. It will make irresistible television.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


From The BBC History Magazine, September 2010

Peter Jones reviews


Icon Books p/b 294pp £8.99

When the Spartans in 404 BC finally defeated Athens after a war lasting more than a quarter of a century, they destroyed its Long Walls and installed an oligarchic government (‘The Thirty’). It was now a fair bet that the Athenian democratic experiment would come to an end. But Athenians were made of tougher stuff. Within a year The Thirty were out, and the democracy restored.

This tells one as much about Sparta as Athens. Already Sparta’s allies in the war—like Thebes—were getting as restless with Spartan imperialism as they had with Athenian, and always there was Persia in the background, ready to make deals with anyone to maintain its power in Asia Minor, where so many Greek cities had earlier been founded. Indeed, Sparta had already taken Persian money to help it win the war against Athens.

The result was a renewal of normal service in the competitive, self-assertive, always suspicious Greek world: chaotic inter-state strife, with occasional pauses for breath, Thebes, Athens, Sparta and Persia being the main players.

It was left to the gathering force of Macedon in the north, under its brilliant, ruthless king Philip II, to impose order. By 338 he had mastered Greece, and in 322 Macedonians brought the democratic experiment to an end. Enter the kings.

Scott sensibly enlivens the complexities of this rather bewildering world by portraying it through its leading personalities—Theban Epaminondas, Athenian Demosthenes, Spartan Agesilaus, Plato and others. His efforts to find parallels with the modern world do not carry much carry conviction, but this period has always lain in the shadow of the glories of fifth century Athens, and Scott is to be congratulated on bringing it to life again in vigorous, if sometimes rather hip-hop, style.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Goldsworthy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson: ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

Peter Jones reviews
by Adrian Goldsworthy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 470pp £25

From The Tablet, August 14 2010

The main problem for the historian, as Goldsworthy observes, is that the story of Antony and Cleopatra is squeezed between two towering figures: Julius Caesar on the one side, and on the other, Caesar’s callow, nineteen year old successor Octavian who would, as a result of his civil war against Antony and Cleopatra, emerge as the first Roman emperor Augustus. It is easy to forget Cleopatra’s inherent problems in Egypt, and the importance of Antony himself as a major player in Roman politics.

Further, as Goldsworthy rightly insists, Octavian vs. A-C was not a case of honest, noble Roman vs. sex- and drink-crazed foreigners. Certainly, that is the way Octavian tried to spin it, significantly declaring war (when it came in 32 BC) on Cleopatra, but not Antony. But Cleopatra was in fact a loyal Roman ally, and Antony was supported—we are told—by 300 out of 1,000 senators. It was a civil, not a foreign, war.

Antony (born 83 BC) was a distant relative of Julius Caesar, and grew up at a time when the Republic was falling apart: force prevailed, it was every man for himself, the prize to the most powerful. Antony learned his lesson well. After a wild youth and some useful military service out East, Antony joined Caesar in Gaul c. 54 BC. Caesar was renowned for his generosity to his soldiers, and Antony was heavily in debt. From now on he climbed the political ladder as Caesar’s man.

Cleopatra VII, Greek through and through, was born in 69 BC into a collapsing, but still fantastically wealthy, kingdom. Her family, stretching back some 250 years when Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals, first took over Egypt, were incestuous autocrats, punctuating the years with spells of murderous infighting. They were never afraid to seek foreign help to retain power; indeed, Ptolemy X had already bequeathed Egypt to Rome in his will (!), but Romans had reacted cautiously. Egypt was no threat, nor on their radar. But money talks, and in 59 BC Ptolemy XII paid Pompey and Caesar the equivalent of billions to make Egypt an official ‘friend and ally’.

Cleopatra became queen at 19 in 51 BC. She too desperately needed the Roman connection even to stay alive, let alone remain in power. In 48 BC Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in pursuit of his (already murdered) rival Pompey. Problem solved.

But not for long. When Caesar lodged her in Rome with their son Caesarion in 46 BC, she did not go down especially well (Cicero thought her a disdainful cow). After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, she returned to Egypt, there to reassert her authority again, partly with the judicious exterminations of rivals. But, as before, only Rome could keep her secure.

Antony, who must surely have met Cleopatra during Caesar’s dalliance, was now in the mix for power. Civil war loomed, but eventually he and Octavian reached agreement to share power. Ruthless massacres of political enemies (including Cicero) and seizure of assets to pay for the army ensued—a reign of terror—and Brutus and Cassius defeated at Philippi. After all this, the empire, especially the eastern half where much of the fighting had taken place, needed order and stability restored. Antony was delegated to the job. In 41 BC he summoned Cleopatra to do business. She knew her fate was in his hands. ‘The barge she sat in..’—and that was that.

