The contemporary study of classical antiquity is always hard pressed, both on and off campuses. Smartphones and social media war with literature and history. Continuing stagnant university enrollments, political correctness, a perennially tight job market, and new financial pressures on colleges crowd out and discourage formal study of the ancient world.

Classics needs all the friends it can get.

So it is ostensibly good news that the well-known screenwriter and octogenarian essayist Frederic Raphael offers Antiquity Matters to encourage and excite those uninitiated in the richness of the ancient world:

Antiquity Matters is more a montage than any kind of a textbook. If it serves the readers as a primer, in the sense of both a place to start from and what might cause an explosion of interest (even of exasperation), then it will not have been composed in vain. I should like to think that its value lies not least in all the signposts it offers to go this way or that, preferably both, or more, in search of intelligence and—why not?—entertainment.

Unfortunately for friends of Greece and Rome, Raphael’s “montage” may be a euphemism. The book’s introduction is largely a hagiographic account of Raphael’s own aristocratic education, sprinkled with references to who’s-who friends within transatlantic high culture. It serves as an early warning that what follows might not necessarily ignite “an explosion of interest” in the ancient world.

Raphael’s montage begins in mediis rebus and abruptly ends the same way.

The book is not organized to encourage further study of Greece and Rome. It has neither a table of contents nor a conclusion. There are no formal titled book chapters. The stream-of-consciousness 339-page essay has few overt connections—thematic, chronological, or didactic—among seventy-nine numbered, three-to-five-page subsections. The montage begins in mediis rebus and abruptly ends the same way.

Footnotes are too often extraneous—sometimes citing gossipy chat that has little to do with the citation in question (e.g., “When [the British classicist Sir Maurice] Bowra heard that a gay friend was getting married to a not very comely woman, he observed, ‘Buggers can’t be choosers.’ ”). Some footnotes only vaguely reference books or just echo friends’ thoughts, sometimes amplifying the text’s unsourced anecdotes. There is no bibliography. An appendix, suggestions for further reading, or outline would have been useful to show students, general readers, or autodidacts why studying the Greeks and Romans matters.

Instead, whether consciously or not, Raphael offers an abbreviated update of the Hellenistic gossiper Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistae (“Table Talk of Sophisticates”)—likewise initially fascinating antiquarianism, but finally overwhelming chatter. Raphael’s methods of presentation are to invoke at random an ancient idea—religious, political, social, or economic—then to retell a charming illustration from an ancient author, then to cite a modern (in the broad sense of post-antiquity) parallel in the text or in a footnote to show contemporary relevance, then to pull in allusions to friends or, in insider fashion, to name-drop scholars, and finally to offer skepticism, cynicism, or sarcasm concerning both moderns and less aware ancients

Because the book is more a demonstration of the considerable literary and cultural range of Frederic Raphael than an inspiring call to revisit Greece and Rome, it will likely encourage few would-be new students of classics. More likely, Antiquity Matters may even have the opposite effect, given its tone, meandering, and misleading information.

There is an art to and value in connecting the past with the present, especially in pursuit of encouraging new readers of the classics. But Raphael’s interest is more in demonstrating his powers of late-night table talk—apparently the more breezy, arcane, and inter nos the better:

Despite their (and the common people’s) superstitious caution, pagan priests—never any part of an established “church”—set no a priori limits on speculation, as the Holy Inquisition would later. In 1633, Galileo Galilei was shown the instruments of torture as an argument against persisting with the anti-Aristotelian notion of a heliocentric universe. The idea that the earth went around the sun was first proposed in the third century b.c.e. by Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek philosopher not in fashion with the Holy Inquisition’s pot-bellied Cardinal Bellarmino.

To expound to the uninitiated on the Inquisition, Galileo, Aristotle, Copernicanism, Aristarchus, and Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, Raphael’s footnote then informs us of Bellarmino: “A range of storage jars, now quite valuable antiques, were marketed bearing his tubby image.”

Most paragraphs are similar:

During the reign of Nero, Petronius Arbiter, no mean poetic pasticheur, crowned Horace with “curiosa felicitas”: the painstaking effortlessness which arranged that no word was ever awkwardly placed or tritely chosen. It is senseless to bless such immaculate verses with sincerity (rarely an ingredient of great art). Like Fabergé’s jewels, they were calculated to amuse and amaze. L. P. Wilkinson chose to compare Horace’s odes to Giorgione’s paintings, in which a seemingly serene setting seems to convey intense, immaculate fragility.

If Raphael is in need of an editor, he just as often requires a fact-checker of details both ancient and modern, and dubious assertions. It is not true that “Pythagoras made few converts in mainland Greece.” There was an entire colony of his adherents in Thebes under Philolaus, some of whose followers later appear in Platonic dialogues. Another follower was the Theban general and liberator Epaminondas, whose idealism may well have been Pythagorean in nature. Raphael asserts that “Comic playwrights in the scatological, bantering Aristophanic style had no precedent outside Athens.” In fact, Attic comedy borrowed from earlier non-Athenian comic poets, such as Epicharmus and Phormis, while contemporaneous comic plays were also often produced in Syracuse and elsewhere. It is certainly incorrect to state of Pausanias’s inventories of temples and monuments that he “ignored all” those Roman; in fact, he has plenty of descriptions of republican- and imperial-era buildings. The U.S. Army did not embrace the Homeric “buddy” system of Achilles and Patroclus, and it had nothing in common with the sort of partnerships of the Theban Sacred Band. The Germans were hardly “the last Europeans to compose themselves into a major nation.” Czechoslovakia emerged in 1918 after Versailles, as did what would become formally Yugoslavia, and once again Poland. And on and on.

