The Classical World (#?)

As mentioned on the twitter, I’ve been finishing Robin Lane Fox’ The Classical World today. Though I did read far most of the book a few years ago, I actually never completely finished it; I’m pretty sure my non-completion of the book was for reasons related to ‘work’/’exams’ as the book is certainly far from boring, even if it is a bit ‘dense’ here and there. Well, it’s actually not completely true that I didn’t finish it – I did technically ‘read’ it all the way through, but I didn’t study the last part of the book. The painting of the pages and the note-taking in the margins stopped a few hundred pages from the finish line because I just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the book. I’ve felt bad about this recently, particularly as I was reading Heather.

For the same reasons I didn’t finish the book completely, I did not blog the book in very much detail the first time around; a few general remarks and some quotes from the first 150 pages seems to be all I’ve posted so far. As I started reading today, I decided that it probably couldn’t hurt to write at last one other post on the book here – it seemed a little bit wrong to me that a book like this got much less coverage here than does a fiction book you can read in a few hours. I think the book is on average roughly in my ~25 pages/hour-category, which is not quite as ‘bad’ as a standard textbook, but certainly a much more demanding read than a random novel (..25/page is for intensive reading/studying; including necessary breaks and so on means that the actual time expenditure is somewhat higher. On the other hand, if you just ‘read’ it without worrying too much about what will stick – the way I dealt with the last part when I first read it – you can probably do it quite a bit faster).

It takes a lot of time to write posts like these, and if not for the fact that they help me remember stuff I probably wouldn’t write them – so I won’t promise here to also cover the rest of the book, even though it is my intent right now to write at least one more post about the book (I haven’t covered anything of what I’ve read today in the post below). Perhaps needless to say, there’s a lot more than one post left in the book.

I must say before going any further that it was a great help for me, in terms of getting a better understanding of the material covered at the end of the book, to have quite recently read chapters 12 and 13 in The Human Past as well as Heather (another book I may also have to get back to at one point..).

All that out of the way, some quotes:

i. “When a husband and wife are at odds with one another, they are much more likely to be reconciled for the sake of their children than to detest the children they have had together because of the wrongs they have done to one another.” Demostenes, speech against Boetus, 39.23 (348 BC)”

ii. “In Athenian citizen-households, the father decided if a new-born child was to live: he would run round the hearth carrying it on the fifth day of its life, in a ceremony called the Amphidromia. On the tenth day the child would usually be named. Aristotle remarks that parents waited for ten days because so many children died meanwhile.”

iii. “all young girls of citizen-birth (probably) engaged for a while in a splendid rite of transition known as the arkteia. Between the ages of five and ten, they would play at being ‘bears’, possibly to symbolize their wild immature nature, which was to be tamed in due course by men and marriage. […] Four or five years after playing at ‘bears’ [i.e. at the age of 9-15… – US] Athenian girls would be married. Girls were not formally educated in schools (in the classical period, at least) and any reading which they picked up would be learned in a household, from mothers (perhaps) or, in richer households, from literate slaves: girls might go to each other’s houses for the sake of it. Boys, however, would be educated, usually beginning at seven and going on at least to fourteen; their teaching included writing, reading (including the reading of poets) and music and athletics. […] In due course, young men would marry, but marriage for men tends to be recommended at quite a late age, between twenty-five and thirty. Until then, young men could satisfy their hormones by using slave prostitutes […] They could try slave-girls in their father’s households, or a more permanent slave-courtesan (or a share in one); they also had one another.”

[incidentally, Lane Fox’ evaluation of the evidence does not match this wikipedia article. According to the article, the hetairai were “Mostly ex-slaves from other cities” – according to Fox, “hetairai were usually slaves.”]

iv. “Notoriously, he [Aristotle] had views on slaves and women. Unnamed thinkers, probably in Socrates’ Athens, had denied that slavery was ‘in accordance with nature’; Aristotle disagreed. There were ‘slaves by nature’, he believed, who were incapable of foresight, deliberation or practical wisdom. At times he even writes as if they are animals. Most of the slaves whom Aristotle saw in Athens, western Asia or Macedon would have been non-Greek ‘barbarians’, whom he regarded as inferior by nature: he says explicitly that the existence of natural slaves can be proved both by theory and by experience.6 His views about natural slavery caused his own arguments serious problems on many counts, but they were not just a passing consequence of his theories on ruling or the household. What he saw in his own experience seemed to require them, just as his perceptions of women accounted for his view that they are defective versions of the rational ‘polis-male’: what he saw were uneducated, irrational beings, who would typically lament in public. Although women have a trace of a power of reason, it is very feeble and ‘without authority’.7 For barbarians and women, therefore, freedom is a wholly inappropriate state. […]

He has some role, surely, in the continuing curiosity of Alexander about the Asia which he was conquering, but his main role appears to be in passing on his awful sense of geography. Aristotle believed that the edge of the world was visible from what we call the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan: like many, Aristotle confused them with the distant Caucasus. He also reasoned that the river Indus ran neatly around to Egypt and that modern Morocco is quite close to India, on the grounds that both lands have elephants. This view of the world can only have strengthened the young Alexander’s resolve to conquer to the edge of it.”

