John Purkis, Greek Civilization. London: Hodder and Stoughton Educational (Teach Yourself Books), 1999. Pp. viii + 148, incl. 28 Figures. ISBN 0-340-71142-6, UKú8.99.
Paula James, Roman Civilization. London: Hodder and Stoughton Educational (Teach Yourself Books), 1999. Pp. viii + 195. ISBN 0-340-71141-8. UKú8.99.
D. P. M. Weerakkody
Department of Classical Languages, University of Peradeniya, Sri lanka
These two books belong to the well-known Teach Yourself series and aim to provide an overview of the two classical civilizations for the student who may or may not have a prior acquaintance with the topics covered. They differ from many of the recent general introductions to Greek and Roman civilization in that, whereas the latter use literary texts and works of art to illustrate their text, both Purkis and James employ their classical material as starting points for discussions on some of the major issues confronting students of ancient civilizations.
Unlike most introductory books on Greece, Purkis' book professes to cover a wide span of time and space, the history of the Mediterranean world from 2000 BCE to 1453 CE, an enormous part of our history as the author himself asserts. His reason for choosing this span of time is that it presents many more opportunities than the old classic periods ever did. This is no doubt true, but at the same time pretty obvious. There are certainly far more important considerations, such as the continuity, for example, of the Greek language through more than three millennia from its first traces in the Mediterranean to the present day, a point mentioned only in the last chapter.
The author, being aware of the impossibility of providing a complete picture of Greek history, literature or art in a book of this nature, meets this difficulty by breaking down his account into a series of cultural phases and identifying each of them with a well- known site or city. These are linked by an outline historical narrative, while exploration of an intellectual or artistic theme is suggested by a reference to a historical personality of a given period. In this way religion, philosophy and other associated topics are introduced.
Among his audience, the author includes newcomers to the subject and those whose interest has been aroused by visits to Greece. Accordingly, we are taken through a vast variety of topics, but the treatment is not as cursory as one might expect from the introductory remarks. The many extracts from Greek authors serve not only to illustrate the themes and ideas presented, but also to generate in such readers further interest to explore the great works of classical literature. Accordingly the quotations have been drawn mainly from the Penguin translations as being the ones most accessible to the non-specialist reader.
The chapters are divided into small sections with subheadings. Each chapter is preceded by a statement of its aims (in the form of a number of questions which the student should be able to answer by the end of the chapter), and a list of the proper names with their pronunciation and explanation. The wide range of subject-matter is evident from the very first chapter entitled 'Orientation: Location of the Greeks in Space and Time' (pp. 5-35) which ranges through a number of topics including the Indo-European hypothesis, legends relating to the first Greeks, different linguistic groupings, national unity, the importance of pottery as a means of dating, Athenian vase-painting, the three orders of classical architecture, colonization, democracy, geographical knowledge, etc. In keeping with a tradition of travel literature going back to the 18th century, we are told about 'the extraordinary light and clear air of Greece' (p. 6).
The author has adopted the laudable practice of taking his readers from the known present to the relatively less-known past. Thus, what is perceived as the predominant characteristic of the Greeks is illustrated by an incident from the author's own experience and a passage from Herodotus (2.19-24). The former, for some strange reason, is labeled as an anecdote; while the statement that Herodotus is believed to have been the first Greek prose writer is at best misleading. The Milesian philosophers, who propounded their theories in prose, wrote before 'the father of history', and there were others as well.
In his discussion of the pre-classical origins of Greek civilization in Chapter 2 (pp. 36-49), the author draws our attention to the fact that, for reconstructing their past, the Greeks of the so-called Dark Age did not have the two major resources available to us, namely written texts and archaeology. They had to depend on legends and other orally-transmitted traditional material, although some of the latter may have been suggested by their familiarity with tombs and other monuments belonging to earlier times. Placing side-by-side the description of Nestor's cup in the Iliad with the Mycenaean vase which Schliemann identified with that description (fig. 10), Purkis reminds us of the chronological and other arguments which make Schliemann's identification impossible. At the same time, however, by juxtaposing a passage from the Odyssey (3.385-99; 464-69) with a figure of the reconstructed palace from Pylos and its bath (fig. 13A and B) he raises the possibility that the 8th century BCE poet's description of Mycenaean splendour may not altogether be the result of poetic exaggeration.
