The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrianby Robin Lane Fox Published 09 Oct 2006
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The classical civilizations of Greece & Rome once dominated the world. They continue to fascinate & inspire us. Classical art & architecture, drama & epic, philosophy & politics--these are the foundations of Western civilization. In The Classical World, eminent classicist Robin Lane Fox chronicles this vast sweep of history from Homer to the reign of Augustus. From the Peloponnesian War thru the creation of Athenian democracy, from the turbulent empire of Alexander the Great to the creation of the Roman Empire & the emergence of Christianity, he serves as a witty & trenchant guide. He introduces extraordinary heroes & horrific villains, great thinkers & bloodthirsty tyrants.
"The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian" Reviews
Clearly written by an academic, but intended for the popular history market, this book was worth the reading but still a disappointment - on a number of levels.
The format is largely chronological, running from circa. 800 BC through to 140 AD, with the occasional themed chapters on cultural, military and economic histories of the peoples of the Classical age. The style of writing varies from dense and tiring (especially in the first half) to beautifully fluent, with not much consistency from chapter to chapter.
The author's passion clearly lies with the Greeks ahead of the Romans, and yet the "Greek" half of the book is certainly the weaker. His deeper interest in that period actually leads him into too much detail and too little of the big picture history I was hoping to read of - for example, he has a habit of commenting on minor historiographical debates largely irrelevant to the lay reader. The second, "Roman", half reads overall far better; the chapter on the cultural influence of the Romans on life in Britain and Gaul, for example, left me thirsting to find out more, and the chapters on the last years of the Roman Republic give Tom Holland's 'Rubicon' a run for its money.
My question would be why he decided to write one book here and not two - it's not that the influence of Greek life on the Romans is ignored, but it does feel much like two separate, largely unrelated stories stuck together. It would have made sense to at last include a chapter on where Greek influence can and cannot be seen within the Roman world.
Other personal niggles include the overuse of brackets and too frequent sharing of his personal views (in my opinion)- a misplaced tirade against the Chelsea Flower Show being one of them!
Having said all of that, it really was a "worth it", if quite dense, hop, skip-and-a-slog through the main events and players of the Classical world. If there isn't already a better popular overview, though, there is certainly still space in the market for one!
Robin Lane Fox's monumental Classical World was a tour de force of a book spanning the worlds of Greece and Rome right from the time of the epic poet Homer (7th(?) - 8th(?) Century BCE) to the Roman Emperor Hadrian (1st - 2nd Century CE).
Robin Lane-Fox is a professor of Classical History at Oxford University, and is eminently suited to handle such a massive task he has taken on.
Lane-Fox makes it immediately clear why he picked the two giants as bookends very early in the book. Both characters suit very well into the overall theme of the book which explores the Classical World in the light of "Luxury, Liberty and Justice". It might be a little abstract, and it might take a few re-readings by me to make it absolutely clear what Lane-Fox was going for. But that doesn't reduce the enjoyability of the book one bit, as the reader comes to get a good understanding of the world which has influenced Western thought to such an extent.
Lane-Fox's political view is very clearly championed throughout the book. He's very pro-Athenian especially for its representative democracy and slightly anti-Roman and makes it abundantly clear that Rome's slide into authoritarianism was very deplorable.
The book's narrative structure is fairly chronological and eschews a blow-by-blow detail of kings, battles and other standard narratives although these are by no means ignored. We get great little chapters on 6th Century BCE technologies and taxes and another on how Alexander's Hellenestic successors viewed the massive "New World" they had opened up thanks to Conqueror's escapades all across West Asia. But these are few and far between. This book is not a social history that gives a voice to the slaves and women (although Fox is critical of the slavery and patriarchy). It clearly follows the doings of what could be called the elites of the time, whether it is the upper class citizens in Athens, or the Senators in Rome (Hellenistic Kings are more or less ignored as they didn't much directly impact the two core regions of interest: Greece and Rome. Even Macedon after the death of Alexander is ignored).
While I couldn't much support Lane-Fox's political philosophy of blind Athenian worship (I came into this book having read excellent, balanced works on both Carthage and Sparta, two cities which receive too much negative flack, when not ignored in this book); I can understand and appreciate how Lane-Fox arrived at them. He pops into Athens every now and then throughout the book, even after their empire has collapsed. Some of the best writing appears here, dealing with Athenian culture and philosophy.
The book spends a lot of time on the transition from Roman Republic to Empire, and while I did get a little bored with the politics of "Liberty" (which sounded a lot like whining after a while to me), I liked the argument that slide to autocracy might not have been inevitable as has been presented by many authors for two millennia at least. The emperor Hadrian ties up the narrative nicely as he toured his massive empire and gave especial interest to both Rome and Athens and also wrestled with themes such as liberty and license.
Overall the book was a great stepping stone into the history of the Classical world, and I thought its narrow themes actually helped in confining the narrative and make it more compact and flowing. Although, for the same reasons, this book might not be for everyone.
Truly an epic history of the ancient world
18 April 2010
While I might not agree with everything in this book (and a book on the Ancient World is going to deal with a lot of speculation based upon the evidence that we have) this is a good book that gives a great overview of Greece and Rome between Homer and Herodotus (one of the disagreements I have is that I believe the classical world came to an end with Augustus). There are two main themes running through this book and that is the question of liberty and luxury.
