What the Greeks did for us
GUY DE LA BÉDOYÈRE welcomes a volume about Greece’s impact on Rome that will satisfy novices and specialists alike
The Story of Greece and Rome by Tony Spawforth Yale, 392 pages, £20
Before reading this book I was amazed that anyone could attempt to recount the story of Greece and Rome in one volume, even a reasonably substantial one as this is. But it soon became clear that Tony Spawforth’s plan is a lot subtler than that. His main focus is how Greek history and culture developed, and how we have the Romans to thank for preserving so much of it that it was able to have a huge impact on the medieval, Renaissance and modern world. The author is at pains to emphasise that, although we know there was much about the classical world that was “disturbing” (his word), it shouldn’t prevent us from taking pleasure in all that was beautiful in Greece and Rome.
The scope of the book is necessarily enormous and the compression therefore substantial. But it is expressly intended for people who know little or nothing about the classical world – something that is becoming ever more common as Classics is systematically exterminated on the arid plains of Britain’s dystopian data-chasing education system. We should therefore welcome any attempt to provide a portal into an astonishing era that remains foundational to much of our way of life.
The book is sensitively and elegantly written, interweaving the text with well-chosen quotations and the author’s personal experiences over several decades of exploring the classical world. Spawforth is fascinated by the extent of Greek influence over the Romans, and argues that what we call Roman culture was in fact an ‘amalgam’ of Greece and Rome.
The book includes all sorts of remarkable stories and topics, ranging from the well-known tale of Heinrich Schliemann’s determination to find archaeological evidence of the Trojan War to more recent discoveries, including the breathtaking Antikythera mechanism. This was an astonishing mechanical astronomical computer possibly designed by Archimedes but found in a Roman-era wreck off the Peloponnese.
The reader is carried through tales from the earliest beginnings of Greek society and culture, right through the Roman era to the Christian world of late antiquity. For someone unfamiliar
Roman culture was in fact an ‘amalgam’ of Greece and Rome
with this defining era of western civilisation, the author has created an accessible and lively route in to the subject which manages to be authoritative without being intimidating – especially concerning Greece, with which the author is at his most comfortable. For those already well versed in the period, the book makes for an interesting and rewarding read precisely because of the links drawn between Greece and Rome, and the sense of both acting as a combined force for later ages, bringing “joy and hope”.
Guy de la Bédoyère is a writer and historian. His most recent book is Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome (Yale University Press, 2018)
A relief from the side of a marble sarcophagus depicts a scene from Greek legend – Priam begging Achilles for the body of his son Hector