A sweeping history of the ancient Mediterranean.
Fox (Ancient History/Oxford Univ.; The Unauthorized Version, 1992, etc.) traces Greco-Roman history through three themes that have long interested classicists: freedom, justice and luxury. By this measure, the classical world did not fare very well, and Fox’s study becomes a somewhat depressing tale, inasmuch as only luxuria did well in the end, at least for those who had the talents and sesterces to enjoy it. As an ideal, the concept of freedom was perhaps the most important of the three; Fox begins with the Homeric poems, which he has no difficulty (unlike many classicists) in attributing to a single person—or perhaps a single person per epic—who lived around 750–730 b.c. “What we now read has probably been tidied up and added to in places,” he writes, “but at least there was a monumental poet at work.” (Farewell, Millman Parry.) Homeric ideals were translated into education, with all its famed and defamed pederasty, and then into notions of cultural difference that tended to be fairly benign—except, perhaps, in the case of the Jews; those ideals also figured in later concepts of democracy, which Athens, for one, attempted to impose on its neighbors, whence the Peloponnesian War. The Greeks accounted the Romans barbarians, and given the behavior of the Julio-Claudian ruling clan, they had a point: Rome’s first emperors made it a point to restrict freedom, with Augustus, of the “conservative revolution,” the Jerry Falwell of his time, and Augustus’ successors, the kind to give moralists nightmares, with penchants for incest, fratricide, intrigue and conquest. Although ordinary Romans remained sensible—as Fox writes of the warped emperor Claudius, “His death was joyfully received by the common people”—their rulers did not, yielding, in time, a spectacular decline and fall.
A lucid survey of a time that invites all kinds of between-the-lines reading in quest for parallels to our own.