Irrigating the channels of democracy

The Classical World
January 6, 2006

There's much to admire in ancient society, but there's no ducking its nastier sides, says Maurice Pope

It is a clever title. "Classical world" sums up the scope, "epic" lends excitement and alliteration adds a seal of authority - or seems to. But, in fact, the letter "h" is the only thing that "Homer", "history" and "Hadrian" have in common, and the letter "h" is itself a kind of illusion. It is not in the Greek alphabet, while in the Roman one it was ceasing to be pronounced by Hadrian's time. For the next 1,400 years it existed only on paper and in the classroom, where pupils were routinely told that it was not a letter at all but a mark of aspiration.

So forget the letter. But the aspiration remains, and it is achieved magnificently. Here is a portrait of antiquity, warts and all. Fifty-six chapters sounds a lot, but they are all brief without being breathless, and they are refreshed by frequent pauses for social and cultural discussion, concentrating on three themes - liberty, justice and luxury. The choice seems artificial, but it releases the narrative from the deadening obligation to report every "important" battle or politician. Liveliness is one thing, originality another. A great deal is known for certain about classical antiquity and any historian who set out to be original would certainly end up being fraudulent. Robin Lane Fox is in no danger of this.

Anyone who believes that historical truth exists in its own right and not just in the eye of the beholder will be reassured to find that his accounts of Julius Caesar and of Antony and Cleopatra are substantially the same as Shakespeare's. Readers may also be reassured to find that fashionable words and phrases such as "the elite", "intertextuality" and "reception theory" do not occur. But this is not traditionalism for its own sake. Lane Fox is well versed in the most recent archaeological and epigraphic evidence and uses it appropriately, not just for show. An exception is a couple of photographs of ancient Greek remains in Afghanistan. They are not particularly relevant, but having travelled there himself, the author cannot resist including them.

Not only the general reader but also the scholar is likely to find a great deal he or she had not previously known or reflected on. I had not thought of Greek colonisation, which spread Greekness and the Greek language round the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, as having cradled the ideas of equal citizenship and of town planning. It had not occurred to me that polygamy was almost traditional for Macedonian kings, let alone that Sparta's strange dual kingship can be paralleled in 8th-century-AD Kazakhstan. On the question of whether Rome acquired its world empire reluctantly or intentionally (with its obvious contemporary parallel), I used to believe the former, but I am much less certain now. Nor had it ever occurred to me to wonder whether life in general and literature in particular might not have been happier and livelier if the charismatic Antony had won instead of the dour Octavian.

Lane Fox writes with courage and without moralising. He does not reprove the past as if the purpose were to congratulate ourselves on how much better we are now. Nor does he justify it because it is cultural. Classical society had features we recoil from, such as gladiatorial games, slavery and paedophilia, and he does not hide them. This is not to say that he is neutral by temperament. Emotionally, he admires whatever is glorious or larger than life, prudentially he seems to share Edward Gibbon's preference for 2nd-century-AD Rome, and politically he is, as any devoted classicist should be, high in his praise of Athenian democracy. He calls it "more just than any previous constitution in the world" and acknowledges it as a magnificent breeder of talent in all walks of life. However, his praise is not unlimited. He questions how democratic it really was since foreign residents, women and slaves were excluded. He is also ambivalent about its reliance on random selection.

In my view, he is wrong on both counts. A society can be fully democratic within its membership without giving outsiders a share. As for random selection, that is to say the appointing of governing bodies by lottery, he half-condemns it, pointing out that it was ridiculed by upper-class politicians and philosophers such as Plato and seeming to suggest that it was a quirk of Athenian history rather than the keystone of Greek democratic theory. But it ensured equal political status for all citizens, thus enabling the friends of democracy to claim it as the only form of government suitable for large societies. For however numerous the population, a random sample will always be a microcosm of it. Elections, on the other hand, produce oligarchy by definition since many voters are choosing a few rulers.

But it would be very dull if one never disagreed. There are many topics on which I could wish he had written more. One of them is the advances in ancient technology. He is good on these as regards the arts of war but we hear much less about those of peace. The main current of history may not have been affected by minor inventions such as greenhouses, organs with modern-looking keyboards, town clocks that pointed the time of day and sounded the hours; but since Lane Fox is also an expert on the art of gardening it would have been interesting to hear him on how Pliny could mention 36 varieties of apple, whereas Theophrastus four centuries earlier had known only two, and on how far corn production may have been improved by post-Hellenistic irrigation techniques. There was also an amazing 500 per cent growth in milling efficiency from the saddle quern of the Homeric age through table-top grinders mounted on a hinged pole, to the Pompeii-type mill worked by donkeys and finally the Vitruvian water-mill.

He does not dwell on this, but it is tempting to wonder to what extent the enormously increased population and prosperity of the Mediterranean world between Homer and Hadrian was due to it.

Another question concerns slavery. Several times he calls the world of Greece and Rome "a slave society", but it is not clear whether he thinks of "slave societies" as normal or exceptional, or what the economic importance of slavery was. Manual labour in classical times was by no means confined to slaves, nor was prosperity barred to them. Occasionally they could rise quite high in the world, their children even higher. So would it be fair, or horribly heartless, to compare the ancient slave with today's economic immigrant? And how did slavery end? Christianity never questioned it and the pagan philosophers, in so far as they voiced disapproval, were apparently more concerned with the master's virtue than with the slave's plight. The fading-away of slavery is beyond the limits the book sets itself, so the reader cannot complain at its absence. But when the reader is a classicist, he or she is bound to have prejudices and to feel that this or that has not been dealt with as well as it could have been. My main complaint under this head is that Lane Fox often misses the opportunity of giving a convincing example. For instance, he asks whether upper-class Athenian wives were really as submissive as male texts imply. The answer he presupposes is no, but instead of being left in the abstract, it could have been confirmed by a quote from Aristophanes's The Clouds , where a country squire rues the day he came under the heel of his city-bred wife.

There are many other instances when a point he makes calls for illustration. Cicero's letters and Ovid's humane and humorous treatment of sexual relations outside marriage are called "witty", but we are not given a specimen. Similarly, he talks of Caesar's "clemency" and the high standard of public debate in the late Roman republic without giving specific examples. Yet Sallust, a historian he praises, gives us a summary of Caesar's powerful arguments in the Senate against executing the terrorists of the Catilinarian conspiracy and he could have quoted them.

But it is ungracious to grumble. There may or may not be ways in which the book could have been made richer, but it is extremely rich already. The main narrative covers convincingly a vast span of time. There are level-headed discussions of the political, religious and cultural issues that arise. The illustrations are numerous, well chosen and fully described. The bibliography is up to date. What more can one ask?

The book has a touching two-word dedication to the author's daughter, who, in a totally different world, achieved a most fabulous success and then suffered a sudden and most terrible accident.

Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, Cape Town University, South Africa.

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian

Author - Robin Lane Fox
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 693
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9853 9

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments