Old-School History

Read Time:
3m 20sec

An Epic History From Homer to ­Hadrian.

By Robin Lane Fox. Basic Books. 656 pp. $­35

Freedom, justice, and luxury are the preoccupations that drive Robin Lane Fox’s ­one-­volume survey of classical Greece and Rome. Rather than organize his book around modern theories, Lane Fox instead follows these three explanatory threads, favored by ancient historians, through the turbulent centuries from about 800 bc through ad 138. His account begins with Homer’s archaic Greece and traces classical civilization through the death of Hadrian, the ­Spanish-­descended Roman emperor who embodied, through his “Greekling” tastes, the “common classicizing culture” that bound together the empire’s ­far-­flung ­elite.

An Oxford historian and the adviser to Oliver Stone on his 2004 film Alexander (though he might wish his name removed from the credits), Lane Fox has produced a work of exhaustive scholarship, but what proves more winning is his willingness to take sides. Freedom, he tells us, was a contested value always and everywhere in the classical world. That freedom reached its (relative) apogee in classical Athens, he is certain. “The nearest to an ideal state in the classical world was not the state of Plato or Aristotle: It was the Athenians’,” he flatly declares. His passionate admiration for Athenian democracy enlivens the chapter on the birth of that institution in 508 bc, and leaves no doubt about the contrasting grimness of life in Sparta and the despotism of the Persian kings or of an emperor such as ­Nero.

Lane Fox has a deft way of showing how intimate the connections were between Greece and Rome, and yet how starkly different the two could be. In 166 bc, for instance, Rome was embarked on a period of intense Hellenization following its triumph over Macedon the previous year. But when famous Greek flute players and dancers were brought to Rome, the audience soon tired of their performance, and “they were told to liven it up by starting a mock battle.” Boxers climbed onstage. The Greek historian Poly­bius, who was likely present, “could not even bring himself to describe it for his serious Greek readership.”

In compressing the events of a thousand years into roughly 600 pages, Lane Fox reduces some of the most compelling personalities of the ancient world to ­ciphers—­an unfortunate shortcoming in a history billed as “epic.” Alcibiades, the glamor­ous Athenian general who led the expedition to Sicily that was to prove so disastrous for Athens in the Peloponnesian War, is here only a dim presence, as is Catiline, the ­upper-­class dema­gogue who led a coup against the Roman Senate in 63 bc. Other figures, however, are finely sketched; the portrait of Cicero is about as ­clear-­eyed and generous as one could ­wish.

The Classical World is ­old-­fashioned narrative history at its finest, though Lane Fox occasionally comes off as a bit crusty. In his brief discussion of Sappho, the preeminent Greek poet of erotic desire, Lane Fox blushingly marvels at her lesbianism—“she really desires these ladies”—before changing tack and deeming her a “poetess of flowers.” (Perhaps it’s his horticulturalist’s eye, not ­old-­fogeyism, that’s to blame: He writes a weekly gardening column for The Financial Times.)

Throughout this dense yet leisurely telling, the author comes across as urbane, genial, and a tad sniffy: in short, the consummate don. His occasional aperçus could just as well be delivered over a glass of port at high table as between the covers of his book. After extolling the talents of the typical Greek ­aristocrat—­raised to speak eloquently in public, ride, play music, and compose ­verses—­Lane Fox remarks drily, “He was accomplished in ways in which his modern critics tend not to be.” One can imagine the appreciative chortles of a tableful of Old Etonians and ­Harrovians.

—Amanda Kolson ­Hurley

More From This Issue