on 13 January 2006
Robin Lane Fox, well known for his books on Alexander, has here produced one of the best overviews of classical Greek and Roman history, from the emergence of preclassical Greece to its second coming, so to speak, under Hadrian, that most philhellenic of Romans. Urbane but enthusiastic, revealing an immense learning very lightly, Lane Fox is unashamedly narrative in his approach. Essentially a Hellenist, he is perhaps unfair to some of the Romans - especially to the emperor Augustus whose achievements as a ruler surely atone for his lack of appeal as a man. Both Homer's world at the book's start, and that of the emperor Hadrian at the book's end, were aristocratic. Although Lane Fox treats the rise and fall of Athenian democracy very favourably, his general viewpoint is also elevated, unfashionably so. He concentrates on political and military events, rather ignoring cultural factors. For Greece especially, this is an omission. But overall, while his Olympian narrative may not impress some specialists, it will probably still be read with fascination and appreciation long after more specialist works have been forgotten. Lane Fox can stand deservedly in the grand narrative tradition of Gibbon.
on 3 August 2008
I first came across Robin Lane Fox's work when I read his brilliant biography of Alexander the Great. In this book, Lane Fox takes a broader brush to paint a picture of the Classical worlds of Greece and Rome, from the age of Homer to the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.
The early sections on the Archaic Greek World are a bit of struggle. Most of our evidence for this period comes from the archaeological record, leaving a lot of speculation about the events of the age, which only comes down to us in fragments from later Greek writers. These chapters help set the scene, but they are not as exciting as the later sections simply because they lack the human dimension. Lane Fox is at his finest when he describes the struggles and achievements of the individual, and not the physical remains of the Classical World.
It is in when the book reaches the period of the 5th century BC that the book really starts to shine. Lane Fox gives us a vivid view of men like Socrates and Pericles, and also the everyday lives of the classical Athenians, including a look at the lives of the Greek women and children.
He also provides brilliant chapters on the Julio-Claudians, the Punic Wars, and the Hellenistic World. Yet he also covers subjects as diverse as the Roman Army, diplomacy, Greek philosophy, technology, sports and a dozen other subjects.
One of the strengths of this book is Robin Lane Fox's text, which is lucid and very readable. He is a great writer who is able to impart a lot of information in short chunks. Most chapters only run for a few pages ( on average 13 pages) which makes them readable and accessible, and especially good if you want to read a few chapters at a time. I found this book both good to read from cover to cover, and also good to just pick up and select a random chapter.
Some have argued that Lane Fox's book is rather old fashioned in that it does not cover the Persians, Celts, or other classical peoples. I personally don't find this much of a problem, as I only expected to read about the Greeks and Romans when I picked this book up, but others might be disappointed by these omissions. What I did find odd was Lane Fox's rather politically incorrect asides, for instance he mentions that the Emperor Claudius was a 'susceptible spastic'.
With a number of excellent and well selected photographs of busts, coins and paintings, as well as a few good maps, this book is definately worth getting. This book should give you a broad, although not detailed overview of the greatest achievements and failures of the Classical World. It might be heavy going at first, but the deeper you get into it the more readable and rewarding it gets. One of the finest books on the Classical World that I have ever read. Highly Recommended!
on 21 August 2006
This is an outstanding sweep across hundreds of years of Classical Greek and Roman history by a very fine scholar with a well-tuned popular touch.
Ranging from the poet Homer in the 7th century BCE, to the Roman 'First Citizen' Hadrian surveying his empire from the Tyne to the Euphrates, Lane Fox communicates a lifetime experience of teaching the Classics in one compact volume, deliciously divided into chapters which can capture an era or event in one pre-sleep bite! His view is even handed, but his enthusiasm for figures such as Pliny and Cicero shine out. He also has a soft spot for gardeners...
This is an excellent starting point for further reading, with excellent and easily usable notes and bibliographies. The illustrations are fascinatingly discussed in an appendix. I especially enjoyed the careful modern nuances that alluded to 'spin' and 'regime change' - these can be clumsy in lesser writers, but they were revealing and apposite here.
