Greece in the Ancient World
Jeremy McInerney
Thames & Hudson
368pp, 225 colour illustrations and
47 line drawings
Hardback, £35

Rome in the Ancient World: From Romulus to Justinian
David Potter
Thames & Hudson, 2nd Edition, 2016
368pp, 149 colour illustrations and
51 line drawings
Hardback, £24.95
A 3rd edition will be published in Jan 2019

A character in Aldous Huxley's Those Barren Leaves, 1925, observes that to the modern reader, the language of Milton's Paradise Lost is 'hanging like musical stars in the lap of nothing'. Time has eroded the theological framework that mattered so much to Milton. What remains is a magnificent architecture of language, immune to the decay that attacks physical architecture, but abstracted from the reality that created it.

Anyone who first encountered Greek and Latin in the schoolroom knows that feeling. The conjugations and declensions retain their glory and their grandeur, but the world from which they came seems absent. A similar experience awaits those who attempt the alternative route to the summit. Standing sweatily amid the rubble of the Agora in Athens will not necessarily bring you closer to understanding Socrates.

What the new student needs, and what the old student will always need, is a one-volume guide that weaves together history and ideas to create a cradle for those 'musical stars' of language and art. A century ago, our guides were The Glory That Was Greece, 1911, and The Grandeur That Was Rome, 1912, both written by John Clarke Stobart, a Classics teacher at Merchant Taylors' School, London.

Today, you can still pick up a Stobart in most second-hand bookshops, and read him for profit but if you want a modern equivalent, you need Thames & Hudson's single-volume accounts, Greece in the Ancient World and Rome in the Ancient World ( a 3rd edition of will be published in Januray 2019). These volumes are perfect for the perplexed first-timer and the old hand in need of refreshment.

Stobart's Glory and Grandeur broke new ground by incorporating the latest photographic illustrations into a clear and accessible text. These two guides generously update this template. The authors (Jeremy McInerney on Greece; David Potter on Rome) are professors with a superb range of technical background, but their prose has the clarity that comes with real expertise. There are dozens of colour illustrations, and plenty of maps too.

There will be no more wondering where Boeotia is, or how to tell the difference between a volute and a bell krater. No more wondering what a vomitorium is, or how Marcus Claudius Marcellus obtained the highest battlefield honour, the spolia optima.It's all here, from economics to religion, war to peace, theatre to politics. Nothing is taken for granted, and nothing is left out.

'The Greeks valued truth and beauty. Sometimes this can be difficult for us to grasp; the beauty of their poetry, for example, often eludes our ears, since it depends on complex metrical schemes that are closer to opera than our beat-driven metres,' says McInerney in his introduction.

'When studied in large numbers, coins offer very important evidence for the structure of the economy,' writes Potter. 'Because they are often encoded with low-level propagandistic messages – much as postage stamps often are today – they can also show how people might be taught to envisage their leaders, some significant events of the past, or even the jobs of their leaders.'

McInerney follows his metrical observation by discussing Homer. Potter moves his numismatic summary into a detailed study of how junior magistrates controlled minting operations in the Roman republic. Step by step, the reader is introduced to the historical complexities and a web of understanding woven around the ancient languages. Thi, in turn, makes the learning of the languages easier. No excuses, back to your grammars.

Dominic Green