Authors: Robin Lane Fox
The Classical World
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Alexander the Great
Pagans and Christians
The Unauthorized Version
The Making of ‘Alexander’
ROBIN LANE FOX
The Classical World
An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian
an imprint of
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 2005
Copyright © Robin Lane Fox, 2005
The moral right of the author has been asserted
All rights reserved
Without limiting the rights under copyright
reserved above, no part of this publication may be
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
He found his father alone in his well-ordered orchard
Digging round a plant: he was wearing a dirty tunic,
Patched and unseemly, and round his shins he had bound
Sewn leather leg-guards, keeping off scratches,
And he had gloves on his hands because of the thorns.
On his head he wore a goatskin cap, increasing his air of sorrow.
When noble, enduring Odysseus saw him
Worn by old age and with such great sadness in his heart,
He stood beneath a tall pear-tree and shed tears
Odysseus returns to his father: Homer,
This tomb of well-sculpted metal
Covers the dead body of a great hero,
Zenodotus. But his soul is in heaven, where Orpheus is,
Where Plato is, and has found a holy seat, fit to receive a god.
For, he was a valiant cavalryman in the Emperor’s service,
Famous, eloquent, god-like. In his speech
He was a copy of Socrates among the Italian people.
Leaving to his children his sound ancestral fortune,
He has died, a fit old man, leaving boundless sorrow
To his well-born friends, his city and its citizens.
7.363, possibly composed by Hadrian himself
It is a challenge to be asked to write a history of some nine hundred years, especially when the evidence is so scattered and diverse, but it is a challenge which I have enjoyed. I have not assumed a familiarity with the subject but I hope that readers who do or do not have one will be drawn in and retained by what I have had space to discuss. My hope is that they will leave it, as I have, with a sense of how this history varied but can still be made to hang together. I also hope that there will be parts which they will want to pursue, especially the many which I have had to compress.
I have not followed the conventional thematic presentation of classical civilization which discusses a topic (‘a gendered world’, ‘getting a living’) across a thousand years in a single chapter. For theoretical reasons, I have chosen a form with a framework of narrative. I believe that changing relations of power, sharply changed by events, changed the meaning and context of most of these themes and that these changes are lost by taking the easy thematic short-cut. My approach is shared in contemporary areas of medical thinking (‘evidence based medicine’), the social sciences (‘critical juncture theory’) and literary studies (‘discourse analysis’). I owe it, rather, to the hard old historical method of putting questions to evidence, reading with it (not against it) in order to bring out more of what it says and constantly retaining a sense of turning points and crucial decisions whose results were shaped, but not predetermined, by their context.
I have had to make hard choices and say little on areas where I feel I know most. One side of me still looks to Homer, another to the still-green orchards near Lefkadia in Macedonia where my vaulted tomb, painted with my three great horses, sixty-petalled roses,
Bactrian dancing girls and apparently mythical women awaits discovery by the skilled ephors of the Greek Archaeological Service in 2056. I have chosen to give slightly more space to narrative for one cardinal era, the years from 60 to 19
, not only because they are of such significance for the role of my assumed reader, the Emperor Hadrian. They are so dramatic, even to my post-Macedonian eye. They also attach initially to the letters of Cicero, the inexhaustible reward for all historians of the ancient world.
I am extremely grateful to Fiona Greenland for her expert help with illustrations. The jacket was the publisher’s choice, but the descriptions of the illustrations are otherwise mostly mine. I am also very grateful to Stuart Proffitt for comments on the first part which forced me to go back over it, and to Elizabeth Stratford for expert copy-editing and correction. Above all, I am grateful to two former pupils who turned a manuscript into discs, Luke Streatfeild initially and especially Tamsin Cox whose skill and patience have been this book’s essential support.
Robin Lane Fox
New College, Oxford
The following was [resolved]… by the council and people of the citizens of Thyatira: to inscribe this decree on a stone stele and to place it on the Acropolis (at Athens)so that it may [be] evident to all the Greeks how much Thyatira has received from the greatest of kings since… he (Hadrian) benefited all the Greeks in common when he summoned, as a gift to one and all, a council from among them to the most brilliant city of Athens, the Benefactress… and when, on his proposal, the [Romans] approved [this] most venerable Panhellenion [by decree] of the Senate and individually he [gave] the tribes and the cities a share in this most honourable Council
found at Athens, concerning Hadrian’s Panhellenion
The ‘classical world’ is the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans, some forty lifetimes before our own but still able to challenge us by a humanity shared with ours. The word ‘classical’ is itself of ancient origin: it derives from the Latin word
which referred to recruits of the ‘first class’, the heavy infantry in the Roman army. The ‘classical’, then, is ‘first class’, though it is no longer heavily armoured. The Greeks and Romans did borrow from many other cultures, Iranian, Levantine, Egyptian or Jewish among others. Their story connects at times with these parallel stories, but it is their own art and literature, thought, philosophy and political life which are correctly regarded as ‘first class’ in their world and ours.
In this world’s long history, two periods and places came to be seen
as particularly classical: Athens in the fifth- and fourth-century
was one, while the other was Rome from the first century
14, the world of Julius Caesar and then Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The ancients themselves shared this perspective. By the time of Alexander the Great they already recognized, as we still do, that particular dramatists at Athens in the fifth century
had written ‘classic’ plays. In the Hellenistic age (
) artists and architects adopted a classicizing style which looked back to the classical arts of the fifth century. Then Rome, in the late first century
, became a centre of classicizing art and taste, while classical Greek, especially Athenian Greek, was exalted as good taste against ‘Eastern’ excesses of style. Subsequent Roman emperors endorsed this classical taste and as time passed, added another ‘classic’ age: the era of the Emperor Augustus, their Empire’s founding figure.
My history of the classical world begins from a pre-classical classic, the epic poet Homer whom the ancients, like all modern readers, acknowledge as simply in a class of his own. His poems are the first written Greek literature to survive. From then onwards, I shall explore how classical Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries
evolved and what it stood for, up to four hundred years after Homer’s (probable) date (
). I then turn to Rome and the emergence of its own classical age, from Julius Caesar to Augustus (
14). My history ends with the reign of Hadrian, the Roman emperor from
117 to 138, just before the first surviving use of the term ‘classics’ to describe the best authors: it is attested in the conversation of Fronto, tutor to the children of Hadrian’s successor in Rome.