Introducing the Ancient Greeks
The Bodley Head 287pp £20
Edith Hall has written a flamboyant, readable and different account of the ancient Greeks, well tailored for the modern reader. She tells the old stories, but she presents them innovatively, in a package of ten chronological chapters structured around a cute (and contestable) ten characteristics or qualities, which she claims were shared by most Greeks most of the time. These are that they were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic and inquiring (her four primary qualities) combined with six others: that they were open to new ideas, witty, competitive, admired excellence in talented people, were elaborately articulate and were addicted to pleasure. Whatever one thinks of these characteristics, Hall's achievement here is to unfold a long and vivid narrative that sticks effectively to the remit of their framework.
Many good things are offered: an excellent account of colonies and colonisation, a wonderful presentation of the Persian Wars through the prism of the playwright Aeschylus, a dynamic unfolding of a changing political and literary culture. Many things are absent from what one might imagine to be a balanced picture. The book is much stronger on literature and literary culture than on archaeology, art, philosophy or history – all areas of crucial Hellenic interventions and all areas where the rich evidence nuances our understanding. Hall spends too long on the Bronze Age (guided by the texts of Homer and Hesiod and less by archaeological evidence) and on the Classical moment, while the great extent of Roman Greece and of the turn to Christianity (where many of the finest intellectuals and writers were cultured Greek speakers) are given just a chapter each. She offers nothing about the great era of Byzantine Greece, when the Roman Empire's capital moved to Constantinople, as if the ancient Greeks somehow ended with the rise of the Church, despite the fact that all the ancient Greek literature and learning on which her story depends was lovingly preserved, copied, edited and taught for over a 1,000 years in Byzantium.
Hall's story is thus beautifully packaged, but strangely conservative. It accepts the traditional break at the point of Christianity and, especially in her insistence on the individual, it returns us to a historical model of great men (mainly) initiating action. Leaders come to stand for the groups and communities that they lead and their initiatives (as opposed to their responses to the pressures of those groups in historical circumstances) come to direct the thrust of history. It may be so. But as Hall admits, many scholars emphasise other factors than individual excellence in shaping history. Her account is of course personal. A story less secularist or hedonistic would have given more space to the ascetic strand of ancient polytheism from Pythagoras to Plotinus, to which the Christians owed so much.
Jas’ Elsner is Humfry Payne Senior Research Fellow in Classical Archaeology at Corpus Christi College Oxford and Visiting Professor of Art and Religion, University of Chicago.