Was it love? Lust in fancy dress? Simple expediency? Whatever it was, Antony needed Egypt’s wealth and therefore the queen’s loyalty as much she needed him. The rough, tough soldier, adored by his men, and the elegant, sophisticated queen, were now a couple, and despite Octavian’s best efforts to split them, that is how they remained.

But Antony lost it. His excessive demonstrations of political commitment to Cleopatra handed the political momentum to Octavian. Further, while Antony saw himself as a professional fighting man, in fact he was not experienced with large armies. He did not plan or prepare well, and was not quick on his feet when things went wrong. So when the break with Octavian finally occurred in 32 BC, there was to be only one winner.

After providing a clear, succinct background to events, Goldsworthy’s tactic is to weave the two stories into a single thread by moving seamlessly back and forth from Rome to Egypt. It works beautifully. His mastery of the sources is commendable, his historical judgement sure-footed and, as ever, he brings a winning lucidity to the description of often quite complex situations—the perfect accompaniment to any, especially Mediterranean, holiday.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Simon Price and Peter Thonemann: THE BIRTH OF CLASSICAL EUROPE

From The Sunday Telegraph August 8 2010

Peter Jones reviews THE BIRTH OF CLASSICAL EUROPE: A History from Troy to Augustine, By Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, Allen Lane 398pp £25

In a recent election broadcast from Arbroath in Scotland, it was pointed out that, for all its proud nationalistic history, the locals were far more interested in who would save their jobs than the fortunes of the SNP. In other words, a strong sense of history can be irrelevant to people’s sense of where their real needs and interests lie.

On the other hand, when one looks at the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is clear that no resolution will be reached until both sides agree to forget their history, both recent and ancient. Unshakeable convictions about ‘rights’ to territory, historically accurate or not, are at the very heart of the problem.

One of the major themes of Price-Thonemann’s account of the ‘birth’ of classical Europe is the extent to which these societies’ memories of their history (true or false) helped to create a ‘communal identity’. As the authors demonstrate in fascinating detail, Greek and Roman elites put an enormous amount of effort into calling up or re-inventing the past to suit the present. For example, after Cleisthenes invented democracy in Athens in 507 BC, Athenians soon began ascribing elements of it to an early (to us mythical) founding hero Theseus. In 196 BC, Lampsacus (a town near the Dardanelles) tried to strike up an alliance with Marseilles on entirely bogus claims to historical links with it (which is why historians were regularly members of diplomatic embassies). Both Greek and Roman elites were always harking back to the Trojan War. This invocation of the past is a defining feature of ancient elite mentality.

But it does raise the question how far such a ‘communal identity’ was anything more than simply an elite identity. For example, when the Persians defeated Roman armies in the 3rdC AD, they boasted that they were reliving the glories of their great kings Darius and Xerxes eight hundred years earlier. Price-Thonemann argue that this sort of political image-making ‘profoundly (my italics) shaped’ the Persian world. But in what way did it make an actual difference to anyone other than the elites who created it? Or bring classical Europe to ‘birth’?

Another major theme applies particularly to the Romans and asks how far they tried to impose their own identity on the vast empire they eventually came to control. The answer is: hardly at all.

Greek provinces in the East, rightly proud of the classical ‘glory that was Greece’, did not fully buy into the Roman way. Romans did nothing about it. They did not, for example, try to impose Latin.

In the West, provincials fell over themselves to sign up, quite unprompted, as the Latin-based Romance languages testify. When Roman moulded pottery became wildly popular, Gallic potters in a huge production centre in France started churning out imitations, signing themselves with Latin names (‘Felix’ and ‘Primus’) on their pots to prove their ‘authenticity’ when we know their Celtic names were Matugenos and Cintusmos.

The Aedui, a Gallic tribe, started Romanising their town almost immediately after Caesar’s conquest in the 50s BC. But c.15 BC they decided that was not good enough, moved twenty kilometres away to modern Autun, and constructed a complete ‘Roman’ town covering 200 hectares. No one told them to. It was their own decision.

And all the time this was going on, a sense was gradually developing of the differing identities that made the West ‘European’ but the East ‘Asian’, though in time both identities were submerged under the term ‘Roman’.

This is to scratch the surface of a book rich in illustrative details and examples of its themes from all over the ancient world, from medallions of Roman emperors excavated in the Mekong delta of south Vietnam to Danish burials full of high-class Roman imports.

But it must be stressed that it is not a text-book. While the account is told chronologically, there is little by way of strong narrative structure, and the authors seem determined to avoid the big set-pieces. There is, for example, little on Marathon or Thermopylae, the Peloponnesian War, Hannibal, or any but a handful of Roman emperors, let alone literature and the arts.

