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

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews -

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

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