Peter Green, Classical Bearings: Interpreting Ancient History and Culture. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998. Pp. 328. ISBN 0-520-20811-0. US$18.00, UKú13.95.
Anton G. Jansen
Department of Classics, Brock University
This is a reprinting of a collection of sixteen essays first published in 1989. The essays were originally written as articles, critical reviews and opinion pieces in the late seventies and eighties.
The essays range over a wide territory. The relevance of classical studies to the modern world is discussed in the first but this theme runs through most of the works. Green is particularly good at showing the difference between a real interest in the ancients, stressing what they themselves thought about what they were doing, and the anachronistic use of the classics to support various social and political activities. This is particularly seen in essays on the Victorian view of Greece and a review of De Ste. Croix's Class Struggle.[]
One sees this difference reflected in the review of Vermeule's Sather lecture of 1979, where Green applauds her admission that she does not know what the Greeks thought about death, ('On the Thanatos Trail', pp. 63-76 at p. 65). This is the point after all since the ancients do what we all do -- interpret history and events to fit our own world views (p. 66). A very evocative essay about Lesbos, 'Lesbos and the Genius Loci' (pp. 45-62), notes the conflict between the local people and those who come to see -- and mar -- the beauty of the island's geography and society. The newcomers have their own views of Lesbos. A view based on jumbled images of classical ruins and interpretations of Sappho (pp. 45f.).
At other points Green starts from popular exhibits of Tutankhamun and Alexander to arguments about the status of the 'fellahin' in ancient Egypt and the identity of the man buried in tomb II at Vergina, again forcing the reader to note how our own 'period' interpretations tend to dominate our view of ancient societies. Green returns to this theme repeatedly in more scholarly essays and especially in the final essay on the role of classical translation ('Medium and Message Reconsidered: The Changing Functions of Classical Translation', pp. 256-270).
Green writes very well and his ability to spot the links between the ancient and the modern give the book a feeling of freshness and topicality. The questions have not changed in the intervening decade.
A collection of essays is obviously opinionated. One may agree or disagree with Green's conclusions, but the final result is still very readable and enjoyable.
[] G. E. M. de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London 1983).