Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.8

Charles Freeman, Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. xvi + 638, 40 pls. $39.95. ISBN 0-19-815003-2.

Reviewed by Brian Muhs, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

In this volume Freeman has undertaken a grand task, one that would likely scare off most potential authors. He deserves praise for the sheer quantity of material which he has distilled and presented in his narrative. The relative dearth of comparable texts is testimony for the difficulty of this project.

According to the dustjacket, this book "is a unique and comprehensive introduction to the ancient Mediterranean and its three major civilizations, Egypt, Greece, and Rome." Organized into thirty chapters with five interludes, an epilogue, suggestions for further reading, and a date chart, the book presents its material in an essentially chronological fashion. Thus the reader is introduced to Egypt before Greece. Yet, since this is not merely to be a narrative history, Freeman has chosen to group certain materials by topic as well. Thus there are specific, thematic chapters such as "Daily Life in New Kingdom Egypt" and "From Aeschylus to Aristotle" to give two examples. The book also offers the reader forty plates as well as numerous illustration and maps.

Freeman presents the reader with a text that is for the most part enjoyable and clear. His decision to dispense with footnotes, while frustrating to the scholar, will probably be appreciated by the novice who just wants a simple, straightforward narrative. His blend of archaeology and philology serves to provide the reader with a holistic view of the ancient world. Indeed, it is in the presentation of these data, the literary and the material, that his book is a success, for he has done this with a mind-boggling historical sweep. The interludes are successful in that they focus the reader's attention on a particular topic of interest that, if presented piecemeal in the main text, might not have received much of the reader's attention. His list of suggested readings is comprehensive and can certainly act as a good hunting ground for anyone just starting off in these fields. The datelist at the end of the book is very well done, presenting many important dates and events not only for Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but for Etruscans, Hittites, Israelites, Mesopotamians, Minoans, and Persians as well.

A few comments should be made in general about Freeman's approach. The book's raison d'être is to present the ancient world to an audience largely ignorant of it due to the demise of 'classical' education. According to Freeman, this demise has led to more critical analyses of the classical texts and to a greater recognition of the influence of other ancient Mediterranean civilizations on Greece and Rome, while advances in epigraphy and archaeology have helped to round out the picture given by philology. Ecumenical sentiments aside, he still views the ancient world from a classical perspective, exemplified by his use of 'the classical world' as a virtual synonym for 'the ancient world'. Egypt is given only a fraction of the coverage of Greece and Rome, and the other ancient Near Eastern civilizations are barely mentioned, though there is no shortage of sources whether textual or archaeological from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Readers who are looking for something broader than a fairly traditional classical perspective will be severely disappointed.

Freeman appears to operate under an a priori assumption that Egypt is "an essentially conservative society" that had "a pathological fear of disorder" (p. 57). This conservatism, however, is more apparent than real, for while it is true that Egypt retained many of its culturally-loaded symbols throughout much of its history, this iconography was constantly augmented and reinterpreted in order to keep it relevant to a continually changing society. The failure to acknowledge this flexibility is merely symptomatic of an annoying double standard which Freeman applies to the historical data. For example, the reuse and reinterpretation of classical iconography by modern western civilization is ironically enough celebrated as continuity by Freeman and is used to justify the study of the classical world, even as he condemns it as conservatism among the ancient Egyptians. Similarly, the representation of Hatshepsut as a male king is not interpreted simply as an attempt to justify her status and show that she is a normal part of the royal tradition, but rather as a "fascinating example of the ways in which Egyptian rulers moulded their image to fit within the patterns established in earlier centuries" (p. 34). When, however, the fourth century Athenians make appeals to Solon or Cleisthenes, this is merely interpreted as a way of justifying legal changes or innovations (p. 215). When Augustus consolidates his position within the confines of a Republican mirage, this, again, is not interpreted as symbolic of conservatism, though Augustus himself might not have shied from such a label (p. 383). Indeed, without such a preconception there would be no reason for a reader looking at Plate II to conclude, as Freeman does, that the Egyptian depiction of the afterlife represents a particular concern with "order" while the depiction of the Etruscan afterlife reflects a desire for "leisure."

