Yale (2018) h/b 375pp £20 (ISBN 9780300217117)

There are several good introductions to ancient Greece and to ancient Rome, but far fewer to both combined, which is what S. offers here in this very readable and engaging new book. He treats the history of classical civilization as a single story—one with its highways and byways, to be sure, but with a clear, continuous thread, showing how these two intermingled cultures responded to external pressures and opportunities from the late Bronze age through to the Arab conquest of Roman Jerusalem in the seventh century AD. 

S. writes in an attractive, conversational style, with many vivid examples and anecdotes drawn from his personal experience as an archaeologist, teacher, television presenter and tour guide. There is also a wealth of apt, translated quotations from ancient authors and inscriptions to give context and colour to the narrative. The emphasis throughout is on explaining how this extraordinarily rich civilization came into being—and sustained itself over so long a period and in such a way that it remains an active resource and stimulus for us today. The legacy to Western civilization from these ancient Mediterranean cultures turns out to be Western civilisation itself.

S. tells the story of the Greeks in the twelve chapters of Part 1. He begins with a brief survey of the Neolithic agricultural revolution, in which the first settled communities emerged, and the great palace cultures of the Minoans and Mycenaeans; he then takes us through the classical period, dominated politically by the great city states of Athens and Sparta and celebrated for its explosion of creative talent in the arts, literature, philosophy and science; on to the ‘brilliant flash of lightning’ that was Alexander the Great, whose prodigious conquests extended Greek influence as far as modern-day Pakistan. This first Part ends with the ‘Game of Thrones’ in which the warlords succeeding Alexander divided up the Hellenistic world.

Part 2 consists of nine further chapters, showing how Rome assimilated and adapted the Greek inheritance, effectively transforming it into a global super-culture. The narrative runs from the early battles the Republic fought to defend and expand its territory, to the civil wars that led to the autocracy of Caesar and then to the succession of Emperors. S. argues that a distinctive feature of Roman imperialism, apart from their famous military prowess, was their ability to incorporate outsiders into their own political system. The final chapters chart the special challenges to this strategy posed by Christianity and other religions, the progressive breakup of empire and the final capitulation to invaders from both East and West.

There is an eight-page section of attractive colour plates (which could perhaps have been usefully cross-referenced more in the text) and a section of notes, consisting mainly of references (though not keyed to the text pages). Interspersed in the text are five very clear and helpful maps to support the exposition. Yale has, as usual, done an excellent job on the design and manufacture and has produced a handsome book that it is a pleasure to handle and read.

The work as a whole will make an excellent introduction to the classical world both for general readers with little prior knowledge and for students seeking to expand their knowledge and challenge some of their received ideas.

Jeremy Mynott