Wednesday, April 7, 2010


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?

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