A welcome survey of the two greatest powers in the ancient Mediterranean world and their bound destinies.
The ancient Greeks, as BBC presenter Spawforth (Emeritus, Ancient History/Newcastle Univ.; Versailles: The Biography of a Palace, 2008) observes, “were migrants and emigrants” who established far-flung colonies and told stories of wandering, not the least of them The Odyssey. The Romans, who admired the Greeks more than any of their other neighbors, were committed to the notion that they had always been at the center of the world, yet were it not for their regard for the Greeks, “the cultural legacy of Greece would not have been preserved and cultivated to anything like the extent that it was.” The author digs deep into Greek and Roman history to find similarities and differences while also considering relations with other powers—e.g., Carthage, Egypt, Persia. Spawforth also considers the nature of Greek and Roman political power, real and imagined, as with Plato, of whose Republic he writes, “how serious Plato was about the achievability of this totalitarian vision is a debate among experts which we cannot go into here.” The author is an uncommonly clear explainer of troublingly complex issues. Why did Julius Caesar break a promising alliance with Pompey? At least in part, he writes, because the more Caesar achieved militarily, the more a jealous Pompey was courted by the “conservative aristocrats” who had long tried to dissolve the partnership. How did Christianity overwhelm the Roman Empire and polytheistic Greece as well? At least in some small measure, via writings that wooed the literate populace in such a way as to “snag the interest of educated Greek-speaking people in the non-Jewish world” by punning, for instance, on the name of Jesus and the verb meaning “to cure.”
In a time when education in the classics is ever scarcer, this is an attractive and learned introduction to a history that reverberates in present events.