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The Classical World, by Robin Lane Fox

August 25, 2012

I bought this earlier in the year, on a trip to Edinburgh. It marks the first history book I’ve picked up that didn’t have an alliterative title. Along with The Disappearing Spoon, it’s my attempt at enlightenment in all things.

ImageThe Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome takes a long-sighted view at the turbulent millennium that we would call antiquity, from the ninth century BC up to the first century AD. It opens with poetry by Homer and ends in the reign of Hadrian. As well as covering the wars and politics, dates and peoples, in this time, Robin Lane Fox also takes time to cover cultural issues, especially notable writers and thinkers.

Lane Fox begins with Hadrian’s patronage of Greek cities, explaining the emperor’s philhellenic nature. Since so much history (and the book) is dependent on Greece, before the action shifts on to Rome, the choice of Hadrian at the stopping point makes for a good sense of wholeness and inclusion.

But that is still the best part of 1000 years off. The book is split into six sections; the first three cover Greece, in its archaic, classical and post-Alexander periods; the last three move to the rising power of Rome, its republic, its civil war, and empire. As I’ve said above, chapters on history are interspersed with biographies of its notable historians and philosophers, such as Thucydides, Socrates, Cicero and Tacitus. Additionally, throughout the book, Robin Lane Fox looks at Greek and Roman perceptions of Freedom, Justice and Luxury, and how they changed with the times. The number of conquerors and despots who preached ‘Liberty!’ as they marched is highly educational.

This book is not one for the faint-hearted. 600 pages of history, plus footnotes, it is a weighty tome even in paperback (I might grudgingly admit benefit of the Kindle and e-readers in this respect). Moreover, Lane Fox’s style, though interesting and engaging, is serious and scholarly. There are times, especially when describing the intricacies of ancient that he disappears down a legalistic rabbit-hole.

However, if you have the fortitude to persevere, this book is worth the time. With a finely tuned retrospectoscope, Lane Fox draws each ancient event as the natural, but by no means inevitable, progression of events that have preceded it. This sense of holistic fluidity makes history a very natural thing to read.

I always know when I’ve truly enjoyed a book. I will find myself imposing it on other people, in the form of birthday and Christmas presents. This has happened repeatedly with The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and already, before I had finished it, this book has passed this litmus test. As I dug into the final chapters, my dad (hopefully) explored the first chapters of his birthday present.

If you’re looking for a book on the classical world beyond Horrible Histories, and have the stamina of a long-distance runner, this is a fine book to pick up.

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