While I tinker with horrible legacy Word files listing people who turn up in various Catalan charters on the one hand, do my actual job by way of finishing images of unofficial 18th-century token coins on the other, and assimilate various other things that we’re not talking about here any more, I also find time for a bit of reading. I have to, because over the last year and a bit, I have amassed a ridiculous to-read pile. It started with my starting to clear house and thus becoming a member of various give-away groups on the Internets—and some of them were giving away books. It continued with my finally redeeming the prize I won from Blackwells for my EME paper (which they would give me only in the form of their books, but that’s OK, they have a few.) Then I went to Leeds, and for the first time did so with a salary, and the bookfairs of the International Medieval Congress are dangerous to a young man in such a condition, who must inevitably be in want of a library. And finally I was allowed to take home quite a lot from the shelves of the about-to-be-vacated office of the person at KCL whose courses I was teaching last year, I mean, really quite a lot. My to-read pile is now arguably larger than my entire other book holdings, and I have a teaching library of some standard, most of which I haven’t actually read…
Now because as we know Life Gets in the Way, even before all that lot arrived I had books in the pile from 2006. That was clearly getting silly, and so I pulled open a hole in my schedule and found more idle reading time. The main rule is `no notes, just read’, because I’d almost forgotten how to read for fun. So even though a lot of the pile is academic, I’m trying to read it for leisure. And recently that has led me to the following two books, Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: an epic history from Homer to Hadrian (Harmondsworth: Penguin 2005) and Pierre Bauduin (ed.), Les fondations scandinaves en Occident et les débuts du duché de Normandie : Colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle (25-29 septembre 2002) (Caen: CRAHM 2005). The latter I’m still getting through, though interesting stuff already, but the former I can speak on now.
The Fox book was deliberately aimed at the popular market, I’m sure, and I’m not sure I’d like to meet the author given what he seems to think that market wants, but there is no question that as a work of narrative history it’s a tour de force. (Even Peter Heather thinks so, if you don’t believe me.) The conceit of the book, which is that it’s a history to explain Hadrian’s world to him, gets a little annoying, but nonetheless in six hundred pages you get from pre-Classical Greece to late Classical Rome and finish with some sense of how it ties together. (Not that history does always do that, of course, but moving on.) The front cover, as has been mentioned, manages to call this epic three times, once in the title and twice in the review quotes, but really it’s not, it’s better done than that. We have relatively little narrative detail for Ancient Greece, and rather more for Middle Rome; correspondingly, the Greek sections of the book have more chapters about society and lifestyle (always including sex; classicists are allowed to do this, medievalists not, as we have observed) and the Roman ones fewer. The pace therefore varies rather, and sometimes, as with Alexander the Great most of all, it is too short: the boy emperor is dealt with in about twenty pages and leaves very little explained (though now we know more anyway). Fox clearly also thought this was unjust as I see he has now published a full-length work on Alexander alone, so I admire his restraint.
Only one thing irks me about the book, really, aside from the author’s delight in smut, which is at least being true to his sources. That thing is one that the ‘epic’ review quote denies, by saying that Fox tells the story “without moralising”. Yeah right. We are repeatedly told how great Athenian democracy was, slavery not withstanding, and contemporary moral perspectives are given on most of the lead characters. Fox likes rogues, dislikes prudes and those who disdain others for failings they possess, and tells us his views quite forthrightly. One can only assume that the quoted reviewer missed this simply because he agreed. Fox doesn’t do this by way of approval or censure, mind, just pointing out the difference, but I still notice it every time. It shouldn’t hinder you from reading an excellent book, though you will find it hard to follow up the references (these are sparing but effective) as he uses some system of short titles for the primary sources that isn’t expanded anywhere! argh. It is not perhaps an introduction for scholars; but for what happened in what order and who such and such a person was, and where in the story they all fit, not at all bad, not at all bad.