The Stone Age inhabitants of the Franchthi Cave in the southern Argolid in Greece were not primitive. They hunted deer and grazed on pistachios, almonds, oats and lentils. From as early as 8500 BC, if not before, they possessed tools made from obsidian. The fact that the best of this volcanic glass came from Melos, in the Cyclades, suggests that the cavemen were also mariners, or at least in touch with mariners, who carried their wares across the Aegean in little paddle boats.
The tight clustering of the Aegean islands, observes Tony Spawforth in his new history of classical civilisation, served as an incentive for ‘the adventurous to risk taking to the water’. The Greeks would have thought of their developed civilisation as hemeros, which means something like ‘domesticated’ or ‘tame’, but even in the wilder Palaeolithic period there were clear signs of the ingenuity and inquisitiveness that would later characterise them as a people. One of the principal ideas to emerge from Spawforth’s thoughtful book is that there is seldom a clear line between primitivism and civilisation.
This was not how the Greeks saw it. They composed many a compelling tale to account for their development from a simple people to a triumphant one. Demeter, the goddess of grain and the harvest, was often said to have set the process in motion. She oversaw the transformation of weakling mortals into skilled farmhands and labourers. The birth of agriculture liberated them from what one ancient orator likened to a hard and pitiful existence ‘on a mountain’. As a counterpoint to these views, Spawforth could perhaps have made more of the countless authors of Greece and Rome who expressed wistfulness for the pre-agricultural ‘golden age’.
The development of civilisation was not, in fact, a story of steady progress. The magnificent palace culture of the Mycenaeans collapsed in the 12th century BC and was followed by what is traditionally called a Greek dark age. The population began to shrink and skills such as writing, which the Mycenaeans had cultivated, were abandoned. The new primitivism of this period reminds Spawforth of Thomas Hobbes’s devastating description of the state of nature in Leviathan: ‘No arts, no letters, no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and the danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.
Such unlikely comparisons lend a distinct character to Spawforth’s book. Elsewhere, ownership of a horse in ancient Greece is likened to ownership of a Rolls-Royce nowadays. The Roman emperor Nero, meanwhile, is a forerunner of the 19th-century Bavarian king Ludwig II: ‘Both were young eccentrics who pursued artistic obsessions in ways that put them on a collision course with the establishment.’
It would be unwise to cover all the Roman emperors in a book of this length, so Spawforth focuses on Nero and two other philhellenes, Domitian and Hadrian, who provide a bridge between the Greek and Roman sections. Hadrian’s plans for road-building and land reclamation in provincial Greece, he says, were ‘the ancient equivalent of the USA’s Marshall Plan for post-Second World War Europe’. These three emperors certainly did much to support and perpetuate Greek civilisation (interestingly, there is no true equivalent word in Latin), which the Romans had absorbed and refined to form a ‘super-culture’.
Many Romans, nonetheless, remained sceptical of overt Greekness. Spawforth captures particularly well in his narrative the push and pull that characterised the Romans’ engagement with Hellenic culture. Just as the Greeks before them had blamed the Lydians (of what is now western Turkey) for the growth of prostitution and luxurious living, so the Romans took great pleasure in stereotyping the Greeks as needlessly loquacious fops.
The Spartans were particularly bewildering, not least to Cicero, who recorded in his De re publica their alleged penchant for frottage, their bodies separated by cloaks, a detail Spawforth suggests ‘is odd enough perhaps to be true’. The Romans might not have adopted this practice but they did take broader lessons from the Hellenes, including a ‘them-and-us division of the world’. For the Greeks of the fifth century BC, the barbarians resided in the Persian Empire. For Romans in the first century AD, they were to be found principally on the distant isles of Britain, and especially in Wales.
Spawforth describes his book as a ‘personal story’ of classical civilisation. As such, it is rich in references to contemporary culture, including Harry Potter and the films 300 and Troy, as well as anecdotes drawn from his experiences as assistant director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens and professor at Newcastle University, and from the time he has spent lecturing on cruise ships. These anecdotes work best where they illuminate his scholarship. When he sees a broken skull at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, for example, he is able to hypothesise that the trauma was caused by a spike-tipped bronze butt of a Macedonian spear because he has seen such a spear in Newcastle’s Great North Museum. The diameter of the hole in the skull, he found, was within a millimetre of that of the spear butt. The skull was found at Chaeronea, where the Macedonians defeated the Greeks in 338 BC.
Spawforth’s book stands out in a crowded field of histories of Greece and Rome for its liveliness and wit. Although aimed at readers ‘who have little or no background’ in the subject, there is much to stimulate the experienced classicist as well. In the earlier chapters there are some jerks in the narrative as Spawforth moves between describing historical events and museum pieces. The focus on material evidence and archaeological discoveries is nonetheless a strength of the book. The sense of wonder Spawforth still feels at the civilisations of Greece and Rome is thoroughly infectious.