By James Renshaw
Bloomsbury (2nd ed., 2015) p/b 442pp £19.99 (ISBN 9781472530264)
This is a big, handsome book, beautifully presented and lavishly illustrated with plans, maps, and photographs. Everything is done to facilitate the introduction of the non-specialist to key aspects of the ancient Greek world, without the detailed analysis you would expect from the great scholastic tomes. This, then, is not ancient history, though chapter 1 (new to this edition) does take us from Minoan civilisation to the fall of Byzantium (in 82 pages!), to enable the reader to locate themselves, at any point of the book, in this narrative timeline (there’s also a diagrammatic timeline at the back).
The rest is about aspects of ancient civilisation, with chapters on religion, sport, thought, society, democracy, drama and Sparta (though not art and architecture—just too much, and needing a book of its own). If the reader wants to pursue this general coverage further, that too is made easy with regular suggestions for extended reading throughout the book, and sources of quotations provided at the back. And to enhance this delightful introduction to the Greek world there are further resources on the website, including some fabulous photographs of many of the sites mentioned (click on the link or enter the address in the address box at the top of your screen, not, like me, in the search engine).
This general reader, though, may well feel that the book comes on a bit like a text book, and would not be surprised to see that it is mentioned as a secondary source on the OCR website. None of this should put off the generalist, who will benefit, too, from the pedagogical techniques that suffuse the text. Thus this general introduction deploys a deceptively simple language level—nothing patronising or childish—just enough to ensure that the words don’t get in the way of the concepts. The hierarchy of headings and subs is mercifully brief. On almost every page the text is punctuated by illustrations or text boxes with more information, summaries, suggestions for further reading, or reflection on and discussion of issues that arise.
This is surely the most comprehensive introduction to Greek civilisation on the market, and if it isn’t that, it’s the most attractive. This is the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to dip their toe in the water, to the student facing exams, and to the teacher who wants a book they can rely on to inform, motivate and extend the student.