New Straits Times, 21 May 1994: "Antiquity for the Common Reader."

The Oxford History of the Classical World.
ed. by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993. 882 pages.

review by Otto Steinmayer

A lot of things started in Greece, not just for the European world but for everybody, including Malaysians. The mythic clash of East and West began (as far as these things can be said to have a beginning) in 490 B.C. when Persia invaded the Greek mainland. Before that time Greeks and “barbarians” had gotten along pretty well. An outsider might have found it hard to tell the two races apart.

    On the beach at Marathon the two nations fought a battle. Ten thousand Greeks routed a much larger Persian landing-force, killing 6,000 of them at a loss of 200 of their own. The Greeks now thought Asians not only foreign, but also effete, and bad, that is, “Irreconcilably-Opposed-To-Our-Way-Of-Life.” This attitude, once established, has waxed and waned, changed heritors, changed locus and focus over the millennia, never quite disappearing. The Romans grumbled about the crush of eastern immigrants to the imperial city (cf. modern England), and worried about the unequal balance of trade with India (cf. modern America vs. Japan).

    Misunderstanding is the way of the world. Your average American possesses a sophisticated version of Asia cello-taped together from cartoons and war movies. But don’t gloat. As Horace says, “Change the name and the story is told about you.” The term “West” has bandied about considerably in Malaysian editorials. In my role as bona fide westerner, I would like to ask what the word is supposed to mean?

    I take “The West” to be a convenient straw man set up to take the aggression of a hemisphere that imagines it’s going to fight a return engagement of Marathon, and win this time. “The west is materialistic. The west has no values. The west has no spirituality. The west cannot compete. The west is washed up.”

  Not one in a hundred of the hacks responsible for this stuff know their ass from their elbow. By their logic, every brown/yellow-skinned, noodle-eating person is an indefatigable high-tech coolie with the morals of Gandhi, the wisdom of Confucius, and the piety of a Sufi, not to forget the commercial shrewdness of Sony’s Mr Morita.
I subscribe to no official version, whether theirs or yours, either of “The West” nor “East.” A stereotype is a stereotype.
    Belacan or blue cheese. The true understanding of cultures is a subtle matter of taste. The relishes differ. Rice and potatoes, the fundamentals of life, offer about the same basic nourishment. Likewise if we look at how East and West approached the facts of existence, we find a wealth of intelligible parallels.
If you want to get beyond the cartoon image of European civilization, Mediterranean antiquity is the best place to start. If you’re a person who likes literature, read Homer’s Iliad. But if you want a thorough, entertaining, expert overview of everything, I can think of no better introduction that the present Oxford History of the Classical World.
    Thirty of the finest British classical scholars have collaborated on this large book, each contributing an article on his or her favoured aspect of antiquity. All the topics are covered, from pre-history to history, poetry, art and architecture, politics, religion, philosophy, social conditions, and plain old daily life. The whole is illustrated quite generously with lovely photographs of landscape, buildings, mosaics, statues, and paintings, and maps guide the reader around the ancient terrain.
    The authors are every one of them top-notch. The redoubtable M.L. West writes on the pre-socratics, Peter Levi explains Greek drama, John Boardman, the world’s present authority on what we in the trade call “pots,” on art. Maybe you’re afraid to enter into conversation with such learned folk. Don’t be afraid, for the occasion they have unbent themselves, and without condescending have all written in clear and entertaining style to please and inform the honored Common Reader. They lay before us complex concepts and unravel difficult problems with great grace and organization. Most of what they talk about is familiar to me, since classics is my profession. I was not bored but greatly refreshed to be reminded of the facts of my field in such a lucid manner. And, by the way, knowledge of Latin or Greek is not required.

    The Greeks and Romans have been praised for the “clarity” of their cultures. The appeal of this ancient clearness has drawn many people to them after having been bewildered or repulsed by the chaotic obscurity of their own history, wherein the finding of a meaning seems an impossible task.

    In truth, the Greeks and Romans were as turbulent as anyone else. They seem serene now because they have been dead a long time. The facts of ancient history and culture have stayed put and been looked for a thousand years, and a kind of natural selection has allowed the bizarre and extreme interpretations to wither away, leaving us in most cases with a communis opinio, a general consensus, that any reasonable person can accept without pain of conscience. This is one of the pleasures of the OxHCW: you can read it not as a rancourous argument but as a conversation.
The subject of this survey is enormous, and it would be futile to attempt to discuss even one topic in detail. However, you will be well advised as you read OxHCW that the west does indeed possess a tradition, in the classical antiquity it looks back to, as long, as subtle, and as deep as any Asian land’s. The intellectual investigations Greeks and Romans made continually come back as timely. To give one example, in this day when science seems to regard the universe as an accident, when current literary theory tries hard to demonstrate the meaninglessness of both text and life, the two major schools of ancient philosophy held that belief was a necessity of existence. Without at least a belief in one’s being and senses, they showed, life would become impossible; for we lose all reason for action.
    In the realm of politics and values the reality was not as simple as the received image of it. We all know the Greeks invented democracy. Democracy was not won without a struggle but resulted not from a radical reaction to absolutism, rather a from search for a system that would be as fair as possible to every citizen. Greek democracy, too, being fully participatory, was entirely unlike the representative forms that are called “democracy” today.

    Life being life even in ancient times, things could get ugly too. The authors of OxHCW don’t shun the issues of slavery, war, absolute power but examine them fairly in contrast to

Greek civilization emerged from a period of darkness and rose to brilliant achievements. Its inheritor, the Romans, spread that civilization as far as Britain and North Africa, leaving lasting traces of its influence as far east as India. The glory of Marcus Aurelius reached, in his own lifetime, to the ears of the Han emperor Huan-ti. Even in antiquity the west was no disregarded part of the globe.

    Then the Roman empire, that had held power for 600 years, crumbled and a new dark age fell. It’s been popular to attribute Rome’s collapse to their “decadence.” This explanation makes us feel good about ourselves. Yet the real reasons are more complex, more mundane, not lending themselves to moral judgments. An ancient would have understood that all things come and go, however splendid and noble, that prosperity sits on a wheel that must one day turn to the bottom. However remote classical antiquity seems to us, let us not be so hubristic as to ignore it, and its lesson that high hopes, and high civilization, can be lost.