THE MASK OF JOVE by Stringfellow Barr
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Opening windows on the past is what all scholars do, but to make the landscape come alive is a rare art. The requirements vary, depending on subject, though the essential ingredients would appear to be urbanity and zest. Stringfellow Barr, the famous founder of the St. John's Great Books curriculum, here presents his fine companion volume to The Will Of Zeus. That volume chronicled Grecian antiquity; the current work describes the shaping, triumphs, and eventual demise of the Roman Empire. It is, of course, a not unfamiliar tale: the curtain rises on the death of Alexander, the various Caesars march across the stage, the arts of war, politics, commerce, and poetry flourish, the Byzantine world emerges, and the house lights dim as the Christian emperor Constantine exits from the scene. To encompass so many centuries, to draw upon such a plethora of primary and secondary sources, and to infuse urgency with panoramic scope, is a difficult job. Barr has the specialist's training, so his account is always historically disciplined. Happily, it is rarely smothered with off-putting details dear to the heart of academics. The portraiture is especially good: Hadrian and Aurelius, for instance, are dramatically characterized. Extracts from Pliny or Tacitus or Cicero are aptly chosen; the military struggles, imperial claims, conflicting ideas and religions gain much from Barr's wise insistence on keeping them within a Graeco-Roman focus. True, there are some unwieldy stretches, but the rich canvas absorbs them all.

Publisher: Lippincott