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 sakeby Richard Jenkyns / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
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:…