History Books

The Classical World

Late last year, Penguin published Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian. I saw at once that I must read it. Large tracts of the history that it retails are familiar to me, but what I needed was an overview, a synopticon. Mr Lane Fox provides that in spades. He has composed his history on three themes: liberty, justice, and luxury.

Luxury, almost from the beginning, was seen as a danger from the east - from the "Orient." Misgivings about showing off appear to be a uniquely Western phenomenon, and in his early chapters Mr Lane Fox suggests how it may have taken root. By Roman times, understatement was established as an ideal. Covert ostentation - showing off by implication - has been a Western art form for two thousand years.

Liberty and justice are far more problematic concepts. "Justice," in fact, turns out to be "equality," because thinking about justice seems inexorably to lead to the idea that everyone ought to be treated in the same way. This puts justice very much at odds with liberty, a notion that Mr Lane Fox seems to admire without being able to make it attractive. Liberty, in The Classical World, is a luxury of sorts itself, enjoyed by a few people at the expense of the many. The citizens of Athens enjoyed a very direct democracy, but it was closed to women, slaves, and outsiders ("metics"). In Rome, on the eve of Empire, Cicero sang the praises of Senatorial liberty - a matter of freedom for the wealthiest. While it is easy to understand why liberty was such an appealing objective at the end of the Enlightenment, when absolute rulers seemed more insupportable than effective, it is difficult today to see liberty in a way that is not tainted by narcissism. 

Mr Lane Fox never loses sight of his three parameters, but he is never tiresome about them, either. He has written a history that, whenever possible, checks in on the trio of big ideas, not a book that is dictated by them. A fine example of the author's touch is the chapter on "The Last Days of Pompeii." I myself wondered if this chapter was strictly necessary, but in the event it turned out not to be a gratuitous regurgitation of disaster. Mr Lane Fox examines what archeologists have discovered at the extinguished town in order better to understand the socio-economics of the place. I was quite surprised to learn that there is only one possibility in all of Pompeii of Senatorial (that is, really rich) ownership. Pompeii, it seems, was a city of people on the make.

Another theme that Mr Lane Fox doesn't address as such even though he ably accounts for its development. Is literature. Indeed, one could read The Classical World simply for its account of dawning self-awareness. There are many ways in which Rome can be seen as a regression from the glories of Greece, but the course of literature is uninterruptedly linear. We begin, if course, with Homer.

Thanks to archaeology, we are now aware of a long-lost age of splendour, but it was not an age which Homer knew in any detail. The Iliad's 'catalogue' is the one exception. Even so, he only had oral stories and after five hundred years they had retrained none of the social realities. A few Mycenaean details about places and objects were embedded in poetic phrases which he had inherited from illiterate predecessors. The formative years for his main heroic stories were probably c 1050-850 BC, when literacy had been lost and no new Greek alphabet existed. As for the social world or his poems, it is based on an age closer to his own time (c 800-750 BC): the 'world' of his epics is quite different from anything which the archaeology and scribal writing of the remote 'Mycenaean' palaces suggest.

How very different is the work, several hundred years later, of Thucydides!

Dreams and omens, the simple wisdom of 'wise advisers,' the belief that those who go too far get a just revenge and and a divine retribution: Thucydides excluded all these Herodotean stapes, just as he excluded explanations in terms of curses and divine causes. He had nothing to do with the 'archaic' belief that people may suffer for their ancestors' misdeeds: on an occasion when Herodotus saw divine justice working itself out, Thucydides never even mentioned it and gave a political explanation only. He favoured a new and penetrating realism. The gap between expectation and outcome, intention and event fascinated him. So did the bitter relations between justice and self-interest, the facts of power and the values of decency.

The power of Thucydides seems to lie in his very un-Homeric resistance to the heroic. Doubtless that paves the way for the next development: the flourishing of literature as a status object. Here is Mr Lane Fox on Alexandria:

Old and new Greek texts made Alexandria, the city of so many disparate Greeks, into the powerhouse of all Greek culture. Like the royal processions, the texts enhanced the king's power and prestige. The rival great cities, therefore, joined in the library race. There was a major library in the Seleucids' capital, Antioch. Recently, a fragment of a philosophy dialogue, based on Plato, was discovered on parchment in the remains of the Greek city at Ai Knanum, up the river Oxus in modern Afghanistan; the room which contained it may perhaps have been a palace library too. In the second century BC, the rival kings at Pergamum, in western Asia, founded a major library of their own. The Pergamene kings competed with the Ptolemies and when their rivals tried to deny them Egyptian papyrus for their texts, they took to using parchment, made from animal skins, instead. Ultimately, Hadrian was heir to this Hellenistic habit. He was a great donor of libraries, not least to Ahtens where his library's grand plan is still visible.

A further theme of The Classical World, implicit in the subtitle, is the tension between what we know and what Hadrian knew. We are in some ways much better informed about antiquity than Hadrian was, because the habit of scrutinizing evidence (stone inscriptions, mainly) had not even been thought of. Hadrian also serves Mr Lane Fox as interesting foil. He is one of the most attractive of the Roman Emperors, but we frequently reminded of his shortcomings.