But for those who know the broad outlines of classical history, this controversial interpretation of what one might mean by the ‘birth’ of classical Europe contains much of very great interest on the themes with which it deals.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ferdinand Mount: FULL CIRCLE: How the Classical World Came Back to Us

From The Economist, June 2010
Jun 24th 2010

Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us.
By Ferdinand Mount.
Simon & Schuster; 438 pages; £20.

FERDINAND MOUNT has enjoyed an unusually varied career—columnist, novelist and literary editor, head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit in Downing Street, and author of a delightful memoir entitled “Cold Cream” that was an unexpected bestseller last year. His new book, “Full Circle”, is an altogether more serious and demanding work, but it is imbued with the same wit as its predecessor and is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Mr Mount argues that there is an “astonishing resemblance” between life in ancient Greece and Rome and the manner in which we live now. It is as though the intervening 1,500 years had never been. “We have been on a round trip…and we are back at the jetty we embarked from.” Now, as then, there is an obsession with the body. The baths and gyms of the classical world employed more people than any other institution except the army. We are hugely concerned with cleanliness and fitness. Many have personal trainers or pay inordinate sums to go to “Shangri-spa”. In our attitudes to sex and food we are much closer to the Romans than to those who lived in the Dark Ages or the Victorian era—or even the 1950s.

There has been a similar reversion in our mental attitudes. In the section on the mind Mr Mount draws some amusing, and generally convincing, comparisons. Anaximander, a pre-Socratic philosopher, was the first Darwinian. Lucretius is the Richard Dawkins of 55BC. Mithras and Mick Jagger are the god and demigod on the brink of satisfaction. Long before Jade Goody was famous for being famous the Romans were obsessed with celebrity, with the “Triumph” rather than “Big Brother” and Socratic dialogue in place of Jeremy Paxman’s “Newsnight”.

The return to the ways of ancient Rome “has closely paralleled the decline of Christianity”. The “art of religion” has been replaced by “the religion of art” and with that has come degeneracy. The fact that it has happened for a second time “suggests that we might be programmed that way”. Mr Mount mourns the fact that we live in a post-Christian society, and he excoriates the “anti-God-botherers” such as Mr Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, though he reveres Charles Darwin as the inventor of the age we live in. Richard Jefferies, a Victorian naturalist, and a German philosopher, Hans Vaihinger, are other heroes who provide grounds for optimism that a return to a concern for Mother Earth and adoption of an “as if” (the Christian religion were true) philosophy can enable us to rediscover Cicero’s vision of immortality, “Scipio’s Dream”.

Half a millennium separates the democracy of Athens, under the incorruptible Pericles, from the tyranny in Rome of the emperors Caligula and Nero; they were very different epochs and places. It is unsurprising therefore that Mr Mount has been able to select parallels between aspects of our society and some of those of the classical world, while ignoring others such as slavery (immigrant workers?) and gladiators (World Cup footballers?) that do not fit as well. However, his central premise is an arresting and disturbing one. What if our civilisation is followed by a second dark age? Will it last for 1,500 years or for ever?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

John R Hale: Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens

From Literary Review June 2010

Paul Cartledge reviews

Lords of the Sea: The Triumph and Tragedy of Ancient Athens

By John R Hale (Gibson Square 395pp £17.99)

In June 1993, to mark the notional 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy, a reconstruction of an ancient Athenian warship paid a symbolic visit to the Palace of Westminster: the Mother of Democracies meets the Mother of Parliaments. Possibly. At any rate, those of us who stood that day upon Westminster Bridge could feast our eyes on an avatar of one of the ancient Greek world’s most remarkable manufactures: the trireme, or three-banked oared warship, a glorified racing eight (but with over twenty times that number of oarsmen) and guided missile ramming-machine, as reconstructed according to British plans and finance and Greek craftsmanship. It was several hundreds of these weapons, in the hands mainly of Athenian citizens, that triumphantly gored and floored a many times larger Persian fleet at Salamis in 480 BC, thereby saving a pioneer version of democracy or even, on one view, Western civilisation itself. Tragedy followed much later, in defeat at sea for Athens first by the Spartans (twice over, and with Persian money…), then by some of Athens’s own allies, and finally, decisively, by the Macedonian kingdom then ruled by the immediate successors of Alexander the Great. (The reconstructed trireme is perhaps rather humiliatingly named Olympias, after Alexander’s mother.)

