Stories that are set in wine-dark seas

Ancient Greek Civilization
February 25, 2005

Civilisation", rather than merely "history", is a key word for the widely versed David Sansone, a professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. His Ancient Greek Civilization is a deeply thought-out and personal survey of ancient Greek culture written for an American readership (no attempt has been made to Anglicise). It is focused firmly on society and the arts rather than on the more traditional politics, warfare and diplomacy.

Sansone has an overarching thesis to promote; namely, that history is not how it actually was, but how the past is constantly rethought or reinvented. With commendably broad vision reminiscent of Charles Freeman's two recent books, he takes the story of Greek civilisation from the Mycenaean Age down to the age of Constantine and the Christianisation of what had by then become the eastern, predominantly Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire, or incipient Byzantine world.

Nevertheless, the "classical" 5th and 4th centuries BC are accorded the lion's share of the text. The general movement of the book is diachronic but the treatment is significantly - and usually beneficially - thematic.

But this leads to some oddities. Spartan women, for example, find themselves treated in a chapter titled "Setting the stage for democracy", which is probably the last thing that would have been on their minds. On the other hand, the issue of slavery, introduced early on, is rightly given its due.

The book is nicely printed but is not free from all errors of commission or omission. There are six helpful timelines, eight maps and a glossary, but there are few or no features of the sort that would convert this from an opinionated and essayistic survey into a fully fledged textbook. For instance, the recommendations for further reading, though properly stimulating, are very selective indeed.

Instead, the text and its 62 imaginatively chosen and usually well-reproduced black-and-white illustrations should be seen in the spirit in which they are presented: adventurous, challenging, somewhat idiosyncratic. It is dedicated to the memory of two brilliant men who were born and prematurely died not far apart in time: Dennis Brain, the classical horn player, and Michael Ventris, the architect who deciphered Linear B in his spare time and thereby added almost a millennium to the (hi)story and memory of the Greeks. "Those whom the gods love..."

Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek history, Cambridge University.

Ancient Greek Civilization: First Edition

Author - David Sansone
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 226pp
Price - £60.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 631 23235 4 and 23236 2

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