A very very fine book covering a vital aspect of human history, and essential to fully understand the Western World with all its achievements, weaknesses and cruelties.
If you've ever wanted to delve into Classical history but have always felt put off by the kind of high-brow, donnish aura that surrounds the subject, then this is the book for you.
I don't mean by this that the book is "dumbed-down", far from it; Lane Fox has written a gripping, accessible account of the great Greek and Roman civilisations upon which Western society still stands. He is an absolute master of sources and stories, and weaves them together into a cogent whole. This is a book not just about the princes, philosophers and Emperors but about the entire classical societies of Greece and Rome. It feels like you're there yourself.
For anyone whose knowledge of the classical world is largely drawn from Hollywood epics, the odd documentary or TV biopic and hazy memories of class projects, this book is an essential purchase. Lane Fox puts all those names and dates in context - and makes it a compulsive read. So if you've seen Spartacus, know a bit about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and that Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle, have seen Hadrian's Wall and heard of Cicero and Tacitus, but aren't too sure what and who came when, and how, all will become clear!
Can't think of another book which covers such a span of material without making it heavy going. Lane Fox obviously has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the period and an impressive grasp of detail, but steers clear of overloading the lay reader at the expense of readability and pacing. As a result it is, to use that old cliche, pretty hard to put down - you really do want to just go on and read that next chapter.
I would love to see the author continue the story through the Decline and Fall.
Definitely one of my books of the year.
on 1 July 2009
Engagingly written, this book sweeps through classical history, driven by a circular structure that begins and ends with Hadrian, the hellenophile Roman emperor. As an introduction to the topic, its focus is on personalities that the average reader will have heard of, such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. With admirable brevity, the narrative fleshes out these individuals (and many more besides) and offers a succinct appraisal of their lives, times, feats and flaws. But they are carefully placed in context, and the chronology is rarely disturbed; and after a chapter or two, the reader is swept along into the story of the succession or the legacy, and before we know it we have been blown 50 years into the future.
So much for the facts and the politics. To give a taste of the social life and mores of these times, Robin Lane Fox chooses three themes and threads them through his narrative: freedom, justice and luxury. Although this lends shape to his story, the regular recourse to these themes occasionally feels repetitive and sometimes the analysis seems hurried and strays off-topic. If you've read any Erich Fromm, then Lane Fox's comparison of 'freedom to' versus 'freedom from', for example, will feel overlong and uninspired.
Nonetheless the strength of the book is in the little details with which he chooses to illustrate the era. Possessing an eye for populism, the author concentrates more on sexual mores than on the other staples of life (birth, tax, death). I was particularly impressed with his writing about urbanism: neither too technical nor too frivolous, I got a real sense of the eternal construction and reconstruction of the principal cities; of the fact that, over eight centuries, the physical world kept growing and fading away, while what we know as civilisation -- or history -- ploughed forward with a rapidity that feels terrifyingly modern.
on 31 January 2011
I am impressed at how Robin Lane Fox has managed to take a near incomprehensible field such as the classical world and distilled it down to the near essentials. For example, he essentially spells out the reason for Punic Wars (Rome moving into Sicily) and points out how Romans were hypocritical in claiming to have morals, when in fact they were helping barbarians. Likewise, you get a far better understanding of where democracy and the republic come from, and what they really represent.
I think all high school students should read this book so they can understand the world around them.
The only complaint I have is his failed attempt at constantly referring back at Emperor Hadrian: we really can't sympathize with him, so it just comes across as last minute.
This is undeniably a good, light read, but in some ways it is almost out of touch with the actual research occupying classicists working academically in the field. Yes, I do know that Lane Fox is a hugely respected Oxford academic, but all the same there is something very traditional and almost wistful about this simple reading of the history of Greece and Rome. As a previous reviwer has mentioned (accurately) this concentrates on 'events' rather than analysis, and given the huge scope of the book, treats them fairly simply and reductively (the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty, for example, is covered in one short chapter).