Despite its rather emotive title, John Hale’s debut book is a largely even-keeled retelling of Athenian naval history from 483 to 322 BC. It is based, not always quite as solidly as the author strives to suggest, on ancient literary sources such as Thucydides (but also Cornelius Nepos), on archaeological discoveries (though not, and not for the author’s want of trying, on finds of actual preserved warships), and on surveys of the islands, coasts, channels and seas in which Athenian mariners operated and fought their battles. Those battles include Cyzicus (410 BC), Arginoussai (406 BC), and Aegospotami (405 BC), to the understanding of which Hale justly claims to have made novel and independent contributions. But his book is not strictly speaking a history of the Athenian navy during that century and a half. Rather, it a history of Athenian democracy in so far (which for Hale is very far, indeed pretty much totally) as the fate of that pioneering institution was linked to the development of Athens’s navy in the momentous era when the fast trireme was the ship of the line.

The author, who hails academically from Yale, Cambridge (England) and Louisville, has a rattling good yarn to spin and is very well qualified to tell it. Given the intrinsic importance and interest of his subject, therefore, one could only wish that his book might be recommended, with confidence, to the sort of readership the author has in mind – a general lay reading public, especially that hardcore section of it perennially fascinated by matters military, and some more professionally committed students of ancient Greek and Middle Eastern history. Members of a seagirt nation such as ours, indeed, for whom the navy is the senior service, might be expected to evince a particular interest in a work of this character. But, alas, the good ship Lords of the Sea proves to be a leaky vessel, the flaws in whose design and execution constantly threaten to hole if not capsize it.

Hale’s view of classical Greek history from the rowing bench gives us the face and very much more than that of ancient naval battle. There was no rum, some sodomy, and no lash for the average trireme oarsman; but buckets of tears, sweat, and other bodily fluids poured from him as he coped with tholepin, loom and bilge water, and he was vulnerable as few others in history have been to the pains and indignities of callused palms, blistered buttocks, even anal fistulas. Yet oddly enough all this suffering in the cause of Athenian democracy and Greek freedom from Persian domination called forth nothing but contempt from superior horsey or hoplite (heavy infantry) types like Plato. Why, trireme oarsmen backwatered away from the enemy, and so far from looking him in the eye they faced away from him, and most of them wouldn’t have been able to see the enemy anyway even if they’d been facing forward, entombed and nearly blinded as they were below decks. Moreover, ordinary Athenian sailors had this unfortunate habit of thinking and behaving democratically, acting on the conceit that all Athenian citizens were created equal and equally free. Aristophanes was as quick to join in the fun of Platonic navy-baiting as the über-democrats Pericles and Demosthenes were keen to hymn Athens’s naval might. All this and more Hale brings out very well, with admirable empathy as well as sympathy.

But these merits can’t hide the too numerous cracks and fissures in his craft. These range from mere typos, other misspellings and relatively innocuous slips and blips (for some of which the publishers must take their share of the responsibility) to numerous chronological inexactitudes and some full-on screaming howlers. I counted dozens of them, including: kratos (the ancient Greek for ‘power’) misspelled kratis; a misunderstanding of ‘avatar’; the Thebans were not Dorians; there were (reportedly) 700 Thespians at Thermopylae, not 1,000; the ancient Greek for ‘weakness’ is malakia, not malaria; it was four, not six, years after the assassination of Ephialtes that the office of archonship at Athens was opened up to hoplite citizens; Aristophanes did not only ‘rarely’ prove a favourite with Athenian audiences, nor is he known to have been convicted and fined by a jury; ‘adouring’ (for ‘adoring’); Socrates was not accused of ‘heresy’; Isocrates did not teach rhetoric at the Lyceum; Alexander died aged thirty-two, not thirty-six; the Battle of Lepanto was fought in 1571, not 1471 – and so on. And then there are the oversimplified inferences from naval to other key aspects of Greek and Athenian life, and the underplaying of the fourth century BC as opposed to the fifth – in the service presumably of a certainly often gripping narrative storyline.

In short, there is still plenty of sea room for a new one-volume history of the Athenian navy in its democratic political context from 483 to 322 BC, one that not only gets its facts right (so far as they can be ascertained) but also one that deals with the mundanities of the nautical life onshore as well as on the not normally very high seas, and that places Athenian naval matters in their more proper social and political perspective. And for the time being readers will mostly be better served by consulting a combination of Barry Strauss’s exhilarating recent account of The Battle of Salamis (‘The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece – and Western Civilization’) and the suitably three-oared The Athenian Trireme (‘The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship’) by J S Morrison, J F Coates and – Cambridge University Boat Club’s Oxonian nemesis – Boris Rankov.

Ferdinand Mount: FULL CIRCLE: How the Classical World Came Back to Us


From Literary Review, June 2010
Peter Jones reviews FULL CIRCLE: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, by Ferdinand Mount

Simon and Schuster 438pp £20

To declare an interest: for some years now I have been writing an occasional column in The Spectator whose aim is to throw ancient light on modern problems. What constantly strikes me is that, while our problems are frequently the same, the way the ancients approached them was very different. Ferdinand Mount, however, as he firmly emphasises in his introduction, finds himself impressed by the evidence for the opposite position, i.e. ‘how much we are like [the Greeks and the Romans], how in so many ways, large and small, trivial and profound, we are them and they are us’. It does not take an intellect of Aristotelian dimensions to foresee that I will broadly disagree.

