Tony Spawforth reflects on his forthcoming autobiographical account of Greek and Roman civilisation
In 2014 I was asked by a university publisher to write a book for a general readership about the Greeks and Romans. This was a bold punt by the commissioning editor: generous, too. No particular brief was imposed. I was more or less free to tackle the task as I saw fit.
I knew that I wanted to write some kind of history, since by trade I’m an ancient historian. Here though was a matter for hand-wringing. Professionals in the field wonder how, if at all, their discipline can help people understand what is happening today, when—as modern historian Linda Colley has put it—’it seems as if events are overtaking us’.
Further, opinions about the value of history are as old as—well, Thucydides at any rate. When I think about why I opted to read an excellent political biography of Louis XVI recently, and what I got out of it, my thoughts are: terrific entertainment value (as the cover correctly claims, the book ‘tells all the great stories with considerable verve’); much food for thought about the eternal conundrum that is human behaviour; and a chance to savour a quality product of the historian’s métier, a book that was manifestly both craft and art.
But that raises another question. In Doctor Zhivago, the hero’s uncle dismisses the classics as irrelevant. ‘When (modern man) is vexed by the mysteries of the universe, he turns to physics, not to Hesiod’s hexameters’. The sentiment, or something like it, is familiar to many of us who love the ancient world. Pasternak has a point though. What is it about classical antiquity these days which merits the attention of the general reader?
My soundings persuaded me that there was still a potential readership of generalists coming to the idea of Greece and Rome from a western legacy of wonder, more or less hard-wired into their cultural DNA. On the other hand, my putative generalists were living in an age long de-coupled from the idea of classical antiquity as the font of wisdom (alongside the Bible), an age, some might also say, of scepticism, even disillusion. Perhaps they could stomach a stronger dose of historical reality than earlier generations of modern panegyrists of Greece and Rome.
Even so, I wanted to take ‘civilisation’ as my theme. After all, two millennia or so later, this probably is, when it comes to Greece and Rome, the only real basis for wonder—in a good way at least. Wonder explains why we still experience their cultural legacy around us today, like the replica of the Lysicrates Monument (Athens, 334 BC) in Sydney’s Royal Botanical Gardens. This was recently restored as part of the ‘rich cultural history and heritage that has shaped our city’ according to an Australian government minister. I assume he was acknowledging here, not just local history, but something more profound.
Because ‘civilisation’ is such a value-loaded and relative term today, I took as my focus what one might call the ‘common sense’ of the ancients themselves—their prevailing opinion of what a civilised way of life comprised. This seemed to dictate starting with, as one ancient writer put it, ‘life before Triptolemus’, the Greek demi-god who taught humankind agriculture: the Old Stone Age in modern terms.
Since experts nowadays think that domesticated livestock and even grain cultivars entered the southern Balkans in prehistory from what is now Turkey, it was clear to me that my story of ancient ‘civilisation’ needed to highlight its essential character—as I saw it—as something distilled out of contacts between neighbouring peoples, cultures, and geographical zones. I saw Alexander of Macedon as fitting in, not because he sought to propagate the Greek way of life in Asia—few experts if any think this today—but precisely because he creatively reimagined the wandering centre of his empire, the royal court, as a cultural amalgam in which Persia and Greece were given equal weight.
The Romans built their civilisation on the same principles. Like Alexander, but with infinitely more far-reaching consequences, they too were enamoured of the cultural way of life of people they had conquered. What I continually came up against in writing the book was the extraordinary, if selective, attractiveness to others of what we call Greek civilisation. The local ruler from south-western Turkey whose Greek-style tomb, the so-called Nereid Monument (390s BC), now adorns the British Museum is a prize exhibit of this cultural cherry-picking, as, on an altogether grander scale, is the ‘Hellenization’ of the Romans.
Whatever it was that impelled Roman imperialism in its first centuries, in the end the Roman emperor allowed subjects to depict him as a champion of civilisation. A startling ancient statue now in Istanbul shows Hadrian (ruled AD 117-138) in full military fig, foot on a prostrate barbarian, his cuirass depicting the Roman wolf beneath the feet of an archaistic image of the goddess Athena of the Acropolis, complete with her Attic owl and snake. This scene is best understood, I believe, as an ancient artist’s allegory for the mission of the Roman Empire to protect civilisation from the ‘barbarian’. Romans of the governing class conceived this idea of civilisation as ‘Athenian’ in a fundamental sense.
I identified a beginning for my book, and I saw how to get from Greece to Rome. Since the cultural influence of Greece and Rome is still with us, where to stop was a more difficult decision. The limits to the stamina of the reader (and author), not to mention book-trade economics, put any idea of getting much beyond antiquity out of my head. I opted for AD 636, when a versifying Greek prelate is said to have negotiated the surrender of Roman Jerusalem to the second caliph: a meeting of a very old with a very new world, both, need it be said, with long futures.
The book is ‘my’ story, or ‘a’ story: at any rate, not ‘the’ story. Nowadays quizzical readers swimming in alternative facts may well question if there is such a thing as ‘definitive’ history. I doubt very much if mine will be hailed for being written sine ira et studio, free of bias. I nailed colours to the mast not just by flag-waving for one particular idea of ‘civilisation’ but also by opting for an old-fashioned chronological narrative as the best way of getting my reader from Triptolemus to Mohammed.
I knew that I was going to be highly selective—this was no text-book that I was undertaking. I ended up thinking that writing about what interested me would probably get me into no less trouble for the sin of omission than any elaborately conceived principle of historical even-handedness, if such a thing can ever exist.
I also wanted to put the ancient evidence on the page for the reader to sample. The book ended up in part as a subliminal paean to the work of translators, and not least to the inestimable treasure that is the Loeb Classical Library of Greek and Latin writings in translation.
The English commentator Will Self worries about how to escape the ubiquitous imagery of the modern world. Yet I really wanted to convey the spell cast—on me at least—by old objects and old ruins. Here I took heart from a recent BBC radio series. Many people think that Neil McGregor, late of the British Museum, succeeded fantastically in his A History of the World in 100 Objects, presenting his version of the past as a succession of oral explorations of physical things. My book nods humbly in the same direction.
Finally, I must brace myself against the charge of including myself—overtly as well as covertly—in my story. Even in the U.K., long gone are the days when talking about oneself was the social crime of crimes. Some will rue this cultural swerve, as do I, up to a point. But a personal history seems to require a person. I can only hope that the result avoids the intrusiveness of gratuitous autobiography and does its intended job, of giving an inkling of my personal experience of studying the past, on archaeological digs and in museum storerooms, in those occasional light-bulb moments amid the humdrum of university life, and so on.
The text has just gone off to the setters. An author aiming to please would be crazed not to suffer stage fright. As modern Greeks might say, tha doume: we’ll see.
Tony Spawforth is Professor Emeritus of Ancient Greek History at Newcastle. His The Story of Greece and Rome will be published by Yale University Press in autumn 2018.
 The Sydney Morning Herald 16/10/16