By David Stuttard
Thames & Hudson (2014) h/b 288pp £19.95 (ISBN 9780500252055)
On opening this book I was whisked back over half a century to those beloved reads which first drew me into the world of classics: Mary McGregor’s Story of Greece/ Rome, Men and Gods, and Charles Kingsley, for here we have the lives, in three or four pages each, of key players in Greek history, from c. 700-150 BC (Homer to Polybius via Pericles, Socrates, Alexander and all the usual suspects). Not that there is anything dated about this book, or cutely retro, nor does it suggest that history is about what the ‘great’ do and say. Rather, there is nothing current in the market, as far as I know, that takes this portmanteau approach to Greek history. It will, however, be noted that, of the fifty lives, only two are women. That’s (ancient) historiography for you.
But what S. has done is far cleverer than package fifty lives. This is a chronological narrative history of Greece, within which these lives are milestones. This does mean that there is a degree of toing and froing at the beginning of some of the lives in order to shuffle us to the right spot on the timeline, but that does not upset the overall flow. Further, there may be nothing new in these lives, but then a book like this is not the place for that. It is the place, however, for a retelling of these great lives with the verve to keep the general reader turning the pages.
One must say something of the volume itself, too. The production values are high, as you would expect of a T&H book. Under the dust cover showing the Deer Hunt mosaic from Pella are beautiful cream coloured boards blind impressed with two dolphins counterpoised. The flyleaves are the colour of red figure ware, and the content is printed on heavyweight ivory stock in a crisp, clear serif font. The 78 illustrations are excellent, and the colour plates exemplary. They are high resolution prints direct onto the ivory paper, so that the texture enhances their wonderfully true colour.
There should surely be a copy in every school library, as there should be in the Christmas stocking of everyone, young and old alike, with enquiring minds and an appreciation of quality. This book will give great pleasure to all who dip into its riches.