Ancient history

The illiterate poet who produced the world’s greatest epic

Odysseus is tossed on the sea when he notices a rock and clings to it. ‘As when an octopus is drawn out of its lair and bits of pebble get stuck in its suckers,’ says Homer, ‘so his skin was stripped from his brave hands by the rock.’ There is such elegant tricksiness in that simile. Homer still sits at the apex of western literature thanks to the beauty and influence of his verse. Robin Lane Fox has been teaching the epics for 50 years and studying them for many more. His lifelong fascination with the texts has bred a sort of feverish passion in him that makes him declare

An ancient stalemate may provide lessons today

History doesn’t have to be ‘useful’ to be compelling – witness, say, Henry VIII and his six wives. Adrian Goldsworthy, however, a considerable historian of ancient Rome as well as a prolific novelist of those times and the Napoleonic (of which there is obvious connection), is at pains to emphasise the profit to be derived from his massive, magnificent account of the 700-year conflict between Rome and Persia. Early on, the Romans realised that Parthia-Persia had to be treated with more respect than other nations History is valuable, he writes, because it helps us understand our own world a little better. (The corollary is also true: the intrigues and cock-ups

Remembering Dido – and the fate of Carthage

It is a curious fact that between the foundation of Tunis by the Arabs in the 7th century and the foundation of Tel Aviv in the early 20th century no major cities were created on the shores of the Mediterranean. Even those cities were not quite new: Tunis, as Katherine Pangonis points out, was partly constructed out of rubble from Roman Carthage, situated nearby; and Tel Aviv originated as a Jewish suburb of Jaffa. Nor were ancient Mediterranean cities as sizeable as we imagine. Only Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople can be called megalopolises, and Constantinople lies much closer to the Black Sea than the Mediterranean. Pangonis’s lively new book therefore

Can the ancient Greeks really offer us ‘life lessons’ today?

Adam Nicolson’s seductive new book –a voyage around early Greek thought – opens with a lovely passage. Moored with his wife off the island of Samos, Nicolson rises at first light, with ‘only the cats awake’, to find that other boats have come in during the night and laid their anchor lines over his. Our action-man author dives in and swims down ‘the 12 feet or so to the sandy sea floor, hand over hand and link by link down the chain, looking for the tangle that needed to be undone’. It’s a metaphor for the task he sets himself in How To Be, which aims to separate out the

The wonder of the wandering life

Anthony Sattin begins with a quotation from Bruce Chatwin, who famously tried all his life to produce a book about nomads but never quite succeeded (the nearest he got was Songlines). Hoping to persuade Tom Maschler at Cape of the virtues of the project, Chatwin described nomads as ‘a subject that appeals to irrational instincts’ – perhaps not the best way to sell something to publishers, who tend to pride themselves on their rational ones. But Chatwin’s thesis – that we were all originally nomads and need to recover some of that instinct – is now triumphantly brought to its conclusion in Sattin’s fascinating journey through 12,000 years, from the

Does knotted string constitute ‘writing’?

What particularly excites Silvia Ferrara, the author of The Greatest Invention, is not language per se but writing – that is, the specific tool created for recording and conveying language visually. Sound made visible, tangible. The impulse to communicate might be innate, but writing is cultural, and in no way inevitable. It’s a bit of tech, which needed to be developed, and which needs to be learned. Writing has many obvious benefits – allowing communication to survive across time, thus enabling cultural traditions and posterity – unlike purely synchronous conversation, face-to-face, stuck in the present. Yet as a species (and a species with memory, specifically) we could live perfectly well

How to tell your Roman emperors apart

Rising professors do well to be controversial if they wish to be invited to contribute to mainstream media. But the elder professor, lauded, loved and telly-tastic, has the privilege of swerving controversy without losing the limelight. And so Mary Beard gives us this rich disquisition on the Caesars’ visual representation (and misrepresentation), from swapped plinths to forged heads. Handsomely illustrated and brightly ringing with Beard’s enjoyment and scholarship, the book doesn’t inflame debate but brings it down a few degrees. While her publicist might have preferred more engagement with today’s ‘sculpture wars’ (touted on the dust jacket but not mentioned within), Beard provides no ammo for either side, but takes