v. “The fourth-century democracy was not at all in retreat, until the Macedonians ended it forcibly in 322 BC. […] In the end, the people of Attica were still the only sovereign body, meeting in their assembly in the belief that ‘the people can do whatever seems good to it’. […] There was no ‘government’, no continuing group who ‘ran’ the place: the councillors still changed yearly, and their ‘recommendations’ had to be voted in by all the people. Since the death of Pericles a division had already become apparent between the military generals and the most prominent political orators. In the fourth century this division becomes even clearer, as does the Athenians’ propensity to prosecute generals who failed them on expeditions abroad. The people were highly suspicious of malpractice, and so their generals realized that they were well advised to work with a political orator who would champion them at home.
These political orators owed their pre-eminence to speaking and persuading. […] But without good speaking and a record of successful persuasion, an orator was soon a nobody. There was no new expertise, no specialized technology which only ‘those in politics’ had mastered. they sometimes had more information, but above all, they were the ones who spoke with success.”

vi. “painted pottery was of marginal importance to the Athenian economy. What mattered, above all, was the mining of silver and the export of olive oil.”

vii. “As a general, Alexander remained globally famous, but his conquests were essentially won with the army which Philip had created.”

viii. “By 302 [approximately 20 years after the death of Alexander the Great] there were five competing kings, but a year later they were reduced to four when Seleucus defeated the elderly Antigonus and killed him. India had by now been given away, but the rest of Alexander’s territories stayed under Greek rule. In 281 BC, after more years of struggle, the four kings became three when Seleucus, an Alexander-survivor, killed off Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s bodyguards, at an old site of Persian settlement, ‘Cyrus Plain’, in western Asia. From 281 BC until the clashes with Rome, Alexander’s Greek world remained split into the resulting three kingdoms: the Seleucid kings in Asia (without India), the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Antigonids in Macedon, bound by garrisons and treaties to the city-states and ‘leagues’ in Greece.”

ix. “Seatransport was relatively quick and ever cheaper in bulk as the cargoes of merchant-ships increased up to 500 tons by the Roman period. But it remained cheaper to transport heavy goods in bulk from one end of the Mediterranean to the other than to haul them without a river-way for seventy miles inland.”

x. “Into Egypt, the Macedonian rulers introduced tax-farming, whereby the collection of a particular tax was bid for in advance by contractors. The successful bidder had guaranteed to pay the sum he bid, but was free to collect more (or less) as he could. The system suited rulers who needed an assured revenue from taxes which had an unpredictable yearly yield.
Such taxes were very common in Hellenistic Egypt because the Ptolemies raised revenues by a multiplicity of individual charges, applied to particular types of asset and transaction. There was a salt tax on each adult man or woman, an oil tax, a tax nitron-soda (essential for cleaning clothes) and dozens of others.”

xi. “For a century or so, from 460 to 360 BC, there were fewer than ten years in all when the Romans were not at war.”

xii. “As in the Greek world, half of the city of Rome, the women, could not vote or hold political office. Unlike Athenian women, they were not even able to be priestesses of the gods, unless they were one of the six Vestal virgins. While their father or grandfather lived women were legally (like sons) in his ‘power’, and when he died they were put promptly (unlike sons) under the guardianship of their male next of kin. As perhaps more than half of Roman women aged twenty did not have fathers or grandfathers still alive (on a likely average), most adult women would be under guardianship. When they married, the predominant form of marriage conveyed them like children into the ‘hand’ of their husband.”

xiii. “the Senate could not legislate. It could pass advisory decisions (consulta) and for a while it either did or could vet any decision which was to go to an assembly and be made into a law. But the senators were not ‘the government’ nor was public business consigned for a matter of years to any representative body of delegates or magistrates, chosen from their number. As the Romans had not adopted a constitution from a lawgiver, it is we who look for their ‘constitution’ in what was a bundle of evolving customs, traditions and precedents. At the heart of their practise, ther was a two-headed beast, as some of them later characterized it: the venerable senators and the (formally) sovereign plebs.” [see also this and this]

xiv. “As in Athens, there was never a Roman ‘golden age’ before slavery. Slave-owning was not, then, seen as unbridled luxury; rather, ‘luxury’ was ascribed to rival cities in Italy, south of slave-owning Rome, where it was cited as their undoing.”

June 25, 2012 - Posted by | anthropology, books, history


  1. Is there any way to add timestamps to your entries? Just a personal quirk: I prefer seeing them.

    Comment by Miao | June 25, 2012 | Reply

    • I don’t know, a quick search didn’t give me anything relevant. Maybe some feeds will give you a timestamp; I wouldn’t know, I don’t have much experience with those.

      Maybe other readers can help?

      Comment by US | June 25, 2012 | Reply

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