In a work of this nature, it is expected that the author will have been forced to gloss over the complexity of various issues because of the need to save space and provide a readable text which does not bog the reader down in a morass of details. Thus constrained, Freeman has, however, at times produced a fairly misleading text. For example, he discusses the royal pit tombs of the first dynasties and the royal pyramid tombs of the Old Kingdom (p. 21-25), but he does not mention that royal pyramid tombs continued to be built on a smaller scale during the Middle Kingdom or that they were discontinued in the New Kingdom in favor of inconspicuous underground tombs. When describing the vast temple building program of Amenhotep III (p. 38-39), he overlooks the fact that this program was part of a general trend toward larger and more richly decorated temples during the New Kingdom and afterwards, a trend inversely proportional to the trend toward more inconspicuous royal tombs, suggesting that profound changes in Egyptian royal ideology were part of the background to the religious revolution of Amenhotep III's son, Akhenaten.

Regarding Greece, he refers to "the Delian League, so called because its treasury and meeting place were on the centrally placed island of Delos" (p. 125), failing to note that 'Delian League' is a modern name. While it is true that Athenian citizenship was jealously guarded, anyone who reads Freeman's statement that the child of a hetaira and Athenian "could never be recognized as a citizen" will instantly recall the exceptional case of Pericles' own son (p. 177). In explaining the argument about the role of the male in procreation as presented in the Eumenides, he seems not to understand the implications in terms of Orestes' murder of Clytemnestra. According to him, Clytemnestra' crime was in killing a man and the potential future generations that he represented. Yet the argument clearly relates to the question of whether or not Orestes was in fact related by blood to his mother (p. 220). Elsewhere he says that Haemon died simply because he loved Antigone, never mentioning that he and she were to be married (p. 222). For Freeman, Plato's Apology is Socrates' defense speech (p. 228). His comments that "there is no evidence that Socrates' accusers were out to put him to death" is very misleading without some explanation of how penalties were determined by Athenian courts (p. 230). Alcibiades was not charged with defacing the herms, but with profaning the mysteries (p. 243).

His Roman chapters, which are the most reliable, also suffer from misleading statements. Jupiter, the reader is told, was "introduced by the Etruscans" (p. 313). Cicero was born in 106 BC, not 104 (p. 350). The laudatio turiae was not a product of the late Republic, but rather the early principate (p. 384). Trimalchio, while certainly the central figure at his dinner party, is not the main character of the Satyricon (pp. 403 and 456). St. Paul was beaten despite the fact that he was a Roman citizen (p. 432). Gordian III was subsequent to Pupienus and Balbinus, not a coregent as implied (p. 471). The inflation of the third century was not simply a result of debasement. Token coinage does not ipso facto result in the kind of inflation witnessed during the third century. Rather, the context of unstable government and social upheaval inter alia must surely have rendered any debased coinage doomed to failure (p. 473). The statement that the synoptic gospels are the only ones to have survived since antiquity is unintelligible in light, not only of the Gospel of Thomas, but also of the Gospel of Peter, to name two (p. 483).

On a much more mundane level, the use of transliteration is inconsistent. Forgetting the question of how to deal with proper names like Thucydides, it is important, no matter what course is chosen, to at least be consistent. Freeman's text presents us with kleruchos as opposed to klerukhos at page 212 but cleruchies in the index (p. 622). Likewise, at page 192 we find charis as opposed to kharis. Similarly, it would be useful from the perspective of a beginner to know that Amenhotep III is Amenophis III (p. 38). In terms of quotations, it is extremely frustrating that he rarely if ever provides a specific citation for a quotation, leaving the reader without any assistance should the surrounding context of a piece be of further interest.

