Civilisation's classical design

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece
August 28, 1998

Whatever, in fact, is modern in our life we owe to the Greeks. Whatever is an anachronism is due to medievalism."

These words of Oscar Wilde head the opening page of this new book in the Cambridge Illustrated History series and give a flavour of the approach adopted by editor Paul Cartledge and his contributors to this study of ancient Greece. Though perhaps tendentious, Wilde's comment seeks to emphasise that the ancient Greek world is not so remote from our own - indeed our culture owes much to these forebears, despite, as the editor himself writes, "constant attempts to downgrade - and downsize - the study of the ancient Greek and Roman classics as a going educational concern". Here we have the nub of the book. Previous generations were content to read the classics, study the literature and philosophy in the original languages, write and compose in Latin and Greek. Today, the usefulness of such study has long been questioned when it is set against more relevant and practical subjects such as economics, say, or engineering. The humanities as a whole face such questioning, but none, perhaps, quite so deeply and, at times, so witheringly, as classics.

The response of classics teachers has been to try to open up the subject to a wider audience; hence the proliferation of courses in ancient civilisation, Greek or Roman history in translation and so on. There has also been a much-welcomed adoption of disciplines from other subjects, most notably archaeology, but also from other subjects such as the social sciences. This, in turn, has broadened the range of studies within the classics and even involved reinterpretation of the core of classics, the ancient texts themselves, to encompass such "modern" disciplines as women's studies. In recent years, reinterpretations of classical texts and data have produced some controversial studies, which, although not always accepted, indicate the intellectual activity still prevalent in classics. In the light of the above, it could be argued that a book like this is pandering to the need to present classics in a modern setting. Indeed that it is an example of "dumbing down". Advances in scholarship have extended our knowledge and understanding of the ancient world in ways unimaginable a century ago. Whatever doubts may be raised by the application of sociological techniques to the ancient world need to be set beside the undoubted wealth of discovery that more concrete disciplines as, for example, archaeology - at Pompeii and at Oxyrhynchus - have contributed. Accordingly, any book which seeks to be an introduction to the ancient world has no alternative but to harness these newer disciplines to present a rounded picture of what is known of the ancient world today.

Such is the aim of the present volume. In his preface, Cartledge states that he hopes "to view the Greek achievement, as far as possible, from the bottom up; from the perspective of those unsung heroes and heroines who made the famous deeds and words possible". This does not preclude any discussion of the more familiar names of the ancient Greeks but the emphasis is on presenting a rounded picture of antiquity.

The book is divided into two parts. The first looks at the world of Greece and contains chapters on history and tradition, the environment, and the peoples of Greece, with an intermezzo giving an historical outline. The second part concentrates on the life of Greece, with chapters on rich and poor, women, children and men, power and the state, war and peace, work and leisure, performance, visual arts, philosophy and science, and religion and myth.

The chapter on the environment is a good example of the bottom-up approach. The literary sources give little information about life in the countryside, upon which the ancients depended for their subsistence and survival. Accordingly, ancient historians have, of necessity, to work with archaeologists, geologists, botanists and anthropologists to fill out what little has been passed on to us by the ancients themselves. Such cooperation has, for example, indicated that oak forests were cleared away to make room for olive cultivation. Work by palaeo-pathologists has shown traces of malnutrition in skeletal remains, giving some indication of the precariousness of life in the countryside in ancient times. Coupled with references in the ancient texts (especially, for the countryside, Hesiod), a picture of life outside the cities of Greece begins to emerge.

The chapter on women, children and men covers the roles of the various groups of citizens, non-citizens and slaves within the ancient city-state, in this case Athens. Here, the ancient texts themselves can supply more of the evidence, whether in treatises by Xenophon or in court cases, covering such topics as slavery, trade, inheritance and the law. Again, the emphasis is on everyday life in the city. One interesting outcome of this chapter is the realisation that for slaves, foreigners and children there was no absolute barrier to full enfranchisement in the city-state; only women could never achieve full political rights (and in myth, an explanation for this was provided).

Two further features of the book need to be mentioned. First, the text is furnished with copious and lavish illustrations. There is hardly a page of text which is not accompanied by an illustration used to reinforce the main body of the text. Most are in colour, some occupying a whole page, some two. Each illustration is captioned fully, with, in many cases, an example arising from the illustration being used to elucidate the main text. Second, there are brief digressions set apart from the main text, which like the illustrations are used to reinforce the content of the book; such topics covered vary from vines and viticulture, to constraint of trade, to the Acropolis of Athens.

This is a beautifully produced book, well worth its price. It succeeds in giving a well-rounded - indeed a holistic (in the tradition of Moses Finlay) - introduction to ancient Greece and its culture.

Philip Warnock is librarian, The THES.

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece

Editor - Paul Cartledge
ISBN - 0 521 48196 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 380

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