Unlike Atticus, Cicero was to become the outstanding Roman orator. With a typical perversity, Hadrian is said to have disagreed, preferring the bumpy Latin of the elder Cato. He was, quite simply, wrong. Oratory first made Cicero's name: in Rome's political arena, the best way for a young hopeful to make a public mark was to prosecute a superior successfully. After some early successes, Cicero embarked in August 70 on his famous prosecution of the corrupt governor Verres (it was interrupted by the days of newly offered public games which were the gift of the triumphant young consul Pompey). In August 70 the Senate's monopoly of the law courts was about to end, but Cicero's attack was a glittering success: it was backed by about eight weeks' fact-finding in Verrres' province of Sicily. As a speech for the prosecution, it is a rare survivor, one of only two among Cicero's subsequent speeches, but it shows a similar merit to his many speeches for the defendant. Cicero could command so many different tones: a clear and concise narrative of detail or rolling rhythmical periods or hilarious wit and extreme invective. Before juries he is the master of the confiding style which attempts to lead the jurors' attention away from a case's weaker points. He remains a brilliant model for any practising barrister who happens to be widely educated. What we now read was usually polished by Cicero's hindsight for publication, and, where he is least convincing, it is because the gap between the style and Cicero's true commitment is too great. But there are political classics, too, the speech in defence of feckless young Caelius with its wonderful sketches of the carefree, luxurious life of the young about Rome and the speech on behalf of Milo, a man transparently guilty of murder but defended by Cicero with brilliantly misleading logic in a court where hostile soldiers stood by to intimidate him. Cicero is often criticized as lacking courage, and he himself admitted this weakness, but he was brave when embarking, at least, on this case and brave, too, in his final year of political activity.

The Classical World is divided into six books - three on Greece, three on Rome - but without the symmetry that such a scheme suggests. Archaic-Classic-Hellenistic (a well-established scheme) is followed by Republican-Chaotic-Imperial, with the book on the turmoil that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar covering a mere handful of years. For a final extract, therefore, I turn to the end of the book, in a passage about Tacitus that is interesting to compare with the foregoing on Thucydides.

Theoretical constitutions, Tacitus remarks, are hard to realize and very quick to fail. Unlike Cicero, he did not waste time on ideal republics nor did he praise, like Thucydides, a 'moderate blend' of opposing classes. There is a wonderfully truculent sarcasm in Tacitus' judgment. He is not an incurable pessimist, but he is always wry about events and about what participants were hiding. In him, posterity found the supreme historian of absolute rule, both how to sustain it and how to react to it. For despite Tacitus' sarcasm and his sense of what had been lost, he was also prepared to serve under a despite (like his friend Pliny). While regretting lost liberty, he advocated the middle path in politics and hoped that chance or destiny would bring some ruler who might be better than the worst. In the 30s BC Sallust had acidly described the Republic's loss of freedom: Tacitus, heir to Sallust's style, described the effects of that loss, but not the ways in which to reverse it.

In due course, his stress on liberty and 'moderate' accommodation with a ruler intrigued Edward Gibbon and left a profound mark on his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: conversely, Tacitus was abhorred by the fraudulent Napoleon. His greatest age of influence was the seventeenth century. He showed readers of that age how to react under despotism and how to cherish a contrary notion of 'freedom.' He also addressed their concerns about the many court 'favourites' whom contemporary rulers in England and Europe were promoting so wantonly. Tacitus had seen both the ruler's need for favourites and the favourites' foibles, exemplifying them in his descriptions of Tiberius' hated Sejanus or Claudius' assertive freedmen. But he also described how despots induce servility, how freedom becomes artful subservience and how justice is distorted by informers and 'sneaks.' This picture of the Romans' predicament was powerfully received by English lawyers and political gentlemen when confronted with the vanities of James I and the luxurious demands of his successor, Charles I. At Rome, lawyers had obsequiously found precedents and a context for autocracy; in England, by contrast, lawyers trained in the classics upheld the conception of 'iberty' whose loss, they found, had been so poignantly described by Tacitus. And yet Tacitus saw that full liberty was impossible in the existing Roman system and that other values no mattered since the republican days of Cicero's youth.

Here, finally, is Mr Lane Fox on Hadrian himself - a model whom I admire far more unreservedly than the author.

From northern Britain to Egypt, he visited his provinces and made himself known to his troops. Nobody who saw or heard him could have missed the differences from his predecessor Trajan. Hadrian chose to have a bear, a short trim one, but it came to be seen as a deliberate sign of his passion for Greek culture. Although beards were the particular fashion of Greek-speaking philosophers, Hadrian himself was not a real intellectual. Unlike Trajan he did have an informed mind but he liked to show it off at intellectuals' expense. He did not like abstract ideas and reasoning and he had no theoretical views on politics and society: his preferred 'philosophy' was the least intellectual, Epicureanism. Instead, he had a wide range of learning, and his passion for antiquarian details was supported by his wide travels. He also had a taste for writing poetry and a keen interest in architecture and design. When he tried to interfere with plans of the architect Apollodorus, the master is said to have told him to confine himself to drawing 'still lives,' not buildings. But Hadrian was certainly a 'man of taste.'

In summarizing Mr Lane Fox's coverage of literature, I have concentrated on the strongest of continuities between classical antiquity and our own age. Even the Blogosphere reflects the heritage of writers for whom the Mediterranean Sea was the center of the known world. In almost every other respect, The Classical World concerns the ineffably foreign. Certainly the most alien aspect of antiquity is its pre-Christianity, its comfort with gross inequalities. But it is also very much a world in transition, an alteration captured beautifully at the beginning of Mr Lane Fox's book.

So far from being Spanish, Hadrian was proof of the common classicizing culture which now bound together the emperor's educated class. It was based on the classical homelands of the Greek and Latin language but it extended way beyond their boundaries. As Homer never could, Hadrian could pass through Syria or Egypt speaking Greek and he could also travel far away into Britain, speaking Latin.

The Classical World is a lively book of important history that I am quite sure ought to be taken up by every reader of this site. (July 2007).

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