The classical bazaar

Seldom has writing about the classical world been so popular, and so good. And most of the writers are interested in it for its own sake
January 17, 2009

The last few years have seen a steady flow of popular books about the classical world. From the ancient Greece of the 8th century BC to the collapsing Roman empire a millennium and more later, it has been the subject not only of popular histories, but of novels; not only of academic explorations, but of more anecdotal engagements with the travels and writings of the ancients. The ancient world has always held a deep fascination for the west. But does this lively and apparently growing public interest answer to some peculiarly modern hunger?

Certainly, critics and historians have in many periods bent their subjects to match their own preoccupations. The 19th-century glorification of classical Greece, for example, more or less openly called the old world into existence to redress the balance of the new; a pure, calm, sculptural Hellas was worshipped as a vivifying contrast to the turbid, smoky, agitated present. More recently, such reinterpretation has come to be seen as a universal part of history writing. Academic investigations into the reputations of particular writers, artists or periods in later times have spawned a whole new sub-discipline—known as "reception studies." Then there is the school of literary theory that claims that everything said about literature is subjective, which also contributes: for once we suppose that critics are "making it all up," the natural next step is to suppose that this "making up" will be coloured by their predilections.

The truth usually lies in the middle: we are all of us, consciously and unconsciously, influenced by our own beliefs and values, but we are not helpless before our prejudices. And we may reasonably suppose that people in the past were similar—with biases of their own, but at their best trying for honest understanding. The Greeks, indeed, can teach us this.

The Greek historian Herodotus has, for example, always been enjoyed for his skill at storytelling and wide-ranging curiosity—but for most of the time since he wrote admiration has been mixed with a touch of superciliousness. Thanks to his narrative of the Greeks' wars with Persia, put together in the third quarter of the 5th century BC, he is acknowledged as the "father of history," but in later antiquity, and often since, he was thought to be credulous and perhaps dishonest. Stories about a magic ring which conferred invisibility or giant ants digging for gold in India seemed amusing but quaint: Herodotus was seen as the rude forefather, paving the way for Thucydides, only a generation later, rigorously to exclude anecdote and the gods alike and to create scientific history as we understand it, in his account of the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.

Herodotus, however, emerges as a hero in two enjoyable new books, neither written by a classicist and both fresh with the insights of an outsider. The first of these is Justin Marozzi's The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus. In this travel book with a difference, the author darts around the middle east and the Levant, from Bodrum in Turkey (which as Halicarnassus was Herodotus's birthplace) to the horrors of occupied Iraq, from teeming Cairo to the serenity of a monastery on an Aegean island. The thread that ties these disparate scenes together is the Greek historian: they are among the far-flung places to which Herodotus's researches took him. An outsider in a quite different sense is John Burrow, a professional scholar but not a classical one. A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century is the distillation of a lifetime's study of intellectual history but at the same time a venture onto new ground, with a touch of Marozzi's consciously amateur status. The enormous subtitle (all of which appears on the book's spine and front cover) is presumably meant to evoke the 18th and 19th centuries, Burrow's own field, but it is striking that the two names in it are those two Greeks. He gives a very large proportion of the whole book to the Greek and Roman historians, and one may feel that it is Herodotus, above all, along with the philosophic historians of the 18th century, who most animate him.

Marozzi and Burrow take a very similar view of Herodotus, which is not surprising, as it is essentially right. Herodotus invented historical method: he distinguished myth from history, he distinguished different types of evidence (what you have read, what you have seen, what you have been told), he was the first man in Europe to create a major work of art in prose, and he originated the notion that a work of history should ideally be a literary masterpiece as well. He also found a way of combining narrative with such other kinds of inquiry as geography and ethnography—in the modern jargon, he brought together diachronic and synchronic history (which examine, respectively, changes over time and structures or systems that are more or less permanent). Thucydides excluded the synchronic elements to focus tightly on political and military events, establishing the idea of historiography that was to dominate for almost two and a half millennia, until the 20th century, when the study of the longue durée brought geography and ethnography back again. So in a way, as Marozzi stresses, Herodotus can seem the most modern of all Greek or Roman historians.