Mount’s formulation of the thesis pinpoints the problem. ‘Greeks and Romans’ span for us the historical (as opposed to pre-historical) period c. 1400 BC to AD 500. If you had said to a Roman that he was a Greek, he would have thought you deranged. How we, two thousand years on, can ‘be’ either Greeks or Romans (let alone both), culturally, socially, intellectually or in any other way, defies my comprehension. After all, if it were true, Mount’s chapter on science would have to demonstrate that ‘we’ had abandoned the scientific method of testing hypotheses to demonstrate their truth by repeated experiment, let alone the technology to enable us to see what is otherwise invisible (and any other technology), and instead sat in our armchairs drawing conclusions from untested hypotheses that we had thought up using only our eyes and brains. True, Greeks invented atomism by this method, but the earth-air-fire-water theory of matter in fact ruled the roost for two thousand years (even the great Aristotle believed this lunacy). It awaited the 17thC French Jesuit Pierre Gassendi to alert contemporary thinkers to the explanatory possibilities inherent in atomism, and in 1803 John Dalton founded modern atomic theory. As for medical science, well, we would have to revert to a practice that knew nothing of germs (Pasteur 1878) or viruses (first isolated by Chamberland, 1884).

Further, Mount’s claim takes no account of small matters of politics, law, empire, education, finance, war, work, families, slavery, moral and ethical values, welfare states or revolutionary thinkers like Rousseau or Freud. Instead, he selects specific targets: the appetitive (baths, the gym, sex and food) and the cultural (science [!], religions, dialectic, fame, art and the natural world). That at least is sensible, but it rather undermines the all-inclusive thesis at the heart of the book.

So, yes, the Roman invented what has become our sauna, but in Rome it was the universal, social, leisure facility, for relaxing with chums before dinner, working out, striking deals, net-working, and so on. Whatever the modern sauna offers, it is not that. Yes, Greeks were passionate about the gym, as many men and women are today; but it was an exclusively upper-class male preoccupation, not for the purpose of body-building, let alone to feel the burn, but for social, educational and sexual purposes, and general health. Yes, the Greek cook Archestratus was a real foodie, exulting in strange and exotic recipes. But the ancients did not have the equivalent of our five-star restaurants—it was all done at home—and anyway they regarded cooks as menials. Yes, the ancients were as keen on fame as we are, but in the absence of TV, fame was dependent on actual achievement, not personality. Yes, Socrates invented dialectic, the intense exploration of ideas and search for enlightenment (if not truth) by question-and-answer in open, public debate, but today’s (and Today’s) equivalents are little but shouting matches. So even within the limited scope of Mount’s nominated targets, we are not Greeks and/or Romans, and they are certainly not us. Full stop.

So forget Mount’s thesis. Instead plunge straight into the baths in chapter one and read on, without any preconceptions about what Mount imagines he is doing. You will find a readable, stylish, expansive (sometimes, perhaps, too expansive), occasionally sharp and stimulating series of reflections raging widely over the modern world (roughly two-thirds of the book), using the ancients either as a springboard or default position. Take Mount’s chapter on religion. It consists of a swingeing attack on the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins and his acolytes, and a comparison with de rerum natura (‘On the Nature of the Universe’), the equally evangelical atheism of the Roman Epicurean philosopher Lucretius (1st C BC). That is a comparison well worth making, and Mount makes it very well, emphasising that what Dawkins is doing is very old hat indeed.

In fact, religion—or rather Christianity—is the insistent sub-text of the book. Time and again Mount reverts to contemplating the church in its early days, in Victorian times or in today’s world, usually in a tone of some regret about what has been lost or disfigured. That, I feel, is what the book is really about.


From The Spectator June 5 2010
Philip Hensher reviews FULL CIRCLE, by Ferdinand Mount

Unexpected parallels between our age and another are a staple of the jobbing journalist’s trade. Usually coinciding with a major exhibition at the Royal Academy, such arguments tend to claim that there are a surprising number of similarities between, say, the Byzantine Empire and the way we live now. Despite the fact that these arguments often result from a brain-storming session round the conference table, there is usually enough there to sustain a page or so. Human nature does not change so much, and some very unexpected idiosyncrasies recur at regular intervals.

Ferdinand Mount has set himself a rather more ambitious task, and his argument is more intricate than usual. He suggests that the characteristic fads of the classical world have, in recent decades, come back to us without our recognising the fact. The Greek and Roman love of pleasure, indulgence, fantasy and opulence are recapitulated in some of the most characteristic statements of our time. Jade Goody, the ‘spa experience’, Cherie Blair’s New Age entourage and Damien Hirst all have their ancient-world originals. There is nothing new under the sun.

