The Story of Greece and Rome

By Tony Spawforth

Yale University Press. 392 pp. $30

Reviewed by John Timpane

From time to time, people ask me, “What’s a good history of Greece and Rome I can read?” From now on, I think I’ll recommend this one, a readable tour for all readers.

In The Story of Greece and Rome, onetime professor of ancient history Tony Spawforth has given us a sweeping, beautifully written story covering eight and a half millennia, from the first traces of Neolithic life in what we now call Greece to the fadeaway of Rome in the late 400s A.D. We get the well-known stops on this tour — the Minoans, the Mycenaeans who displaced them, the Dark Age, the Iliad and Odyssey, then the rise of the “classical” Greece that began Western civilization (or so we like to think, as Spawforth points out). Then Rome, from village alliance to world empire, meeting along the way Julius Caesar, Augustus, Cicero, Virgil, Nero, and a cavalcade of generals, warmongers, thugs, and, crucially, historians.

Spawforth brings the archaeological record alive. An Etruscan helmet “signals one of the moments when the candlelight of Etruscan power began to flicker,” marking both a high point and the decline to come. He takes us with him into the field of discovery with excitement-unto-reverence:

Once I came face to face not quite with Alexander the Great, but with what may be his oldest ancient likeness. I had received permission to mount wooden scaffolding in front of Tomb II at Vergina in northern Greece. … For me this was a moment of great privilege: few people before or since have been this close. …

With Spawford as our guide, we grasp a world less of myths and superheroes than of people who really lived.

Also great, we get constant glimpses of the importance of women in the archaic and ancient worlds. Cleopatra, sure, but we meet many others, including Axiothea, a student of Plato who disguised herself as a man. With characteristic wit, Spawforth comments, “the fact that Axiothea … felt obliged to cross-dress suggests strong social disapproval for Greek females spending time in the company of unrelated men.”

He can be very droll, much in the classical sense. As you might expect a classicist to do, he takes aim at 300, the popular 2006 film about the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Why? Because that flick was, as some think, a lurid, racist comic book hash? No: Because the filmmakers unfairly portrayed King Xerxes as beardless: “It denies modern beard-lovers some particularly splendid precursors. Xerxes and other kings of his dynasty sported strikingly long, luxuriant and well-groomed beards in Persian art.”

“With the swords but minus the sorcery,” he writes, “the upheavals in the world following Alexander’s death would not seem alien to fans of Game of Thrones” – such a graceful way to begin a discussion of one of the most confusing stretches of Greek history ever. He praises a “peculiar” bust of the “jowly” warlord Pompey the Great for its “enviously full head of hair” and "the artfully rendered quiff of lustrous locks,” poking fun at the warlord’s self-regard.

This story has surprises. One is the Lefkandi building on the island of Euboea, a rare glimpse into the Dark Age world of the Greeks as of 1000 B.C. Spawforth makes sure to quote a couple of lines from a Sappho poem only recently put together, reminding us that new things are being discovered all the time. I didn’t know Cleopatra was in Rome when Julius Caesar was murdered. And the Antikythera mechanism, a kind of astrological calculating machine, has only recently been comprehensively understood, revealing Greek technology as farther along than many supposed. (Please, objectors, don’t write in. I know folks are arguing about it. Peace and honor to you all.)

And it has tantalizing mysteries and controversies. If the Minoans were so flourishingly successful, who the heck were they, what language did they speak, and how come they have no art about kings or wars? How much of Homer should we take as accurate? Granting there was a Trojan war of some sort, why? How big a deal was it really? Priam and Paris appear to be real people, but what about the head guy, Agamemnon, called “king of all the Greeks,” when we can find no evidence there was such a king? Who were the Trojans? What about those Etruscans? And exactly what role did Christianity play in hastening Rome’s exit?

What a story, one worth reading. Spawforth makes the case for its lasting value: “These are things which suspend despair about the shortcomings of human nature. They bring joy, and hope.”