Monday, April 26, 2010


The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present ed. by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley and Karen Van Dyck

From The Sunday Telegraph, April 25 2010
Paul Cartledge reviews

Poetry – in ancient Greek poiesis, a process of making – can still cause a flutter in the birdcage of the muses. Nothing new under the sun there, so far as poets writing in Greek go. In his amusing introduction to this polymorphous collection of more than 1,000 poems by 185 poets, the former United States Poet Laureate Robert Hass mentions the 'small gap in my acquaintance with Greek poetry’ between Callimachus and Cavafy – a gap of, well, more than 21 centuries.

Greece can boast the longest continuous poetic tradition in European literature, by a very long chalk: from Homer (c700BC ?) to, in this case, Pavlina Pampoudi (born 1948). And it is a tradition of rare distinction, too, as Prof Hass could quite conveniently have gathered from perusing Constantine Trypanis’s still marvellous Penguin Book of Greek Verse (1971). Though of course outdated, that gathering of flowers does have the great advantage of containing both texts of the Greek originals and accurate English prose translations.

In mitigation Hass might plead that he is the author of the Berkeley Poetry Walk (128 cast-iron poem-panels, inaugurated in October 2003). This honours at least one of the entrants in The Greek Poets – Sappho, the 10th muse, as Plato called her. As for the company of translators – all 121 of them – this comprises both the very well-known (apart from the four editors, there are here versions by Carson, Connolly, Fagles, Fitzgerald, Lattimore, Raphael, Sherrard, Holst Warhaft), the less well-known and (to me) the hitherto quite unknown.

A comparison with the, admittedly, handier Trypanis collection reveals few surprises of either omission or inclusion (down to Nobel laureate Odysseus Elytis, with whom Trypanis concluded, on a high note).

The new collection does start the section labelled 'Byzantium’ rather early, perhaps, with Clement of Alexandria, who died more than a century before the old Bosporan city of Byzantion became Constantinople and so gave its name to the Byzantine era; but then Trypanis didn’t begin his 'Byzantium’ until the seventh century. Other times, other tastes. No doubt, too, the omission of martial, masculine Tyrtaeus of Sparta and the inclusion of Corinna, Praxilla, Erinna and Nossis are both trying to tell us something.

Of those who come after Elytis here, selection is particularly invidious. I pick out just one stanza from the classically allusive 'On the Sublime’ by the prize-garlanded Nasos Vayenas, now a professor at Athens University: 'I find those heights take the breath away, /where nothing seems impossible; /as if some hand has quietly wiped away /that gray rock, and where ennui /takes on the bouquet of a ripening apple.’

Poetry makes nothing happen? I don’t think so. Poets, especially Greek ones, are the acknowledged legislators of the word. We are, in that sense, all Greeks.

The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present
Ed by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley and Karen Van Dyck
WW NORTON, £30, 692pp
Available from Telegraph Books 0844 871 1516

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in the BBC History Magazine, August 2004

Question: when is a bandit not a bandit? Answer: when he is a literary convention. Grünewald's argument is not quite that simple, but it gets the gist.

The Latin for 'bandit' is latro. Grunëwald identifies the names of eighty latrones in Roman history, and by examining the careers of each he establishes a number of categories into which they all broadly fall: four categories relating to their careers, and two to their personalities.

The four career categories can be summarised as follows: (I) those who practise robbery with violence and other non-political crimes against people; (II) guerrilla leaders, heading native or slave rebellions in the cause of political or social aspirations; (III) men who had become, or had aspirations to become, rulers by illegitimate means, usurping the established authorities; and (IV) self-styled judges, seeking justice for victims of dynastic murder, or using this as an excuse to create their own power-base. The two personality categories are somewhat less complex: good (driven by lofty motives, e.Grunëwald the desire for justice) and bad (violent, criminal, undeserving of respect, driven solely by the desire for booty or power).

Grunëwald's point is that the category into which any latro was placed depended on the agenda of the author concerned. Take, for example, the Thracian Spartacus, that best-known and most vividly drawn leader of a revolt. It began in 73 BC when Spartacus led a break-out from the gladiatorial compound in which he was incarcerated in Capua. He attracted to his side a large number of slaves working on the huge estates in the area, until his army numbered something in the region of 100,000 men. Incredibly, he defeated all the armies that Rome could hurl at him and made his way north to Cisalpine Gaul, where he assumed his followers, now free, would make new lives. But they preferred to stay with him ravaging Italy, and he returned south. Had transports arrived, he might even have crossed to Sicily, but in 71 BC he was caught by Crassus, his army largely destroyed and himself killed; Pompey finished off the surviving remnants. Spartacus quickly became a legend.

The Roman historian Florus (late 2nd C AD) sees him as a rebel against order and therefore a menace to Roman society and paints him in the darkest colours, though even he admits that he died bravely, fighting in the front ranks. But Plutarch, the Greek author of the deeply influential Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans (c. AD 100), finds much to praise in him: he was intelligent, prudent, no ordinary barbarian but highly civilised, a man of skill, vision, leadership and courage, who knew what was and was not possible and returned to Italy after he had reached Gaul only because he was forced to do so by his short-sighted followers; likewise, when his army had won a brief victory against Crassus, he advised against a full confrontation, but his over- confident army ignored him and disaster duly ensued. But why does Plutarch make such a favourable assessment? The answer is that Plutarch wants a contrast with the repugnant Crassus, in his view a corrupt and degenerate member of the Roman oligarchy.

Grunëwald's work is a model of its kind, with the usual strengths and weaknesses associated with any act of categorisation by type. The strength lies in the observation of repeated patterns of historical thought-process; the weakness in that the search for repeated patterns can lead to the omission of details that makes the critical difference (e.g. here are two animals, both with lungs, hearts, ears, eyes, legs, and reproductive organs - but one is a dead vole, the other Robin Cook). Nevertheless, I wish Grunëwald had pursued the question - what is the difference between a literary and a historical interpretation?


Peter Jones in The Sunday Telegraph, June 20 2004

Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman world (27 BC - AD 14). The fact is well known, but the story of his rise to power is less so, and this is the tale on which Richard Holland concentrates.

He was born Marcus Octavius in September 63 BC. His father was the first of the family to become a senator (though never consul), but his grandfather had married Julius Caesar's sister, and it soon became clear that Caesar rather took to the lad (he was invited to join one of Caesar's triumphs in 46 BC).

Nevertheless, it must have come as a bolt from the blue when, after the Ides of March 44 BC, he found out that he had been adopted by Caesar and made chief heir to his massive fortune - at the tender age of 18. As an adopted heir he now became Marcus Octavianus - Octavian. He returned to Italy at once from his posting on the eastern Adriatic coast - he did not want Marc Antony to grab the cash - and with utter ruthlessness set about using his great uncle's money and military connections to make himself Number One. Cicero patronisingly said of him that he was a young man of talent and promise, who should be 'praised, honoured - and removed'. Cicero did not know his man, and was later 'removed' himself.

Octavian, who was well aware that power in a collapsing Republic followed military might, privately raised two legions and was soon calling himself 'Caesar'. He made an alliance with Antony and Antony's old comrade Lepidus, and a law was passed, the lex Titia, effectively granting the three of them absolute power to rule Rome as they wished. First, they defeated Caesar's assassins at Philippi (Macedonia) in October 42 BC, and then divided up the Roman world between them. Octavian initially got the wooden spoon (Tunisia, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia) but he soon set about changing that and eventually, with Lepidus 'retired', he emerged with the Western empire, Antony the Eastern. Slowly Octavian began to drive a wedge between himself and Antony, portraying his rival as a traitor to Rome and puppet of his Egyptian lover Cleopatra, and seeking any casus belli against them. In 31 BC at the battle of Actium in Western Greece, Antony and Cleopatra were defeated, and a year later were both dead. Octavian was undisputed master of the Roman world, soon to take the title by which he is best known - Augustus, 'venerable, august, majestic'.

The model for this style of book is the brilliant Rubicon by Tom Holland (no relation). But Richard Holland does not have his namesake's narrative flair, and the story, with its grinding details of the changing alliances and personalities, does not make snappy reading. Further, a book entitled Augustus - Godfather of Europe suggests to me the story of Augustus as the godfather rather than how he became the godfather. Only the last quarter of the book is devoted to this topic, and here Holland misses the central importance of the grip that Augustus kept on the nexus of the provinces, which produced the revenues, that paid his newly professionalised armies, who thus stayed loyal to him, while controlling the provinces, which ... .

The book as a whole is rather slapdash. On page one we are told that Greece was smashed and Carthage destroyed in 167 BC (it was 146 BC); on page two that the Latin for 'Catiline' was Catilinus (it was Catilina); Pharsalus on the map becomes Pharsala on the page; and so on. This does not create confidence in an author who affects an irritating air of matey superiority throughout, as if the scholars responsible for the real work on which the whole book is based did not actually know what they were on about. No one expects an author to kow- tow to authority, but when Holland takes on Sir Ronald Syme and claims that Octavian was not a revolutionary - on the grounds that he liked a bit of a laugh and adopted highly conservative views on various matters, and besides, Caesar had done it all already - one can only groan. The whole point is that Caesar hadn't; and Octavian's conservatism in religious and institutional matters was, of course, all part of the game.


