As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn. The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.
I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes. I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.
I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past. They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books. This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.
Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant
I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion. Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era. His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.
The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag. The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time). The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over. This all comes to make sense later.
The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion. He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation. In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.
This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point. Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe. Was this the true peak of the Roman empire? Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point. Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.
A short post here on a short book. Michael Grant was a classicist with a reputation for writing short and popular, but comprehensive, books on Rome and this volume from 1996 is no exception. He condenses the fifty event filled years of the Severan dynasty (and the brief reign of Macrinus) into under ninety pages. The structure of the book is thematic rather than narrative, and chapters on finance, literature and art give perspectives often forgotten in more story-driven popular history.
However, the brevity of the book can be an issue. Chapters on the law, the army and the infamous Severan women could perhaps do with more elaboration and often seem to be expecting the reader to be working from an already advanced position. Grant clearly has some interesting things to say, but he doesn’t do himself justice at this breakneck pace. Some of the climactic events of the period are also brushed past in a somewhat underwhelming way, making the narrative chapters seem a bit uneven.
It’s certainly meant to be read as part of a wider reading list and used as a launching off point for further exploration – and in that it does a decent job. On its own, however, it does nothing but whet the appetite and occasionally make me wish I’d be a little more prepared before jumping in.