One of the things that periodically amazes me is that I actually have a college degree in history, and yet know virtually no history at all. I mean, yeah, I’m pretty solid on Europe 1200-1600, but once you get outside of that time and place, we’re pretty much back to high school-level knowledge.
So I suppose I’m pretty much the ideal audience for Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: An Epic History From Homer to Hadrian — I’m interested in the subject, yet so woefully uneducated that a survey-level narrative is going to have lots of surprises for me. And, from that position in the ideal audience, this is a great book that does three big things right.
The first is making connections clear. In high school history, things tend to be episodic. There’s the classical Greeks of Athens and Sparta, then they go extinct and Philp of Macedon and Alexander the Great come in. Then they die, and all descends into barbarism until Rome rises, and the Roman Empire spreads, repopulating the previously uninhabited areas of Greece. That’s an obviously ridiculous view of history, and probably nobody believes that exactly; but it’s hard to avoid thinking of ancient history as discrete and unrelated episodes when that’s how it’s always been presented.
Fox, though, manages to weave everything together into a single narrative. He’ll talk about how Athens remained a viable democracy long after the Periclean Golden Age, how the city-states of Greece interacted with the Macedonia of Philip and Alexander; how the Hellenistic world viewed and interacted with early Rome; how a more powerful Rome grew up in a Greek world, and how it related to Greek culture. There are still chapter breaks, but it doesn’t feel like the world resets between them.
The second thing he does right is to draw from, and refer to, recent scholarship. The ancient past is both ancient and past, so it’s natural to idly assume that we already know everything that there is to know about the ancient world. I mean, it’s not like there’s going to be more of it, right?
It’s a useful corrective to this mindset when Fox talks about the gaps in our understanding and the missing works that we know little about. It’s even more corrective when he talks about findings in recent years that have revised our understanding of certain events or cultures. We know more about the Greeks now than we did in 1980, or even 1990. Thousands of years later, and we’re still finding out new things. That’s pretty nifty.
The third thing Fox does is to write for adults. High school history books are written for kids, and they have neat little heroes and villains, and when they present a historical figure, they’re really presenting a mythological aspect of a historical figure. There’s no room there for the complexity of actual history, for men who were unquestionably brilliant thinkers, but also kind of assholes; or noble orators who were self-centered and vain. But Fox’s narrative has room for people who feel like humans, and for institutions and cultures that were created, and lived in, by regular humans instead of ideal beings carved in cool marble.
This is precisely the sort of history book I like — narrative, compellingly readable, insightful and illuminating, with recent scholarship, and a distinct authorial voice. Highly recommended.