BMCR 2001.08.03

Representative Chapters in Ancient History: An Introduction to the West’s Classical Experience

, Representative chapters in ancient history : an introduction to the West's classical experience. Lanham: University Press of America, 2000. 2 volumes (xv, 627 pages) : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0761818197. $56.00.

Richard Hooper’s two volume Representative Chapters in Ancient History begins with hominid and human fossils and ends with Justinian’s reign. 45 chapters offer a fine sense of the key events, personalities, and political developments from humankind’s early history in a manageable form—designed to fit in one or two semesters. This text has three great strengths. First, H.’s style is on the mark for his intended audience, the American undergraduate (or advanced high school) student. The writing is fluid and entertaining with frequent modern parallels encouraging the reader to appreciate and test those analogies. Second, H. succeeds admirably in giving a sense not only of what happened (and why), but also of how we know. When were hieroglyphics deciphered? By whom? How? What did we learn? H. tells us. Third, given the vast scope, choices have to be made. H. does a superb job in selecting “representative” chapters in order “to give an accurate feel for what the ancient Mediterranean cultures were like, to explain why they are still important, and to entice…readers to even further reading” (xiv). I question his assertion that “law, religion, and revolution” are the emphasis, for in fact these volumes cover much more.

I applaud H. for taking on the impossible task facing those of us teaching introductory Greek (or ancient) history courses. Can we assume our first- or second-year college students share any common knowledge? Certainly most undergraduates can’t place Greece in the context of the ancient world—we need to do that for them. And there’s the rub: Where to start? The Greeks didn’t exist in a vacuum. Many texts (and courses) begin with the Minoans and Mycenaeans, but what about Egypt—let alone the Phoenicians, the Hittites and Assyrians, Babylon, Ur, and Nineveh? And why stop there? Shouldn’t we mention the agricultural revolution? (You see where I’m headed.) Often my first day of class begins with a time-line indicating the Big Bang, the beginnings of earth, life, and multicellular organisms, the age of dinosaurs, early hominids, paleolithic humans (with a quick look at the Lascaux cave paintings), and finally on to neolithic societies, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Students may be stunned—and forget much of this—but it’s our job to suggest how the Greeks fit into the grand scheme of things. Appreciating these issues, H. offers a reasonable compromise between the history of everything and the “West’s Classical Experience.”

The opening two chapters of Volume I, “From Australopithecus to Alexander,” examine human evolutionary development—and our reconstruction of it over the past 150 years. The first chapter, “Neanderthalphobia” begins with “the most important human fossil,” touches briefly on mitochrondrial DNA, and concludes with the defining marks of Homo sapiens : “symbolism, art, and language” (9). The second chapter, “Survival of the Weakest,” argues that our ancestors evolved as they did because they “lost the battle for the tree tops” (19). H. delights in undermining ideas such as mankind as the crowning achievement of creation or evolution as an inexorable march of progress towards higher forms of life, yet he does so with evidence and argument—an engaging discussion open to any thinking individual, to say nothing of American undergraduates.

Moving on to the neolithic revolution and “The Infertile [sic] Crescent,” H. explores the social effects of agriculture: division of labor, a need for protection (soldiers), and the destruction of a family-oriented society. H.’s discussion of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys examines Babylonian astronomy, Hammurabi’s Code, and Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics (cartouches are included and explained). There are good sections on the rights of Babylonian children, women, and slaves (50-54) and Egyptian religion (76-82). “The Sun King” argues that Akhnaton’s goal was to make himself a messiah figure which explains “his grotesque, effeminate, hermaphroditic appearance…[adopted] in order to symbolize … [a] halfway condition between heaven and earth and between gods and man, [which] often tend[s] to appear half masculine and half feminine” (80). Then in characteristic fashion, H. compares these representations to Buddha, Christ, and American rock stars, “who are the closest thing we have to a messiah on the hoof nowadays” (80). Such provocative comparisons force students to test for similarity and difference—a useful skill for budding historians.

H. then follows a more predictable sequence with a chapter apiece on the Persians, Minoans, Mycenaeans; then Sparta, Athens, the Persian Wars, “The Delian Empire” (somewhat inaccurately titled), the Peloponnesian War; finally the Sicilian Expedition and Alcibiades, Socrates, and a leap to Alexander—a brilliant chapter which retells his epic conquest while weaving in and critiquing the primary sources. Especially stimulating is the idea of Achilles as a model for Alexander (220). H. fruitfully links Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon as three heroes with “that special, natural magic that creates myth and legend” (201). H. is also to be commended for resisting the impulse to simplify. As he asserts: “Nothing in history is the result of a single factor” (76). Fine coverage of battles (though no diagrams) and ostracism, yet Hellenistic history covers less than a page (this will be treated in Vol. II, vis-à-vis the Romans).