Some of the parallels that Mount draws are startlingly close. An ancient foodie like Archestratus, in his snobbery and his geographical precision about where to get the best fish sounds exactly like a modern magazine writer on the subject: ‘When you come to Miletus, get from the Gaeson Marsh a kephalos-type grey mullet and a sea bass . . . that is where they are best.’ The ancient obsession with tales of exotically themed dinners was revived in the 19th century by Grimod de la Reynière’s famous funerary dinner, and J. K. Huysman’s Black Dinner. Such exotic themes at the dinner table continue to this day, courtesy of Heston Blumenthal, who has indeed cooked Roman dinners on television.

Mount has no trouble in drawing parallels between the immense contemporary ‘spa’ industry, devoted, in its hideous favourite word, to ‘pampering’, and the colossal baths of antiquity. We are at least as fascinated in the fatuous cult of athletic fitness as the ancients, and to much less obvious purpose. Mount casts a beady eye over the principal revivers of physical fitness in the modern age, the militarising Germans, and then wonders what it is all for:

There is little that seems ‘bold’ and ‘merry’ about our obsession with keeping in shape. On the contrary, it seems a somewhat timorous and joyless pastime, a sign of our fear of death rather than of our readiness to confront life.

He ventures, too, into the question of sex, and discovers that the rise, since the 1960s, of casual promiscuity — the ‘zipless fuck’, the expression ‘no strings attached’ — is much more like an aspect of the ancient mindset than we usually suspect. To the question ‘Do you fancy a shag?’

Theocritus or Catullus . . . would have been quite unmoved, and responded simply: ‘Your place or mine?’ For sex is as natural as eating and drinking. Why should anyone think twice about an invitation to a decent restaurant?

Not everything goes quite so convincingly into the parallel:

Just as there is scarcely a remote pueblo or hill village that is unaware of Mick Jagger, so Mithras was a familiar cult figure to soldiers and the local natives in places as far afield as Austria and Slovenia and Caernavon and Hadrian’s Wall.

And other points in his argument are not real parallels, though often amusingly explored. It is true that hardly anybody in the ancient world read silently; when St Augustine habitually did so, it was remarkable enough to be worth commenting on. Interesting as this is, I don’t think it can really be brought into comparison with the late unlamented Labour government’s apparent policy to make public libraries as noisy as possible: ‘Learning is not all about quiet contemplation. I want to see libraries full of life, rather than quiet and sombre. Attractive buildings exuding a sense of joy’, as Andy Burnham put it. He wasn’t talking about reading out loud: he was recommending meaningless yacking.

Nevertheless, some very unexpected comparisons turn out to bear fruit. The multiplicity of spiritual choices in the Roman Empire around the time of the Antonine emperors sounds very modern:

You could believe in anything or nothing. You could put your trust in astrologers, snake-charmers, prophets and diviners and magicians; you could take your pick between half a dozen creation myths and several varieties of resurrection.

In our contemporary, think-for-yourself, spiritual supermarket, heavily influenced by an increasingly multi-cultural mix, pretty well the same is true. Apart from (as far as I know) snake-charmers.

Even the most characteristic phenomenon of our times, the descent of random and undeserved celebrity, has an exact parallel. The Emperor Hadrian met and fell in love with an obscure farmer’s son from Bithynia on the Black Sea, Antinous; when he drowned in the Nile, Hadrian ordered an empire-wide cult of his lover, and thousands of images survive. There was nothing at all remarkable about Antinous, as far as we know, apart from his beauty, but that was enough. Antinous, who became a god, would have perfectly understood the careers of Kate Moss and Jade Goody.

These parallels between the ancient world and ours are intriguing. But perhaps the richest and most suggestive part of the argument comes when Mount addresses what came between; the huge stretch of time separating the ancients from us, when the beliefs and practices of society seem extraordinarily remote from our way of thinking. One of the main claims of this book is that we have become detached from the 1500 years of Christian thinking, and the culture which succeeded the Romans is now much more peculiar to us than they are.

Certainly, the Christian attitudes to sex, to food, to questions of the body such as washing and exercise are now extremely exotic, not to say bizarre. Mount has no trouble at all finding exemplary figures of early Christian times who would now, unlike the heroes of antiquity, be treated as mentally ill. St Anthony ‘boasted that he had never washed his feet in his life,’ and most Christians believed that baptism was the only bath that mattered in their lives. As for sexual expression, ‘an Egyptian monk of the fifth century dipped his cloak into the putrefying flesh of a dead woman so that the smell might banish thought about her.’ Many early thinkers believed, like Augustine, that marital relations were a matter of ‘descending with a certain sadness’ to the act.

