on 29 August 2011
Natalie Haynes' entertaining foray through Ancient Cultures is diverting enough. Her objective - to draw wisdom and wit from the comparisons between their lives and ours - is a laudable one.
The main message is that life wasn't that different. Ancient life was in some ways surprisingly good (Athenian democracy, Rome's meticulous laws), in other ways appallingly bad (Spartan infanticide; Hebrews' genocide), but generally predictably ugly (hooliganism, corruption,status obsession, profound racism and sexism; politics and intrigue; futile wars. The relentless tragedies of Greek Culture; the egotistical tempestuousness of the mythical Roman Gods. Socrates' execution for agnosticism).
Overall, it felt like a survey of arbritary similarities and differences, conveyed in a rather airy style - sometimes humorous, sometimes glib - with a few random witticisms. Surprisingly, for a comedian, what it really lacked was a good punchline.
The premise of this book is that our lives will be enriched if we look at what has been passed down to us from the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. She looks at politics, warfare, women, religion, philosophy, art and culture. But instead of producing a terribly worthy (and, perhaps, dull) piece of work she offers us instead a witty and erudite work comparing our present to the past.
As well as being informative it is all good fun - you can hear her voice in every sentence. The best chapters (in which her writing really comes alive) were the ones on women and on "show business". Most of the Greek women are fictional as the Greeks preferred to keep their wives and daughters well away from public life. These come over as a terrifying bunch - wily seductresses and vengeful murderesses. But Medea and Dido had a pretty bad time of it so no wonder they didn't behave well. Other wives are shown to have been patient and faithful (such as Penelope and Andromache) though in the end it doesn't do them much good.....
The flawed hero is still a staple of literature today. Instead of Odysseus, Jason and Oedipus we now have Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Rebus and Wallander - all troubled in their own ways. She says: "It is, perhaps, a sign of our times that self-destruction should have become rather more internalised and rather less about poking out eyes with pins." Until reading this book I hadn't made a connection between Stringer Bell (of The Wire) and Oedipus but, yes, I can see that now....
I have been a fan of Natalie Haynes ever since she recommended (and got me hooked on) Battlestar Galactica. She writes with style and wit.
Very informative - and great fun along the way.
on 14 May 2013
I wasn't sure about this book before I started it; was it going to be a dreary exercise in trying to make the ancient world relevant to today? I needn't have worried, although I can't easily describe the focus of the book, it works really well.
The author knows her stuff. In themed chapters she outlines various elements of ancient life, and links them to the world today. Sometimes, this means that we see that nothing in life is new, sometimes, the link will be less concrete, but there nonetheless. Some links are stronger than others, but there were few that I could take exception to!
The epilogue is a glorious 'call to arms' for learning for it's own sake. I had to agree with every word. For anyone who thinks that ancient history and the classics are meaningless, I would ask you to read this book, and think again.
I have enjoyed reading Nathalie Haynes' articles in newspapers whenever they are left on the train but had no idea of her classical background. My own love affair with Latin fizzled out after my first recitation of "amo, amas, amat".
So this book was not, perhaps, one that i would have sought out had it not been recommended by a fellow scientist. What strikes me about this book is the author's combination of knowledge and communications skills, the latter benefitting from her earlier career as a stand-up comedienne.
Haynes' genius is to blend comedy, up-to-date examples and very precise language, and to add very pithy definitions of the terminology and issues that she is discussing. As a result, this book is a pleasure to read and, what is more important at my advanced age, REMEMBER. Her aim, which she achieves completely, is to contrast the obvious differences between antiquity and our world today, and to point out the many similarities.
Very sensibly, Haynes begins with an Introduction which calms the nervous reader. In successive chapters, she deals with:
Politics (entitled Old World Order): The word "barbarian" originated from the strange sounding language of foreigners - "bar-bar-bar", Julius Caesar's final words were really "kai su teknon?", "Even you, my son?", Votes for women.
Laws (How Many Angry Men?): Apophasis, tricolon, asyndeton and litotes - all employed by great orators of the past, Cicero and Perry Mason, the crime for parricide being to be scourged then thrown into the Tiber in a sack with a dog, rooster, snake and a monkey.
Philosophy (Thinking Allowed): Socrates morphing into Plato, Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics and "eudaimonia", a word so untranslatable that undergraduates have written entire theses on what the word or phrase might be used in order to try to explain it.
Religion (In the Lap of the Dogs): The high point of the book for me. Haynes brings Marx's comment about "Religion bring the opium of the masses" up to date by calling it "the cocaine of the few". She also very clearly summarises the differences between monotheism and polytheism, and counters the common belief that the Romans were religiously intolerant, Anti-Semite and Anti-Christian.
Women (Frankly, Medea, I Don't Give a Damn - what a title!): In marked contrast to the names of Greek and Roman men that have come down to us, only a few of their spouses are named. Compared with male and female slaves, who were property, lower-class females were poorly treated. Girls from poor families might have been left outside to die or be killed since they brought no financial benefit to the family. Even if they survived they were more likely to die of illness caused by malnutrition. To provide balance, Haynes discusses real (Sappho, Livia, Agrippina, Faustina) and fictional (Circe, Medea, Antigone) women.
Homes, Neighbourhoods and Countryside (There's No Place Like Rome): The typical city state comprises both the city and its environment.Horace recommended simple food, beans and bacon. Juvenal, wonderfully splenetic, dyspeptic and bigoted, railed against the horror of Rome in terms that modern Londoners or Parisians might echo. Even if areas of a city are attractive by day, by night they are frightening places for the innocent person to wander.
Culture (No Business Like Show-business): Grumps like me who have never seen a reality show and complain about the cult of celebrity have a spokesman in Tertulluian, Buffie the Vampire Slayer is a direct successor of epics such as The Iliad and the Odessey and watchers of The Wire are being influenced by Greek tragedy.
Money (The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing): In 5th century Athens, it was Nicias who prefigured Fred the Shed, the money with he and others like him gathered in was spent on propaganda, patronage and good living. Money could also buy an education and health. However, compared to Trimalchio (worth ca. £45 million today) and Narcissus (ca. £600 million), Nicias was a pauper. Such individual wealth certainly bought hate and jealousy, just as now.
In an Epilogue the author emphasises that "learning something for its own sake because it is worthwhile to learn it and to know it, rather than because it is useful for another purpose, is a wonderful thing to do", especially if the teacher is as gifted as Haynes. Finally, there is a brief list of suggested further reading and an excellent Index.
Whether you are already interested in the classical era, have never thought about it or are just looking for possible names for the children, I recommend this book unreservedly. It can be read at a go, in chapters or just dipped into whenever the mood is right. I look forward to reading the author's next book.