I suppose the major problem for me is the dismissal of classical literary culture to the margins: Athenian tragedy for example has a paragraph, and even there Lane Fox regards it as being 'timeless' and completely divorced from the institutions of democracy. Not just does this assume a huge coincidence that tragedy appears and disappears precisely in the years coinciding with 5th century democracy in Athens (and nowhere else), it also evades the political discussions and negotiations that take place in the plays about the very ideology of democracy which make the plays so important.
Similarly there is little discussion of Roman, especially Augustan literature, that engages so closely with the political transformation from Roman republic to principate.
That aside, the end point was slightly odd, in that Lane Fox chooses to end with Hadrian, rather than continuing to the collapse of Rome, thus ending on a high note rather than following through to the , perhaps, more appropriate conclusion.
If you know nothing about the classical world, then this is an excellent starting point but it's just the beginning...
on 23 November 2010
This is a perfect example of British academia at its absolute best. In a market full of narratives regarding the history of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, this book, and its author, standout. It is the kind of work that one world expect from the hallowed halls of Oxford, delivered by an expert in ancient history. If one happens to frequent the bookshop at the Natural History museum, the sheer scope of the work of Fox will become apparent. He is a fine author as well as a precise historian. More than this however, but Fox has managed tp produce a book that contains the story of distinct states that came to define and ultimately dominate the ancient world, as well as lay the foundations of European culture. This single book gives the respective histories of both Greece and Rome, and serves to demonstrate how both influenced one another over hundreds of years of history. As Fox transitions from the Greek to the Roman world, his narrative is flawless and breathtaking in its sophistication and subtlety.
Fox provides a tantalising glimpse of a living history through the use of words - what has long gone, but lives again in the pages of this most fulfilling book. The discerning reader may decide for themselves which institutions may, may not have survived into the modern world, as Fox describes every single aspect of his narrative with a graceful ease. The paperback edition (2006) contains 703 numbered pages and is separated into six sections:
Part I. The Archaic Greek World.
Part II. The Classical Greek World.
Part III. Hellenistc Worlds.
Part IV. The Roman Republic.
Part V. From Republic to Empire.
Part VI. An Imperial World.
This is as well as a 'Preface', and an introductory chapter entitled 'Hadrian And The Classical World'. The book has a number of coloured photographs 11 maps, etc. It is no accident that Fox begins with a chapter about the Roman emperor Hadrian (76-136). He does this to explain why his narrative ends with this man. Fox explains that as 'Classical' literature begins with the Greek Homer, it ends in the reign of the Roman, Hadrian. As his book covers the 'Classical' period, Fox makes a study ranging from Homer (850BC?) to Hadrian. Right at the beginning of his book he makes it clear the both Greece and Rome were not insular and separate cultures. Indeed, Fox states that both Greek and Roman culture borrowed from as far afield as Iran, Levantine, Egypt and the Jews, amongst others. Fox also defines the word 'Classic' as evolving from the Latin 'Classicus', referring to 'first-class' heavy-infantry. Fox explains that today, history can be 'first-class', but it is nolonger hevaily armoured. This a magnificent book that is easily accessible to the general reader, such is the mastery of the subject, displayed by its author. A classic and defining narrative.
on 7 March 2011
As other reviewers have remarked, this is definitely a good read and the narrative simply draws you in. However, the author has a definite bias towards Greece and gives very little space to interesting periods of Roman history. He also clearly prefers the Greek and Roman republics to the later empire, although it is evident that those republics had their downsides and were not democracies in any modern sense of the term. I am not a classicist, so must concede that he may well be "right". Nevertheless, there is at least one case where he seems to accept a legend as historical truth, namely that Nero was born by Caesarian section, which is extremely implausible. The first "successful" Caesarian section, i.e. in which both the child and the mother survived, is often said to have taken place in the 16th century, but hard evidence is thin on the ground. Even with anaesthetics, higher hygiene standards and internal sutures, survival rates in the late 19th century were only around 25%. For Agrippina to have survived eighteen hundred years earlier would have been nothing short of a miracle. This is perhaps only a minor quibble, compared with the achievement of the work as a whole, but it draws attention to the problem of any such work. Any writer on ancient history has to deal with ancient sources, which are in many cases, incomplete and biased and tend to mingle legend and fact.