Econstudentlog

The Classical World (1)

I’ve mentioned the book a few times by now, but I haven’t gone into much detail. What I wrote in the first post in which I mentioned the book is a good, if very short, summary of what the book is all about: Ancient Greece and ancient Rome, 900 years, ~ 700 pages . From Homer to Hadrian.

I’ve only read the first 200 pages or so, so this is just a somewhat preliminary account. Robin Lane Fox’s book is not flawless, but I like his style. He is not trying to (pretend that he is…) write (…/writing) a 100 percent objective account of the matters he describes; on the contrary he often emphasizes his own views and opinions, very openly starting sentences with the words ‘in my opinion‘. I find his openness and honesty refreshing. You will most likely disagree with him on a number of things – which is a good thing, because measured disagreement makes you think.

On a methodological level, I’d have liked some more economics, some trade estimates, some data in general, but I know full well that those are very hard to come by. And would be mostly pure guesswork anyway. That said, Fox’ account is not in any way excessively centered on a few great individuals, he rather also does try to also give us some insights into “life as an ordinary greek”, even if it is hard to know all that much for certain about them (as Fox ie. openly tells us in the book, even in fourth-century Athens, we have no first-hand surviving evidence of conversations between husband and wife (p.190)). The book’s composition is great, with chapters long enough to cover the specific subject in question, but short enough to never let you miss ‘the big picture’ – the average length is 10 (densely packed) pages or so, with relatively little variation. I read about 30 pages/hour, with a relatively high reading comprehension (and a lot of painting and writing in the book) – this is not a book where you can read 80 pages/hour, definitely not if you want to actually learn and remember something from it. The book’s chronology is, as you’d expect, relatively unbroken, and on the chapter level it has so far progressed linearly. The chapters also all assume that you’ve read the previous one(s) and I believe you’d miss out on a lot if you were to skip specific chapters. Stated another way: This is in my opinion a book you’re really supposed to read from the first to the last page.

Below follow a few quotes from the book:

1) …What he [Solon] did do was to ban the bad practice of creditors who demanded their debtor’s free person as security for his debts. Most of these debts would be small and short-term, but they brought the debtor the accompanying risk of default, real or alleged: there was no idea of ‘collateral’ and as the security (a person) was so much more valuable, it was tempting for a creditor to foreclose unjustly. Debts thus led to the unacceptable enslavement of one Athenian by another (p.65)

Notice the word bad in the beginning of this quote, as well as the words unjustly. Fox is not trying to be 100% objective, but in most cases it doesn’t matter all that much. Apropos what should happen to debtors who defaulted on their loans, which probably should be considered a question meriting at least some interest today, here’s the Roman version (p.120):

It was […] a particular Roman precision to specify that a debtor who defaulted when owing debts to several people should be divided into pieces and distributed to each of his creditors.

From Rome’s Twelve Tables. Makes you think…

2) With two minor interruptions, this democracy persisted among the Athenians and evolved for more than a hundred and eighty years. In our terms, it was remarkably direct. It was not at all a ‘representative democracy’ which elected local representatives either to ‘represent’ their constituents or their own careers and prejudices. Its whole concern was to limit power-blocs or over-assertive cliques, to achieve fragmentation, not representation. (p.96, my emphasis)

3) For us, the most distinctive fact about the Athenian culture Herodotus visited is that it was a slave society. Some 55.000 adult male citizens owned some 80.000-120.000 other human beings, ‘objects’ whom they could buy and sell. These slaves (almost all non-Greeks) were central to the Athenians’ economy, working in the silver-mines (often down appallingly narrow tunnels) and also in agriculture where contemporary comedies present them to us as a normal part of quite modest Athenian families’ property. The prices of untrained slaves appear to have been low, because supply was abundant, from war or raids on barbarian Thrace or inland Asia Minor. […] However, Herodotus would not have remarked unduly on this fact of life. Slaves were andrapoda, ‘man-footed beasts’; they were ubiquitous in the Greek communities into whom Herodotus enquired. He never queried the justice of this fact. (p.143)

4) In public, a married Athenian woman was still [~ 450 BC] only called ‘the wife of…’; to use her own name would imply that she was a prostitute. In the late 340s we find an Athenian orator reminding a citizen-jury that ‘we have “courtesans” [hetairai] for pleasure, prostitutes for everyday attention to our bodies and wives for the production of children legitimately and for being a trustworthy guardian of the contents of the household.’ […] Those Athenian males who could afford all three types of woman would have agreed with the orator in question, while adding that in youth (and, perhaps, still), they had young boys for competitive pursuit, idealization and quick sexual pleasure without the risk of a baby. They never met an educated Athenian woman, because no women were taught in an Athenian school with the boys. (p.144-145)

October 7, 2009 - Posted by | anthropology, books, history

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