Volume II, “From Romulus to Justinian,” begins “Meanwhile back in Italy” (269) and examines Rome and Christianity. Six chapters do a fine job introducing Italian archaeology, Rome’s foundation myths, the Etruscans, Republican heroes Horatius and Cincinnatus, the conflict of the orders in Rome, and the Punic wars. I felt lost without book six of Polybius, for the postulate of inevitable decay works well with undergraduates. (H. later mentions the Second Law of Thermodynamics in connection with the fall of the empire (451), but I prefer Polybius.) H.’s characterization of Rome as “a democratic republic” is extremely misleading (292—my italics).

H’s treatment of Rome’s civil wars caused me some unease. We learn of the problems regarding land, citizenship, and the army, but the term “social” (in Social Wars) is never explained (339). Then “Sulla and Marius are the originals copied by Pompey and Caesar” misfires on several counts (342): neither Pompey or Caesar carried out proscriptions and Pompey was not always allied with the senatorial aristocracy. The account of Caesar’s march down the Italian peninsula neglects highlighting the policy of clementia; we are not told how long Caesar spent in Spain in 49; and I doubt that Caesar had no inkling he was to be appointed dictator, learning this only on his return to Italy—even if that’s what the Civil War commentaries (written by Caesar!) report (364). There are several mistakes (Sulla returns to Rome—with his proscription lists—in 82, not 85—p. 343); Caesar’s victory in Zela was in 47 (not 49—p. 372). And I don’t agree that from the year 56 on, Cicero ceased to play an important role in Roman politics (354)—what of the years 44-43?

H. is excellent on Antony and Cleopatra (“the most famous love story of ancient times”—391) and the Augustan settlement, drawing wisely on Plutarch among others. (Earlier we learn that Crassus’ head was used as a prop in a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae at a Parthian wedding feast—355.) Thereupon follow four solid and thought-provoking chapters on Jesus and the early church (this is a trade-off—H. is pretty superficial on post-Augustan emperors). H. argues that “much of the content … [of the Sermon on the Mount] is probably genuine and at least represents the fundamental beliefs of the historical Jesus” (415). Insisting that we assume Jesus “meant what he said,” H. interprets Jesus’ words as understandable only in an apocalyptic context: “if the end of the world is at hand, then extreme measures are necessary” (432).

The pace quickens. Single chapters cover Tiberius to Diocletian and the last 150 years of the empire (very good on the Germans); these sandwich two chapters on Constantine’s quest for “Christian and imperial unity”: one on his rise to power, the other on the competing factions at the Council of Nicaea. The final two chapters address the Eastern Empire and Justinian’s contribution of reducing Roman law to a more consistent and manageable form—most welcome in emphasizing continuity and influence. As usual, when H. takes on a subject, he does it right. In this case, H. distinguishes Codex, Novels, Digest, and Institutes, and then explores laws regarding persons, things, and actions. Volume II also contains a chatty and useful “Introduction to Bibliography and Further Reading,” extensive ancient and modern bibliographies, and an index.

Several features deserve comment. H.’s forceful prose challenges but does not overwhelm the college student. For example, “The whole idea of an empire is to force somebody else to pay taxes” (on the Persians—97-98); “When a society enters its imperialist stage it has already begun its decline” (fifth-century Athens—160); and “It’s an interesting historical phenomenon that most revolutionary leaders are from the upper classes” (Tiberius Gracchus—333). Perhaps overstated, these maxims force students to apply principles to specific instances in ancient and more recent times—how Thucydidean! We learn aetiologies for 360 degrees, the seven days of the week, the word “gorilla,” and why women wear hats in church (you guessed it—it’s Paul’s fault).