The discussion of Hesiod's account of the Bronze and Iron Ages (Works and Days 143-80) is stimulating and thought- provoking. The author warns his readers against identifying Hesiod's metal races with the corresponding ages of the archaeologists, even though Hesiod, who lives in the Iron Age, reveals a knowledge of the use of bronze implements during an earlier period. The warriors of the Heroic Age, the only ones to be mentioned by name, contrast with those of the preceding bronze age that lie nameless beneath the earth. In his account of the Iron Age, Hesiod's pessimism is contrasted ironically with the fact that he lived at the beginning of an age that saw major developments in Greek arts, sciences and institutions.
The discussion of cult and religion (Chapter 3, pp. 50-63) provides a convenient summary of the essential facts: primitive superstition, the myths, the gods, omens and oracles, while the stories of Orion and Pandora are treated at some length as illustrating the different levels at which the significance of myths might be perceived. Having pointed out that Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, was replaced by Dionysus as one of the twelve Olympians, the author observes (p. 55) that she was rather unexciting mythologically as she was confined to the house. One would have liked to hear him say that she was the one Olympian goddess who was not represented in anthropomorphic form and therefore had greater liability of being substituted.
The fourth chapter (pp. 64-70) is devoted to early Ionian philosophy and history, and begins with an account of Ionia and its cities. Among the pre-Socratic philosophers Thales, Heraclitus and Pythagoras are selected for comment, but the brief summaries of their contributions to philosophy do not always succeed in conveying the unity of their thought. This is especially true of the account of Pythagoras where, one feels, the connection between his religious and mathematical contribution has not been adequately expressed. The chapter concludes with a synopsis of early history, from the Ionian Revolt to the battle of Marathon.
The discussion of fifth century Sparta (chapter 5, pp. 71-77) begins with a summary of Sparta's early history followed by a description of the Spartan constitutional system (p. 73). This is followed by an account of the second Persian war involving the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. The author quotes and discusses the well-known passage from the seventh book of Herodotus (7.208- 12) describing Xerxes' reaction to the Spartan spirit, complemented by two translations of Simonides' epitaph for those who died at Thermopylae. The introduction of the second version as brief, and therefore Laconic, might keep the newcomer to Greek civilization trying to guess the connection between brevity and Laconicity. In any case, it has no point: the second version has fourteen words as against the fifteen of the first.
Chapter 6 ('Imperialism and War -- Athens', pp. 78-96) and Chapter 7 (The Fourth Century -- Epidaurus and its Theatre, pp. 97-108) are devoted to Athens in the classical period. First we are given a concise account of the political history. The author follows the now outdated practice of using the term 'the first Peloponnesian War' to designate the struggle between Athens and Corinth (c. 461-446 BCE) in which the Spartans and their allies occasionally took part. Consequently the great war of 431-405 BCE is called the second or great Peloponnesian War. While it is possible to sympathize with the decision to avoid narrating the course of the latter war as being inappropriate for a book of this nature, one regrets not seeing some reference to Thucydides' 'truest cause' and to the modern economically based views on the subject. The apparent reluctance to bring in Thucydides, which is in marked contrast to the lavish quotations from Herodotus, may have been due to a feeling that the former might be less accessible to newcomers. Thucydides, however, does provide an illustrative text -- the conclusion of the Melian debate (5.111f., c. 416 BCE). Moving on to the fourth century, the instructional method of Socrates and Plato is illustrated by three extracts from the Republic: the opening (327a-328c) and the Thrasymachus episode (336b-338c) from Book 1 and the dismissal of the clever imitator from Book 3 (398a-b). After a general discussion of problems relating to Athenian monuments, some attention is given to the temples and theatres, which are undoubtedly the most characteristic products of classical Greek architecture. The fourth century is represented mainly by a discussion of theatre and drama. An extract from the Agamemnon of Aeschylus (ll. 906-74), in which Clytemnaestra prevails upon Agamemnon to walk on the red carpet, is presented and discussed. This, though belonging to the previous century, is a good choice since it allows the author to show how the effect of the scene depends upon tension and irony.
Chapter 8 (pp. 109-20), which covers Hellenistic civilization, is more interesting for what is omitted than for what is included. After making some pertinent comments on the achievements of Alexander the Great, the pharos of Alexandria and the Mausoleum, the author observes that for a long time Hellenistic art was considered decadent. Nothing is said of the modern tendency to regard it as a time of change rather than one of decline. One gets the feeling that the author himself subscribes to the older view, since he goes on to say that the Romans 'thought that the Laocoon was the height of Greek sculpture which tells us a lot about Roman taste' (p. 112). It must be pointed out here that this work is known to us only from Roman copies. Again, although the second epigram of Callimachus and the fifteenth Idyl of Theocritus are quoted and discussed, we hear nothing of Apollonius Rhodius and his Argonautica, even though it is perhaps the best-known work of this period, as well as being a major landmark of Greek Literature as a whole.
