A grand “traverse of classical civilization.”
For this book, Spivey (Classical Art and Archaeology/Cambridge Univ.; Greek Sculpture, 2013, etc.) defines the classical period from around 800 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. The Greeks thought of those who were civilized as “bread eaters”—i.e., they lived in a community, raised and milled grain, and had a rule of law. Troy, a model of renewable strength, begins Spivey’s story. Homer, whose audience wanted a way to record and remember his work, turned to the Phoenicians to form an alphabet. The height of Greece’s glory was the mid-fifth-century B.C.E., when Cleisthenes’ constitutional changes gave power (kratos) to the people (demos). At the same time, Sparta, the antithesis of Athens, a militaristic state, guarded against democracy, with egalitarian distribution of land and a ban on currency. Unlike the Roman Empire that followed, there was no path to citizenship. While Herodotus’ history is anecdotal and great fun, Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War was the first to present nonpartisan history writing. Spivey points to contributions from each period, all the way to today’s model of the classical civilization, including Justinian’s codification of laws, one of its central elements. The philosophers are given their due for developing scientific argument and deductive thinking. Socrates is the intellectual hero, while his student Plato never approved of democracy. His student Aristotle carried that learning to Macedon and Alexander the Great. Alexander’s successors, the Ptolemies, founded Alexandria, with its ceaseless industry of learning and significant library. Just one of the delightful aspects of this book is the author’s penchant to throw in Greek and/or Latin sources for many of our words. He also provides countless telling details about each period in a way that makes ancient history feel fresh and invigorating.
Anyone with the slightest curiosity about ancient classics will love this book. Shelve next to the work of Mary Beard.