LLR Books

Review: It's All Greek to Me by Charlotte Higgins and Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day

by Philip Matyszak

Tom Payne finds himself immersed in the daily lives of the ancient Greeks
If you go into a university classics department, you should find that it's a world of its own. Not necessarily in the sense of Aristophanes' birds, who dreamed of setting up their own country in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, although that might well seem true enough.
No: you should find that you're surrounded by people who study everything - everything, that is, in an ancient way, because the ancients themselves studied everything. To take two examples from Charlotte Higgins's love-letter to ancient Greece: Aristotle came up with a theory about how a kind of dogfish reproduces, and nobody believed him until 1842, when a German ichthyologist called Johannes Müller discovered that the Stagyrite was right; and when Herodotus wrote about giant termites that mined gold, he was possibly not completely wrong. Last year, a New Scientist article showed that termites which burrow 30 yards underground do leave traces of minerals in their mounds. Still, the father of history might have been wrong in saying that they're bigger than foxes.
Because the ancients studied everything - maths, politics, history, philosophy, art, state-craft, philology, poetics, the cosmos - even the shortest of introductions to them should show that their world is limitless.
We can't reproduce that world, even in a volume so grand as the Oxford Classical Dictionary. (My favourite entry comes in the second edition. Look up "egg". It says "EGG (in ritual). Eggs play no great part in ancient ritual…".) But these two short books do an excellent job of staring at the ancient Greeks with wild surmise, and showing that their concerns were just as wide as ours, but in a totally different climate.
Philip Matyszak's companionable little guide to Athens narrows the parameters by taking us back to 431?BC, two years before the death of Pericles. The war against Persia is long won, the wars against Sparta are about to begin. Sometimes, the author finds this focus too great a constraint: he needs to flash forwards to tell us about Socrates's execution, or that the Parthenon will not always be as brightly painted as it is to the ancient tourist; and the colourful Alcibiades only makes a couple of name-checks.
But if you're happy to live with this prolepsis, you'll have an invaluable encounter with the Athenians. I can't wait for it to come out in paperback, not just because it will be easier to issue to teachers. (Don't be put off if I say it's ideal for school use - it treats grown-up areas in an approachable way, and in some ways is more illuminating than the available textbooks.) A paperback will also enhance its guidebook feel: it's portable, with glossy illustrations and maps. And, like a guidebook, it leaves you with a sense of what the Athenians might have been like. With their sense of cultural superiority, social structures, lovely buildings and politics that are radical until it comes to women, they come across here as quite like Parisians.
Charlotte Higgins, too, manages to make them seem sensibly different from us, and the attitudes towards women and slaves are high on her list of distinctive attributes. Matyszak is wryly detached, until he takes us to the Parthenon at dawn, whereas Higgins is openly besotted with the whole of Greek achievement. She's an acute reader of Homer, whose poetry provides the theme to all her chapters. These read like inspiring essays written to the broadest of briefs.
Where Matyszak can be sketchy in his accounts of Socrates's thought or the subject matter of Greek tragedies, Higgins delivers digestible précis and peppy plot summaries. She even makes the causes of the Peloponnesian War seem comprehensible. It's easy to sympathise with her hobby-horses - she's especially fond of Homer and Herodotus, and commendably fair about Plato - although she does return to certain scenes or episodes too reliably. Even so, she has some appendices that would make fine stocking-fillers in their own right, such as a who's who, a selective list of key quotations (helpful for the slacker undergraduate) and the stories behind some expressions from ancient Greece that are still in our currency.
It's telling that we still use adjectives such as "laconic" or "epicurean" with just a ghost of their original senses; it suggests we feel more at home than we should in a foreign place. If you finish these books and wish they were longer, as though you'd spent a long weekend when you could have done with a month, then keep exploring. (Charlotte Higgins's bibliography is up-to-the-minute and leads towards debates that are both relevant and scholarly.)

It's a world that's as big as ours, and sometimes familiar, but tourists must remember to mind the gap.

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