on February 17, 2011
How do we know what we know about the Ancient World? The authors of this terrific history are willing to reveal the translation process from findings to speculations. Archeological evidence is interpreted and at times reinterpreted to explain what we think we know about what happened between two and four thousand years ago in Europe. The data used is current and findings from just the past few years are referenced to support various hypotheses.
Nonetheless this book isn't an archeological dig but a full scale history. Finding a history that covers both Greece and Rome (with side trips to the Near East and Africa) can be difficult, but finding one that does a good job in under 400 pages is an accomplishment indeed. Although much is covered, the writing never feels like a skim. In fact, if a caveat can be made, it's that the writing at times can be too dense. Saying that, it is always clear and jargon-free.
Another strength is the wealth of maps and charts that clarify the text, and the aptly chosen color plates, the latter used more sparingly.
Many ideas are controversial which has lead some reviewers to direct this book to the specialists. Controversial ideas are presented as such and the data for and against are easily followed (the African influence on Ancient Greece, whether flipping the evidence supports either Greek or Phoenician presence in the colony of Al Mina in the Levant, for example).
This volume continues the outstanding precedence of the Penguin History of Europe series that have previously produced excellent single author volumes to satisfy the academic as well as the general reader. This is probably the best and most up-to-date single volume text covering both Greek and Roman history currently in print.
on October 24, 2011
Before reviewing the book I'd like to discuss the series which it is a part of. The problem with the Penguin History of Europe series is that they are terribly inconsistent. This book is designed as a basic introduction for beginners while others attempt a serious overview of the era in question. The book immediately following this one (even though it was written before it) was The Inheritance of Rome. It covered the Dark Ages, or more precisely the period from 400-1000 AD. This book covers 1750 BC-425 AD. That's 600 years vs. 2175! Admittedly most of the Bronze Age material is dismissed in a chapter, but the section on Classical Greece doesn't even start until page 113. So after covering over 1200 years of history in 100 pages they have 200 pages in which to cover 900 years. The later ones cover even less time than Inheritance. Europe in the High Middle Ages covers about 300 years while The Pursuit of Glory covers about half that. I know it makes sense to spend more time on fewer years as we get closer to the present since the quality and number of the sources increase, but they have seriously limited the value of the Classical era and relegated it to little more than an introductory volume to their series. In my opinion, if you're going to do something then do it properly. If you don't want to cover the Classical Era then you don't have to.
This brings us to the question of intent. What is the purpose of these books? What audience are they written for? This one will never be used by scholars as a serious source. Which is fine, except that the other books don't match. The Inheritance of Rome is a very detailed book which, while comprehensible for a beginner, is useful for the scholar as well. The Pursuit of Glory is even less like this in that it is divided up by topics instead of being a narrative. The length is also a difference. While this book clocks in at under 400 pages, both Inheritance and Glory are around 700. That is despite the fact that they cover smaller time periods. While enforced and absolute consistency is not to be desired in a series such as this, a basic agreement on the target audience and depth would seem essential.
So having said that, what do I think of the book? It's alright. It serves its purpose which is to detail the early history of Europe as a background to the later books in the series. As an introduction it's pretty good too. It is easy to read and includes the material expected of it. As you might guess I'm not particularly enthused about this book, but if I have little praiseworthy to say then similarly I have little to condemn. The book does serve its basic purpose well, and anyone who's read little or nothing on this period could read far worse books on the topic than this.
One of the good features about this book is how up-to-date it is. I don't just mean that it is a new book, but that it includes the most recent scholarly information on this period. Generally books such as this are a decade or so behind the times, but this one manages to stay on top of its sources and for that it should be praised. Another good feature is that it connects the events of the Bronze and Dark Ages to the Classical Age. A lot of general books start with the Trojan War and then jump to the 500s and deal with the Classical Greeks. Which has always seemed somewhat cheap. As if nothing happened in between! It may not cover that period in much detail but it does cover it and this definitely makes it easier to understand the connection. Another major plus is the number of illustrations. These consist of maps, diagrams and photos and show up all over. The maps are particularly useful while the photographs are very nice and provide images of many of the places discussed. The description under the photos are good as well. Each photo usually demonstrates something with only a few thrown in there just as a nice view.
