Sparta Revisited

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

Edward Casaubon is one of the less appealing characters in Middlemarch. A selfish and ageing clergyman, whom Dorothea Brooke unwisely marries, he devotes his time and attention to an encyclopedic enterprise called ‘The Key to All Mythologies’. The fictional union was partly inspired by real-life events. In 1861, Mark Pattison, a prominent scholar working on […]

The Face That Felled a Tyrant King

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

From Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot, women have known that men tell their own stories. As Anne (or Austen) puts it, ‘the pen has been in their hands’. But very often, men are also the ones who come to tell the stories that, strictly, belong to women. 

In The Missing Thread, Daisy Dunn tries to address this problem with respect to the women of classical antiquity. To be sure, she knows that a modern-day historian is still forced to rely on older, prejudicial narratives. Here is the Central Asian ruler Tomyris in around 530 BC speaking out against the advance on her kingdom by – and the marital advances of – Cyrus II of Persia: ‘King of the Medes, stop striving after what you’re striving after

Eternity Was in Their Lips

Posted on by Zoe Guttenplan

In 1983, the BBC broadcast an eight-part dramatisation called The Cleopatras. I dimly remember the actor Richard Griffiths commanding the small screen as a shaven-headed Ptolemy VIII (‘Potbelly’). The series posed as a palace drama akin to the BBC’s earlier I, Claudius. Despite focusing, like that series, on what has been labelled ‘a tribe of fairly repellent people’, it did not meet with the same critical acclaim and has not been reshown. If it were, muses the website televisionheaven.co.uk, would today’s

Where Now is That Great Nineveh?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 2015, Islamic State posted a video showing its militants taking an electric drill to Assyrian sculpture on the site of ancient Nineveh in northern Iraq. As well as prompting outrage in foreign media, this and other acts of cultural vandalism by Islamic State reminded the world of a Mesopotamian empire now largely forgotten but […]

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More Defamed Than Debauched

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I can well remember my first encounter with Empress Messalina as a schoolboy classicist. One moment we were innocently learning about the finer points of Latin grammar; the next we were reading goggle-eyed about the antics of Messalina, third wife of the hapless Emperor Claudius, disguising herself with a blonde wig to indulge in all-night […]

War Music

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Homer’s Iliad, a poem perched on the cusp of recorded history, is as enigmatic as it is magnificent. Like the earliest parts of the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, the Babylonian Enuma Elish and the Mahabharata, it exerts its prodigious grip on the collective imagination precisely because it is so mysterious. The Iliad was for the ancient Greeks the foundation stone of all civilisation, the classic of classics, but it was as much a mystery to them as it is to us. It was usually assumed in antiquity that

Leonidas’s Last Stand

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘To make a new Thermopylae!’ So desiderated Byron’s narrator in the famous ‘Isles of Greece’ portion of Canto III of Don Juan. Chris Carey’s excellent new book, the tenth in Oxford University Press’s Great Battles series, answers the call. Carey, who teaches at University College London, is, however, reflective enough to ask whether the battle […]

From Knossos to Cádiz

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Cities are an integral part of human experience but they emerged quite late in the history of Homo sapiens. It is therefore more extraordinary than we might care to admit that the great majority of humans are expected to be city dwellers by 2100. Greg Woolf is a lively and learned guide to ancient cities. […]

The Barbarian at the Gate

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century chronicler of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, memorably described the Gothic ruler Alaric as ‘a victorious leader, who united the daring spirit of a barbarian with the art and discipline of a Roman general’. The Roman poet Claudian, a

Fight Club

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

There is a problem with writing a history of a seminal moment in the ancient world when the major source for it, Thucydides, is (with his near contemporary Herodotus) credited with inventing the discipline of history as the West understands it. His extraordinarily penetrating and persuasive understanding of why humans speak and react as they […]

Bring in the Heavies

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In AD 42 the incumbent ruler of the Roman Empire, best known to posterity as Caligula, was assassinated in a conspiracy formed by senators and members of his nominal bodyguard, the Praetorian Guard. He was Rome’s third emperor and the first to be removed by the unit sworn to protect him. In the bloodletting that […]

Flower Gathering

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

At a time when fewer people than ever before are learning Latin and ancient Greek, stories first told in the ancient Mediterranean world are, paradoxically, enjoying a boom. It is not just that diverse children’s versions of The Odyssey and Aesop’s Fables remain some of the bestselling books of all time. Computer games such as […]

The First Efflorescence

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

This book tries to answer an admirably ambitious question: what caused the efflorescence of the ancient Greek city-states? By ‘efflorescence’ is meant a specific and comparatively rare phenomenon, characterised not only by ‘more people (demographic growth) living at higher levels of welfare (per capita growth)’ but also by cultural production at a higher level. One […]

Kiss Me, Clodia

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A biography of Catullus is a bold undertaking. As Gilbert Highet wrote sixty years ago in his delightful Poets in a Landscape, ‘Apart from his poignant and violent poems, we know very little about him.’ He was born in Verona in 82 BC and died at an uncertain date, possibly in 54 BC. Daisy Dunn confidently […]

After Democritus

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

By the fifth century AD, Christianity had emerged as the predominant force in the Roman Empire, forging for the first time in the Graeco-Roman world an alliance between supreme power and religious absolutism. Polytheistic religion, largely a matter of ritual, had embraced worshippers of gods of all shapes and sizes, but what counted now was correct belief in the one true God, measured against prevailing standards of orthodoxy

Elephant Man

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Carthaginian general Hannibal resides in that elite pantheon of outstanding generals that includes Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and very few others. As Eve MacDonald makes clear in her new book on Hannibal, it is a reputation richly deserved. Marching a large army up through Spain over the Pyrenees, across what is now […]

Prince of Persia

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

King Darius III, last of the Achaemenid kings of Persia, owes his three years of fame to his conqueror, Alexander the Great. He lost the great Battle of Issus in November 333 BC in a campaign that would have defeated any opponent who was less of a genius than Alexander. Alexander captured his pregnant wife […]

Nero to Zero

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘The well-born man must live well or die well,’ says Ajax in Sophocles’s play named after that character. Humiliated by his failed attack on his own leaders, the mythical Greek warrior and scourge of the Trojans decides to end his life at the point of his own sword. The tradition of heroically virtuous suicide spread […]

Polesis

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Talk about ‘the Greeks’ and it is almost certain that you mean ‘the Athenians’. Not that Homer, composer of the Western world’s first literature in around 700 BC, was Athenian (he came from Asia Minor); nor Aristotle (384–322 BC), inventor of the disciplines of logic and biology, and author of works covering in masterly detail […]

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