H.’s gifted turns of phrase propel the reader forward. “The mound at Hissarlik was a layer cake, consisting of nine Troys built one on top of another” (113-114); Philippides’ vision of Pan on his way to Sparta is “the worst case of runner’s high on record” (143); Themistocles is a “survivor of the broken pot duels” (i.e., ostracism—148); and finally “Lepidus knew which side of his bread had olive oil on it” (385). Chapters often begin memorably: “Shutruk-nahhunte, whom no one remembers, is primarily responsible for the great fame of King Hammurabi of Babylon” (he lugged the stele with the famous law code back to Susa 500 years after Hammurabi’s death—49); “The allied victory over Persia left Athens with a great navy and a pancake for a city” (157). Folksy wisdom is dispensed: “It’s always a mistake for a stranger to interfere in a family feud” (371—Julius Caesar in Alexandria in 47 B.C.E.); “Greatness to the modern mind means gold” (Schliemann—112). Always witty, H. at times skates close to “cuteness”—”Real men in Greece wore what we would call a dress” (212)—but rarely overdoes it.

Readers will come to expect the modern analogues which H. supplies in great abundance—always with an edge. H. speaks of the Periclean New Deal, the Monroe Doctrine of Sicily, Tiberius Gracchus as “The First Communist,” and “Cato, good Samurai that he was, killed himself at Utica” (372). “Quisling”—likely to mystify students—gets a workout appearing three times, including the Thirty Quislings (tyrants at Athens—185). And Socrates “came across [to fellow Athenians] as a long-haired, bleeding-heart, pinko-faggot-hippie-atheist” (187). Well, maybe H does go too far on occasion.

H.’s eye-opening comparisons include Theramenes and Talleyrand, the economic importance of the Hellespont and the Straits of Hormuz today, Brasidas and Cleon mirroring Wolfe and Montcalm at Quebec (both pairs died in the aftermath of battle), and Constantine’s experience at the Milvian Bridge and Elvis Presley’s vision of Jesus in Flagstaff, Arizona (566 note 14). Brutus in 509 comes on “just like Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel” (277), Alexander’s executions at Susa “turned into a virtual Stalinist purge” (217), and the meeting of the first triumvirs at Luca was “the Roman equivalent of 120 black Cadillacs pulling into Bangor, Maine” (354). Fay Wray in “King Kong” makes a cameo (on a Babylonian ziggurat!—92), yet H. never compares Aristophanes to a combination of Monty Python and Gilbert and Sullivan (oops, that’s one of mine!). I have gone on at length for a reason. H.’s style must be congenial to your taste if you’re to spend a term with him.

Notes need to be consulted, at least by the instructor. This is where H. examines the decipherment of Linear B (243 note 20), the interdependence (codependency?) of archaeologists and classicists (246 note 34), Greek homosexuality (one and a half pages at 250-252 note 21), the debate of the Great Man in History vs. Cultural Determinism (258 note 23), the Roman calendar (544-545 note 1), a valiant attempt to convert the prices in Diocletian’s edict to today’s dollars (563-564 note 23), and Plutarch’s biography (551 note 22—where we learn that Plutarch was Harry Truman’s favorite reading).

Decades of thinking—learning, reading, and teaching—are evident. (H. describes himself as a traditionalist “who hate[s] television and love[s] Tibullus” [561 note 2].) Among authors and works cited, we find the usual suspects: Mommsen, Kagan, Rostovtzeff, Syme, Tenney Frank, Lily Ross Taylor, Walter Burkert, and Peter Green; less predictable are Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Karl Marx, Carl Jung, Erik Satie (on the Gymnopaedie), Lewis Mumford, Levi-Strauss, Richard Leakey, Gore Vidal, Stephen Jay Gould, and National Geographic; more surprising are Benjamin Disraeli, Marlow’s “Tamburlaine,” On The Beach, and the monster’s blood in “Alien.” Alas, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) is missing, and these volumes came out too soon to include articles in National Geographic on the Black Sea evidence for the “great flood” (May 2000 p. 71, May 2001 pp. 52-69, though see H.’s 231 note 9).

Be forewarned of certain weaknesses: no plates, mediocre maps, some “insensitive” language, and a distressing number of typos. If this text is adopted, students must have access to various images (University Prints?): for example, an image rather than H.’s description is essential to appreciate the Minoan snake goddess (103). Still, the decision on artistic images has been made. Maps are included, yet too often there isn’t a map for key episodes (Arcadia in the wake of the Dorian invasion [119], the Tiber River Valley [276], or the city of Rome [283]) or the map itself isn’t helpful. Maps of Greece and Asia Minor at the time of the Peloponnesian War give no indication that Athens controlled islands and coastal cities (158-159); the maps of Alexander’s empire fail to indicate his conquered territory (205, 211); when “Flamininus invade[s] Thessaly” (310), the nearest map of Greece doesn’t indicate Thessaly at all (308); and maps of the late Roman Empire include cities and rivers but fail to indicate the extent of Roman control or where external pressures arise. One diagram would be worth a paragraph in recreating Hannibal’s strategy at Trasimene or Cannae (299, 301)—if you know what happened, you can follow the verbal analysis; otherwise, you’re lost. I might note that linguistic discussion at times is a bit loose: H. calls Etruscan “pre-Indo-European” (271—shouldn’t we say “non IE”?); and H. apparently derives Spanish “toro” and English “fraternity” from their Greek rather than their Latin cognates (99, 130).