Peter Jones; From Literary Review, September 2008.

‘Empire’ derives from the Latin imperium, meaning ‘the power to give orders’ and, by implication, enforce them. In the 5thC AD the Roman empire in the West lost that power. Since its constituent peoples could now ignore imperial commands with impunity, the empire was at an end.

In 1984 a German scholar helpfully listed the 210 reasons which had been advocated for the fall of that empire - from moral decline to over-hot public baths to gout. The root reasons were, in fact, military and economic. Germanic tribes to the north of the empire’s Rhine-Danube frontier had been prodding away at the empire for hundreds of years but had, on the whole, been easily repelled. But by the 4^th C they had coalesced into more powerful groupings. The turning-point came in AD 376 when tribes of nomadic Huns, savage fighting forces on horseback that Kelly argues are more likely to have had their origins in modern Kazakhstan than Mongolia, started moving west, driving all before them.

The reason for this migration is obscure, but the result was that Germanic tribes in the Black Sea region – Goths – started escaping en masse across Roman frontiers, sometimes by force, sometimes by agreement, sometime by a mixture of both. Not that the Huns themselves seemed to have had that, or indeed any, particular goal in mind. From AD 370-410 their tribes moved piecemeal across Europe from the Ukraine to Romania and West Hungary, disrupting peoples and causing general havoc on the Roman frontiers as they went. Eventually the Hun tribes became settled in the Great Hungarian Plain in the heart of Europe. From that position of strength, they changed tactics, no longer attacking at random and leaving trails of destruction behind them but demanding regular tribute from agricultural communities against the threat of reprisals. It was, as Kelly summarises it, ‘a protection racket on a grand scale’.

But the Roman empire was not a pushover. For the tactic to work, the Huns needed to unite their disparate tribes and work to a common goal. They required, in other words, a leader who commanded lasting and unquestioned allegiance. That man was Attila, flagellum Dei, ‘the scourge of God’, who created and controlled a Hun empire between AD 435 and 453. Not that his empire was in any sense a constructive, let alone civilising force such as Romans could reasonably claim of theirs. Booty and captives were its beginning and end.

These Hun-generated frontier upheavals caused hundreds of thousands of Germanic peoples to enter the western Roman empire and spread widely across it into France, Spain and North Africa. Unsurprisingly, the empire could not cope either politically (by means of settlements and alliances) or militarily with these Germanic influxes on its north and eastern boundaries. Nor was it helped by the fact that, in order to control the vast area it covered - from Britain to Iraq, from the Rhine-Danube to Egypt and the Atlas mountains – the empire had been carved up into an eastern and western region under emperors who frequently did not see eye to eye. As a result, taxes that formerly went to the centre to pay for the army to deal with revolt and maintain control now stayed local, paid to the leaders of the new Germanic kingdoms. It was a vicious circle, and in AD 476 the last, imperium-less emperor was quietly pensioned off.

So Attila, for all the chaos he caused and terror he evoked, was only one player in the empire’s demise. Powerful as the Huns were – they crossed the Danube in AD 408, 422, 434, 441-2, 447, and invaded France in AD 450 and North Italy in 451 - Attila generally avoided large-scale confrontation in order to play his more lucrative game of Danegeld. Nor did the Huns attempt to settle inside the empire, as the Germanic tribes did so effectively, many learning Roman styles of government and law-making. When Attila died of nosebleed on (yet another) wedding night, his ‘empire’ soon collapsed.

Christopher Kelly, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, gives a fine account of this complex story, unpicking its strands cleanly and persuasively. He is particularly instructive on the 5th C AD bureaucrat and historian Priscus, who was (unwittingly) involved in a plot by the eastern Roman emperor Theodosius to assassinate Attila, and subsequently wrote it all up in great detail. It involved bribing Edeco, one of Attila’s bodyguards, with fifty pounds of gold. The problem was getting the gold to Edeco without causing the suspicious Attila to smell a rat. So Theodosius – or rather his eunuch Chrysaphius – set up an embassy entirely ignorant of the plot to pay court to Attila and create an innocent reason for the transfer of the money. It included Priscus. Unfortunately, Edeco had spilled the beans to his master …

This is a wonderful story, all the more amusing because Attila soon becomes aware that the embassy is wholly ignorant of the real reason for its mission and therefore toys with it mercilessly while it tries to work out what the hell is going on, before stomping off back home in frustration. Unfortunately, only excerpts from Priscus’ fascinating account survive – very good on the problems of travel through alien cultures - but they are enough to reveal Priscus’ admiration for many aspects of Attila’s court. The point is that Romans (like Greeks) tended to regard all barbarians, especially those from far-away places, as moronic, uncultured, misshapen sub-humans without a brain-cell between them. Priscus, however, was surprised and impressed by many aspects of their artistic taste and subtle and cultivated social and diplomatic skills. In other words, he saw beyond the crude stereotypes and, while not hesitating to regard Attila and co. as ‘the enemy’, was prepared to raise questions about the morality of a Roman court willing to use diplomatic immunity to cover up an assassination attempt. Similar challenges, as Kelly concludes, still face us today.

Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly (Bodley Head)


Peter Jones in Literary Review, December 2005-January 2006

This is the worst book I have ever reviewed. It reads as if it has been cut and pasted from a web-site by a semi-literate school-girl (in my proof copy, King talks of Greeks cities 'still under the [Persian] yolk'), struggling with her GCSE course-work. Doubtless a great deal of labour has gone into it, but to little purpose when the author's ignorance on many topics is encyclopaedic, her ability to clarify and marshal arguments based on evidence that demands careful handling almost non-existent, and her English style execrable (her favourite conjunction is 'and so').

Here, for example, King is struggling to say something about (i) the Athenian claim that their first king was born from the earth, and (ii) the absence of mothers from the Parthenon marbles (' … and so one can read the Parthenon as a statement of Athenian misogyny', she concludes, absurdly):

'The Athenians also thought of themselves as superior to all other Greeks, for they claimed that they had always inhabited Attica, and had not arrived as migrants, and so their race was the oldest. Athenian mythology is confusing, for it emphasises this notion of autochthony, and the lack of a human mother also of course emphasises how little the Athenians thought of women, and so we have not one king who sprang from the earth, but a whole series of them, so that a king almost didn't need a queen, or to bother himself with such trivial matters as procreation. Autochthony meant that Athenians could claim they were purer, allowing themselves to see other Greeks as pseudo-foreigners.'

Don't ask. I haven't the remotest, either.

Not only is the book unreadable, its title is also misleading. King begins her story millions of years ago with the formation of the Mediterranean basin, spends a hundred pages mangling Athenian history trying to describe the original Parthenon, and another hundred pages labouring through Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman times, before finally arriving at the subject of the title, Elgin, two-thirdst of the way through. The subject of the title is then treated to a royal fifty pages before we turn to the controversy over the marbles' subsequent treatment and ownership (forty-six pages). The word 'history' would have been helpful somewhere.

King's views on this controversy continue to exemplify the seamless fit between prose style and logic evident from the rest of the book, i.e. she is against returning them, but then again, she isn't. The following points pop out like ping-pong balls from a lottery machine. Greeks: the marbles can be appreciated only in Athens. K: this is cultural nationalism. British Museum: we acquired them legally and have cared for them well. K: Greeks have made requests to get the marbles returned, rejected by various political and cultural bodies. Christopher Hitchens say that Greeks want only the marbles back, but we cannot know that. Greeks: we now want you to loan the marbles to us. K: they would never give them back. Their demand is cultural nationalism. BM: the marbles are better seen in the BM, in the context of other cultures. K: they have inspired poets and painters, and millions see them every year here. They are part of our culture. They have inspired philhellenism and led to the recognition of Greece as a country. They are part of our heritage. The city state of Athens no longer exists, but the marbles have been here for 200 years. Henry Moore and Selfridges have been influenced by them. Had Elgin not brought them back, they would not exist. BM: the trustees are not allowed to make permanent loans. Only an Act of Parliament will allow their return. K: states cannot return everything. Should we return things in chronological order? The marbles belong to the whole of humanity. To the Greeks they are a symbol of their imperial past. Should we destroy e.g. Venetian palazzi which contain bits of the marbles? The Greek and BM holdings could not be displayed next to each other because their quality is so different. The BM gets more visitors than Athens would. When I was studying Greek art, Greek authorities would not let me see material. The BM is open and free to all. The Parthenon was famous only to Athenians, not all Greeks. Greeks have not looked after their own material well, so ours and theirs could not be displayed next to each other.

And so the little balls continue popping out, some re-appearing two or three times, till she unveils a conclusion which she has already explained is constitutionally excluded, quite apart from contradicting everything she has said: 'When the Greeks can demonstrate that they too have done an admirable job of caring for the marbles in Athens then, perhaps, we can discuss a loan'.

I love that 'we'.

From The Independent, January 13 06, Paul Cartledge

This sorry book gets off to a very bad start. Actually, it is about the Parthenon marbles as a whole, not merely those marbles currently in the British Museum which may properly be called 'the Elgin Marbles'. Lord Elgin (Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl) does not enter 'the story' - or rather Dorothy King's version - until two-thirds of the way through. The question of whether, as it claims, the Elgin Marbles constitute 'archaeology's greatest controversy' is both ambiguous (greatest ever? greatest current?) and substantively moot.

