In around 720 B.C., Greek colonists settled on the Gulf of Taranto, in the foot of Italy, in a place called Sybaris. The Sybarites, as the colonists are known, quickly earned notoriety for cultural excess. Partial to boisterous all-night drinking parties—not to mention dancing horses and rosy-cheeked pipers—they were also said to be so fond of sleep that they banned roosters from their city. With no dawn chorus to wake them from their slumbers, they could go about their days at leisure, bathing and then partying into the small hours.

After Sybaris was destroyed by a neighboring colony, the Athenians helped to found a comparatively sober site nearby. Thurii, the new foundation, consisted of a smart network of streets laid out on a grid plan. In the fifth century B.C., Herodotus, the father of history, found it pleasant enough an environment to retire there. Sybaris had as good as been “civilized”—only to say that would be to deny Sybaris its place in the history of “classical civilization.”

“Civilization” is a broad and slippery term.

“Civilization” is a broad and slippery term, as Nigel Spivey, a lecturer and fellow in Classics at the University of Cambridge, acknowledges at the beginning of his book. His “survey of classical civilization” proceeds chronologically through ten cities, each so different from the last that you soon long to append an “s” each time the word “civilization” occurs. Flowing from Troy to Constantinople via Athens, Sparta, Syracuse, Alexandria, Pergamon, Rome, and Ephesus, the book repeatedly testifies to the idea that one man’s custom is another man’s folly.

In Sparta, for instance, an altar of the goddess Artemis used to be stacked high with cheeses, which whip-wielding priests would gather round and viciously defend from ravenous youths. The boys, Spivey recounts, would surreptitiously approach the fragrant cheese, testing their resilience to pain in the process. A priestess would stand nearby holding a cult image of the goddess, and whenever she lowered the image, the boys would be whipped harder. Boys bled, boys died, but still the competition continued. Other Greeks might have considered these altar struggles strange, but Spartan boys were tough and determined, put through the rigors of military training and self-denial from the age of seven.

Boyhood in Periclean Athens was very different, the focus being on rhetoric over ruggedness. The two city-states, Spivey says, “cultivated a sort of oppositional development, with each city apparently striving to be the antithesis of the other.” Not that this precluded some Athenians from admiring certain aspects of Spartan life. Plato, who came from Athens, incorporated several Spartan ideals, including communal property, into his Republic. Our continuing fixation with Athens—particularly Periclean Athens—as the pinnacle of Greek civilization has certainly hindered us from appreciating the breadth and significance of other thinking about what constituted civilization in the ancient world.

The notion that civilization reached its peak in Periclean Athens and then simply declined is indeed one of the most damaging to persist today. Spivey subtly apportions blame to the usual suspects, including Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the eighteenth-century German antiquarian who viewed democracy as essential to artistic prowess. As Spivey paraphrases, “It followed, therefore, that as the democratic city-states of Greece—notably Athens—yielded to rule by Macedonian autocrats, this flower must wilt.” Spivey also points his finger at Tenney Frank, an influential twentieth-century scholar from Missouri, who found an explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire in “Roman disintegration,” that is, increased racial diversity.

In a sense, however, the hunt for what we might call “the ultimate civilization” is a legacy of antiquity itself. Consider the following two anecdotes from Spivey’s book. The first, retold from Herodotus’ Histories, concerns the discovery in the Peloponnese in the sixth century B.C. of some enormous bones. Supposing that the bones proved the theory that heroes of old were bigger than their descendants, an onlooker declared that the remains of Agamemnon’s son Orestes had been found. Knowing as we do now that this part of the Peloponnese was once an Ice Age basin, we might assume the bones belonged rather to a mammoth.

The hunt for “the ultimate civilization” is a legacy of antiquity itself.

Thousands of years later, in the late nineteenth century, Heinrich Schliemann excavated five magnificent graves in Mycenae. Much like the onlooker in the Peloponnese before him, Schliemann proclaimed that he had found the graves of Agamemnon and his relatives. Later, it was revealed that the graves were in fact 500 years older than Schliemann realized.

We may be predisposed to value glorious civilizations of the distant past over unestablished or emergent cultural ideas, but, as Spivey shows, “new” rarely means “inferior.” As Greek and Roman civilizations spread across the world through colonization, migration, and intermarriage, they grew stronger, not weaker. Indeed, “If Greeks had not migrated during the eighth to sixth centuries BC, there would be very little by way of ‘classical civilization.’ ” For Spivey, the history of the Greco-Roman world is therefore more a story of continuity than change. Hence, in his account, the rise of Christianity did not lead to a breach with pagan civilization; Cicero and Virgil remained important patrons of style and virtue in the Christian world.

Such emphasis on continuity lends Spivey’s book a pleasing fluency and momentum, which is broken only by an odd chapter in the middle “inadequately entitled” “Utopia.” After explaining that “utopia” could be understood as eutopia (“good-place”) or outopia (“no place”), Spivey proceeds to offer a kind of potted history of ancient philosophy. One might have expected instead a more constructive excursus on civilization as an unachievable ideal. Myths such as those of the Golden Age and the Isles of the Blessed, mentioned only in passing elsewhere in the book, played a significant role, after all, in shaping ideas about foundation and civilization in antiquity.

Spivey is at his strongest when discussing the role of art in civilization. His observations on public sculpture and ways of viewing it are particularly well woven into his text and help to transport us into the worlds he evokes. The “Tyrannicides” Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were praised for helping to establish democracy in Athens, are described as “heroically stripped and stepping forward with their weapons, poised to strike: whoever admires them from the front plays the part of their victim.” Although there is no image of the sculpture in this book, we can well imagine ourselves standing before it, contemplating the might of the two men. In the chapter on Alexandria, Spivey explains the challenges that faced the artist who hoped to make a portrait of Alexander the Great. The visual image was important because Alexander had around thirty different ethnic groups among his subjects after taking over the Persian Empire. Official art had to cross cultural barriers; Alexander’s portrait artists “played upon cross-cultural appeal,” emphasizing his long-haired, leonine, Homeric head and gaze. Digressions like these on the art and architecture which shaped and were shaped by civilization make The Classical World feel rich and well-rounded.

Spivey is at his strongest when discussing the role of art in civilization.

As engaging as Spivey’s book is, however, in its form it is far less original than it might have been. Its structure, ten cities in ten chapters, recalls not only Professor Edith Hall’s Introducing the Ancient Greeks (2014), also in ten chapters, but also more particularly Professor Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (2009), both of which constitute more comprehensive surveys of Greek civilization. Both these books might have found a place in the fifteen-page “Further Reading” section at the end of Spivey’s The Classical World, as might the recent edition of Richard Jenkyns’s Classical Literature (2015).

A history of civilization told principally through the development “Greece–Rome–Christianity” also feels slightly outmoded at a time when classical scholars are looking increasingly at the influence of “other” cultures on the development of the Western world. Many historians now feel that the history of “the West” can no longer be studied in isolation from that of “the East.” The newcomer who seeks a roughly chronological overview or a starting point for further foray into antiquity will, however, find Spivey’s book clear and accessible. It is a concise guide to the myriad events that helped to shape our culture.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 1, on page 101
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