The ninth chapter (pp. 121-27) is devoted to the legacy of Greek civilization, and concentrates largely on the role of Byzantium in preserving and transmitting Greek learning and culture. Two problems receive special attention. First there is the question of continuity: 'How have the Greeks survived, if their state disappeared in 1453 CE?' The other is the controversy over the Elgin marbles in which, after stating some of the arguments for and against their restoration to Greece, the author entrusts the reader with the task of pronouncing the final verdict. The last chapter is called 'Taking It Further' (pp. 128-46), and, in addition to providing guidance on pursuing further the topics already discussed, it deals with some miscellaneous but important subjects which were not taken up in the preceding chapters. In dealing with the reasons for the success of Greek civilization, the author makes the reader concentrate on Athens, but compares its history with that of Sparta on the one hand, and with Alexandria and Constantinople on the other. In his accounts of shipping and warfare, due attention is paid to both literary and archaeological evidence. The author explains how during the twentieth century greater emphasis has been placed on understanding the everyday life of the Greeks. The chapter concludes with advice on further study of authors and works, which consists of notes and recommendations on epic, drama (including comedy which had been excluded from the chapters on classical Athens), lyric poetry and prose. There is a useful annotated list of works for further reading which mentions a selection of general works, British Museum Publications, History of literature, Modern novels and special studies and Guide-books to Greece. There are also notes on the Greek revival and on visiting museums, with a special note on the British Museum collections.
Paula James' Roman Civilization aims to guide the reader from being a passive recipient of information to becoming an active explorer. Thus the emphasis is on the examination of the evidence and the conclusions to be derived from it. In the introduction itself, the author provides a preview of the kind of evidence at the disposal of the student by quoting a few representative examples: a letter to Cicero from his brother regarding the slave Tiro (Fam. 16.16.1), a birthday invitation of Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina from the Vindolanda tablets, a letter from Pliny to Septimius Clarus (1.15), and a selection of graffiti from Pompeii. The reader is duly warned against approaching the study of an ancient civilization with preconceptions acquired from one's own background.
One such preconception results from the traditional way in which the teaching of ancient languages in general and Latin in particular have been handled. An ancient language studied in its cultural context, far from being dead, is capable of providing a deeper insight into the society in which it was spoken. Accordingly, the author does not hesitate to include memorable Latin sayings and phrases and even occasional Latin extracts with translation. Here, James has used to advantage a feature not readily available to Purkis, namely the similarity of script and vocabulary between Latin and English. Moreover, unlike Purkis' book which quotes mostly from Penguin translations of the classics, the extracts in James' book are almost always presented in the author's own English translations.
Despite the warning against preconceptions, the student is encouraged to take advantage of whatever aspects of the Roman civilization that may be already familiar as a starting point in the journey of exploration. The value of archaeology lay in its ability to reveal the life of the lower social strata which are often neglected by literature with its emphasis on the educated, affluent and, in the author's opinion, invariably male part of the population. This last aspect is partly the result of the Roman approach to history, which was considered more to be a branch of literature expected to dramatize and highlight edifying examples from the past. The Romans have also suffered from the traditional portrayal of the imperial family as debauched, as well as from the time- honoured contrast between their practical orientation and the artistic temperament of the Greeks, and the author rightly emphasizes the admirable achievements of the Romans in warfare, engineering and jurisprudence.
The first chapter, entitled 'City Tour' (pp. 13-38), presents not only what its title promises, an overview of Rome, but many other things besides. It is broadly based on a discussion of three extracts from poets who wrote mainly during the principate of the first Roman emperor. The passages taken up for discussion are Aeneas' visit to Evander in Virgil's Aeneid (8.351-61), passages from Ovid's Art of Love (1.67-72, 74-78, 79-88), and extracts from Horace's satire describing a journey to Brundisium (1.5). However, the discussion sweeps through a number of topics which are fundamental for the study of Roman civilization, such as the properties of the Latin language, Roman names, the geography and history of Rome, its monuments, religion and the gods. The author moves briskly from one topic to another, and one wonders whether the beginner, especially one studying alone, would be able to keep track of so many digressions and whether he would not lose sight of the extracts that are being discussed. The plethora of material seems occasionally to have confused the author herself. The god of the underworld is said, for instance, to get his Roman name (Pluto = 'rich') from the fact that he is never short of subjects, rather than from the fact that he inhabited the chamber of the earth, the source of minerals and nourishment for crops and living things. Again, we are made to understand that Mercury has become a byword for versatility and mutability so that his name has been given to the only metal which becomes liquid at room temperature.
