When I Wanted to Know Everything in the World
Around the time that I was ready to go to kindergarten, my parents bought a set of the World Book Encyclopedia—I suppose it would have been the 1970 or 1971 edition. I think I must have spent a good part of the next ten years drawn to those white and green volumes, caught like a satellite in their gravitational pull. I can’t say that a read the whole set from start-to-finish, and I certainly was as taken with the illustrations as with the articles: under “H” could be found an anatomical illustration of the human body in a layered series of transparencies that could be peeled back one by one to reveal more and more organs! But this did not engender an affinity for slasher films or horror shows. What it did do was instill in me a great love of looking things up, alongside a corollary belief: that anything a person wanted to know could be found in a book.
That belief has never really been shaken, even though some forty years later I know that quite a lot of things are not to be found in books, and that many of the things one does find, are wrong. Nevertheless, books remain for me—even in this era of “cloud computing”—the primary repository of the things we know. This is why I have a kind of magpie attraction to reference books of all kinds. Atlases, dictionaries, encyclopedias, multi-volume histories . . . I’m mad for all this stuff, and apparently always have been. That story in my biography at the end of this piece about trading in jewelry for a dictionary? Absolutely true. What it doesn’t say is that it was a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and I was nine.
When I was old enough to visit bookshops on my own and buy my own books, I frequently came away with cheap paperback editions of reference books. There was a time in high school when the books on the shelf in my bedroom were stuffed with pocket-sized Penguin Histories of..., or Penguin Portable Readers of..., well, almost any subject. I had one on the Middle Ages, one on the Renaissance. One on Carl Jung. In fact, Penguin Books became fixed in my mind as the publisher of everything in the world, and for a long time in college when I would haunt the used bookshops I would buy any Penguin Portable Reader book they had in stock, no matter what the subject. A generous person would describe my interests as catholic. Indiscriminate would also be an accurate word.
These days I explore my own idiosyncratic interests in more haphazard, serendipitous ways, but I’ve never quite lost my affection for all things Penguin: publisher of everything in the world. Which is why, no doubt, I was happy to be sent a copy of their The Birth of Classical Europe by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann.
A kind of series “reboot,” (Penguin has a long history of publishing histories of Europe in various editions and incarnations), The Birth of Classical Europe is one of those history books that has almost gone out of fashion. A general history in the grand scale model—covering all of European and Mediterranean history from, as the subtitle puts it, “Troy to Augustine.” From Asia Minor to Northern Britain to the Straits of Gibraltar. From 2000 BC to 400 AD. Covering the rise and decline of at least three major empires, and many, many minor ones, the breadth of its scope is unapologetically vast. The story of classical Europe, the authors seem to suggest, has to be told on the grand scale to be appreciated and understood in its entirety.
It’s a departure from the more usual approach of recent popular histories, which tend to focus on specific people or events, using them to look outwards and upwards to a fuller picture of a culture and time; Steven Johnson’s account of a cholera epidemic in The Ghost Map, Charles Nicholl’s use of a court deposition to show Shakespearean London in The Lodger, Robert O’Connell's recounting of a single Roman battle in The Ghosts of Cannae, to name just a few of the books I’ve talked about in this column. Such histories carry the immediacy of a tight narrative focus, making them fun to read and fascinating to contemplate. But they also perhaps give the reader a skewed sense of an era by treating their narrow subjects out of context. As if we were looking at only the lower left corner of a stained glass window, or standing on the hill of history but only looking out in one direction.
The Birth of Classical Europe’s wide-angle-lens view of classical influence in European history looks out in all directions, making the book something more than simply a general history of some 2,500 years in and around the Mediterranean Sea. The book is written to be comprehensive, rather than controversial, but one of its most important themes lends a depth of clarity to its ambitious subject that is usually absent in general overviews: the theme of cultural memory and identity:
This book offers (among other things) a historical study of memory, which does not draw a simple line between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’ memory claims of the past. All history is an act of remembering, an attempt by the historian to preserve the memory of the past by putting it on record . . . But the historian cannot (or should not) claim to be the simple guardian of the objective truth. History is, at least in part, a constructed artifact, the product of intellectual, social and political pressures.
In other words, it doesn’t really matter if the Romans were not, literally, descended directly from Aeneas of Troy. It does matter that they believed themselves to be, for that belief informed their national character.
Price and Thonemann keep this consideration of cultural memory and identity to the fore as they discuss a historical timeline for the rise of classical civilization that has already been well established. Their style is readable and conversational, but their continued focus on memory, on how the ancients regarded their own past, brings a kind of illumination to periods and events that even classical scholars would find useful and intriguing.
Since the authors are also concerned with the cultural memory of our own era, The Birth of Classical Europe is studded with a multitude of small “inset boxes” —brief digressions into points of interest that have more immediate impact on modern readers. A discussion of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, for example. An explanation of the politics involved in the adoption of our current calendar system. An analysis of Omeros, Derek Walcott’s extended work loosely based on The Iliad. They even suggest, in the section on “for further reading” for the chapter on the Roman Empire, the novelist Robert Harris’ book, Imperium. If The Birth of Classical Europe had been on the shelves at home when I was growing up, no doubt I would have looked at all the pictures and maps and read all the inset boxes before I tried to read the actual book.
In fact, making the reader aware of the many manifestations of the classical world in our own modern era is an important secondary theme in the book, and one that Price and Thonemann do not neglect to bring forward at every convenient opportunity. One of the most startling early digressions includes a discussion of the much-maligned Martin Bernal’s work Black Athena. Bernal posited that the origins of Greek civilization were to be found in Egypt, and that there was a scholarly conspiracy to conceal this fact that amounted to a kind of academic racism. The authors strip away the dismissive “crackpot” enamel that has accumulated over Bernal’s theories and offer, instead, a solid discussion on the concept of “race” in the ancient world which should provide any reader some food for thought.
Because of this thoughtful approach, interrupted by frequent touchstones to other more contemporary times The Birth of Classical Europe never feels weighty, but rather more like a very well planned museum exhibit—the kind that invites you to step close to peer at some intricately carved small object, then stand back and see it in the wider context of an entire culture in an entire age.
People familiar with classical history may feel inclined to pass over the book—it offers no spectacularly new theories, no startling revelations, no new evidence or previously unknown work. Its breadth is so far reaching it perforce leaves as much out as it manages to include. (The Battle of Cannae—such an apparently pivotal point in Roman history, is only a dot on a map on page 23.) It is simply a general account of the rise of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and their lasting effects on European history and culture. But I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the book on the grounds that it covers already familiar territory. It may not tell you anything you don’t already know. But it is very good at making you see what you already know in new ways.
And I’ll admit, when I put down the book, a ream of jottings, and notes and lists of further sources to explore by my side, Penguin Books still held secure its place in my mind as “publisher of everything in the world.” And, almost as if it knew it had to live up to my expectations, a couple days later another book arrived in the mail: The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400 - 1000. Because even the publisher of everything in the world can’t fit it all into one book.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by with the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.