After that bad start, it gets almost unbelievably worse. There are so many elementary errors of fact, transcription and description in the opening historical chapters that it is hard to credit that the author really did get both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in classical archaeology from a reputable university. For small instance: there was no democracy at Athens before 508/7 BC. Hope was precisely what did not emerge from Pandora's box - in fact pithos or jar. 'Erechthonios' should be 'Erichthonios', 'epastatei' is not ancient Greek, 'yolk' for 'yoke' would be funny were it not painful. And so on...

Her publishers, moreover, have let her down rather badly. It is becoming a cliché to lament the absence of the modern equivalents of editors such as the legendary Maxwell Perkins. But Dr King seems to have had no editorial guidance whatsoever.

Apart from faults of fact and style, there is a fundamental flaw in the book's conception. It is a very bad idea to write what purports to be history in the form of all-too undisguised propaganda. Nor is it a good idea to seek to counter what she takes to be defamation of Lord Elgin by an equal and opposite defamation of his adversary Edward Clarke (or anyone else whose common crime is not to agree that the Elgin Marbles should be where they now are).

The heart of the author's book - or case - resides in its final chapter 'The Debate over the Elgin Marbles: who owns them, and where do they belong?' Unfortunately for King, as is the way with matters of urgent political concern, events have moved on since she submitted her final draft. The British Committee which she crudely lumps with the despised 'restitutionists' is now the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles. There's a huge difference.

'Restitution' implies a legal and moral status quo that has been impaired and should and can be rectified. Restitution must be to someone or some body, the state of Greece or 'the Greek People'. But when the sculptures were removed by Elgin's team in the 1800s, what was then left of the Parthenon after the 1687 explosion found itself in Ottoman Greece; and though there was a Greek People, it was a very different Greek People from the People of 2006, who are constituent members of an independent sovereign State within the European Union and subscribe to the articles of Unesco under which the overall programme of conservation on the Acropolis of Athens has been conducted since 1977.

It is that state which is responsible for constructing a dedicated museum near the Acropolis to house the reunited Parthenon marbles. Easily the largest single collection of the diaspora marbles is in the British Museum, but there are also more or less significant pieces elsewhere. To avoid the obfuscatory issue of 'ownership', the overdetermined issue of how can one pay restitution to a state or people that no longer exist, it is more fruitful to speak now of 'reunification', not 'restitution'. Though even that is unsatisfactory, since all that can be reunited is what's left - and, so far as the sculpture goes, not on the Parthenon itself.

Besides, what we mean when we say 'the Parthenon', is itself an issue, not a given. Even a non-philosopher like me can see that it can hardly be the same building as erected almost 2500 years ago. The moral-political issue of reunification must turn ultimately not on emotion, but on the scholarly issues of the study, conservation and communication of understanding of the available remains of this extraordinary building.

The Parthenon is 'as much a modern icon as an ancient ruin' (to quote Mary Beard, author of the best short book on the subject); it is or contains 'the most important ancient sculpture to survive from classical antiquity' (Ian Jenkins, writing then as the assistant keeper with responsibility for the Elgin Marbles); and it may even be 'the Western world's biggest cultural cliche' (Peter Green's typically arresting and pugnacious formulation). At any rate, it's famous for being famous, but its fame is in no way helpfully explicated by a defective work such as that under review here.

Paul Cartledge is a Syndic of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.


Rowland Smith, Literary Review, December-January 2005/6

Certain picturesque features of what scholars used to call ‘the life and manners’ of classical antiquity - the gladiatorial shows, for instance, or the volcanic eruption of AD79 that overwhelmed Pompeii - hold a perennial popular appeal that a Hollywood director or a best-selling novelist can still hope to tap. So do certain charismatic ancient personalities - Alexander of Macedon, say, or Queen Cleopatra. But the history of Greek and Roman antiquity spans a thousand years, and the study of its political nuts and economic bolts is nowadays a specialized field in which experts tend to plough quite narrowly circumscribed furrows. Still, whether or not modern Europeans and Americans care to register it, the brute fact is that many of their core political and cultural presuppositions are peculiarly linked to Greek and Roman precedents, and it is tempting in this connexion to apply to classical antiquity Leon Trotsky's celebrated dictum about war: you may not be interested in it - but it is definitely interested in you. To an outsider, the intricacies of ancient history may seem a matter of no importance except to a sub-Johnsonian species of scholarly drudge, but some modern practitioners of the subject take a far more combative view of its contemporary relevance – and more to the point, so did some of the neo-conservative clique around George Bush that lately pressed for military intervention and exemplary 'regime change' in an irksome Middle Eastern state: the portentously named '2000 Project for the New American Century', a right-wing think-tank patronized by Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney, boasted a bigwig professor of classical Greek history from Yale among its leading lights.

In 2005, as their dream of a pax Americana dissolves in a sea of insurgents' bombs and threadbare spin, Washington's more reflective neo-cons may wish in hindsight that their professor's specialist knowledge had extended beyond Greek warfare to the geopolitics of the Roman Empire. An instance of gung-ho Roman adventurism in the early second century could have provided particular food for thought. In AD114, the emperor Trajan decided on a robust solution to the 'Middle-Eastern question' of his day: invade Mesopotamia, kick out its uppity ruling dynasty, and reconstitute it as an amenable Roman province. The initial invasion was easily accomplished and fulsomely celebrated. Three years later, the bulk of the native population of Iraq was in open revolt, and a fundamentalist visionary based in its southern marshes was prophesying an immanent visitation by angels and the triumph of God's faithful over all earthly empires. At that point Trajan obligingly died, or was covertly murdered: it was left to his successor to ditch the whole enterprise and engineer a prudent withdrawal of the imperial army back to the old frontier.

The account of Rome's Mesopotamian fiasco deftly sketched near the close of Robin Lane Fox's 'epic history' is one of many delightful touches in a wide-ranging book that offers a feast of intriguing insights to anyone curious about the classical world. The author is an Oxford don with extensive and long-pondered knowledge of his subject, but emphatically no dry-as-dust drudge: a keen horseman outside the lecture-room, he recently charged across the big screen as a Macedonian cavalryman in the company of professional stunt-riders in Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great (a movie in which he also served as historical adviser). On the page, he canters just as sure-footedly through the nine centuries or so that run 'from Homer to Hadrian', writing with a light touch and a wonderful knack for conveying the shifting texture of life in Greek and Roman antiquity to readers for whom it may be wholly unfamiliar territory. His wish to share and explain his own long fascination with the classical world and its literature is patent, and where he thinks that modern parallels or comparisons can help he readily draws them. Beyond that, and in marked contrast to the neo-cons' professorial ally at Yale, he has no sectional or political axes to grind - and his book is much the better for it. It is a generous text not just for its amplitude (it runs to 600 pages), but for the spirit in which it is written; its aim is not to win an argument or pretend to be definitive, but to stimulate and deepen the historical imagination of its readers.

To write a history of this sort requires artistry as well as learning. On any definition, 'the classical world' is a formidably complex subject to take on; potentially, it embraces several distinctive cultures and languages spread across Europe, Mediterranean Africa and the Near East, and the evolution over at least a millennium of scores of states and kingdoms. Even an 'epic' treatment must be shrewdly selective, and the topics that it picks for emphasis must be carefully orchestrated to point up their relationships and overall significance. The trick is to highlight and explain key background themes without depriving the ancient evidence of its power to speak to moderns in its own terms, and to cast them in a narrative frame that can illuminate long-term trends and changes without denying chance and contingency their role in the story. For Lane Fox, it is above all the range and subtlety of the ancients' own texts that gives their history an inexhaustible interest, and in this book the 'classical world' begins in the eighth century BC with the invention and rapid spread of an alphabetic script for Greek, and the writing down of the Homeric poems, the earliest substantial Greek texts which now survive. His chosen ending-point, the Roman Empire under Hadrian in the mid-second century AD, may seem premature, inasmuch as the empire was to survive for a further three centuries - but the choice has its logic. The first use of the term 'classic' to connote a canon of artistic excellence occurs around Hadrian's time, and Hadrian's own classicizing tastes in literature and architecture arguably mark the point at which a self-conscious sense began to crystallize in the ancients' own minds that they were heirs to a 'classical' past – a past whose achievements they could emulate, but scarcely hope to match. Hadrian’ reign can thus sometimes figure in this book as a half-way house between the ancient and the modern: at various points on the long road from Homer towards his second-century closing-point, the author pauses to consider how the particular subject under discussion might have appeared to Hadrian’s eye. It is a nice trope: Hadrian’s tastes were shaped partly by the ‘classic’ buildings and artworks he encountered on his near-constant tours of his empire; for him, the Homeric age – along with many another iconic ‘classical’ episode illuminated in this book - was already becoming ‘ancient history’.

