The Story of Greece and Rome
Tony Spawforth
Yale University Press 2018
375pp, 27 colour and five black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £20

Tony Spawforth's latest work, The Story of Greece and Rome, is well named. The rise and fall of these two great civilisations has all the components of a marvellous story that grips and enthrals us. Here is a chronicle replete with tales of extraordinary ability and inventiveness, of courage and cowardice, artistic and creative genius, of astonishing savagery and the hubris and failings that brought about disaster, of the love and passions that have continued to course through history, changing little down to our own times. It is also the story of societies that produced some of the most extraordinary personalities that ever flared across the path of human history.

The work is aimed, says Spawforth – emeritus professor of ancient history at Newcastle University, a presenter of archaeological television documentaries and author of numerous works on the ancient world – at readers who are interested enough in the topic to read the book, but who have little or no background in the disciplines of Classics or Ancient History. Nevertheless, even readers familiar with the territory should be amply entertained
by Spawforth's erudite and entertaining chronicle of the rise and fall of these two outstanding and interlinked societies.

The history is told in roughly chronological order and Spawforth moves the reader from one subject to another with the agility and grace of the best of storytellers. A plethora of information charts the rich and dramatic currents of these two civilisations: the invention of pottery and coinage, the enterprising traders of the ancient world, the migrations of populations, the rise of the Greek city-states, the birth of philosophy and the invention of coinage, to the wave of temple-building in ancient Greece.

Spawforth charts the eager adoption of Greek culture by the Romans from its art and architecture to its zest for rhetoric and how it flowed into the Roman world: when Augustus embarked on his lavish building programme in Rome to make it into a fitting capital of the empire, he turned to the Greeks for inspiration.

Readers are not spared the sometimes jarring realities that can challenge our often comfortable preconceptions. The astonishing ensemble of buildings that beautify the Acropolis in Athens and so embody the brilliance of the Greek Classical age were financed by funds raided from the war-chest Athens and her Greek allies had marshaled to ward off any further unwelcome advances by the Persians. When the island of Melos refused to join the alliance, Athens laid siege, killing its men and selling its women and children into slavery. But the ironies of fate abound – Spawforth is a keen observer of them: when the defensive walls around Athens were extended to include Piraeus to ward off the Spartans – a civil engineering feat – a lethal plague broke out in the crowded city, claiming a multitude of lives, including that of Pericles himself in 429 BC.

Spawforth draws on a rich variety of material to tell his story, including the Classics and archaeological evidence. His discussions of the traces and influences of the ancient world, which are all about us, although not always known or appreciated, bring the story of the Greece and Rome into our own lives.

The many brief and engaging anecdotes that Spawforth has collected during his long career in history and archaeology help to draw us in and make us feel part of the wonder and delight of his exploration of
the Classical world.

Diana Bentley

 

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