This argument is not new, but it can do with restating, and Marozzi does the job with élan. It is a pity, though, that his chivalric championing of his hero leads him to call Thucydides an "earnest windbag," which is about as poor a description of that concentrated and ruthless intellect as can well be imagined. Burrow is more on the mark: "Surely no more lucid, unillusioned intelligence has ever applied itself to the writing of history." But even he does not fully bring out the profundity of Thucydides's analyses of human reason and psychology under the stress of war and political crisis or the subtlety of his investigation of different levels of causality. If a Nobel prize were established for the historians of all time, Thucydides would probably be the first winner.

The idea that Thucydides is especially modern goes back at least to Matthew Arnold, who mischievously argued that the only truly modern period, culturally speaking, was the 5th century BC. These notions, however, are exceptions to a broader feeling which has proved stubbornly persistent: that, while the Greeks may be remote and alien, suitable for study in anthropological terms, the Romans were really much like us, only in togas. It is probably no accident that most of the 19th-century historical novels dealing with classical antiquity were set in the Roman empire, for their stress was on the unchanging nature of the human heart; several of these novelists, among them Bulwer Lytton in The Last Days of Pompeii and Pater in Marius the Epicurean, were explicit in spelling out the parallels between that distant epoch and their own day. In Robert Harris's recent novel Imperium, about the early life of the Roman orator and statesman Cicero, the attitude is very much the same: this novel presents its hero as a sort of modern liberal Conservative, and recurrently implies that politics then was much like politics in Britain and America today.


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If the Romans remain popular, though, the Greeks seem to have still wider and stronger appeal in our time. One reason may be that their otherness is better understood. There is a perception that Greece is one of the foundations of our own world: coupling this perception with an awareness of ancient Greece's otherness can make a compelling case for its importance and interest today. Charlotte Higgins—a Guardian journalist with a classics degree—does exactly this in her recent book It's All Greek to Me, which whizzes through aspects of Greek literature, history and philosophy with verve and well-informed enthusiasm.

Classics, like the other humanities, needs both gentlemen and players; or to switch the metaphor, Burrow and Marozzi represent one side of a coin, the other side of which is the communication of professional classicists to a broader audience. Much classical scholarship (like much science) cannot easily be conveyed to a large public, because it requires technical terminology, or the exact examination of Greek and Latin language, or long argumentation that is necessary but tedious. But in a healthy intellectual culture the professoriate should be connected to the intelligent conversation of society at large, and haute vulgarisation is a proper and desirable part of the academy's mission. Some classicists have indeed taken it up, whether from evangelistic zeal or a taste for publicity, and at times, it must be admitted, the results have been more vulgar than haut. On the whole, though, there have been more recent successes than might have been predicted. Many of the more modern historians who have reached a large audience have done so at a cost, forced back into such comparatively slight topics as biography (a genre that is grossly overvalued in British culture), kings and queens, aristocratic wives and mistresses, and so on. And of the telly dons perhaps only Niall Ferguson, in his series on the British empire, has tried to do history in a serious sense—having a distinctive case to put and arguing it through. In the circumstances, it is a considerable achievement for a few classicists to have written for a general public without significant compromise.

Historians of more recent periods enjoy some privileges that classical scholars can never share. The kind of exhaustive archive that might enable a scholar to draw a particular time and place in living detail—as the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie most famously did for the medieval village of Montaillou, thanks to the elaborate records of the inquisition—does not survive from the ancient world. Yet there are some moments when we can observe what classical life was like with an unusual degree of fullness. Pompeii and Herculaneum provide no documents (the papyri found at Herculaneum are philosophical texts), but their preservation gives us a chance to see the patterns and working of a Roman town. Pompeii, especially, has appealed to historical novelists, from Lytton to Harris, and is now the subject of Mary Beard's history Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, which draws a lively picture of the life of the town before the volcanic eruption that was to bury it.

