Graziosi (Classics/Durham Univ.; Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic, 2002, etc.) celebrates the longevity of the “cruel, oversexed, mad, or just plain silly” Olympian gods, “the most uncivilized ambassadors of classical civilization.”
The author leaves aside the secondary gods, demigods and Roman household gods but not the soi-disant gods such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, who spread the word. This is a study of how the cult of Olympus flourished in ancient Greece and spread through conquest. Alexander was the prime catalyst as he conquered lands from India to Africa and brought his gods along to marginalize the local gods. The library at Alexandria allowed the educated to read and learn from the writings of Homer, Hesiod and other thinkers. Plato first challenged the divinity of the gods, envisioning a single, good, everlasting God as opposed to the radical, cruel gods of early literature. He opened a debate that continued through the Stoics, Epicureans and beyond. When the Romans took Greece, they translated the entire pantheon to Rome. They adopted the Greek culture for the simple reason that it was predominant in the regions they conquered, and they tended to maintain local rule. The leaders of Christianity tried the hardest to topple the Olympians, wooing believers away with promises of eternal life and the resurrection of the body. Ultimately, the gods were turned away but not forgotten. It was during the Renaissance that their presence was felt again, resurrected by poets and taken up by artists and sculptors. Even today, a complete education is based on classical Greek writings, and “thinking about humanity,” writes the author, “must include at least some consideration of the Olympian gods.”
Graziosi’s easy style and focus on the history of the world as told by the gods of Olympus make this a book to savor.