42 – ‘The Classical World’ by Robin Lane Fox

After polishing off Euripides’ plays, I was keen to read some more about those troublesome Greek gods, so I picked up ‘The Classical World’ on one of my rare trips to Borders. Of course, if I’d bothered to read the back, I probably would have found out that it was a history book a lot sooner. Oops. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go and have spent the last week embroiled in the tumultuous Mediterranean conflicts of the classical era, and great fun it was too.

The writer, a professor at Oxford University (and an expert on Alexander the Great, something which allowed him not only to provide research for the Oliver Stone film, but also to ride in the front of all the cavalry charges in the film!), describes the period of history from the rule of the Greek city states to the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian, some 800 years or so in all. While taking the reader through such events as Thermopylae (familiar to anyone who saw ‘300’), the conquests of Alexander the Great, the gradual shift from Greek to Roman dominance in the region and the rise and fall (well, it’s hard to stand when you’ve been stabbed in the back) of Julius Caesar, Lane Fox attempts to show us exactly how people lived back then. It’s one hell of a story, and very well written, but it takes a lot of doing to get through it all in one go. I think I should have approached this book a little differently and read it over a longer period as the battles and orgies tended to blur into each other after a while (not sure that makes sense, but it did in my head).

While taking us through the events of the classical era, the writer also repeatedly returns to three crucial concepts and how they are affected by events: justice, freedom and luxury. You would expect that each of these ideas had progressed over the eight centuries covered, but on the whole that is not the case. Luxury did become more obtainable as new worlds and unknown products became available, but the Romans frowned upon private consumption of luxury items, preferring to have their wealthy citizens spread their wealth (and festivals) around. Justice was obtainable for some in the democracy of the city state of Athens but was only really an option for the rich by the time of Hadrian. And as for freedom; let’s just say that the citizens of the Roman Empire had to revise their views of what freedom actually meant. Freedon to continue breathing was about as far as it went for some people…

There are some lovely maps of various areas of the Med, and the Middle-East, and I kept getting a nagging feeling that they, and the book as a whole, reminded me of another epic work. And then it came to me: Lord of the Rings. Looking at the various maps from different periods, with different countries under the control of new rulers, was exactly like poring over Tolkien’s maps of Middle-Earth in both ‘The Silmarillion’ and the later trilogy of novels (Tolkien actually considered it as one book, but that’s another story…). Even the constant introduction of new tribes, heroes, villains and wizards (alright, philosophers, but they’re both old with beards), was reminiscent of the fictional version. Still not convinced? What huge unknown animals did the Greeks face in their battles in the Middle-East and India, later to be used in Europe? That’s right, elephants. I rest my case.

Ancient history? Yes. Irrelevant? Not quite. Just as Alexander and (later) the Romans marched on Babylon, so too have the United States and their allies invaded Iraq. Just as the invading forces realised later that it was actually too much trouble to administer the province themselves, leaving the ‘barbarians’ under the control of a puppet king, so have the Allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan allowed a local leader, friendly to their aims, to start the rebuilding and regoverning process. Those who fail to learn their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, something the leaders of the world, hopefully, understand. The centuries of empire building and epic wars are over, not (with a bit of luck) to be repeated; let’s hope that these kinds of stories are only to be read in history books in the future.

Except for the elephants: you can never have enough elephants.

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