Theoretically-minded readers might question Lane Fox’s preference for narrative over thematic analysis in his history, but he has his own theoretical reasons for the choice, and his narrative is unified by a thematic strand; it picks up on three notions which the ancient writers themselves especially liked to emphasise - ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and ‘luxury’ - and traces their shifts and twists in practical politics and state-ideologies over a passage of a thousand years. Freedom and justice are words with a noble ring, but they are often code-words for vested interest, and luxury is a very elastic concept: if you wonder what ‘democracy’ or ‘liberty’ really amounted to in classical Athens or republican Rome, or what ‘legal rights’ meant for a Spartan helot or an Italian freedman, or how Sybarites became synonymous with luxury, or why Tacitus called heated bath-houses tools of ‘enslavement, you will find revealing answers here. And there is so much else. Books about particular periods or aspects of classical antiquity by experts writing for a general readership are no rarity, but it is a long time since a single author has attempted an ‘epic’ portrait of the entire age – still less one enlivened by such empathy and wit. Politics and warfare and their social contexts may be the backbone of Lane Fox’s ‘grand narrative’, but as it unfolds there are constant glances down antiquity’s vivid byways. An Aristotelian philosopher fetches up in town in Afghanistan, bearing an oracle from Delphi for its Greek inhabitants; a band of female fire-eaters puts on an impromptu strip show at a wedding-feast; a prostitute named ‘Lioness’ seduces the son of a one-eyed king. And who could resist a book in which the owner of a pet piglet sadly recalls how it trotted behind his chariot for a hundred miles from Thessalonica, only to fall victim to a road-hog on the crossroads at Edessa?


Richard Miles, Sunday Telegraph, September 20 08

Travelling Heroes is a rare beast among academic books. Not for Robin Lane Fox the narrow path of specialisation; he has spent his long and distinguished career negotiating a broader intellectual highway, and leading a wide range of readers along it.

Lane Fox is ambitious for and demanding of his readership, too. There are none of the over-generalisations or embarrassing stabs at contemporary 'relevance' here that beset so much 'popular' history. Lane Fox believes that his readers are capable of following complex arguments and ingesting diffuse and unfamiliar information.

Travelling Heroes takes us on a dazzling journey through the Mediterranean world of the 8th century BC as we follow in the slipstream of an intrepid and enterprising group of merchants and adventurers from the Greek island of Euboea.

It is they who Lane Fox considers to be the real heroes of the Homeric Age. He evokes the period brilliantly as a world where the imagination could run as free as the nimble craft that propelled these early Greeks from their island home to the farthest eastern and western bounds of that great sea.

As traders, pirates and colonists the Euboeans took the stories that they heard from the diverse peoples with whom they came into contact and the unfamiliar landscapes that they encountered, and wove them into a rich new tapestry of meaning.

They had plenty of good material to work with. For these early Greeks reminders of gods, monsters and other divine beings were embodied in their surroundings, whether it was the lofty peaks that their deities inhabited or the dinosaur bones that they mistook for the remains of defeated giants.

Thus the Jebel Aqra, the mountain that towers over the northern Syrian coastline and that had long served as the meeting-point of a myriad of different Near Eastern religious traditions, would come to be seen by the Euboeans, who established the settlement of Al Mina in its shadow, as nothing less than the 'Olympus of the East', the seat of Zeus, the king of the gods.

According to Lane Fox, it was also here that the gruesome power struggle between the first generations of gods took place, replete with sons castrating their fathers and fathers swallowing their children whole - a tale that would become one of the greatest of the Greeks myths.

Lane Fox then deftly shows how these sacred landscapes were as mobile as the early Greeks who had created them.

As they travelled westwards they would incorporate the new environments they encountered into the same cosmological body of meaning. For instance, the epic confrontation between Zeus and the snake-headed monster Typhon would be played out not only on Jebel Aqra but also on fetid Egyptian marshes, plunging Cilician caverns and on the volcanic island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples.

In Travelling Heroes early Greek myth is inextricably tied to the attempts by these intrepid Euboeans to make sense of the unfamiliar world around them and in particular the geological anomalies that scarred the earth's crust.

Thus, Lane Fox neatly manages to find a way of grounding in the world of the 8th-century-BC Mediterranean, the great Homeric hymns that have for so long floated frustratingly free from the context in which they were created.

Yet despite the seductiveness of this thesis, the shadow of doubt looms as large over Travelling Heroes as the Jebel Aqra did over the ancient settlements.

In striking contrast to the close detail lavished on how the Euboeans might have reacted to the physical landscape, the author's speculation about the nature of their interactions with the local populations is disappointingly one-sided, with the information proffered by the latter being seen merely as raw material from which a resolutely Greek view of the universe could be hewn.

Although Lane Fox is clearly correct in his assertion that soft-focus multiculturalism was not alive and well in Dark Age Greece, the relentless downplaying of the influence that the much older cultures of the Near East had on early Hellenic literature and religion and its transmission through the Phoenicians, will undoubtedly raise a few scholarly eyebrows.

Then there is the question of evidence. In constructing this beguiling image of a Dark Age thought-world, Lane Fox deftly presses into service Hellenistic kings, Roman emperors, Christian monks, Turkish pilgrims, 19th-century Russian travellers and even Gertrude Bell, yet the heroes of the book, our Euboean adventurers, remain ominously silent.

Particularly troubling is the absence of this Euboean sacred itinerary in the work of their great contemporary, Homer, a lack that Lane Fox never quite manages to explain away. Thus, when reading of Euboeans 'brilliantly piecing together the clues of landscape and place names and local stories', one might be forgiven for wondering whether such a eulogy might better serve as a testament to the extraordinary talents of its author than the elusive Greek heroes of this epic study.

From the BBC History Magazine, November 2009
Peter Jones reviews TRAVELLING HEROES: GREEKS AND THEIR MYTHS IN THE EPIC AGE OF HOME By Robin Lane Fox (Allen Lane 514pp £25)

For the past thirty years myth and early Greek literature, especially Homer and his near contemporary, the farmer-poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC), have been in the grip of Orientomania. Brilliant books like /The East Face of Helicon/ by Martin West (All Souls, Oxford) have demonstrated how intimately early Greek stories are entwined with Near Eastern tales such as e.g. /Gilgamesh/. For example, in both /Gilgamesh/ and Homer’s /Iliad /the main heroes Achilles and Gilgamesh are sons of goddesses, with mortal fathers; both are helped by their mothers, who use more powerful gods to support their cause; both heroes are obstinate and passionate, prone to instant decisions; both lose their dearest companions; both are devastated by their loss and take extreme action to try to compensate for it; and so on.

Robin Lane Fox, University Reader in Ancient History at New College Oxford, will have none of it. For him, while there may have been some influence way back in the unrecoverable past, neither Homer nor Hesiod had direct, contemporary hot-lines to Near Eastern contacts. Their poetry, he argues, depended on Greek understanding of the world, not Near Eastern.

There are two main planks to his case. First, Lane Fox shows that (as the pottery record indicates) there were Greeks (especially from Euboea) with very close links to the Near East from the period well before Homer, through extensive trading networks.

Second, he demonstrates (admittedly from extensive later sources) that the Greeks were passionate syncretists, enthusiastic about finding connections between their own customs, myths and gods and those of other cultures, wherever they could. Usually these connections bore no relation to any reality, but that did not matter. Greeks then disseminated these stories of alien gods or customs or people, duly altered to fit Greek assumptions, wherever they went. So the ‘hot-line’ theory is not needed. The ‘alien’ content of the works of Homer and Hesiod is much better explained as derived from Greek travellers who had been to Phoenicia, Assyria, Cyprus, Syria and so on, not directly from Near Eastern sources.

Take the cult of Adonis, the beautiful boy with whom Aphrodite herself fell in love. This can be traced back to Mesopotamian society in 2000 BC. Lane Fox argues that Euboeans would have encountered it c. 950 BC in Cyprus, where it had been brought by Phoenicians, but reckons that it became a feature of Greek culture through Greek Cypriots, who began to adapt it to fit their own assumptions and spread it across Cyprus and other Greek islands into the Greek world in general.

The problems with Lane Fox’s argument are two-fold. Since evidence for early Greek connections with the Near East depends on pottery finds alone, it is impossible to document cultural interaction. Much, therefore, of Lane Fox’s evidence comes from much later sources (‘X would have been the case’ is a constant refrain).

Further, we do not know how Homer learned to recite his poetry, or from whom: the evidence does not exist, because writing was not available at that time to tell us. All we know is that the language and content of oral poetry were constantly changing over the hundreds of years the poems were being handed down the generations before Homer ever lived. Under those circumstances, one is simply guessing about what or who might have influenced whom or when or how or where.

The point is that Martin West’s case for Near Eastern influence is very powerful, nor does Lane Fox deny it. What he does deny is that Homer was working off /contemporary/ Near Eastern material. Given Greek fascination with other cultures, that seems to me entirely possible, perhaps probable, but impossible to demonstrate.

But whatever one makes of Lane Fox’s central argument, this complex, wide-ranging, superbly referenced and good-humoured investigation tells a tale that ranges case by case over the eastern and western Mediterranean, casting imaginative light in all sorts of unlikely places on how cultures crossed the ancient world. He has re-written that story in a way that will have scholars of classical history, anthropology, myth and epic arguing for a long time to come.

