Returning to the Past
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
The ancient world is a fascinating place. Science had its birth in the musings of Heraclitus, Parmenides, Anaximander, and the other philosophers who lived before Plato. Aristotle’s ideas about biology were surpassed only in the nineteenth century by Darwin’s discovery of the process of evolution. Of course, from Plato and Aristotle onward, philosophy developed in Greece and challenged the reigning religious worldview. Sophocles and Aeschylus captured the evolving political scene—the movement from oligarchy to democracy—in their play cycles, Oedipus and Agamemnon, respectively. Aristophanes, Menander, and Plautus captured these same political upheavals in their own uproarious comedies. Ancient Greek and Roman societies also gave us the gladiators, the coliseum, the gymnasium, and the hippodrome. Finally, Plato’s The Republic paints a rather prescient portrait of our own political culture.
A number of excellent books offer cultural histories on ancient Greece in particular. James Davidson’s marvelous Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passion of Classical Athens, E.R. Dodds’ now-classic The Greeks and the Irrational, and Erich Segal’s splendid history of Greek and Roman comedies, The Death of Comedy are all good places to start in a quest to enter the quarters of the ancient world.
Three new books also offer some fresh perspectives on this world. Vicki León’s Working IX To V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World is an entertaining guide to jobs in the ancient world. León introduces us to the wide array of professions held by men and women in Greco-Roman society. With short and humorous anecdotes, she describes the daily grind of workers ranging from scribes, vestal virgins, fishmongers, astronomers, and sophists to hoplite slaves, sellers of purple, curse-tablet makers, funeral clowns, sycophants, and orgy planners. Scribes, for example, were speed-writers who not only recorded public information but also acted as journalists who jotted down juicy tales of love, death, and political intrigue in the Daily Record. The beast supplier, or praepositus camelorum, tracked, captured, and supplied all the animals used in gladiatorial contests and circuses in arenas around Rome. León weaves sketches of actual people employed in many of the professions she describes. Banker’s son Apollodorus turned into a litigator after he discovered that his father had willed his fortune to a slave. He then built a beautiful sailing vessel and quickly amassed a fortune in a short span, only to end up bankrupt in a year. Drawing on the same outrageous sense of humor that’s made her Uppity Women series so popular, León demonstrates how uncannily similar the workaday worlds of many workers in the ancient world are to ours.
In 160 CE, the Greek philosopher and councilor, Herodes, killed his eight-months pregnant Roman wife, Regilla. Drawing on archaeological and textual evidence, Sarah B. Pomeroy Pomeroy, author of the now-classic study of women in classic antiquity, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves, carefully reconstructs Regilla’s life and her eventual murder in The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity. She splendidly recreates Regilla’s culture and its attitudes toward women. Regilla’s case is a bit special, since she was an upper-class woman who did have an opportunity for some schooling and had a greater opportunity for exposure to the cultural affairs of her husband. She owned her own property, which became a sore spot in her marriage to Herodes. Although she was educated, she likely could not communicate well in Greek, nor could she match wits with her husband and his oratorical skills. In other ways, though, Regilla was hardly unique. She married young, and she performed the duties of a wife in the Roman Empire—bearing babies. As Pomeroy points out, Athenians interpreted Regilla’s life in terms of a Greek tragedy; she was a woman whose excessive good fortune led to pride and a violent catastrophe; in this case, she was murdered by her husband. The illustrations and inscriptions that Pomeroy includes in the book bring Regilla to life. Pomeroy’s account is not only a masterful recreation of life in first-century Greece; it also recovers a woman whose life until now has been lost to history.
In Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire Judith Herrin offers glimpses of an often forgotten portion of the ancient world. For many people, the word “Byzantine” connotes opacity, duplicity, and hypocrisy, and Byzantium conjures up a kingdom of ostentatious wealth, political treachery, and religious intrigue. In this brilliant study of the history of the Byzantine empire, Herrin—whose groundbreaking The Formation of Christendom challenged traditional views on the development of Christianity—counters these caricatures and draws a portrait of a dynamic empire bequeathing advances in government, art, and education to world history. Herrin moves across the stage of history in lively fashion, chronicling the rise of Byzantium in 306 through its glory days in the eighth century to its eventual demise at the hands of the Ottomans in the fourteenth century. Along the way, she introduces an astonishing cast of characters from the empire’s first leader, Constantine I, to religious leaders such as Patriarch Photios and the great twelfth-century woman historian Anna Komnene, daughter of emperor Alexios I who celebrated her father’s reign, the history of the empire, and the biography of her family in her own Odyssey-like historical epic, the Alexiad. Drawing upon numerous letters, journals, and other primary documents from both political figures and ordinary citizens of medieval Byzantium, Herrin splendidly recreates an empire whose religious art, educational curriculum, tax system, legal system, and coronation rituals both preserved the best of the empire’s pre-Christian Greek past while at the same time passing along such advances to the world. Herrin’s first-rate history is hands-down the finest introduction to Byzantium and its continuing significance for world history.
These three new books provide insights into a world whose culture now seems so far away but whose ideas continue to shape our politics and literature.
Books mentioned in this column:
Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (Harper)
The Greeks and the Irrational (University of California)
The Death of Comedy (Harvard)
Working IX To V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns, and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World (Walker)
The Murder of Regilla: A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity (Harvard)
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Princeton)
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Contact Henry.