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
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
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
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
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
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