Greeks and Romans

Review by R.B. Bradshaw


The Greeks: An Introduction to their Culture by Robin Sowerby, Routledge, London, 1995, 216pp with 45 illustrations. Hb ISBN: 0 415 12041 1 [[sterling]]35, pb ISBN: 0 415 12042 X [[sterling]]9.99

The Romans: An Introduction by Anthony Kamm, Routledge, London, 1995, 224pp with 50 illustrations. Hb ISBN: 0 415 12039 X [[sterling]]35, pb ISBN: 0 415 12040 3 [[sterling]]9.99

An introduction to the civilization of the Greeks or to that of the Romans may be a useful means to capture the interest of strangers to the subject. For those with a slight familiarity or long acquaintance with it, on the other hand, it can provide good reading. There is no doubt that the books of Robin Sowerby (The Greeks: An Introduction to Their Culture) and Antony Kamm (The Romans: an Introduction) will perform a valuable service to both strangers and those already acquainted.

Not only are both books of reasonably short extent (two hundred pages) and divided into easily digestible sections with headings in strong-black type, making reference back easy, but they are also free of obscurities which might cause the reader too much to rack his or her brains, and, something which is particularly important for beginners, they are well-illustrated. These illustrations are not mere superfluous ornamentation but are aids to a relevant and sensible commentary.

Although The Greeks and The Romans are similar in length, style and even in having sculpted heads on the cover, their matter is, of course, rather different. We are still waiting for an historian to show that the Greeks were a people of a strong practical ability and the Romans had a leaning towards abstraction. Robin Sowerby's book presents us with the birth of tragedy and Plato's Theory of Ideas, while Antony Kamm's is more into wild-beast shows and the management of sewage. It is well worthwhile to consider what the differences are between the material of Greek culture and that of Roman culture.

The Greeks takes us broadly from the youth Achilles to the youth Alexander. It is wise to put Homer at the start, since by so doing the reader's attention is likely to be captured and further a smooth transition into literary developments after the epic and even into the origins of philosophy is possible. In dealing with the Iliad Robin Sowerby comes quickly to handle the advanced topic of the unity of its design. As a further enrichment excerpts from translations by Chapman, Dryden and Pope are included so that the legacy in English literature is indicated. Students of English courses in schools and universities may gain from this.

After beginning with Homer the author must then decide where to start the history proper. This is never going to be particularly easy for Greek history, whereas for Rome there is a convenient foundation myth. Robin Sowerby commits himself to the early history of Athens which fortunately will lead us on to the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars. It would be perverse to try to avoid Athenian history: to balance it with the history of other city-states is well-nigh impossible. However, for the present book one inevitable consequence of this Athenian bias is that colonization is hardly mentioned, if at all. Certainly there is no entry under 'colonization' in the index and no general account of the spread of Greek culture to the Black Sea, Italy or North Africa. Greeks without colonization is like Jews without the Diaspora.

For this omission Robin Sowerby compensates handsomely with his fine, sensitive treatment of literature, philosophy and art. In the last respect I should draw attention to the excellent illustrations accompanying his intelligent account of pottery and sculpture. In the section on philosophy, where the material is not the easiest to handle, there is great clarity and in the section on literature an impressive comparison of characterization in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

It must be the case that to cover Greek culture in two hundred pages requires drastic pruning. Robin Sowerby has done an excellent job, but I regret that he could not spare more space for mathematics which H.D.F. Kitto has called 'the most characteristic of all the Greek discoveries and the one that excited them most.' After all, Babylonians and Egyptians knew about the 3-4-5 triangle, but the Greeks were the first to prove the relationship of the sides of any right-angled triangle.

During the treatment of Greek oratory and prose the figure of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who is not particularly well-known, is introduced. It is interesting to encounter such a writer but it has to be admitted that in a book which does not have Greek language excerpts it is likely to be difficult to convey such notions as 'artificiality of vocabulary' and 'rapidity of signification.' Robin Sowerby is very audacious, but though he is to be congratulated for daring this unusual subject, he seems to be overreaching.

Antony Kamm in his Romans gives us a sandwich. He plunges straight into the foundation stories and carries us thence through an exhilarating sketch of the history to the murder of Domitian (96 A.D.). After supplying the meat in the form of chapters on the gods, daily life, literature and so on, he completes the history down to Rome's fall. The initial historical account is a tour de force, or rather a tour de violation. Can it be that the grandeur that was Rome springs from origins in rape (Rhea Silvia and the Sabine women)? How hard it is to ascribe the achievements in administration made in the time of the early Caesars to such men as the incestuous Caligula and the cuckolded Claudius!

How a people who settled on a cluster of hills a few miles from the mouth of the Tiber became masters of the world is a marvellous story and, if in reading an account of the first eight hundred years of their history we still cannot quite explain how their mastery came about, we can move on to look at gods, goddesses and mysteries. We can study prayer and sacrifice and omens. There must be a clue here. The life of the Romans is so bound up with the divine, so obsessed with augury that their meticulousness in this must have brought them to greatness. Without this respect for the gods they would have been nothing.

As in the case of The Greeks I am loth to quibble over omissions, but I feel more could be made of Cicero. He earns a mention concerning letter-writing and a few other references in the history of the late Republic, but his philosophic writings and the majestic power of his oratory should assure him one of the highest places of all among Romans and have, in fact, caused him to be especially revered throughout later Roman history and since the Renaissance. Here, indeed, Martial is more frequently mentioned.

These Introductions will engage the interest of beginners and may draw them on to further study, in which case the excellent bibliographies will be helpful. But even for those who have studied for years there is much here that is well worth considering. There is an awareness of the latest scholarship and a freshness of approach that make them valuable works of introduction and reference that anybody would be happy to possess.

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