A feature of this book which I don't remember seeing in the others of this series are the digressions on various topics. These sections are highlighted and pop up as separate blocks of text. This is similar to what they include in modern textbooks, which seems to confirm my theory about the intended readership. These sections are usually interesting points that would be irrelevant and distract from the narrative if they were included in the main text. I'm not completely convinced of their effectiveness. In a textbook with its bigger pages and denser printing its possible to have these digressions on the side without interrupting the text. Since this is a shorter book it takes over the book completely until it is finished. On the whole I think that these sections should have been deleted or streamlined into the text. I liked the way that Wickham in his 'Inheritance of Rome' book did it. He put these quotes and digressions at the beginning of the chapter to serve as an introduction to the subject. Something like that would have served him better here.
I honestly don't understand the purpose of books like this. They cover too wide a period in too short a space and are bound to be superficial. The only use would be if the author pushes a certain overarching interpretation of human history (like H.G. Wells did) and uses the history as proof. This book doesn't really push any one angle and generally follows the traditional interpretation. I guess that books like this provide a basic outline, but even so being a little longer would help. If I were the publisher I'd have made room for two books of this length and covered the Greeks and Romans separately. That would at least have given them room to get into a little depth. As it is it seems like a series of isolated incidents thinly connected together. They could easily have written twice as much and still only have cracked the surface. While I can't blame the authors for not splitting their topic into multiple books since the nature of the series prohibited it, I still feel that they should have written much more. If this book had been as long as those other two it might have achieved something. As it is they cover about six and a half years with every page. It feels diluted almost to the point of uselessness.
So there you have it. If you want a general history of Ancient Europe then this is an excellent place to start. If you want something that will cover the material that you might find in a textbook without the tediousness of that medium then thus might be the book for you. If you've read up on the era before then this work will provide nothing new for you.
The title, "The Birth of Classical Europe," implies a broad survey of ancient history "from Troy to Augustine," but that's not really what this book provides. Instead, its a more specific study on the ways that Ancient Greeks and Romans appropriated myths and history for political purposes. The authors deftly show how provincial cities or regions acquired by the Athenaen or Roman Empires would seek to curry favor or privilege by connecting themselves to mythic stories or invented shared genealogies with their imperial masters. Gods, myths and history, then, served as forms of "soft power," as way for imperial states to bind their colonies and provinces to them through the constructing of a shared culture.
Price and Thonemann's shows how these ancient peoples constructed usable pasts for themselves in a clear and engaging manner. There's little academic jargon here and the authors even manage to make descriptions of archaeological sites interesting. Yet, this is a specialized study. If you're looking for a survey treatment of the rise of Athens, say, or the fall of the Roman Republic, or the collapse of the Roman Empire, you will be disappointed. Most of the 'standard' topics of ancient history are rather cursorily treated and the authors do assume that you already have learned much of this background information already. Charles Freeman's "Egypt, Greece, and Rome" is far better as a comprehensive survey that fleshes out all the important details.
I would have changed the (misleading) title to something like, "The Construction of Classical Culture," which would give a better impression of the author's real concerns. As it is, it is a fascinating look at how the ancients used their own myths and histories but it should not be anyone's introductory read on classical civilization.
on January 12, 2014
There are thousands of books about the classical world so one might ask if we really need another. The answer is yes we do. Our understanding of the past is constantly changing as new information is discovered. New writers have new ways of looking at old subjects. Most of all as the world we live in changes we need new books to help us connect with a past that is constantly moving.
The Birth of Classical Europe is a wonderful introduction to the ancient world. The authors focus on Greek history and then move on to Rome. They do not spend a lot of time on the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Ancient Near East, and Egypt. That is not because of any Eurocentric prejudice, but rather they focus their story on one specific region. They spend a lot of time on Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Using archeological discoveries from the last 20 years they build up a picture of the ancient world that is a little less catastrophic than the previous pictures that we have had. They argue more for a story of a sequence migrations that ends with assimilation. This is a little less sudden than the image of hordes of invaders wiping out the natives and resettling the region.
The authors spend a lot of time with ancient authors and recognize the value of the ancient sources. They do not accept the ancient stories at face value, that would of course be a mistake. Instead they look at the archeology and see how that illuminates the stories. Often credible theories of the past can be built when one uses this method.
This book is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the ancient world. Instead it is an introduction to the period. As the first volume of The Penguin History of Europe its purpose is to give the reader an understanding of the foundations of European civilization. The book is designed for the general reader. If you are not well read in the period you can pick this book up and learn a lot. I consider myself to be moderately well read in the period and I learned a lot. The Further Reading section at the end has a wonderful list of books, both scholarly and general reader, that should keep the person interested in the period satisfied for a long time to come.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to learn about the ancient world. This can be read as a general reader book and could also be used as a high school level textbook for home schoolers or others interested in providing young people with well written book that is informative and enjoyable.
on February 26, 2014
The Birth of Classical Europe: A History from Troy to Augustine is a fantastic overview of Mediterranean and broader European history. One advantage of reading modern books on history is you have the latest thoughts coming from recent archaeology, technological development, discoveries about languages and migrations, etc.
