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VINE VOICEon 15 February 2008
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.
0Comment28 of 29 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
This book is really well written, entertaining and extremely thought provoking. It provides a whistlestop tour through the classical world in terms of how we study it, not the classical world itself. If you want lists and dates and what is taught at school as 'history', this is not the book for you.

The premise of the OUP Very Short Introduction To books is to take an expert who has something really interesting to say on a particular subject, whether it be bananas or the classical world and then get them to talk about their interest in the subject in an easy to digest 150 short pages. This is not clearly explained, and these books are often picked up by total novices expecting something like 'a dummies guide to'. Well, there are already 'dummies guides to' which do their job very well. These, in my opinion can be much more rewarding and thought provoking.

In this book, Beard and Henderson use the example of a classical temple site in Greek Arcadia and what we know about it to explore how we approach the study of classics. It roams through archaeology, sociology, religion, politics, study of language, poetry and literature and makes a compelling case for why classics are still relevant today and what they mean to us in modern times.
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on 18 May 2002
This is no quick synopsis for last minute swotting for exams. This small book gives a sense of how classics works-how people think about the ancient past, more than how ancient communities thought about themselves.
Relax, go with it and it is a wondrfully thought-provoking journey-assembling fragments and impressions to re-create the magic of antiquity.
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on 26 June 2013
This is the first in the "Very Short Introduction" series and perhaps a very good place to start. Is the book very short? Yes, it is something you can accomplish in a few hours of uninterrupted reading (or two days of mildly interrupted reading in my case). And does it introduce the subject matter? Yes, through one useful example.

The book lost its way to detail around the 61% mark (accuracy attributed to my kindle) and I felt I would need to start taking notes but eventually the book regained its macro approach in a way that is appropriate for an introductory text.

I'm always explaining to people that economics (my degree at university) is the study of choice and not just about money and markets. In the same way, Classics has been explained to me to be not just about temples and friezes. If you scratch the surface of the scientific method both disciplines are sociological and anthropological.

Whilst classics incorporates Greek and Roman products (art, language, philosophy, archaeology, etc.) it is explained that Greece is to be seen through Roman eyes; and so begins the transition of culture down the ages. This is a study just not of the static state of such products just mentioned but of their constant state of flux. The subjectivity of the interpretation develops our understanding of the past whilst also revealing nuances about the present context from which our opinions have come from.

Historical inquiry is in a jostle between technological advancement that may reveal and 'Chinese Whispers' that may reconstruct. Eventually the subject boils down to philosophy, that, without providing an answer that is concrete (or maybe I should say marble), provides a journey that is informative and enjoyable in itself. To know where you are going, it helps to know where you are coming from.
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on 29 December 2012
I loved Mary Beard's work after seeing her on TV. Got this out of curiosity and thoroughly enjoyed reading it...and, will enjoy revisiting it as well. She takes a simple idea...going to a museum....and within a couple of paragraphs has enmeshed you in an exciting mix of current, past and ancient views. Soon you're in ancient Greece, London, past and present.

Although a short book, it is a rich read.
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on 5 March 2005
This book is a nice, easy read, suitable for introducing classics as a subject. It is not, however, and academic introduction to classics or an introduction to classical literature. It covers the main fundementals (mythology, theatre, architecture etc.) briefly, so if its a detailed introduction to classics you are looking for, buy seperate specific books on each subject.
If you have a general interest in classics and want brief but broad knowledge, this book is a good starting point.
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on 17 March 2013
"BM Bassae frieze in context" - a very short review.

In fact, this is a Very Short Introduction to Classics mediated by discussion of the Bassae frieze (A temple frieze apparently showing battles with centaurs and Amazons, taken from the temple at Bassae in the early 19th century and now in the British Museum). Lots of context, discussion and different perspectives. Well written and a good explanation of the scope of classics and what makes it worthwhile as a field of studies.

This is well written by Mary Beard - professor of Classics at Cambridge and well known columnist in the TLS, various literary magazines and blogger extraordinaire - and John Henderson, also a Cambridge professor
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on 4 July 2004
A book that manages to be a fascinating thought-provoking read and yet fail in its basic aim.
The book discusses our views of the classical world largely through the example of a temple at Bassae in Arcadia, a remote corner of south-western Greece. The emphasis of the book is on encouraging us to think about the gaps in knowledge and perception between our world and theirs and between expectation, imagination and reality. What were the slaves who built the temple like? Greek literature tells us nothing about them. What is the correct order of the stones slabs that make up a large frieze from the temple on display in the British Museum in London? How would the Greeks have seen this frieze? In the museum it's clean, brightly lit, at eye level and made of the smooth white marble many associate with the classical world. In situ it would have been high above the Greeks' heads, cobwebbed, dimly lit and painted, possibly quite gaudily.
This approach is interesting, engages the reader and provides food for thought. It makes the book a worthwhile and challenging read.
The book talks about the gap between reality and expectation but is also an example of it. I was expecting the book to tell me a little about classical Greek and Roman history, and provide information on Greek and Roman authors and their literature. I came out little wiser than I started however.
An interesting read but if you want a brief introduction to Classical literature and its 'main players' look elsewhere.
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on 1 October 2015
Excellent book about thinking about classics rather than being told what to think: 'classic' Mary Beard
The audio version is appalling though - whose idea was it to choose an American actor andalow her to interpret the texT with a distracting transatlantic sneer?
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on 12 June 2001
This book wasn't really what I was expecting - or what I was after, which was an introduction to the writers of The Classics, their lives, and their works. It is however a readable - if sometimes floridly written - setting of the scene of the classics, their discovery, and their influence on history and recent culture.
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