The second chapter is entitled 'Roman Holiday' (pp. 39-63), and its starting point is a piece of architecture in contrast to the literary works of the previous chapter. The reader is encouraged to forge a link between visual art and written literature and to transfer skills of interpretation from one to the other. The work of art in question is Augustus' Altar of Peace, one panel of which leads to an evaluation of Roman attitudes towards the countryside. With regard to the altar itself, the author raises the important problem of its function, whether as a shrine to a god or as a war-memorial. Was it built to promote peace as well as glorify war? To understand this, we turn back to a poet, and read Ovid's description of the altar in the Fasti (709-22). James comments (p. 42f.): 'The significant point here is that peace was associated with military victory and implicit in the term 'peace' is the notion of Roman conquest and success . . . For the Romans peace was a condition which was actively achieved, and generally achieved by force. The term pax Romana came to be synonymous with the Roman empire, the area under Roman dominion in which peace was maintained by military strength and efficient government.'
Regarding the Roman attitude towards the countryside, the author makes the pertinent observation (p. 48) that: 'Reading through Roman literature does not leave an impression of romantically wild or scenic areas of mountains, forests and rivers untouched by human hand. Instead, the term countryside summoned up for the Roman writer images of agriculture with the well-run farms or estates which were a profitable haven of peace and orderliness.' This is illustrated by a medley of literary sources showing several images of agriculture, real, ideal, practical and poetic, including a detailed analysis of Tibullus 1.1. Coming back to architecture, once again supported by literary evidence, we are given a tour of two Roman country houses, one based on archaeological remains, the other on a literary description. Although the countryside is the main theme of the chapter, much of it is devoted to Roman religion in one or another of its various aspects.
The third chapter, entitled 'Point of Departure' (pp. 64-92), consists mainly of a discussion around the third satire of Juvenal on why it is impossible to live in Rome. The author has made ample use of the copious modern scholarship on this poem. The discussion touches on a number of significant topics, such as the nature and growth of Roman satire, Roman attitude towards Greek influence down the ages and the patron-client relationship, while there are two sections devoted to 'bread' (the management of Rome's food supply) and 'circuses' (the provision of entertainment) respectively. While providing yet another glimpse of the physical location of Rome and its everyday life, the chapter attempts to familiarize the reader with the authors of Roman satire and the techniques they employ. The idea is to train the reader in the evaluation of literature as source material for the study of antiquity. One difficulty in this endeavour is caused by the poet's tendency to refer to episodes and figures from previous generations. But we are not told of Juvenal's own explanation, which the poet gives in the very opening poem, namely that the freedom of speech enjoyed by earlier satirists (such as Lucilius) is no more: so he will use names from the past to represent contemporary vices (Juvenal, 1.147-71). The chapter concludes with the first lines of the poems on London by Johnson and Holloway, both based on Juvenal's third satire and thus inviting comparison and further investigation.
The fourth chapter is entitled 'Meeting the People: Roman Relationships' (pp. 93-127), and its anchor text is Sulpicius' letter of consolation to Cicero on the death of Tullia (Fam. 4.5.1), the opening words of which had been quoted in the introduction. It covers many aspects of human relationships in Rome such as epistolography (together with a consideration of the postal service), the family, the rights and duties of the paterfamilias, the position of women, children and slaves, marriage, attitudes to life and death, Roman piety, and the impact of Stoicism on the Roman way of thinking. The student is encouraged to contrast its sentiments with what we are used to at the present time, thus providing a fresh insight to the use of documents as sources for the study of ancient societies. This approach is confirmed by the use of a number of epitaphs and inscriptions. While observing that Roman legislation reflects changes in the attitude to women, the author stresses the continuous and underlying assumption 'that the female sex could be easily led astray by cunning operators and betrayed by their own gullibility and extravagance' (p. 100). One question opened up for discussion is the extent of a father's control over his grown-up children in relation to the data on life expectancy. As usual, the starting-point of many of the discussions is an actual extract from Roman literature. Thus the discussion of Roman marriage ceremonies is suggested by Catullus' poem on a friend's wedding (61). Cicero's 'Pomponia letter' (Att. 5.1) provides a contrast to the praises of a good wife in the funeral oration of Turia and Pliny's letter about Fannia (7.19). Regarding the upbringing of children, and the attitude of the family, the author makes a pertinent suggestion: 'One way of negotiating the range of practices and approaches concerning children that the evidence suggests is to engage with the total experience of producing and losing children in the ancient world' (p. 118). While emphasizing the value of epigraphical evidence, the author duly warns us regarding their uneven distribution through time and space. The chapter concludes with another discussion on slavery illustrated, among other things, by Ovid's verses on his escapade with Corinna's slave girl (Am. 2.7.17-22).
