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So, is it "good" history?,
This review is from: The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian (Hardcover)
Seeking to cogently summarise an incredible period of development & change - from the emergence of Greek city-states to the peaking of the Roman Empire - in just 600 pages is some challenge, but it's one that Robin Lane Fox rises to through his mastery of the subject and his ability to distil his knowledge into a manageable and highly readable format. And, as an example of making the "key facts" of complex history understandable and sufficiently succinct to capture and hold the attention of non-academic readers, it's an excellent book.
But, is it "good" history? Well that, of course, depends on how you view the subject. If it's a summary of major political & military events then you won't be disappointed for it's a fascinating period and, by the end of it all, you'll know what happened: who, where & when. But good history should be more than a mere distillation of "facts": it should explore why things happened. And, given the period being addressed - one in which the exploration of philosophy, science, politics and history itself was paramount in making it so important - Lane Fox's failure to do this is a major weakness.
For example, the reasons for the massive social & political differences in the parallel development of Athens and Sparta - two key city states only 100 miles apart - one of which pioneered philosophy & democracy, and the other of which pioneered the exact opposite, is virtually ignored other than in terms of their regular military conflicts. Or, why Athens made the most incredible intellectual advances during a period in which it was under constant military threat and in which half of its citizens were killed in wars... were they related issues? Or, the whole subject of slavery, in particular how the ever-present threat that "free" citizens in one state could rapidly find themselves slaves in another affected people's thinking. Or, how Rome controlled and administered, so effectively, such a huge empire for such a huge period of time - a subject that is not only fascinating but extremely relevant to any understanding of both the Romans and, the development of political & military science. Interesting, but largely ignored, as is the whole issue of blood sports in the Roman Empire, other than a short section summarising some of what happened without any real insights into the reasons why it was endorsed & accepted and how it was used to maintain power.
And so it goes, for as you pass through chapters filled with highly articulate and entertaining explanations of the key political & military events that shaped the "map" of the period you're left with nagging questions about what life for people outside of the often transiently dominant elite ruling class was really like: why their underlying societies developed in the way they did, what their social structures & needs were, and how these factors impacted on the seismic changes in politics, culture, the arts & science that make the period so interesting and important.
To be fair, Lane Fox has limited source material concerning the social history of the period to work off and, where this material is available (in particular in Cicero's & Pliny's letters), he does address some of these questions, but, given his exceptional knowledge of the subject and his willingness to provide his own interpretations of political & military events in other areas, he should also have allowed himself much more space to consider the wider, equally relevant issues at play here, bringing the book "alive" while adding to the reader's understanding of what was actually going on.
A tour de force in making traditional, academic level history available to the masses and a great "read" but, a lost opportunity in providing real insight into his subject matter.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 27, 2006 3:21:05 PM PST
Jay inSF says:
Your comments are interesting, but if the book has all these shortcomings, it would be nice to know what other book(s) are out there that better addresses the topic.
In reply to an earlier post on May 8, 2007 3:28:31 AM PDT
R. Vega says:
I agree with Jay. At the end of your review, I was expecting recommendations on books that provide such insight... plus, I'm not sure survey history books provide that kind of "theory" as that usually happens in the classroom or in academic essays.
In reply to an earlier post on Oct 18, 2007 4:16:19 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 24, 2008 11:55:19 AM PDT
Fair comment - truth is that I haven't come across any. I studied this period at some length at university in London and found all the books I was referred to at the time had similar problems... i.e. too much emphasis on the sequencing and "facts" of events without reference to the critically important and relevant social history points that I refer to in my review. The review is, quite deliberately, a criticism of formal academic history rather than a criticism of Robin Lane-Fox's book in particular. Younger historians, such as Dominic Sandbrook in his excellent history of Britain in the 1950's, "Never Had it so Good", explore exactly the sort of issues that make history come alive. While Lane-Fox has a very serious paucity of source material compared to Sandbrook, the history of the Greeks & Romans is fertile ground for someone to apply the same sort of broader brush approach to interpreting what was happening. Interestingly, the BBC's recent TV series "Rome", while essentially a "soap opera", included superbly researched recreations of what life was actually like in Roman society which, for someone who has studied the period, provided fascinating and relevant insights into why things happened the way they did. The whole classic period is crying out for a "quality" work that places the facts within a much broader and, as a result, more insightful context.
