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Classical World by Robin Lane Fox

Book Review by Pertinax

This book provides an excellent “world map” for the period that we favour in this Forum. It is one of the best contextual frameworks I have ever seen for the relationship between Greek and Roman cultures and their individual evolutionary traits.. Its historical breadth is enormous , but the depth of scholarship on show is staggering . Fox trips nimbly over tricky onceptual problems and complicated historical metamorphoses with alacrity. The basic tenents of the work are themes of justice, wealth and luxury as crucial factors in the determination of cultural identity and dynamics.

I have to warn you that this is a substantial work, (not as vast as a shortened version of Gibbon ) but you will need plenty of reading time to work at it, not because of any stylistic problem just bulk and quality. It will probably be necessary to “rest “ between chapters if you are new to some of the material , merely to absorb the enormous amount of information that will present itself.

Robin has an easy style, and I like to imagine that in person he is the sort of Professor I might have had instruction from ,had I not been so rash as to follow commerce rather than “art” (as history was dismissed as during my remote school days). His donnish quips are a delight to read and show a deep love and affection for the English language. There are a some nods to contemporary fetishes but the basis is sound heavyweight scholarship. The modern obsession with sexual mores in the Ancient world is dealt with lucidly and thoroughly, ie: same sex relationships within the bounds of legal and social obligation , heterosexual consort with educated heterarii or prostitutes within the legal framework of marriage.

The purpose of the book is to draw an outline of the evolution of Mediterranean culture , from city state to “Greek” colonization to Rome and roman evolution and expansion via the rise of significant historical epochs within the Hellenic and Roman spheres. If , like myself, you have developed a tendency to be totally Romano-centric then the contextual work relating to the Greek states and especially the phenomenal impact of Greek ”ideas” and language, and Alexanders staggering military activities is very useful. .One develops a much better perspective of the epoch .The history of the individual acts of city state colonization is a fascinating area of knowledge , and the interwoven nexus of trade routes will resonate amongst Forum members with a knowledge of pre-Roman trade /language relationships. The Romans initially appear as rather severe and uncouth people who by a tremendous effort of will raise themselves to greatness whilst leapfrogging the subtler , but , to their eyes more “effeminate and artistic” greek civilisation.

The concept of the Law and the nature of Freedom as sought, described ,and evaluated by these ancient societies is the bedrock of the book and the relative change in concepts of democracy and tyrrany are neatly rlated to the change of fighting technique with the rise of the Hoplite infantryman. The “progression” from City state to Leagues is covered and all the complex mutations of the enactment and re-definition of justice through these episodes.

This would be my suggested reading for newcomers to the Forum who have not got a sure “ mental map” of the cultural milieu they are dealing with or are unable to stand aside from there own “modernism”, likewise it is a n informative guide which fills in “missing pieces” for those with differing specialisms ,( in either time , place or behavioral interests) . The book provoked new lines of interest for myself-Ion of Chois , Sapphos poems , the ability of Greek galley oarsmen to apparently subsist with very small amounts of water, Hannibals lack of Elephants but mastery of Cavalry…., Tomyris the splendid Transoxonian Queen who put Cyrus’ severed head in a skin full of blood…There are additional snippets as regards familiar topics, how pleased I was to see Thephrastus mentioned for example.

" Amidst the many interesting specific details that spill from the pages of this work is an aside on the ages of Alexander's "shield bearer" troops , many of these men continued to march and fight beyond their 60th year, this ,as Fox comments, gives a rather hefty swipe to our modern notion of "old age".These particular men were amongst the most lethal troopers to "grace" the Ancient World."

More than anything this work tells the Modern that they are but a hairs breadth away from their ancestors in modes of thought, hopes and fears. So I must express my “Geek Love” for this tremendous work., (I hope no one thinks that is a typo and alters it).

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Book Review of Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian - Related Topic: Roman History


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