Julius Caesar’s assassins were widely regarded as heroes in Rome

It’s not as if Julius Caesar wasn’t warned about the Ides of March. Somebody thrust a written prediction of the assassination at him as he marched to the Senate on the fateful day. Alas for Julius, as Peter Stothard notes in this gripping, gorgeously written new account of the killing and its consequences, the dictator stuffed it away, unread, into the folds of his toga. Secreted in the folds of his colleagues’ togas were the daggers that would shortly destroy him. The major themes of Roman (and therefore European) history are here writ large: tyranny vs freedom; politics vs self-preservation. We are at a crossroads in time when, if this

The famous cities of the ancient world were surprisingly small and fragile

Greg Woolf didn’t know his book would come out during an urban crisis. Thanks to coronavirus, Venice’s population, for example, is now somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 — the lowest for centuries. Horrific pandemics were nothing new for ancient cities, which, as this scholarly book shows, have gone through heady rises and catastrophic falls. Rome had a population of nearly a million under the Emperor Augustus. By the sixth century AD it was down to 10,000. Troy, one of the great Bronze Age cities, was buried by the time Byron visited: ‘Where I sought for Ilion’s walls, the quiet sheep feeds and the tortoise crawls.’ Still, plenty of cities have

The luxurious lives of Sparta’s women

History is full of ‘ifs’ and the Spartan story fuller than most. If the 300 had not made their famous stand against a vast Persian army at Thermopylae in 480 BC, or if Helen of Troy, originally from Sparta, had not been abducted, we might not remember them today. If their young men had not been brought up so strictly the word ‘spartan’ might not have entered our vocabulary; nor, had they not valued brevity in an age that revered oratory, the word ‘laconic’ — from Laconia, a Spartan province. And if the Spartans had not remained such an enigma, there would be no need for this book. It is

The history of Thebes is as mysterious as its Sphinx

The Spartans were not the only Greeks to die at Thermopylae. On the fateful final morning of the battle, when Leonidas, knowing that the pass had been sold, ordered the vast majority of the contingents stationed at the Hot Gates to retreat and live to fight another day, two detachments stayed behind to join the 300 in their heroic last stand against Xerxes. Both these detachments came from Boeotia, the fertile plain which stretched directly south of Thermopylae and extended as far as the frontier with Athens. One of these two detachments came from Thespiae, a small but famously cussed city in central Boeotia: 700 hoplites who, alongside the Spartans,

Greco-Roman civilisation has dominated ancient history for too long

What have the Akkadians ever done for us? As it turns out, rather a lot, as Philip Matyszak reveals in this lively, handsomely produced study of peoples and tribes whose PR departments were a smidgeon less muscular than the Romans’. Their obscure names are woven into our language: we sing ‘Land me safe on Canaan’s side’; we talk of oligarchs as ‘rich as Croesus’; we quote the Assyrian coming down ‘like the wolf on the fold’; and the aesthete’s go-to insult, ‘philistine’. Their stories, however, are not, and this book attempts to fill in the gaps. Given the scale and general lack of evidence, there’s a broad-brush approach; but this

King Solomon’s lost city will remain lost forever

Armageddon began as Har Megiddo, the Hill of Megiddo in northern Israel. The theological aspect is Christian. For Jews, ancient or modern, Megiddo is more existential than eschatological. The name denotes a fortress overlooking a strategic crossroads: Megiddo means ‘strength’. This is where the ancient Via Maris (the ‘way of the sea’, or coastal road) between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent cuts inland, through a pass from the Carmel mountains and into the Jezreel Valley. Megiddo remains strategically crucial and retains its potential for last stands. Today, the only airfield in Israel’s north, the erstwhile RAF base of Ramat David, sits somewhere in the valley (it’s not on maps, but