Travelling Heroes, By Robin Lane Fox

East to west and back again: an epic of our roots

In his posthumous The Greeks and their Heritages, Arnold Toynbee pronounced that "the crowning evidence that a new civilisation had come to birth is... the adoption and adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet in the eighth century BC for writing Greek".

Here, Robin Lane Fox sets that mighty achievement, the implications of which are with us to this day, in its full East-West context – or contexts. Phoenicians and other oriental peoples, Euboean islanders and other Greek travellers, merchants and settlers, generations of composers and reciters of Homeric epic poetry: all are produced with a sweeping narrative flourish worthy of a cinematographer or screenwriter. But the whole is seasoned and leavened with a wit that only writing can afford.

Lane Fox is "our most widely read historian of the ancient Greek world", according to the dustjacket. Certainly, he is one of our most original, daring and arguably life-enhancing. More than any other historian known to me writing today, he gives "ancient history" its most generous interpretation, emulating if not exceeding his undergraduate teacher Geoffrey de Ste Croix.

His preceding book, The Classical World, was an engaging and enjoyable bite-size feast of mezze from early Greece to the reign of the philhellenic Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138). But in Pagans and Christians (1986) he took the religiously transformed story of Greek history deep into Late Antiquity. Religion – or rather his principled opposition to any fundamentalist version of it – was also the keynote of his excursion into Biblical criticism, The Unauthorized Version (1991).

I give these bibliographical details partly because Travelling Heroes comes ballasted with a huge (50-page, about 1,000 items) and not always quite accurate bibliography, which follows an even huger (65 pages) section of notes. This new book cannot be recommended, as The Classical World could be, as a work for the ordinary general reader, no matter how entertainingly, often brilliantly, written it is. The non-specialist should stick firmly to the main text, which takes off from an image of the goddess Hera airborne in the 15th book of Homer's Iliad. It transports us to and fro, East-to-West and vice versa, from Mesopotamia to central Italy and on to Spain and back, and concludes with a "just-so" story of the author's own hyper-fertile invention.

Which goes like this. "Hipposthenes" (Greek name, "strong in or with horses", but of mixed Euboean-Greek and non-Greek parentage) flourished in the eighth century BC and died a heroic death. Born in the northern Aegean city of Mende (famous later for its wine) in what became Macedonia, he travelled to the islands of Chios and Cyprus, and from there on to Syria, where he acquired a young slave-girl concubine, a sort of Sheheradzade figure. Thence he removed himself to more islands – Crete, Cythera, Ithaca (Lane Fox doesn't buy the new, persuasive theory relocating Homer's Ithaca further west), Corcyra (Corfu) – and through the straits of Messina to Cumae in the bay of Naples, before making his final return via Zancle in north-east Sicily to his paternal homeland of Euboea (that long island, "rich in cattle" literally, athwart Athens's eastern shoreline) to die in battle. Who says romance is dead? Among his other quirks and quiddities along the way, the author – not "Hipposthenes" – shows a strange preoccupation with mammoths.

But Lane Fox can also be very down-to-earth. Underlying the myths (ancient) and romance (his), there is a very serious message about inter-ethnic cultural contact and civilisational change and development. I'd guess it's the desire to put this across that has driven him to publish in a semi-popular form what is at bottom a long-meditated scholarly monograph. Since "9/11" the "clash of civilisations" has acquired a massively renewed topical urgency, and with it has come a renewed interest both in defining what is essentially "Western" and in deciding when, how and why the "West" came into being.

The Graeco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century BCE are one obvious possible big-bang flashpoint in antiquity – a view favoured by, for example, Tom Holland and Anthony Pagden in recent large-vista studies. Herodotus rightly features in both as the very incarnation of an Eastern-inspired but quintessentially Western thinker.

What Lane Fox does is take that story back to the eighth century, to the Phoenicians and Euboeans, and to (among much else) the invention of the alphabet. The Greek inventors of the first fully phonetic alphabetic script, child's play to scribe, could not have done it without the Phoenicians. But their borrowing was problem-solving and creative, far from the merely derivative. That is emblematic, for Lane Fox, of Greek-Oriental cultural interaction as a whole, including the borrowing of "myth" – but not the invention of the Homeric epic.


Peter Jones, BBC History magazine, August 2009

Given the recent storms over MPs’ enthusiasm for the tax-payer to fund their swimming pools, helipads and ornamental gardens, this wide-ranging book on ancient pleasure is a timely one. As Laurence argues, pleasure, by which he usually seems to mean the consumption of material luxuries, was dependent on a flourishing economy in Rome, and the first century AD may well have seen ‘the greatest economic expansion in Europe prior to the industrial revolution’. But as that economy declined in the late Roman empire, so the evidence for luxury – or at least for the public display of it - declined with it. One wonders whether the public’s sense of belt-tightening during recession has inflamed their fury at MPs’ careless merry-making with our money.

It is all here: emperors’ luxurious life-styles, magnificent urban architecture, grand country villas, baths, sex, food, drink, the theatre, games (especially violent ones) and collecting and displaying rarities. Throughout, Laurence rightly reminds us of the strong strand of disapproval of such ‘corrupting excess’ that runs through Roman literature (especially from Stoic thinkers), but also of the need for the rich from the emperor down to give the struggling plebs a taste of luxury too. Hence, for example, public buildings like the Colosseum, baths, theatres and race-tracks, all paid for and supported by the wealthy to give the poor a sense that they too shared in the riches of the Rome world. Meanwhile, as Pliny says, the ‘good’ emperor, like Trajan, will find his pleasures in healthy, outdoor pursuits like hunting and sailing, and will share his dinners with guests, engaging them in agreeable conversation and inviting them too to enjoy the material pleasures of the imperial table.

But there are problems with the book. First, ‘pleasure’ is a notoriously tricky and personal concept. Can it, for example, be defined purely in terms of luxurious material goods? Where does it intersect (say) with ‘happiness’?

Second, there is little by way of sustained argument about the legitimate interpretation of the sources for ‘pleasure’. For example, Laurence regularly treats ‘art’ as a source. So when he claims that Romans had sex only in private and therefore did not do orgies (‘a modern fixation’), one wonders what he makes of murals of threesomes and foursomes hard at it. Pure fantasy?

Finally, while it is clear that Laurence has read widely on the topic, he does not seem to have thought it through. Assertion follows assertion, often without any sense of logical argument. So, with only a ‘perhaps’ to modify it, he asserts that the purpose of brothels was to fulfil slaves’ need for sex. He then goes on to say that slaves’ need for prostitution can be understood only if we understand Roman views of the orgasm, that (i) men were in favour of mutual pleasure between copulating couples, (ii) ‘women were defined as achieving pleasure through sex’ (defined? Really?), and (iii) Romans thought orgasms essential for health. But I cannot see what mutual orgasms have to do with slaves, or why slaves need prostitutes to have orgasms. And what about female slaves (kept happy being raped by their masters?)

So commendably detailed as this book is, I can recommend it only as a rather shaky starting point for serious thinking about the meaning of pleasure in the ancient world.


Hugh Lupton, The Times April 25, 2009

Virgil, on his deathbed 2,028 years ago, asked for the manuscript of the Aeneid to be burnt. The request was overruled by his patron, the Emperor Augustus, and the surviving poem has become a keystone of Western literature — and the blueprint for Ursula Le Guin’s new novel, Lavinia.

Why would Virgil have made this request? Was it (as generally supposed) because it was unfinished, or because, as a poet, he knew it to be deeply flawed?

Throughout the Aeneid there is a sense of a great poet being compromised. It’s as though a sculptor of genius had been commissioned by the State to decorate a huge patriotic gateway. He pillages Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) to construct a national epic for the Romans, but never achieves Homer’s sweep and sympathy. How could he? Homer never takes sides and is answerable to nobody. No sense of nationhood rests on Odysseus’ journey or Achilles’ rages. Virgil, on the other hand, is in the pocket of the state. He struggles against the straitjacket of the commission and this gives the poem a particular poignancy, a tension between his own sense of the pity of war and the heroics of the founding fathers. But, with the exception of Aeneas (who embodies that tension) the characters do not spring to life on the page. True, there are some magnificent set-pieces, but it is as if a Rodin had agreed to carve the Albert Memorial.

In his poem Secondary Epic, Auden has written of Virgil:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.

Surely a sense of that betrayal prompted his request to burn his masterpiece.

Of all the characters in the Aeneid it must be Lavinia who is the most thinly drawn. She is the only daughter of Latinus, the King of Latium. Latinus has been told by the oracle at Albunea:

Never seek to marry your daughter to a Latin . . .
Strangers will come, and come to be your sons
and their lifeblood will lift our name to the stars.
Their son’s sons will see, wherever the wheeling Sun
looks down on the Ocean, rising or setting, East or West,
the whole Earth turn beneath their feet, their rule!