I have read Freeman's Egypt, Greece, and Rome (my review) so this book was a good refresher for events but did a better job helping me understand the overall historical contexts of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor (Anatolia) during the time period covered. Whereas Freeman tended to categorize his chapters by looking at art, war, technology, and religion separately, Price and Thonemann weave them together as a whole. You can't understand what we know about, say, the Punic Wars without looking at who recorded the stories and the context they were writing in. Price and Thonemann also look more at what modern archaeology tells us about the lives and development. There are also several inset boxes that explain the significance of an event or writing in modern history-- whether it be what influenced Machiavelli or Dante's writings, Shakespeare, the U.S.'s Founding Fathers, or Nazi Germany's inspirations.
We start in the areas of Mycenae, whose inhabitants also settled in Crete, blending with a native culture that was growing and continue with the development of Classical Greece, then through the later Greek periods. Not too much time is spent on Philip and Alexander's Macedonian conquests. We then look at the rise of Rome while also looking at the civilizations that existed in mainland Europe (Gaul) and Britain, Carthage (North Africa), Persia, and Syria. The book concludes by looking at Christianity in the early Roman empire, and the increasing divide between East and West (Greek-speakers vs. Latin speakers). It concludes with a look at St. Augustine, which having just read Confessions I found helpful to put him in a greater context. Augustine is truly a post-Roman, a Latin speaker living in a Roman colony, highly educated in the classics and trying to reconcile those classics and Roman history with biblical history. If you want a general history of Europe and the Mediterranean with plenty of peeks at details without going too deep, then this is your book.
I greatly enjoyed it and give it 5 stars.
on July 27, 2015
Clear, easy-to-read history of "the birth of classical Europe." Unlike other books in this series, the title implies a thesis which sort of has to be controversial: where and when exactly did "the birth of classical Europe" occur? The writer does a great job of giving a factual overview of the events along the Mediterranean and elsewhere which led to European civilization, while at the same time providing enough of a unified narrative for the reader to make sense of the facts. The end of the book, which covers the birth of Christianity, is especially illuminating: it's the part of the book to which readers of all ideological dispositions are likely to come with the most preconceptions, and yet it's the part that - for me, at least - overturned more preconceived notions than any other part of the book.
The only reason this book loses a star is its strangely extreme lack of attention to Jewish history. I'm neither a practicing Christian nor a Jew, but it just seems that ancient Israel was a place where things were happening which were very, very important to the development of Western civilization. I'm not about to tell a (clearly learned) professional historian that he addressed the wrong subject matter, but for a lay audience, at least an explanation as to why more attention was not devoted to ancient Jews would've made sense. Price might have a very good reason for not paying more attention to that particular ancient culture, but I would have liked to hear that reason.
on August 9, 2012
The Birth of Classical Europe, by Simon Price and Peter Thronemann is the first book in a series, The Penguin History of Europe. This first book covers the beginnings of Western Civilization from the Trojan War to the time of Augustine of Hippo. That is a lot of ground to cover in only four hundred pages, and The Birth of Classical Europe barely skims the centuries of history. Still, these are appropriate endpoints.
The Birth of Classical Europe is really not so much a narrative history as a study on how history was used by the Greeks, Romans, and others to establish their place in the world. For the people of classical Europe, the Trojan War was, in many respects the beginning of history, as the first event of consequence that they could date and had any information about. The fact that their information was filtered through the legends memorialized in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and that they did not, in fact, have any real knowledge of the events centuries before their time was irrelevant. Greek cities and families traced their origins to heroes and events in Homer and other myths and any new custom or institution was invariably held to have had its actual origins in the legendary past. Thus, Athenian democracy, which was only fully established in the fifth century, was believed to have been started by Theseus. The Persian invasion was another chapter in the long struggle between East and West. The Romans got into the act too. They believed themselves to be descended from the Trojan prince Aeneas and placed themselves firmly in the mythological history of the Greeks. Even unrelated peoples such as the Gauls and inhabitants of Asia came to view themselves in this context.
If the Trojan War is a good point to begin this survey, than Augustine is the natural endpoint. For by Augustine's time the rising faith of Christianity had begun to create a new historical context for the peoples of the West. While the Romans hardly abandoned their classical heritage, they did begin to draw more on the history in the Bible to understand their place in the history and the world. This tendency perhaps reached its climax with Augustine's greatest work, The City of God, and it may well be said that after him we find the habits of thought we associate with the medieval period.
