By Jerry Toner
Profile (2015) p/b 152pp £8.99 (ISBN 9781781254202)
OUP has been publishing ‘Very Short Introductions to…’ for over twenty years, and Profile is now trying its luck in the same field with its ‘Ideas in Profile’ series, subtitled ‘Small Introductions to Big Topics’, of which the book under review is the fourth.
Compared with OUP’s productions, this new series is slightly larger in format, but in the same hard-ish paper-back and with the same fold-out front and back covers; the paper is not quite as good, with the result that some of the b/w pictures are of poor quality. There are two maps, one of the Hellenistic World, one of the Roman Empire (none of Greece/Athens), reading lists for each chapter, and an index.
If the series sets out to be unconventional, it certainly succeeds in this case. There is, for example, no introductory trot through the outlines of Greek and Roman history with accompanying time-line. The approach is, in fact, thematic, the themes very much in line with T.’s interests, e.g. low-life, slaves, games, gambling, disasters, mental health and the influence of classics on perceptions of other cultures. The Introduction adumbrates a number of such themes (including the wealth-gap, literacy, religion, medicine and sex), and makes the point that science in the cause of archaeology tells us much that is new about the ancient world, as does fitting Greece and Rome into the global picture. Subsequent chapters follow on low-life; the Hellenistic world (cultural spread and its frictions and fusions) and late Roman worlds (Diocletian’s reforms, the rise of Christianity and the effect on the medieval world); the science-archaeology connection, with sections on water-mills, bones, drains and mental health; cultural comparisons between Greeks and Persians, and the Roman and Chinese empires; and a final chapter on the classical world in relation to our understanding of Islam, Edward Gibbon’s take on the Turks, and the use of classicising architecture on military monuments.
This might all be seen as a rather odd pot-pourri of ‘introductions to big topics’; some topics did not strike this reviewer as particularly ‘big’, if by that was meant ‘important to the 21st century’. But that is to miss the point. The study of the ancient world has been taking off in different directions for a very long time now: even as I write, details of a conference flash up on the subject ‘How were bodily fluids, and those who exuded them, received in ancient society?’ The move is away from the study of classical Greek and golden age Roman literature to serious historical and archaeological research into less well-known times and places, while literary studies have morphed into a sometimes rather banal branch of the classical tradition (‘reception studies’). This is largely because knowledge of the language is not as secure among students or even some dons as it used to be, even though there is a vast amount still needing to be done on major historical sources, e.g. commentaries on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, Strabo, Diodorus, Dio and so on. T.’s little book is a stimulating and often eye-opening introduction to the historical, archaeological and cross-cultural sides of this new work.