#213: THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN. One of the particular pleasures of reading Charles Freeman’s Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean (Oxford, 1996) was its providing of a canvas, a connective tissue for all those scraps and fragments of schoolroom history we got stuffed with as kids, lingering in a jumble in memory. Egypt, if you were raised in the fifties, was likely neglected—pyramids, pharaohs, mummies, the Nile floods—but Greece and Rome were treated at least in sketch length, and are still likely to be underfoot, in our politics and arts and vocabulary, even in an increasingly amnesiac America (amnesia, from the Greek via New Latin, for forgetfulness; Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory, and a mnemonic device is to help you remember something). Having three distinct cultures to get through in 560 pages, Freeman is brisk but the prose is orderly, vivid, and well-proportioned; he’s willing to acknowledge the bits we’re likely to know from pop culture (yes, the emperor Claudius is the Claudius of Robert Graves’ novels and the BBC-TV adaptation), and he filled me in on wherever memory was likely to fail me (what were the Peloponnesian Wars about, and why were the Punic wars called Punic?). It’s an enormously satisfying, even restorative read: oh, that’s what (who, when, why) that was. Mnemosyne and Clio, the muse of history, were mother and daughter.
The other advantage in the book’s recent date is that it reflects some very considerable changes not just in information but in attitude. The histories I remember from grade school had nothing to say of women, little to say (and none of it as humane and mordant as what Freeman writes) on slavery as the basis of all this civilized living; the subject of Christianity was treated with careful circumspection; and war as the brutal engine for all this order and prosperity was simply not to be spoken of. The Gradgrind’s parade of facts never got around to the haunting and cautionary lesson of the gyres of history, expressed most perfectly by Gibbon but given no small shrift by Freeman as well: that what gets built falls down, that civilization has a terribly temporary quality to it, that it is the subject of constant labor by sometimes heroic humans but as much by the masses of forgotten people who bore and bear the brunt of it. There’s a lot of talk these days about the frightening resemblances of our own culture to the late days of Rome. Freeman gives us the chance to see not just where we came from but what substance there might be in those fearful suspicions.