Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Classical World - Robin Lane Fox - book review

For a few reasons, I find that the "classical" and ancient worlds are a more interesting and stimulating field of research and study than more modern historical topics. Because of the relative lack of sources and direct evidence, there is more scope for imagination, debate and ambiguity.

The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox, is a vibrant, absorbing and at times passionate look at Greece and Rome. Faced with such a vast and complicated landscape, the author wisely operates within certain parameters, using 5th and 4th century Athens and the Roman Emperor Hadrian as benchmarks and reference points of a sort. The changes and upheavals through the centuries are examined through the concepts of freedom, justice and luxury, and how they were interpreted and regulated.

The most refreshing thing about this book is that the author is not afraid of making it clear where his cultural and political sympathies lie, especially where the zenith of classical Greece is concerned. In addition, he succeeds in knitting together the various strands and elements of the subject in a way which is seamless, coherent and plausible. The fragments, when assembled, become real, rather than distant, diffuse and unfathomable.

Lane Fox explores the origins of "classical" Greece, referring back to the time of Homer, and detailing how technological, military, economic and cultural factors brought about social and political changes, by altering the balance of power between the classes. The transition to Athenian democracy is also tackled, and how the democratic ethos benefited the city in its conflicts with its neighbours and antagonists. There is also a compelling look at the spread of Greek influence in both the East and the West.

Of course, no account of classical times, in their broadest sense, would be complete without a look at the Macedonians, Alexander the Great and the "successors". Again, this section of the book blends effectively into the big picture, analysing how the fallout from Alexander's exploits affected the wider world.

The secret to this book's allure to me was the blend of enthusiasm, knowledge and authority of the author. His humane, enlightened and principled approach shines through. The classical and ancient worlds are enchanting for the casual observer, but that is nothing compared to how they look and feel when studied and portrayed by a figure possessed of insight and understanding, not to mention a graceful and potent way with words.

The recurring passages about social structures I found pertinent on more than one level. They show how things were, and how flaws still remain in our time. Our generations have less "excuse".  One is also reminded about the pivotal nature and role of the ownership of land...

Often, the phases of history covered by this publication can seem abstract; unreal and threadbare. Lane Fox manages to make them appear as vivid and relevant as the Napoleonic Wars and the Reformation. It seems to me that this was achieved by a combination of admirable focus and plausible interpretation of matters which are subject to endless scholarly dispute.

There is some highly intriguing material about the periods when Macedon, Rome and Carthage overlapped. The odd myth or popular misconception is debunked or dispelled along the way, too. The author also entertainingly points out the differences between the cultural lives and political ethos which prevailed in the various city-states and regions.

The chapters on the Roman Republic, and what came in its wake, are excellent in their level of detail and their erudition. Roman times, in comparison with the earlier Greek world, arguably contained less to be idealistic or enthused about, but they are hugely instructive for students of history and human nature. Rome may have been more "exciting", in a visceral sense, but Athens commands more fondness and admiration.

Throughout The Classical World there is considerable focus on the artistic and cultural consequences and accompaniments of major events, and how the Greeks and Romans saw themselves, as reflected and depicted in art, ceremony, architecture and ritual. Of course, these forms constitute much of the tangible and retrievable evidence by which we appraise and interpret those years.

In summary, this work is hugely enjoyable, imaginative and heartfelt. A stimulating and illuminating read.

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