It is interesting to note that the ancient people did not like tyranny (but then again, who does – other than the tyrant that is), and in fact, many Greek city states, Rome, and Carthage, were all ruled by councils and elections as opposed to hereditary monarchies. In fact, as we look at Athens and Rome, we see a period of oligarchy move to tyranny which is then overthrown to produce a democracy. However the flaws with democracy is that there is a pandering to populism which results in a return to tyranny. Churchill was right when he said 'he who neglects the past is doomed to repeat its mistakes'.
The question of luxury, something that we should take a long hard look at in our day and age, raises the question of a civilisation becoming soft, and in becoming soft, opens itself to danger from without and within. In our days we not only take luxury foregranted, but we actually see it as our right to live a luxurious life. However in the last few years we have seen this desire for luxury result in an economic crisis as our lifestyle has been supported by debt, which in the end must be paid back, but because credit has been so easy to obtain it has resulted in bad loans and toxic mortgages which brought the banking system to its knees and we have not yet seen the effects of the resulting bail outs.
He who neglects history certainly is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
What I learned from this book is that huge overviews of time periods, no matter how well-written, cannot save themselves from sounding like lists of names and dates. I'm not going to read books like this anymore. I'll pick specific things from interesting times and focus in on them instead. Not your fault, Robin Lane Fox! Good effort!
Robin Lane Fox has authored a sweeping history of what he calls "The Classical World," from Homer's Greece to Hadrian's Roman Empire. While a work of such scope means that there cannot be great depth in discussing any point in that era; on the other hand, it provides a bird's eye view of issues, themes, and change over time. The author himself notes that (page xv): "It is a challenge to be asked to write a history of some none hundred years, especially when the evidence is so scattered and diverse, but it is a challenge which I have enjoyed."
Some definitional issues. Lane defines "The Classical World" as (page 1) ". . .the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, some forty lifetimes before our own but still able to challenge us by a humanity shared with ours." Fox ceases his narrative with the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Why? Lane says (page 2): ". . .'classical literature' ends in his reign. . . ." Even more important Page 2), ". . .is that Hadrian himself was the emperor with the most evident classicizing tastes."
First, Fox focuses on three themes across this span of history--freedom, justice, and luxury. He believes that each of these--and the changes that occurred with time--can help explain the sweep of events.
Second, he divides the time span into several eras, and treats each separately, although noting how the themes of freedom, justice, and luxury play out in each. "The Archaic Greek World" begins with Homer's Greece and concludes with the great Persian Wars. The next time period is what Fox refers to As "The Classical Greek World." This period runs from the rise of democratic Athens, the Peloponnesian War, Socrates, the rise of Philip of Macedon. The next phase is what he terms "Hellenistic Worlds," beginning with Alexander the Great's incredible success and the development of one of the world's largest empires. This frame runs until the final struggles between Carthage and Rome. Fox then moves on to a discussion of "The Roman Republic." Here, he considers the increase in luxury in Rome, the intrigues among Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Caesar's death. He follows this with a discussion "From Republic to Empire." The chapters in this segment include the rise of Octavian (to Augustus), his conflicts with Mark Antony, the Civil War against the assassins of Caesar, and so on. The last portion of the book, "An Imperial World," traces the post-Augustan period, concluding with Hadrian's rule.
Under Hadrian, according to Fox (page 571): ". . .the two worlds of this book, the classical Greek and the Roman, came closely together. Hadrian's love of Greek culture is evident in his patronage, his favours for Greek cities (especially Athens) and his personal romantic life."
In a history as large as this, one sacrifices depth for breadth. It is interesting to note Fox's rather dismissive treatment of Julius Caesar and Octavian/Augustus, as compared with more sympathetic treatments of each in the recent biographies by Goldsworthy and Everitt. Also, Everitt's biography of Cicero provides greater depth on that key figure in the period of time when the Republic was moving toward Empire. All in all, this is a well written book and worth looking at by those interested in this slice of history.
I went into this book with the desire to learn something in regards to political development and social life in pre-Alexander Greece. This work did not impress me. The large amount of stereotyping, to the level of absurdity in most cases, removed any credibility I could have had for this author. Supposing that every male in Ancient Greece secretly harboured homosexual fantasies and that all that they wanted was homo-erotically inspired symposiums all day is absolutely ridiculous. Pushing this further by claiming that the women in Sparta, a nation well-known for being significantly progressive in regards to gender equality, to be a completely misogynistic nation in which women were only trained so that they could look like men and further please their homosexual men (which is 100% of Greek male society) makes this author seem closer to being able to write crappy £1 mass market erotica than actual history. The constant chapters focusing upon colonial expansion in which the author just name-drops 50 nations per page rather than providing any insight to the actual developments would bore even a stone to tears. When writing a condensed history such as this it should be clear to anyone that you should focus on the best parts, or at least parts which have content to them, rather than just result in a thousand names of cities no longer existent being thrown around as though anyone reading this work would care at all. All this considered, this isn’t even the greatest sin that this book makes, in this work this second-rate author actually supports bottom-rate philosopher. Aristotle, the genius who supported such great concepts such as biological determinism and ‘virtue’ ethics (after this had been destroyed previously by Plato in Protagoras) and is largely name-dropped by pseuds is acclaimed in this book as a great philosopher. This highly contradictory statement must have been repressed by the author just after he wrote it as one cannot quickly condemn Greek society as outright sexist to all women but then in the next chapter sing the praises of a moron who thought women were a naturally inferior species. The level of idiocy in liberal bullshit in this book pushed me so far away from wanting to read this book that I’ve gone on an extended rant just to express in some way how annoyed I am.