I’m not a card-carrying member of political correctness—and in Kentucky, I’ve come to accept that mountain folk will always be fair game for stereotypes (H.’s Dorian invaders are “hillbilly Greeks” [118; see also 485, 495])—yet the publicani “welsh” on deals (349) and the two Julias are “notorious sluts” (409). In general, H.’s language is fine, but we don’t need to encourage ignorant prejudice or the double standard among our students.

Finally typos. Several are amusing: “down the isle [aisle]” (127; also at 508), “that’s no war [way] to run a horse-race” (300), “stain” for “strain” (251, in his discussion of Greek sexuality—where’s Freud when you need him?), and my favorite “the litters [letters] of Pliny” (558 note 9). Many are easily corrected: “salves [slaves]” (137), “west cost [coast]” (160), “cold” for “could” (twice: 176, 216), “the generals wee [were] tired” (183), “tying” for “trying” (207), “revoltled” for “revolted” (321), “talking [taking] advantage” (342), and “overhead” for “overheard” (371). Students—and depending on background, some instructors—will be perplexed by “complemented” for “complimented” (145), “Manlius” for “Manilius” (345), “Campus Marius” for “Campus Martius” (390—maybe the soldiers loved their general so much they named a field after him?), “Sol, the son [sic] god” (464), Galilnsky for Galinsky (549 note 15), Salalmis (on a map at 154), Aemilus [Aemilius] Paulus (536 note 21), and Cleon is introduced as “most violent” at Thucydides 3.37, not 2.37 (171). I could cite several dozen more, but someone clearly dropped the ball on this one.

Still, readers come away with a broad coverage of major events and figures, confront the primary evidence, learn when that evidence was discovered, and are introduced to various competing theories on the tough issues from the past 200 years. H.’s selection process is well calibrated to turning points and influence. So the question becomes: Should this text be adopted for a course? (Or courses—this material derives from H.’s lecture notes from both one-term and full-year courses.) As I hope to have made clear, the prose is lively. Here H. far surpasses Kagan, Ozment, and Turner’s The Western Heritage (Seventh Edition. 2000—regular sleeping pill!) and its peers. To this extent, H. is a winner.

But do we want to read Herodotus on Salamis or H.’s paraphrase and summary? The same could be asked of Plutarch’s “Lycurgus” or Livy’s account of Tullia running over her father’s body—the lure of a great books approach is hard to resist. Though these are chapters on ancient “history,” H. is really exploring culture and civilization, which primary sources best reveal. H. includes many excerpts: the longest is a 10-page abridgement of Plato’s Apology; also included are The Sermon on the Mount and bits ranging from Aeschylus to Ammianus Marcellinus, from the Egyptian “Song of the Harper” to Zosimus. As H. acknowledges, his text is designed so that the instructor may supplement it with primary sources.

My recommendation would be as follows. For a one term (13-week) course, 40 pages/week of H.’s “Representative Chapters” would still allow two weeks each (on average) for six major primary sources. I’ve always felt that the Odyssey and Herodotus offer the best introduction to the ancient Greek world, so let’s imagine H.’s two volumes, plus something along the lines of Gilgamesh, Homer, Herodotus, Livy, Cicero, and St. Augustine. For a two-term course, we could add Greek drama, Plato, Lucretius, Vergil, Ovid (or the ever popular Apuleius?), and Plutarch (the new Oxford editions of Plutarch are ideal). Bring your own slides and maps—most classicists and ancient historians should be able to handle this (though I’ve just learned that Kinder and Hilgemann’s brilliant Anchor Atlas of World History. Volume I: From the Stone Age to the Eve of the French Revolution is temporarily out of print). H. has made a convincing case for a smart, accessible resource—one with personality!—to provide historical context and continuity, but we still must worship at the fount of the Muses.