After reading Bettany Hughes’ meandering and detailed book on Helen of Troy, this promised to be a little more direct. Subtitled A New History, my expectations were a book with a strong narrative backed up with more recent archaeological evidence. Unfortunately it didn’t quite gel like that. The narrative portions essentially feel like an inferior re-write of Homer; and the archaeology is patchy. I understand that our evidence can be slight, but Strauss does not do as good a job as Hughes at stretching that out and forming it into a coherent book.
On the plus side, there is good context setting with the portrayal of the war as a sideline to the great civilisations of the Hittites, Assyrians and Egyptians. But this isn’t a book on the Hittites. It doesn’t provide a tight focus on Bronze age warfare. It isn’t quite a book on Greek society. It dabbles in many topics but none of them really satisfy. Strauss touches on a lot, but this lacks the depth and detail of Bettany Hughes’ work.
Subtitled Goddess, Princess, Whore. This book tries to show the different sides of the infamous Greek beauty Helen of Troy – the figure of worship for many Greeks, the (possible) historical person, and the “bad role model” for women in the eyes of so many writers over the years. To be honest I was expecting a little more focus on literature, but the book actually mostly concentrates on archaeological findings both for Helen and the world she would have inhabited. That turns out to be good thing, as these are the best sections of the book.
I really liked Bettany Hughes’ book on Socrates, The Hemlock Cup, but this one (the earlier of the two) didn’t impress me in quite the same way. At times it feels a bit muddled, with occasional travelogue introductions or personal anecdotes that don’t go anywhere or add much to the book. Hughes’ style of many short chapters means that there’s usually a change of approach coming along shortly, but this can be a bit frustrating at points. The narrative gets broken up constantly by digressions and details and ends up feeling a little long-winded.
Nevertheless the book is packed with detail about Mycenaean Greece. About childhood, royal life, palaces, trade, diplomacy, war, religion. It isn’t quite a biography of the woman herself, but it’s the next thing to it. The discussion of symbolism feels like a good introduction – not entirely complete but that would probably require a much longer book. In all, it’s a solid introduction but it could have been better. The book promises a lot, but only delivers in certain areas.
The main difficulty that Tim Whitmarsh has to deal with in his history of ancient atheism is that their gods are not the same as our Gods. As he repeatedly stresses “Greek religious culture had no sacred text, no orthodoxy, no clear sense if what was ruled in and out of the sacred sphere, and as a result it was not blasphemous to subject the nature if the gods to radical questioning.“. Throughout the many angles and sources that Whitmarsh explores it is difficult to pin point on what level they believe or disbelieve.
In many cases he looks at theomachia, tales of people battling the gods, often in fiction. For instance Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, or parts of Homer. Inevitably the gods win. It’s hard to find material written by or in favour of those who spoke or acted against the gods, but we can see indirectly through character archetypes or specific criticisms that there must have been skepticism and disbelief present in the ancient world.
Philosophy is particularly interesting; the pre-Socratic attempts to explain the world by physical theories; the Epicureans who sidelined the gods; and the Skeptics who expressed criticisms of both belief and disbelief. In general all three of these took the form of “an argument not for the non-existence of the gods but more narrowly for their limited explanatory role“, but things only get more complex as politics jumps into the issue: first with the god kings of the Hellenistic era and then with the divinely ordained expansion of the Roman empire.
Finally things get completely muddled as Christianity emerges and writers start to use atheist as a synonym for heretic (ie. those atheistic polytheists!). Still, the same names come up again and again: Euhemerus, Diagoras of Melos and various Skeptics or Epicurians. The religious tolerance that (mostly) allowed them to exist, disapproved of but free, would now disappear as politics was inextricably linked to religion; a monotheistic religion with rules and ideas set down in text too – that gave little room to manoeuvre.
This is not a straight forward book, the line between theism, atheism and agnosticism is constantly blurred; but that diversity of opinion and thought is interesting in itself. Whitmarsh shows that the scientific world of the Enlightenment was not the first time skepticism raised its head; as indeed those 18th century thinkers with their familiarity of classics would have realized. It is to the reader to make of this what he or she will, but Whitmarsh hopes it will show up modern skepticism as neither a fad nor an innovation, rather an idea with a history at least as old as the Abrahamic religions.
As part of a self-improving attempt to actually read ancient historical sources (albeit translated into English), I read Appian‘s Campaigns of Alexander recently. Given some of the dry stuff out there, I was surprised at how well it stood up. It reads like the more narrative end of modern military history. It would be pushing it to compare it to historical fiction, but there is elements of that.
I also listened to Jamie Redfern‘s A History of Alexander podcast for some commentary on the source. Originally from 2011-2012, it’s probably in the first wave of podcast inspired by Mike Duncan’s History of Rome. As with many of these, initially the production can be a little rough but it settles down (I think there’s even a remastered version that I somehow missed).
There were some nice comparisons of the sources (Appian being his favourite) and discussions where things may have been obscure, as well as the occasional bit of humour. Actually, with the most exciting scenes quoted on the podcast it almost worked as an audiobook alternative.
What else is there to add? The story of Alexander is a classic. There are battles, intrigue, a clash of cultures. In either form, it’s very enjoyable.
Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.
The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.
Continue reading Post 55: History of Philosophy part 2
Covering the entire history of philosophy in one go is a tough challenge. Even covering an (so far) unfinished podcast series on the history of philosophy is pretty daunting. Peter Adamson in his series History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps) makes it as easy as possible though, with an approachable and accessible style and structure. Each podcast episode is twenty to thirty minutes in length and covers a single philosopher or a single topic; generally following on in chronological fashion. The website is rather handily divided into broad eras (so far Classical, Later Antiquity and Islamic) which are then subdivided into smaller sections – this makes things easily navigable, but it is a continuous podcast and episodes do link neatly from one to the next (with the occasional interview episode). Unlike many podcasts, which are run by enthusiastic amateurs, this is run by an enthusiastic professor (based at King’s College London and LMU in Munich) with support from the Leverhulme Trust. Don’t be intimidated though, it works like the rest but perhaps with more confidence and an impression series of knowledgeable guests.
Continue reading Post 37: History of Philosophy part 1