The nearest classical equivalent to the documentary riches of Montaillou, however, is probably the Greek town of Oxyrhynchus in Upper Egypt (the name means "sharp-nose," from a species of Nile fish). The vast quantities of papyrus found in the town's rubbish dumps have transformed our understanding of a number of Greek authors, but they also include an abundance of letters and domestic and official documents of diverse kinds. They are focused on a particular place (though not on one point in time) and we do get a sense of individual voices speaking to us, through their private correspondence (though we lack a continuous story about any one of them). All this is beautifully brought to life in Peter Parsons's City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt, the success of which appears to be the half-accidental product of the author's modesty. Parsons, a papyrologist and regius professor of Greek emeritus at Oxford, seems genuinely to have thought that he was doing no more than sorting out the material and presenting it in a readable fashion, but the result is outstandingly clear and vivid. The reader is not nudged or harangued; moreover, although this is avowedly a book for the general public, there is not a trace of condescension, and indeed there are few scholars who would not learn a great deal that was unfamiliar to them.


However, much of the best history writing—perhaps most—conveys the strong impress of the author's character; that is another of the practices which Herodotus and Thucydides established. Naturally enough, that applies to those scholars who, like 19th-century men of letters, have gone to commercial publishers throughout their careers, eschewing the university presses. One of these is Robin Lane Fox, whose first book, Alexander the Great, was a bestseller and whose latest, Travelling Heroes: Greeks and their Myths in the Epic Age of Homer, while containing much description and local colour that would not be found in a conventional academic tome, addresses a lively current debate among scholars. There has been much interest in the extent to which the early Greeks' literature and theology drew on the cultures of the near east, and the question arises how these ideas were transmitted. Lane Fox rejects the theory that the poets Homer and Hesiod were directly indebted to contemporary near eastern texts or to foreign bards or charismatics who made their way to Greece; instead Greek traders—the travelling heroes of the book's title—picked up near eastern matter, brought it back, and allowed it to be transfused into the Greek bloodstream. Lane Fox also thinks that the Homeric epics were wholly oral poems, against a widespread view that they must have been composed in contact with writing. These nice arguments are interesting in themselves, but it is interesting too that they are being made not only inside the academy but out in the open air.

Lane Fox's manner is distinctive, with its mixture of easy swing and high romanticism. Far more idiosyncratic, though, is James Davidson, who made his name ten years ago with Courtesans and Fishcakes, a richly particular study of the sensuous pleasures of classical Athens which seems to imply that the Greek experience of pleasure was lustier and healthier than our own. It belonged to that often dispiriting genre, the book of the doctoral thesis, but it also led The Mail on Sunday to call him "the best thing that has happened to ancient history in decades." He has now followed this with The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece, which does exactly what it says in the subtitle. Davidson argues that the idea of penetrative sex as a humiliation is a modern pathology, drawing on an association of sex with power and aggression that was absent in Greece; in its stead, he develops a picture of Greek homosexual emotions in which romance and hopeless yearning have a much larger place than has been traditionally allowed.

Davidson's book is polemical and persuasive—a huge curiosity shop of diverse learning, stuffed with colloquialisms, digressions and comic riffs, exuberant polemic and a few passages of unexpectedly poetic writing. Its cocky manner has annoyed some reviewers, but he mostly gets away with it because underneath the outrageousness he has something serious and important to say. Sometimes he misses the mark—for instance, in arguing that Achilles's love for Patroclus in the Iliad has a sexual element. But, right or wrong, the cheering thing is that classicists are not wrangling behind the closed doors of the ivory tower: they are fighting in the street. And with luck, a knot of passers-by will gather to watch.

From Marozzi to Davidson, what all these people share is the sense that their subject is interesting. And in the end, the flow of books, films and television programmes about the ancient world may need hardly more explanation than that. Its literature is still potent; the historical and archaeological material is vast. Modern writers seem to recognise that diversity. All too often in the cultural history of the west the ancients have been treated as, in effect, a cohesive group—as the repository of timeless wisdom, or as joyous pagans free from the repressions of Christianity, or as the advocates of an aesthetic ideal of balance, restraint and proportion. But hardly anyone writing today treats them as tidily as that. And maybe that has even become their charm; no longer used to point out a moral, their lives and works can be enjoyed as a great big bran tub in which to rummage.