The strangers, of course, will be the Trojans, following oracles of their own, and the “Earth that turns beneath the feet” of the descendants of a Latin queen and a Trojan king will be the Roman Empire. But unfortunately, Lavinia already has several suitors among the Latins, most particularly Turnus, king of the Rutulians. The second half of the Aeneid is an account of the war between Latins and Trojans for her hand. She is, in a sense, the Helen of the Aeneid. But what do we know of her? Almost nothing. She is a chattel, a bargaining chip. Virgil gives us three glimpses of her. We see her hair catch fire as she lights torches at the altar — a sign that foretells glory for her and gruelling war for her people. We see her blush “as crimson as Indian ivory stained with ruddy dye . . .” And we see her mourning her mother, tearing her golden hair and “scoring her lustrous cheeks”. In a poem of 12,000 lines we are given only three clichés around which to construct the future bride of Aeneas, the Romans’ ancestral grandmother.

It is from these thin pickings that Ursula Le Guin has constructed her novel, or rather, it is as a challenge to them. Her Lavinia, the voice of the narrative, is her own woman, a real, breathing presence whose substance we do not doubt. She’s a living princess caught between girlhood and womanhood, between a doting father and hysteric mother, between courtly duty and the freedom of the fields. The world she inhabits, the city, her father’s palace with its corridor of gods and ancestors opening on to the courtyard with laurel tree and fountain, its kitchens are described with such a vivid attention that we see them ourselves. The two-dimensional world of the Aeneid springs to animated life before our eyes.

And so, too, does poor Virgil. At the heart of the novel are three visits to the oracle at Albunea in which Lavinia encounters the poet. He has fallen ill and is in the fever that will kill him. In his delirium he comes to the place where the princess is sleeping hundreds of years before his time. He meets his scant creation and finds that he was wrong about her; she is dark-haired and full of life.

“She came to Albunea by herself,” he said, speaking into the darkness, “and knew the sacred names of the river, and had no wish to be married. And I knew nothing of all that! I never looked at her.”

Lavinia meets her creator and finds that she is caught up in the inevitability of a story; she finds that he carries her destiny. A tenderness develops between them that is deeply moving. He offers her the knowledge of her future, but she refuses it. So instead he tells her the past, the story of Aeneas, the man she will marry. He makes it possible for her to fall in love with her arranged and destined husband. He speaks to her brimming with the full pity of all that has been and all that is yet to come.

As the novel progresses the reader begins to reassess the Aeneid: it seems to become a huge tide that drives the lives of men and women, sweeping them into their destinies. And Virgil too, like the characters he created, seems to be trapped in it, thrown between the forces of necessity and piety, and we begin to love him for it.

If Le Guin had finished her novel at the point at which Virgil would surely have ended the Aeneid had he completed it — with the wedding of Lavinia and Aeneas — I would hail this novel as her masterpiece. Unfortunately, her narrative loses its wonderful momentum in its last 80 or so pages as Lavinia tells of her marriage to Aeneas and the gradual ascendancy of their son Silvius. It’s as though the ghost of Virgil, urging her to put his own flawed story to rights, has stopped whispering in her ear.

But it is still a magnificent act of reimagination, best read alongside a good translation of Virgil (such as that of Robert Fagles, whose translation is quoted here) so that Le Guin’s brilliant interweaving of Lavinia’s story with the original can be fully appreciated.

Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin
Gollancz, £14.99; 304pp


Peter Jones in the BBC History Magazine, September 2005

This book does exactly what it says on the cover. Christopher Mackay concentrates remorselessly on what Roman politicians and soldiers did from the earliest beginnings around the 6thC BC, when tiny Rome became an independent town, to AD 476. This was when the German leader Odoacer pensioned off the last Roman emperor, ironically named Romulus Augustulus, and so pulled the curtain down on Rome's massive western empire, once stretching from Hadrian's Wall to Iraq, from the Rhine to the Atlas Mountains.

The book works well enough for the earliest periods, about which we know so little. As Mackay argues well, the literary tradition about the early history of Rome (exemplified by e.g. Livy's history) can be shown to be largely fiction, while the archaeological record simply indicates that by the 7thC BC the town was become wealthier, and impressive public and private buildings were being put up.

The history of the early Republic, established by tradition in 507 BC after the expulsion of Etruscan kings from Rome, also has its problems, but Mackay shows that the broad chronology, established through lists of consuls, looks fairly secure, as does the development of the senatorial system, with its annually elected executive officers ('magistrates', the top two of whom were the consuls), advisory Senate (consisting of all ex-magistrates), and various people's assemblies.

From the fifth to third centuries BC, wars, incorporations and alliances turned Rome from a small town into a powerful city controlling most of the Italian peninsula. After the Punic wars, Sicily, Spain and North Africa became Rome's first provinces, and the wealth that poured into Rome from further provincialisation over the next 200 years laid the foundations of its 700-year domination.

It is about now that Mackay's book seems to me to lose its grip. The reason is two-fold. First, the more we know about Roman history, the more Mackay - who certainly knows his stuff - needs to cram in. His intelligent interspersed overviews of the long list of events about who did what to whom just about rescue it. Second, the more we know about political motives, conditions and circumstances (as we do from e.g. Cicero's 800 personal letters), the less satisfactory for certain periods of Roman history his narrow remit becomes. For example, propaganda is surely 'political', and we know a great deal about Augustan propaganda. Mackay says nothing about it. He will argue that he cannot do everything - fair enough - but to treat 'war' and 'politics' as if they explained themselves runs the risk of doing justice to neither.


Peter Jones in The Sunday Telegraph, March 20 2005

To Christians, the terrifying warrior Attila was known as flagellum Dei, 'the scourge of God'. Raiding from his base in southern Hungary over much of the Roman empire East and West till his unexpected death in AD 453, he and his Huns were seen as the agents of divine retribution for moral backsliding.

Germanic tribes like the Goths, however, who were for a time part of Attila's rickety north European 'empire', saw him as a hero. From them Attila passed into Scandinavian saga and eventually into versions of the Nibelunglied saga. Wagner dropped him, and he might well have stayed dropped but for the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. As Kaiser Wilhelm I and his German army slaughtered their way across France, the French likened them to Attila and the Huns, who in AD 451 had taken an almost identical route into Gaul.

So it was that Attila and the Huns became a modern metaphor for 'barbarism', Kipling in particular delighting to talk of 'the shameless Hun' in poems attacking German imperialism.

Not a bad metaphor either. As John Man has to agree in his racy and imaginative account of the man, the Huns contributed nothing to civilisation as we know it except pillage, slaughter and blackmail.The Huns were a nomadic warrior elite, possibly of Turkish stock, from somewhere in central Asia. For whatever reason they began pushing West, and by 420 had massed on the lower Danube, driving Gothic tribes south into Roman-held territory in northern Greece. In a thrilling chapter, Man describes a demonstration by a Hungarian expert that their mounted archers could hit targets, at speed, every two seconds. With reloads, a circling force of 2,000 Huns could hit the enemy with 50,000 arrows every ten minutes.

Further, for all his nomadic background, Attila developed siege warfare to a pitch the Romans had not previously encountered. Even the most strongly fortified city was not safe from him.

This, then, was a warrior with whom the Romans had to do business, and most of it consisted in bribing him to stay his hand. Between 430-47, Hun-geld rose from 350 pounds of gold to 700 and then 2,100 every year, on top of numerous other gifts. Such were Attila's military prowess, diplomatic skills and powers of patronage that all the tribes along the Danube and the northern shores of the Black Sea owed him loyalty. Further, he was remarkably well-informed, seeming to know when the eastern Roman empire was under pressure and thus vulnerable to a strike deep into Roman territory, to plunder yet more and remind the Romans that he had not gone away.

But Attila felt betrayed when he was denied the hand of the emperor Valentinian's sister Honoria in marriage, together with 'half the Roman empire' that was supposed to come with her. In 451 he took matters into his own hands and marched West for Gaul. Roman diplomacy persuaded the usually hostile Visigoths settled there that Attila was more of a threat than Rome, and Attila was repulsed. In 452 he was back, ravaging north Italy as far as Milan, only for famine, disease and a Roman counter- attack in Hungary to force him to retreat. It was his last campaign. On his wedding night to another Hunnish bride Ildico in 453, the varicose veins in his gullet burst (Man's interesting diagnosis) and he drowned in his own blood. His 'empire' immediately disintegrated.

One wonders what Hungarians make of all this. Hungary was founded by the Magyar Árpád in 896. The Magyars had no connection whatever with the Huns, but that did not stop Magyar historians inventing one to bridge the 500-year gap with the people that had given their territory its name. They duly reconstructed Attila as a sort of Charlemagne. Haydn's wealthy Hungarian patrons the Ésterházys proudly traced their lineage back to him. What a pity the great man did not celebrate him by following up his oratorio 'The Creation' with 'The Destruction', though Verdi did finally oblige with an 'Attila' in 1871.

John Man's account does not go as far in the heroisation stakes as Verdi did, but sympathetically and readably puts flesh and bones on one of history's most turbulent characters.


Peter Jones in The Sunday Telegraph, June 13 2004

Lacking modern technology, ancient doctors drew their conclusions from what the naked eye told them. So if their theories about disease (say) seem to us completely potty, that is not surprising. All they could do was to take a view on the matter, determined by whatever philosophy of medicine they clung to, and crack on. After all, germs, bacteria and viruses were discovered not much more than a hundred years ago.