All this seems barking mad to us now, and modern-day attempts to reconcile our neo-Pagan practices with Christian culture have their comic side. Mount has discovered some wonderful gym-going Roman Catholics, who

pray while using the rowing machine. ‘At the rate of one word per stroke, rowing one mile on the machine takes me one Our Father and two Hail Marys.’

In a still more unlikely juxtaposition, deconsecrated chapels and churches have been turned into temples to the body cult. At Claybury, in Chigwell, the chapel of a Victorian mental asylum has been turned into a gymnasium and pool, neatly bringing together two very different sites of guilt, penance, reparation and purification.

Inevitably, the argument comes down to regret that, whether you compare us to the ancients or the Christian era, we seem somewhat lacking — the Baths of Caracalla were no doubt rather more of a contribution to civilisation than a suburban spa, and Antinous a more impressive figure than this week’s reality TV star.

Ours is classical-lite, the sensuous, this-worldly way of living without the gravitas that underpinned it. And without that underpinning, there is something a little flat about it all.

Ferdinand Mount’s ingenious polemic skewers any number of modern-day vanities, and takes us with wit and charm through many absurdities of the remote past.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Victor Hanson (ed.): MAKERS OF ANCIENT STRATEGY: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome

From The Sunday Telegraph May 23 2010
Peter Jones reviews MAKERS OF ANCIENT STRATEGY: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, ed. by Victor Hanson
Princeton h/b 265pp £19.95

As one whose Vote for Caesar (Orion) argues that the classical world produced all sorts of stimulating responses to problems still with us, I strongly applaud these ten essays commissioned by Victor Hanson demonstrating how much we might still learn from ancient warfare.

Not that I agree with his central tenet that, since ‘human nature, which drives conflict, is unchanging’, new technologies have not made much difference to war as it has always been. Killing people was never a moral problem in the ancient world; these days even killing those attempting to kill you attracts in the West an orchestrated explosion of outrage that no ancient ever faced. If that is not a change in human nature, I do not know what is.

Again, there is something quite new about the calculation required in the use of a weapon so destructive (the atom bomb) that it can be deployed only against an enemy that does not have it.

But this collection does not need any over-arching theoretical justification. The essays either stand up or they do not. Those that succeed best—and there is only one obvious duffer—have something specific to say about specific conditions common to both ancient and modern warfare.

Take the unlikely topic of walls. As David Berkey points out, such ancient technology flourishes still, on the same control/protection principles: think of the security zones in Baghdad, the Israeli and Saudi walls, the USA-Mexico border, and the Gaza-Egypt underground barriers (and Berkey should have pointed out that the Israeli wall with its zoned approaches and crossing points uncannily imitates Hadrian’s).

But the big topic here is regime change, the nearest modern equivalent to ancient empire-building. Victor Hanson makes the basic point in relation to the Theban Epaminondas’s successful expulsion of Sparta from central Greece in the 4thC BC: a short, sharp, pre-emptive strike will not do the business unless you are prepared to make the lengthy post-war investment required to make it stick. Ian Worthington takes a slightly different view of Alexander’s vast, ramshackle empire. He puts its speedy collapse down to its size and cultural diversity; I would add the speed and randomness with which it was put together, and its failure to produce the sort of benefits, let alone social cohesion, that the Romans were able to generate. Susan Mattern’s essay on counter-insurgency is central on this vital issue: the Roman elites were expert at constructing economic and cultural relationships which reflected the interests, and therefore won the loyalty, of the powerful local elites in the territories they provincialised.

This is the key to preventing the urban conflict that John Lee discusses. Though ancient historians tend to concentrate on big set-piece battles or sieges, urban combat was hardly uncommon in the classical world, and is especially popular among terrorists today because it draws conventional armies into unconventional situations where non-combatants are at risk.

Lee points out that ancient theorists like Aeneas Tacticus argued that it was better to forestall urban warfare by very modern-sounding security controls: registering/confiscating weapons, identity tokens, keeping tabs on hotels and their guests, watching carefully over festivals and processions. As the ancients knew, local knowledge and awareness were crucial (remember American forces trapped in Mogadishu in 1993), and if they had to fight an urban battle, the whole population, women included, was mobilised. Likewise, as Aeneas emphasised, violent or careless mercenaries could inflame the situation; Lee tellingly cites the problems generated by private military contractors like Blackwater in Iraq.

Tom Holland strikes an equally relevant note in his beautifully written essay on the Persian empire, always the bad guy of pro-Greek western culture. In 539 BC, mighty Babylon, a city as old as time itself, fell to the upstart Persian Cyrus, who now ruled an empire extending from the Hindu Kush to the Aegean.