The Birth of Classical Europe is worth reading in order to get a good bird's eye view of the formation of our civilization and if it has a fault, it is simply that there is not enough space in the book to give every cultural and historical development its full attention.
on August 16, 2013
I'm not the type to read books twice, but this book has vaulted to the top of my list of books that I will, in theory, one day re-read. But not for the enjoyment so much, as for the fact that I barely remember anything in it,and of all things I've ever read, it seems to me, this stuff should be remembered. Its an important topic, and an important book on human history.Really, so much came from this particular area and this particular period. This is the book that makes you understand, even though you've heard it before, just how the importance of Europe to world history came to be. This book makes the last two thousand years look like the blink of an eye. Its a very enjoyable book. My only criticism is that it ends up saying very little about the barbarian invasions of Rome and tends to focus on the growth of Christianity, so if you're expecting much on that aspect look elsewhere.The part on the rise of Greece is especially good. Great book.
on January 27, 2015
A remarkable documentation of early European history presented chronologically and regionally, and in readable prose for the layman. Price and Thonemann piece together this complex transition from scattered Bronze Age settlements to villages, cities, kingdoms, and empires.
Detailed maps and figures, together with plates that depict pertinent archaeology discoveries, clarify explanations. Also, a date chart and a comprehensive index further facilitate the use of this valuable reference.
The book begins with the Second Palace period of Crete, starting about 1750 BC, where leaders developed Europe's first palaces, highways, and complex cities, and established trade routes with the already ancient nations Mesopotamia and Egypt, both with heritages of warring, sophisticated empires and writing systems from the third millennium. No doubt Cretans visiting these vast kingdoms brought home plans for civilizing Crete. Following the destruction of principal sites on Crete around 1430 BC, the emerging dominant city-state of Mycenae on the Greek mainland conquered Crete and Greece.
There is the old question of the Trojan War: fact or fiction? The authors credit the Alexandria Library scholar Eratosthenes with establishing the dates of the Trojan War, 1184/3 BC. However, archaeologists muddied the waters while investigating Troy Levels VIh and VIIa, both contemporary with Mycenae, which led Greek allies against the Trojans. The destruction found at Level VIh, 1300 BC, is at the peak of Mycenaean power in the Aegean world; however, archaeologists disagree as to whether it's the result of enemy action or a massive earthquake. Level VIIa, 1200 BC, also shows signs of devastation, but at this time mainland Mycenaean palatial systems were collapsing. After Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, 700 - 650 BC, numerous Mediterranean cultures endeavored to link their heritages to Trojan War heroes like Agamemnon, Achilles, and Aeneas. Price and Thonemann's opinion of the Iliad: "It cannot be treated as a work of history."
From the thirteenth to the eighth century BC, languages and long migrations spread across the Mediterranean. In the thirteenth century BC, traders from Cyprus visited and settled in Sicily and Sardinia, evidenced by discovered caches of Cypriot copper ingots. The Greek alphabet (an adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet started in the twelfth century BC) began in Greece in the early eighth century. Over the eighth and seventh centuries BC, the Greeks and Phoenicians (of current Lebanon) founded hundreds of new settlements in the western Mediterranean, the Greeks in southern Italy and eastern Sicily, the Phoenicians in Spain and North Africa. Occupying middle and northern Italy, native Etruscans, trading extensively with Greek colonists, adopted the new Graeco-Phoenician alphabet for writing in about 700 BC. "By 500 BC the Mediterranean world can be described as a single cultural unit."
Of course, 507 BC is the birth of the Roman Republic, which 243 years later would battle Carthage, the great North African Phoenician city-state, in the first of three Punic Wars, and go on to quickly control all Mediterranean lands.
Darkened passages provide the reader with interesting asides on particular subjects or relationships to recent world events. One is the "The Roman Calendar" probably conceived by Rome's first king Romulus who reigned 753-716 BC. This calendar had only ten months, beginning in March. Remnants of its names remain today with September, October, November, and December, the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months. The second king, Numa, added two months, January and February, at the start of the year, regularizing the length of months, with the year commencing 1 January. However, by the mid-first century BC, the calendar was 67 days ahead of the solar cycle. Julius Caesar added two temporary months and decreed an extra day added every fourth year. He also named the seventh month after himself (July); later the eighth month was designated after Caesar's successor Augustus (August). However, by 1582 the calendar was again ahead, this time by ten days. Pope Gregory XIII eliminated the extra ten days and slightly modified the system of leap years, thus creating our current more accurate calendar.