The proofreading in this book is unacceptable, especially given its price. Leaving aside punctuation, Freeman's book suffers from misspellings and typographical errors which do him a complete disservice. At times the results can be humorous, as when a subchapter referring to the end of the Egyptian New Kingdom is mistakenly titled "The Disintegration of the Old Kingdom" (p. 43) or when in discussing the purchasing power of Roman coins, he writes, " an ass would buy admission to the baths and two asses the favors of a prostitute" (p. 455). At other times, however, the results are simply misleading in a way which is not likely to be noticed by a reader who is unfamiliar with the information. To give just a few specifics: the UR III period is traditionally dated 2114-2004, not 2214-2004 (p. 63); Athens emerged as a major power in the seventh not seventeenth century (p. 125); the Spartan king was Damaratus, not Damartatus (p.124); Brasidas raided Chalcidice in 424 not 524 (p. 242); the Esquiline treasure is dated to c. 380 A.D. rather than B.C. (pl. XXIV); the philosopher was Proclus, not Proculs (p. 540).

If Freeman's book goes into a second edition, there are some areas that would benefit from further discussion. First, the Mesoptomians deserve more space than they are given. The contacts between Greeks and the cultures of the Levant and Mesopotamia are extensive and should be more fully explored. Furthermore, the notion of chronology should be explained. Egypt and Mesopotamia are both dated according to high, middle, or low chronologies. It would be worthwhile for the student to be introduced to these notions, and for Freeman to make clear just which chronology he is using in his text. Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature deserve more extensive treatment than they have received in this text, especially since translations of most major texts are readily available nowadays. Freeman wisely directs the reader to Miriam Lichtheim's work for Egyptian literature,1 but Akkadian literature is accessible in Ben Foster's Before the Muses,2, Sumerian literature in Thorkild Jacobsen's The Harps that Once...,3 and much from the Levant has recently been published in William Hallo's The Context of Scripture,4 which provides in one (soon to be three) volume, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Ugaritic literature.

Though not crucial, the legend of Cypselus would be more interesting if discussed in the broader context of similar legends such as that of Moses, Sargon of Akkade, or Romulus and Remus. His discussions of the panhellenic games would be improved by an acknowledgement of the Heraia. The issue of Socrates' execution might be nice topic for an interlude. Such an interlude would allow for a more balanced consideration of the various comments of Xenophon, Aristophanes, Plato, and Aeschines. The political significance of the Great Dionysia would be clearer if the fact that it was the event where members of the Delian league presented their tribute was mentioned (p. 220). In general, the book would benefit from the timely presentation of terms. His discussion of Roman coinage, for example, should be moved from page 455 to an earlier position so that words like sestertius and denarius are a little clearer from the time of their first mention. Nowhere does Freeman present a coherent description of the institutions of Republican government at Rome. Under a separate heading, he could easily present the comitia, the senatus, and the officers. Similarly, readers would benefit from a clear presentation of the cliens and patronus. It is surely an oversight that Lucan is never mentioned. The Praetorian guard deserves a more coherent presentation than it receives, especially given its intermittent role as king maker during the empire. The forty plates, which apparently are to show the continuity of ancient themes in later art and architecture, are never integrated into the text and remain an odd appendage to the book.

In summary, Freeman has synthesized a great deal of material and presented it in a fairly clear and straightforward narrative making it accessible to an audience otherwise ignorant of the ancient world. Inevitably, the book has biases and idiosyncracies which reflect the author's own point of view. Still, Freeman's goal is laudable one, and a second edition could fill an important gap in the extant literature on the ancient world.


1. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Berkeley, 1975-80, 3 vols.

2. Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, Bethesda, 1996, 2 vols.

3. Thorkild Jacobsen, The Harps that once : Sumerian Poetry in Translation, New Haven, 1987.

4. William W. Hallo, ed., The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, Leiden, 1997, vol. 1. This collection of texts, along with the two other forthcoming companion volumes, is designed not as simply a new version of Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, but as a compendium that provides up-to-date translations of texts that are relevant for biblical scholarship.