One very influential ancient theory of health was that of the 'four humours'. Observing what came out of the body when it was ill - blood, phlegm, bile and black bile (the four 'humours', or liquids) - doctors recommended what to put back into it to prevent excess of any humour, thus keeping the body 'in balance' and ensuring good health. Diagnosis and prognosis were 'improved' when these humours became associated with bodily temperature, and then with the seasons; so cold food and drink could be confidently recommended for the sick in the hot summer. As a theory of disease it is all nonsense, but it has been superseded only relatively recently - though there is still, apparently, a practitioner in Torquay.

That said, no medical breakthrough has ever been more critical than the Greeks' assertion that disease was not supernatural: it had physical causes and could therefore be dealt with physically. So doctors did what they could within their limitations. Symptoms were observed and the progress of illnesses tracked (Greeks were good at prognosis); healthy and unhealthy locations and climates were identified (they may not have known about malaria but they certainly observed its effects); dietetics ('life-style' studies) covered everything from food to exercise; and there were bodies to be examined, alive or dead. A good gaping wound from the battlefield could reveal a lot, and ancients were not squeamish about working on animals. For a short while in third century BC Alexandria, even human bodies were dissected - normally taboo in the Greek world (the practice was not repeated till the 2ndC AD).

In this brilliant book (part of Routledge's excellent 'Sciences of Antiquity' series), Vivian Nutton, Professor of the History of Medicine at University College, London, surveys clearly and in gripping detail the story of ancient medicine from early Greece (8thC BC) to Late Antiquity (7thC AD). There are two figures that dominate: Hippocrates from the island of Cos (5thC BC), who was so important that treatises written hundreds of years after his death were ascribed to him (including the 'four-humour' theory), and Galen, a Greek from Pergamum and follower of Hippocrates, who made his name in Rome (2ndC AD) and left us his own frequently dogmatic and pugnacious but deeply influential thoughts on medicine and many other topics, running to nearly three million words.

That said, a major theme of Nutton's book is that ancient doctors were their own men. Then, as now, there was no simple acquiescence in a theory merely because it had an authority's imprimatur.

Amid all the nonsense, much extremely impressive work was done. There was accurate observation of significant symptoms (breath, pulse, fever, discoloration); fractures could be set, dislocations reduced; nerves were divided into motor and sensory. Galen himself was a pioneer in understanding the significance of mind-body interaction (stress was a particular speciality). He was also passionate about dissection, arguing that merely reading about it was about as useful as a steersman navigating from a book (Nutton points out that many doctors today advocate interactive videos in place of the real thing). He carried out public dissections on animals, impressing audiences when the pig's loud squeals ended the moment the free passage of nerves along the spinal cord was cut. The number and variety of recovered instruments suggest a high level of surgical competence and sophistication.

Relationships between doctor and patient were also widely discussed. The famous Hippocratic oath, whose heavily religious tone suggests that it was not by Hippocrates, came to encapsulate proper ethical practice (though it was not universally imposed till very late on). Ancient doctors also knew that the quality of care depended on the quality of the patient as well as that of the doctor ('they won't take medicine they don't like, and so die; but the doctor gets the blame').

As Nutton says, 'the legacy of Antiquity is still with us'. Fortunately, however, much of its practice isn't.


Peter Jones, Sunday Telegraph, July 13 2008

Magic works on men, gods and nature: it is used to assert mental, physical or material control over people; to bring gods on-side by means of various formulas (e.g. incantations, magic words); to move mountains, rivers and forests. But since nature is not mocked, it is only by psychological means that the fiction of its efficacy can be maintained. If you can be persuaded it will work, it will.

Daniel Ogden, professor of Ancient History at the University of Exeter, suggests the ancients could be so persuaded because they heard so much about it. Traditional, folkloric (and therefore hugely appealing) tales of magic proved it, and their repetition down the millennia not only lodged the idea of the supernatural in the popular imagination but also provided a template for thinking about, and even practising, it.

For, as Ogden shows, Greeks and Romans were not all high-minded rationalists. Magic-working pops up everywhere: in high literature from Homer to Horace, in histories, novels and the Bible; in documents like the magical papyri from Greek Egypt (do-it-yourself guides to protect yourself against death, attract lovers, foretell the future and so on); on curse-tablets (thin lead sheets inscribed with requests for help of various sorts, mainly involving litigation, sporting contests, love affairs and revenge, and entrusted to the dead or deities connected with the dead to act upon); and inscriptions on magic amulets. The hair-raising stories in which Ogden’s book is so rich have modern resonances too. Time and again we are reminded of the horror movie – ghosts (especially angry ones attacking living victims, begged off by being consulted at oracles of the dead), vampires, werewolves, zombies and even Dr Frankenstein.

One theme among many that Ogden develops (including love-relationships between the living and the dead) is that witches are up and doing long before male sorcerers appear on the scene. In Homer’s 7thC BC /Odyssey/, Circe turns Odysseus’ men into pigs, tries the same trick without success on Odysseus who also baffles her erotic lures, instructs him how to consult the ghosts of the dead, controls the weather, makes people disappear and uses drugs.

Medea, whose name suggests the Greek for ‘intelligence’, also fits the bill. She is best known for her desire to spite her faithless husband Jason by killing his new bride with a poisoned robe, slaughtering their children and escaping in the chariot of the sun (the theme of Euripides’ famous tragedy); but there is enough artistic and literary evidence from the 7thC BC to suggest she too is an early prototype, using drugs and rejuvenating people. Their male counterparts come on the scene only from 500 BC.

As in so many other areas, Romans witches come under the spell of their Greek models, but with a crueller, more Gothic twist. They are old hags, wicked, drunken and driven by lust for young men or a desire to kill; they collect body parts (often from the mouths of wolves) to effect their spells, and mix drugs in cauldrons; they control the physical environment, levelling mountains and making forests walk. Some particularly nasty examples feature in the poet Horace. They bite into a lamb’s neck to pour blood into a pit as an offering to the ghosts of the dead; they kill a young boy by burying him up to his neck, then dry out and powder his marrow and liver to create a love potion.

In Rome too, Ogden argues, well-developed images of male sorcerers, usually associated with dodgy locations in the Near East, appear only later, in the AD period. (Among them are Judaeo-Christian practitioners of exorcism, commanding demons to leave their victim’s body.)

Another little-acknowledged triumph, then, for feminism.

If we are tempted to dismiss this as a wholly ancient phenomenon, we should be careful. This is the sort of world, Ogden points out, that the doctor Carlo Levi met in his exile in South Italy in 1935-6 and described in Christ stopped at Eboli: love philtres, poisons, amulets to ward off disease, spells for curing toothache or transferring one’s illness to someone else, werewolves and ghosts. Only the other day in Kenya, eleven elderly people accused of being witches were burned to death by irate locals. The supernatural still exerts its grip.


Peter Jones, Literary Review June 2009

‘A fascinating and exotic journey along the frontiers of the largest and most enduring ancient power – the Roman Empire’ enthuses the blurb on the front of the book, but I am afraid I have to disagree. For ‘fascinating’ and ‘exotic’ read ‘impressively detailed’. Though now and again the writer intervenes to remind us that he was there and got the tee-shirt (‘A Bedouin shepherdess scrutinises us uncertainly as we approach the Nabataean reservoir’), this historical and archaeological account of Rome’s frontier provinces reads as if it has been put together from a shelf-full of travel guides.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with travel guides. If you want information, they often provide it. But one soon gets indigestion when a guide presents itself as an exotic journey, i.e. a good read. ‘From Cuicul in Numidia, the road leads south-westwards to Sétif (ancient Sitifis), a town that lay inside the boundaries of Mauretania Caesariensis (with its capital at Iol Caesarea, modern Cherchell), but which from the 290s was the chief centre of its own miniature province of Mauretania Sitifnesis. The city that in fact became the capital of modern Algeria lies 225 kilometres to the north-west, on the coast. Of ancient Iconium, Algiers (its modern descendant) preserves almost nothing…’. Now any book can be misrepresented by the context-free selection of an extract. But, frankly, that’s the way it is.

Like travel guides too, the book lacks a sense of the big picture or guiding theme. It seems as if we are going to get a cumulative discussion about Rome’s frontiers, whetting the historian’s appetite for the big question – did Rome have a frontier policy at all? Edward Luttwak, an expert on military defence and Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued in 1976 that it did indeed have a ‘grand strategy’, and historians have been worrying away over the question ever since. The consensus now is that it all depends on where along the frontier you are talking about: strategic patterns can be discerned here and there, but basically Romans did not do ‘policy’. They reacted to situations as they developed, and responded case-by-case to the situations they were dealing with on the edges of empire. Parker does, indeed, consider this issue and says perfectly sensible things about it. But his comments are confined to the thirteen-page *Introduction*. They are not knitted into an argument built up over the course of the book and derived from the evidence of the sites he has visited.

Nor, I am afraid, is Parker the sharpest of observers. The first page I opened expatiated on the wonderful Libyan site of Lepcis Magna, only to call it Leptis Magna. That is the name used by ignorant tour agencies and cruise ships. Parker is aware of this: he says in an end-note ‘It is often spelled Lepcis, which may in fact be a better transliteration of the original Phoenician name LPQY’. But you do not need Phoenician to tell you that. All you have to do is read the original inscriptions on the site and in the museum – there are hundreds – to see that it was called Lepcis by its inhabitants. No one paying attention to what is there before his very eyes could possibly call it anything else.

