Lists about ancient history – ‘Twelve Habits of Effective Emperors’, ‘Attila’s Eight Steps to Success’ – abound in popular culture. Historical biographies seek to psychoanalyse their long-dead subjects. Meanwhile social scientists devise questionnaires to check the validity of regional personality stereotypes, finding, for example, Londoners ‘less agreeable’ than Scots and ‘neurotic tendencies’ in Wales. There are enumerations of the strategies of great commanders of antiquity and ‘biographies’ of cities such as Munich and Paris.
But can one write a collective biography of an ancient civilisation? ‘Ten Traits of Classical Greeks’ – is it possible to assess the personality of an entire historical culture of geographic diversity and long duration? This is Edith Hall’s bold ambition in Introducing the Ancient Greeks. Such a task would be unthinkable for, say, the nomadic Scythians or the Carthaginians, whose traces survive only in what others reported in antiquity and in what modern archaeologists can excavate. As Hall proves, however, in the right hands and for a deeply reflective culture with a robust self-identity, a heavy epigraphic habit and a massive repository of literature and art, such a project is worth pursuing. There are, of course, daunting challenges. Greek society was extremely complex and continually developing. Greeks scattered themselves across the Mediterranean and Eurasia, from Spain and North Africa to India. Hellenic civilisation stretched over two millennia.
Hall sets out to discover the distinctive ingredients of the efflorescence of classical art, literature, poetry, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, democracy and science that remains so luminous and awe-inspiring today. Rejecting old claims of Greek ethnic superiority, special genius or miraculous exceptionalism, Hall thoughtfully explains her conviction that a ‘cluster of