In reply to an earlier post on Jul 25, 2009 7:17:39 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2009 10:33:24 AM PDT
Lost in Siberia says:
A problem about reading history is that you can never read enough. And to get to the best stuff, to get out to the depths, you usually need to wade through a vast expanse of introductory material first, mostly to just accumulate facts, or what seem to be such, and become familiar with the place, time, situation, spirit, etc. ... For example, Burckhardt's "Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" is still a terrific essay on that subject but he assumes acute familiarity with it from the start. On the Greeks, Nietzsche's "Birth of Tragedy" is philosophical historical interpretation at its best and boldest, and therefore transcends the period (it's also a great book on rock n' roll and rap). But read other books on Greek history and culture first. One good place to begin is texts, translations from the period, place, people: for the Greeks, simply turn to Homer, Hesiod, Herakleitos, Pindar, Sophocles, Herodotus, et al ... and stare at some art works or photos thereof, and, obviously, travel there ... And to make better sense of all these, standard introductory history books, surveys, are necessary, but not sufficient ...
Past the basic texts, take a look at "Art and Experience in Classical Greece" by J. J. Pollitt, at Pasolini's film "Medea," at "Fellini's Satyricon," films by Michael Cacoyannis, "The Assassination of Julius Caesar" by M. Parenti, "The Wooden Horse" by K. Zeruneith, "The Oracle" by W. Broad, "The Gods of the Greeks" and other works by C. Kerenyi, "Polis" by M.H. Hansen, "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" by R. Calasso, "The Song of Kings" by B. Unsworth, "The Honey and the Hemlock" by Eli Sagan, Burckhardt's "The Greeks and Greek Civilization," "Greek Religion" by Burkert, "Myth and Thought" by Vernant, "Zorba the Greek" is not to be dismissed as irrelevant, and try some plausible versions of ancient music such as the album "Ancient Greek Music" by Atrium Musicae de Madrid, and listening to the singing of Haris Alexiou and Divna and Marie Keyrouz can be beneficial ... sample plenty and often to find your groove, bliss ...
Consider also these words from, in translation, Federico Garcia Lorca: "This `mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth, the same duende that scorched Nietzche's heart as he searched for its outer form on the Rialto Bridge and in Bizet's music, without finding it, and without seeing that the duende he pursued had leapt from the Greek mysteries to the dancers of Cadiz and the headless Dionysiac scream of Silverio's siguiriya."
Posted on Dec 10, 2009 7:43:05 PM PST
Jerry Watkins says:
"...you're left with nagging questions about what life for people outside of the often transiently dominant elite ruling class was really like"
From everything I've read and the countless documentaries I've seen, there isn't a lot of information that exists that tell of the accounts of the lower classes, or "normal" people, so maybe no one can answer these questions with accuracy.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 21, 2010 3:31:41 PM PDT
Northwest Reader says:
This sounds more like the never-ending debate between the "old-school" historians who are loathe to impose modern (or more accurately, post-modern) categories of interpretation onto the past (e.g., feminist theory, etc., etc.) and the younger historians who use history as the roads for their own hobby horses....
Posted on Sep 17, 2010 8:32:21 AM PDT
Stephen Legg says:
Thanks so much for the review, and for reminding us to demand "good" history. In general, I agree with your comments. Though, in this case, I wonder if we might not be demanding too much from RLF. He has done the kind of thorough work that you are suggesting in other formats outside this book. This book is essentially a survey of a period lasting more than a thousand years, far too great a period of time to explore any specialized histories and social theory. A survey, though, is intended to do just what this book has done: introduce the novice to the main players and events of a vast territory and time; a framework on which to build in the "good" history that you mentioned. I think, if you regard the point of RLF's work with that in mind, we may all more greatly appreciate his efforts.
Posted on Mar 12, 2014 7:25:40 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 12, 2014 7:35:56 AM PDT
Eros' Lover says:
Seeing all these posts leads me to add: since the Robin Lane Fox wrote the above work, there has been a marvelous work from the Cambridge series on economic history, Scheidel, Walter, Morris, Ian, and Saller, Richard eds., "The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World", 2007. Then there is the classic work by A.H.M. Jones, "The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 AD: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey", 2 vols. 1964. The Jones work is not for the faint of heart as it extends for 1500 pages. However, it fostered numerous additional studies by other historians.
In reply to an earlier post on May 19, 2015 3:53:23 PM PDT
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