Again, nearby Sabratha was excavated and restored by Italians under a Mussolini determined to justify his claims to North Africa on the grounds that the Romans had got there thousands of years earlier. Italian archaeologists did a superb job excavating and restoring the magnificent theatre, which Parker quite properly describes in glowing terms. But he fails to point out what I assume is a splendid Italian joke. A Roman inscription running round the frieze above the columns is missing, apart from one word: LACUNA. Ho ho. Not so funny is the misquotation of Cato’s famous exhortation about what the Romans should do to Carthage - it should be delenda est Carthago, not Carthago delenda est.

In this respect, the book is much like your average travel guide: full of facts, usually sound, but lacking the personal touch, the little observation or story that suddenly brings it all to life. That said, Parker has put an enormous amount of work into it. If you want a detailed, fully-referenced, largely ‘ancient world’ guide to the towns Parker has visited - from Britain through middle Europe to Romania, Syria and on to Morocco – this would save you a fortune in local guide books.


Mary Beard, The Observer July 26 2009

When Madonna lost her virginity to her boyfriend at high school, it was – she later claimed – a "career move". For Tom Payne, in Fame, it was something rather more complicated: she was "sacrificing something for fame itself". So was Britney Spears, when she marched into Esther Tognozzi's hair salon in Tarzana, California, and shaved her own head (watched by a stunned crowd outside, some of whom captured the moment on camera). So was Jade Goody, when she decided to die in public. So, for Payne, was Jesus Christ: he skips over the theological complexities to portray the crucifixion as a classic case of a sacrificial victim not only acquiring fame, but actually being transformed into a god.

Payne sees modern celebrity culture as a new version of the sacrifice to the gods of animals, and even occasionally human beings. Put simply, Britney and the others have more in common with "a cow or a goat in an Athenian temple" on their way to ritual slaughter than you might ever have imagined.

Using a pot pourri of ancient texts, modern theories of sacrifice, from Sir James Frazer on, and nuggets drawn from his undergraduate lectures (Payne once studied classics and generously acknowledges his lecturers), he takes us through all the various similarities between sacrificial rituals and the world of Hello and Grazia. When Britney sacrificed her hair, was it not like some ancient "rite of passage" in which virgins cut off their locks before marriage (as you find mentioned in Euripides's play, Hippolytus)? And when Britney's hair ended up on eBay, was that not in fact a "new kind of public site of worship"? When we collude to raise, or destroy, a celebrity career (or a Big Brother housemate), are we not also enjoying the bonding power of sacrifice for the congregation – in much the same way as the ancient audience was drawn together by "the shock and thrill of death"? Of course, it can be more than just the career of a celebrity that is killed off. The deaths of Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence and Janis Joplin (and we might now add, since Payne wrote, Michael Jackson) probably take us right back to that grisly primitive world, before animals had been substituted for the original human victims. Celebrity deaths are the modern form of human sacrifice.

Payne explains these and other ideas with tremendous gusto, humour and many flashes of self-knowing irony. (It's never quite clear how much he believes of all this.) There is also something strangely satisfying in seeing the theories of learned classicists used to explain the fate of rock stars and other assorted pin-ups of popular culture. "Maybe he didn't have Janis Joplin in mind," Payne concedes at one point of austere, almost septuagenarian Swiss-based scholar Walter Burkert – in what, for anyone who knows Burkert, is a hilarious understatement. Fame is a good read.

The only trouble with the book – and it's a big one – is that many of the comparisons with the ancient world that Payne suggests (with ancient sacrifice, religion more generally, or politics) simply don't add up. They are at best zany, at worst silly, and probably have very little to tell us about how we might understand the modern cult of celebrity. This is a common classicist's failing. Most of us are very keen to come up with parallels in Greece and Rome for almost any aspect of our own world; rather less keen to think carefully about exactly how useful they are. Occasionally comparisons can be eye-opening. But sadly Payne doesn't have the knack of finding the eye-openers.

He has, for example, some sharp observations on the mass voting that leads to evictions from the Big Brother house (and on local government minister Nick Raynsford's desperate idea of extending the system to British local elections). But he only muddies the waters by comparing this to the classical Athenian system of ostracism. True, ostracism did involve a democratic vote to send a leading citizen into exile for 10 years. But it was not generally used against those whom the people particularly disliked or those they thought had got above themselves (the celebrities of their day). It was instead a solution to irreconcilable difference of opinion. That is to say, if there was a political impasse because the people were split between the policies advocated by Citizen A and those advocated by Citizen B, the last resort was to break the impasse simply by sending either A or B away for 10 years. That is about as different from the Big Brother evictions as you can get.

There are similar problems in those seductive comparisons with rituals of sacrifice. Britney Spears was not undergoing a traditional rite of passage at the salon, she was going for a photo opportunity (on which elsewhere Payne has some good observations). As for the idea of human sacrifice as a model of our sadistic treatment of celebs, there is no firm evidence that human sacrifice was ever carried out in primitive Greece. Despite the inventive theories of Burkert, it was almost certainly as much a grisly fantasy for the Greeks as it was for us – but fantasy only.

Fame left me with a strong sense of diminishing returns in the classical parallels. That is a pity, because Payne has some smart things to say about the modern culture of celebrity. So why did he feel the need to spoil some good arguments by dragging in the Greeks and Romans?

From The Independent August 3 2009
Root of celebrity bashing can be found in Rome

Since time began, societies have created their idols only to destroy them. So if we really want to understand Britney's breakdown, we should look to ancient Rome.

By Rob Sharp

As a master at Sherborne, one of Britain's most traditional public schools (founded in 1550), Tom Payne, a classics teacher, enjoys many an afternoon devouring the texts of ancient Greece in the school's exceedingly well-stocked library. But, lately, during these long sessions spent poring over semi-sacred tomes, the scholar has been sneakily studying some much more glossy material secreted within his dusty pages. Anyone for Grazia?

The teacher's first book, Fame: From the Bronze Age to Britney, published next week, is set to do for classics what Harry Mount's much-lauded Amo, Amas, Amat ... and All That achieved for Latin in 2006 – the updating of a fusty subject for a modern audience, by forging links between the ancient, classical world and our modern, celebrity-worshipping culture. The book asks what Big Brother tells us about Athenian democracy (the nomination process can be fixed in both cases, he argues), and ponders that ancient poser, beloved of Herodotus and Heat magazine alike: "Why does anyone want to be famous?"

"I was teaching adolescent boys all about these ancient civilisations and it rapidly became apparent to me that they took all of this celebrity culture stuff rather seriously," says the softly-spoken Payne, 38. "And I thought maybe I should take it seriously, too. It seemed like it was worth studying in a bit more detail. I've tried to take on these subjects in a manner that could almost be considered academic. Crucially, I also wanted it to be funny."

Payne's humour stems from the texts he references (comedies like The Office or Sex and the City), rather than from any personal comic voice; but this a result of the painstaking and diverse research thrown into the project. "I put many hours into trying to make the subject exciting; I hope it leads people to pick up books and read drama that they otherwise wouldn't have looked at," continues the author, who studied classics at Cambridge University and is a former deputy literary editor of The Daily Telegraph. "I think people often underestimate the relevance of classical texts to contemporary society. I think I've been aided by the success of films like [the Sparta-based adaptation of the Frank Miller comic] 300 and Troy, which have helped cast light on the relevant periods. Now it is just a question of getting people to engage with their instincts and apply them to a different culture."

Working on "his hunches", Payne spent the summer of 2006 reading his way through history books and a stack of celebrity memoirs, including biographies of Daniella Westbrook and Jade Goody. The author soon began to see links between different celebrities' stories; particularly, he says, the doomed careers of Michael Barrymore, Paul Gascoigne and Leslie Grantham. "I saw this crime, punishment and regeneration pattern," he adds.

Payne's book's title is taken from its first chapter; and it is here where the basest human tendency to criticise and revel in the misfortune of celebrities – particularly in the case of Spears – is explored. Her famous hair-cutting incident, lit by the flashbulbs of the world's media, is comparable, claims the author, to the tales of human sacrifice as told in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis, in which hair is cut from the victim's head, symbolising their path to self-destruction.

And the celebrity comparisons continue.... Can we think of anyone who has recently had sex with a celebrity, potentially in order to further their own career (clue: their one-time conquest rhymes with "Rude Bore")? "There is always a steady spate of these social climbing situations in the British tabloids, and the best equivalent I can think of is in Ovid's Art of Love," says Payne. "He discusses how people often try to have sex with people higher up the celebrity ladder than them, or pretend to have done so, to make themselves better than they are."

He gives another example: "Michael Jackson famously had problems with a lady who claimed to have had his child. It is amazing how ordinary people believe that they get value from sleeping with someone who might be just a little bit more famous than them; it's almost like a badge of honour to claim you've had sex with Wayne Rooney."

Such thoughts also emerged in Greek myth when Dionysus became angered, after his aunt Agave claimed that his mother Semele had never slept with Zeus. "She taunted her sister by saying Zeus never shagged her," concludes the author. Gah – it could almost be Chinawhite on a Friday night.