Perhaps more bothersome are misleading assertions passed off as deep insights.

Again, Raphael has certainly seen and read a lot, and sometimes his observations do in fact reflect connections between past and present that might spark further reader interest. But too often they are strained and factually incorrect: is there really a relevant connection between the ancient account of the murder of a Greek mathematician and the tragic shooting of an early twentieth-century Austrian composer?

The geometrical genius [Archimedes] called out, “Don’t touch my triangles.” He was then stabbed to death. In September 1945, the Austrian composer Anton Webern was shot by an American G.I. when he broke the curfew by stepping outside his Viennese home to smoke a cigar.

Raphael somehow mangles even the most trivial of strained parallelisms. In the one case, a victorious Roman soldier, searching for loot, deliberately kills the disobedient inventor while still at work drawing diagrams in the dust of his captured Syracuse. But in the supposed modern analogue, a soldier of occupation mistakenly shoots a musician seeking a brief respite. As with most of Raphael’s allusions, one has to double-check this story. In fact, Webern, who harbored early pro-Nazi sympathies, was not killed while “stepping outside his Viennese home.” Rather, he was accidently shot while taking a break from dining at the house of his son-in-law, a former SS officer and postwar black-marketer, who was being investigated by two U.S. soldiers—and in the Alpine town of Mittersill, some 250 miles away from Vienna.

It is not true that Thucydides offers no persuasive reasons why Athens and Sparta went to war. Even if one chose not to believe Thucydides’ assertion that Sparta engaged in a preventive war out of “fear” of the rising and seemingly predestined cultural and economic dynamism of the upstart Athens, Thucydides references lots of other reasons for the conflict. In several speeches, especially in Book I of his history and in the famous binaries of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the historian maps out the numerous fault lines of oligarchy/democracy, rural/urban, land-power/sea-power, Doric/Ionic, agricultural/commercial, and traditional parochialism/liberal cosmopolitanism that all eventually made an accounting between two antithetical systems inevitable, once their former common Persian enemy no longer seemed to pose an existential threat to either.

Raphael’s notion of antiquity is confined only to a chatty few.

Raphael thinks the slaughter of the Melians does not mark a barbarization of the Peloponnesian War in its third decade. He chastises the present reviewer for writing “Athens adopted a brutal political calculus declaring that those city-states not with them were, quite simply, against them.” He thinks such a description is “meta-Marxist cant,” guilty of identifying “the West with ‘terror.’ ” But aside from the question of who is the “West” in his analogy—Athens or Melos?—such a description is not mine alone, much less “characteristic of academics on secondment to the Department of False Analogies.” That is more of Raphael’s flippant and ostentatious editorializing. In truth, the description of Athens’s for-us-or-against-us ultimata was drawn from Thucydides’ text of the Melian Dialogue itself, in which the Athenian interlocutors insist that there was no longer any chance for further Melian neutrality. And he blatantly ignores ancient sources in suggesting that citing Athenian savagery by 416 was part of a modern “journalistic cliché,” when, as I noted, the outrage over Melos was ancient, not modern—reflected in the contemporary views of Euripides and Xenophon. The latter historian explicitly noted the growing fear at Athens after Aegospotami that the defeated Athenians’ numerous enemies might treat them as barbarically as they had the civilians on Melos, Histiaea, Scione, and Torone.

Incidentally there is no reason to fault Thucydides, as does Raphael, for not stating that Melos was a long-sought-after prize due to its rich natural resources. In fact, the island’s professed neutrality and suspected Spartan sympathies—not the hopes of a natural bonanza—were what drew Athenian ships to Melos, and elsewhere in the Aegean, after neutrals or suspicious subjects.

Raphael ends with a warning not to imagine—as he himself has explicitly done for over three hundred pages by comparing everything from 9/11 to American film against supposed parallels in classical texts—that the ancient world can be distilled across time and space to connect to similar modern events and echoes. At least I think that is the message with which Raphael finishes his book, through a well-worn—and unintentionally self-incriminatory—quotation, followed by a nearly incomprehensible sentence:

Three centuries ago, after reading Alexander Pope’s now-classic version of the Iliad, Richard Bentley remarked, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” When we talk or write about the ancient Mediterranean world in modern terms, we should be aware that its inhabitants would not be at home in what wishful ingenuity or tendentious hindsight chooses to parade as the restored face or translated logos of antiquity.

Antiquity Matters closes out as tendentiously as it began—as if to remind us why Raphael’s notion of antiquity is confined only to a chatty few.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 4, on page 76
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