The last chapter, entitled 'Going Abroad' (pp. 128-61), introduces the reader to Roman expansion -- military, economic and cultural - - as well as to provincial government and life. The horizon expands not only in space -- to cover a wide area from Syria to Britain and Germany to Egypt -- but also in time, with extracts from Claudian, Dio Cassius, Priscus and Sidonius. Naturally, papyri provide the most lively evidence for life in Roman Egypt, and the will of the soldier Gaius gives us some idea of the inevitable cultural conflicts faced by the provincials under Roman rule, just as Regina's tombstone from South Shields illustrates the ethnic and cultural mixture to be found within the Roman Empire throughout its existence. The experience on the Roman side is reflected in the letters of Cicero and Pliny, and the latter's correspondence with Trajan over an environmental issue must have its appeal to students at the turn of the millennium. The author demonstrates how the traditional concept of 'Romanization' has been replaced in recent times by that of 'symbiosis'. The process of subjugation and the Roman methods of manipulation throughout the Empire are illustrated by the careers of Julius Caesar and Julius Agricola, while Catullus in Bithynia and Licinius in Gaul provide a side view of provincial government. Gaul, and the impact upon it of the barbarian invaders, receives detailed treatment and provides an easy, if not all that natural, transition to a consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman legal system, one of the most enduring gifts of Rome to posterity.
The appendices consist of a timeline and accounts of Roman food, Roman names and the Roman pantheon, followed by a bibliography. Of special interest is the account of Roman food, 'Food for Thought', as the author calls it (pp. 175-79). In it the author takes up for discussion one by one the food items mentioned in the various extracts quoted throughout the book, quoting in many cases the relevant Roman recipes, largely taken from the work on cookery bearing the name of Caelius Apicius. The author draws our attention to Apicius' fondness for using pepper with almost everything, and gives an explanation namely, that, sugar being unknown to the Romans, pepper was used to stimulate the sweetness of food. One could not say with certainty that sugar was unknown to the Romans, since it was known in other parts of the world at this time. Then again, this should have been the occasion to mention, however briefly, the importance of pepper in Rome's trade with India during the Empire. Not only do Pliny and the author of the Periplus Maris Erythraei give considerable details about it, but it is also well known that the Tamil poems of the Sangam period mention the ships of the Yavana which come to Indian ports bringing gold and go back laden with pepper.
A significant drawback of both books, in my opinion at least, is the extraordinary length of the chapters and the miscellaneous character of their content. The material is laid out in long chapters divided into shorter sections, with many digressions and parenthetical remarks, this last feature often taking the place of footnotes. I feel that what a person studying alone needs is a text consisting of short chapters arranged in a logical order, each one covering a major step in achieving the objectives of the course, with adequate review material and suggestions for further exploration. Apart from this, the shortcomings I have mentioned are not of major consequence and do not in any way detract from the value of these informative and enjoyable books. The illustrations, mostly diagrammatic, are few but relevant and helpful, the type easy on the eye, the books themselves compact and relatively inexpensive.
Writing a good general account of an ancient civilization is not easy. It calls for an author deeply versed in the details of scholarship but at the same time capable of taking a balanced view of the subject as a whole. Moreover, such a book must not only be stimulating to the reader but its author must clarify in a few sentences matters to which authors of larger or more specialized works have devoted many pages. The reader is bound to light on some facts which are already familiar to him, and these provide him with an opportunity to test the author's opinion and to form his own judgment about the reliability of the author as a guide. The author must assist his reader to come to an intelligent decision as to the important features and outstanding achievements of the civilization under discussion. With this basic survey firmly fixed in the mind, the student can go on to read works that treat various aspects of the civilization in greater detail. A careful reading of these two books has left me with the happy impression that the authors (both lecturers at the Open University in England) have met these requirements up to expectations.