A novel take on 'the Classics' in a volume that avoids the usual emphasis on history and the arts. Instead, it focuses on such intangibles as identity in the ancient world. The authors take the Greek writer Pausanias as a starting point. Although he was was writing his 'Guidebook to Greece' more than two centuries after Greece had become a Roman colony, he chooses to write about Greek civilisation, architecture and history as though it were still independent of Roman influence. His silence on matters Roman speaks volumes and reminds us that reading between the lines is sometimes more revealing than reading the lines themselves.
Beard and Henderson suggest that Classics is not the study of a dead culture but a live, interactive process informed by the 'vast community of readers across the millennia'. Their book dwells on the friezes from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae - initially, at what seems too great a length, but actually for very good reason. The temple friezes, now on exhibit at the British Museum, are independent blocks of marble that can be reassembled in many different ways. Bassae is therefore a metaphor for discovery and re-evaluation. Furthermore, the temple is set in Arcadia - a region of huge importance for literature, religion and philosophy, giving it yet more symbolic significance. As the authors suggest, the notion of Arcadia - sometimes paradise, sometimes brutish wilderness - is itself capable of multiple interpretation, like so many aspects of the ancient world. Each new generation's interpretations and insights shed extra light on, and themselves become part of, the classical heritage.
The book's unexpected emphasis on the historic reception of classics constitutes, perhaps, its major strength. It is an emphasis reflected in the concluding Timeline, two pages of which record events from 800 BCE to the Renaissance and the other two and a half pages to events such as the election of Dr Johnson to a Professorship at the RA (1770) and the publication of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980).
Probably not everyone's idea of a classical initiation, but this is a fresh and stimulating introduction to what can still seem a dauntingly élitist and exclusive area of study.