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Monday, July 2, 2012

“The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian”, by Robin Lane Fox

672 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465024964

Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Athens or Alexandria. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian is a long book with small print which will give you a good working understanding of the classical world, covering everything from Homer about the 8th Century BC, to Hadrian the Roman ruler of the 2nd Century AD.

Fox is an Oxford Scholar best known for his book on Alexander the Great used by Oliver Stone in his making of the movie Alexander. In being forced to cover over 900 years of history it is impossible for Fox to cover, in detail, all the political, social, literary and scientific advances made in that near millennium. Rather, Fox gives us a political survey of the times with some social history included. The chapters are short and digestible. We learn of what is what like to live in the Athens of Pericles or the Rome of Julius Caesar. Fox teaches us about blood sports, sexual morality, literature and the complicated politics of the distant past over 40 generations ago. We meet such seminal figures in Western culture as Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Latin authors such as Tacitus, Virgil, Suetonius as well as Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle is explored. We see empires rise and fall. We meet early Christians such as Paul and see the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire.

Robin Lane Fox has pulled off this unusual achievement in The Classical World. Taking three very ancient-world concepts – Liberty, Justice and Luxury (in its sense of extravagance, decadence) – Fox manages to walk confidently from Archaic Athens to the mid-point in the Roman Empire (the Emperor Hadrian, perhaps the most Greek-influenced of Roman Emperors, 2nd Century AD) and brilliantly evoke both the changes within the Greek and Roman cultures as they rose to empire and then fell from that high point, and to `compare and contrast' the two great cultures in a way that makes sense to the reader. Perhaps more importantly, this is a deeply satisfying book both for the expert scholar and the interested reader who doesn't have his M.A. in classical studies. It's amazing to see how these three `civilized' needs or qualities are dealt with in differing ways by the various cultures of Greece and Rome, and how complaints of decadence always seem to follow the cultural richness of a developing civilization.

At heart, the question is – what constitutes a civilization? How do you reconcile the needs of Liberty and Justice, and what happens to both when the rich become richer and the poor become poorer? Is wealth in and of itself a clue that a civilization that has lost its earlier energy? How did the Greeks and Romans deal with wealth and poverty, and how did they view them as influencing both liberty and justice? How did the great warrior ideals Homer exemplified influence the cultures after them, for good – or ill? Did Athens fall, in part, because of its increasing wealth drawn from its increasingly-resentful allies? Did the largesse of the Caesars do more harm than good to the average Roman citizen? These and other questions are discussed (but not intrusively) as the reader time-travels through the rise and decline of the Athenian Greeks; Fox takes his leave with the Emperor Hadrian. In his time, Rome was still the greatest, most civilized nation on earth – but the hints of the decline to come were already visible with those who had eyes to see.

The Classical World feels, simply, like a labor of love from a man who finds much to love, to deprecate, and to honor in both the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome.

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