Cyrus’s contribution to empire-building was the insight that, after the bloody conquest, graciousness, emancipation and patronage were essential tools in persuading the conquered that their servitude was in fact a privilege. Later Persians under Darius were to add a powerful religious element to their self-image: the imperative, imposed by the god Ahura Mazda, to bring cosmic light and truth (thought not conversion) to the benighted peoples of the world. Such is the importance of imperial ideology and the place that religion might have in driving it.

At every point throughout this superb collection of essays, one cannot but reflect on Western engagements in far-off, alien places.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Matthew Dennison: EMPRESS OF ROME

From The Tablet May 15 2010

Peter Jones reviews EMPRESS OF ROME: The Life of Livia, by Matthew Dennison
(Quercus h/b 352pp £20)

Thanks to Freud and others, we possess a psychological language of character and personality—traumas, inhibitions, repression and so forth—that encourages biographers to probe deeply into their subjects’ lives, seeking that intimate understanding that makes them unique and therefore interesting.

Ancient writers knew nothing of such individual subjectivity. It was the celebration of great men and their achievements, emphasising their ethical stances—were they just, loyal, virtuous, prudent, wise and so on?—and the extent to which they met norms of acceptable communal behaviour, that counted, with plenty of moralising to ram the lessons home.

Further, women did not count. That is not to say they were individually undervalued, but that great public achievements were the business of the male. They alone held political office and led armies into battle. QED.

So the biography of a woman, even a long-lived, famous and influential woman like Livia, wife of the first and greatest Roman emperor Augustus, presents a serious challenge. First, her story emerges only around the edges of Augustus’s, and there is precious little of that (e.g. only 9 mentions in Suetonius’ biography of the emperor). Further, everything we know about her is set in the context of her relationship with Augustus and his world. So if we expect her to leap off the page and sparkle vibrantly in front of us like some nightmare Cheryl Cole, we shall be sadly disappointed (or, possibly, greatly relieved). It is almost impossible to discern the human being, let alone anything we could call a personality, behind the sources.

So the problem for a modern biographer of Livia is intense, and Matthew Dennison is well aware of it. The first two certain events to which the record gives us access, as he freely admits, are her birth (probably in 58 BC) and her marriage (probably in 43 BC). He bridges this gap with 36 pages of background information about typical Roman childhood, and speculation. I lost count of the number of times Dennison was forced to come up with a variation of the formula ‘we do not know, but’. But he has no other option.

In the circumstances, the book is something of a triumph. The entirely proper picture of Livia that emerges is of an attractive, determined woman, who exemplified the virtues of the traditional, self-disciplined, home-loving, hard-working Roman wife and mother by which Augustus set such store in his efforts to recall the Roman nation back to its better self after the bloody nightmares of civil war, but also achieved an unexampled position of respect and authority in the male political world. Not that this was trumpeted, feminist-style, abroad. But everyone knew it.

But this came at a price. Livia had had two sons by her first marriage, Tiberius and Drusus. Her marriage to Augustus yielded no further children. Augustus had a daughter, Julia, by his earlier marriage. Keen to establish a dynasty through his own blood-line, Augustus nominated a series of successors, usually via his sister Octavia’s or Julia’s children. But they all died, until there was only one left: Tiberius. How come? Obviously, our sources say—none more emphatically than the cynical near-contemporary Tacitus—it was Livia, the frustrated step-mother, doing what all step-mothers always do: getting rid of her rivals, one by one, with that old female stand-by, poison (and was she not a keen herbal gardener?), so that her boy could succeed.

D. treats this side of the tradition with admirable caution, while agreeing that the worldly-wise Livia was probably not above giving her son a leg-up when the opportunity presented itself. But sadly for Livia, the imperial throne was the very last thing Tiberius actually wanted, even more so when Augustus, for dynastic reasons, compelled him to divorce his beloved wife for (of course) Julia. Tiberius did, finally, succeed, but the relations between Livia and him did not improve.

And Livia as a living human being? Dennison knows the boundaries between story-telling and history, and sensibly restricts himself to asking the appropriate questions. So what does one make of Suetonius’ report that, in case he went too far, or not far enough, Augustus always ‘wrote out beforehand remarks and comments he was to make to individuals on serious topics—even to Livia’? Or that Augustus’s last words to his wife were reported as ‘Farewell, Livia; always live mindful of our marriage’ (Livia was seventy-two at the time and had lived a life of blameless rectitude)? How did Livia take Augustus’ constant rejection of her sons as successors? How did she react when Augustus’ daughter Julia—whom she had herself raised—was exiled by Augustus and completely cut off her for involvement in lurid sexual scandals?

That is the way to bring Livia to life, and Dennison does it tactfully and well.