My favourite history title of the year so far? No contest – it’s Kostas Vlassopoulos’ Greeks and Barbarians, Nottingham University’s iconoclastic associate professor in Greek History’s latest gauntlet, thrown down as a challenge to the profession to reimagine itself from the bottom up and inside out. Already he has asked us to ‘unthink’ the ancient Greek polis, or ‘citizen-state’, not least by flatly rejecting any form of eurocentrism, and to reconsider and revalue the legacy of antiquity to our own, often very different ways of doing politics. He has in prospect a major publication concerning the very basis of ancient Greek and Roman societies and economies, namely their diverse varieties of slavery and unfreedom.
Here he responds to the ancient Greeks’ own binary polarization of Themselves and (all) Others – or, as he puts it, ‘Greeks and Barbarians’. The very first sentence of The Histories, by the Western world’s first historian, Herodotus, announces a groundbreaking work that will expose the results of his ‘research’ into Greek-Barbarian relations, and especially give his own personal explanation of or assignation of responsibility for the ‘Graeco-Persian Wars’ (the battles of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea and so on).
Like Herodotus, Dr Vlassopoulos of course includes that famous, and in many respects decisive east-west encounter – the battle of Marathon indeed features on his very first page. But also like Herodotus, he casts the net of his cultural history far wider than merely warfare, however decisive. Globalisation, ‘glocalisation’, panhellenism, overseas settlement and trading networks, intercultural communication, Greek adoptions of barbarian motifs: all these and more are given their place in the sun, and the whole is rounded off with a glowing chapter on the post-Alexander the Great ‘hellenistic’ world.
A recent feature in a national newspaper trumpeted the allegedly new recasting of the ancient Greek world from an isolated entity to one of many hybrid cultures in the ancient Mediterranean and near east. Actually, that way of looking at ancient Greece isn’t as new as all that nor was ancient Greece merely just another hybrid culture: Dr Vlassopoulos’s pathbreaking book truly sets a new agenda in this sensitive and deeply contemporary field.
Favourite history book of all time
Edward Gibbon (1737-94) is the first truly modern ancient historian – not only a brilliant stylist, and one of the best Latinists of his or any day, but also one of the sharpest analysts of the human condition. His deadly deconstruction of the ancient Roman imperial system, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (six volumes, 1776-1788) remains matchless.
Lucretius or at least his rediscovery in the early 16th century – so argued Stephen Greenblatt in his recent The Swerve – helped spark the Renaissance. David Butterfield, in The Early Textual History of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, brilliantly relocates him in his original, ancient Roman contexts.
Paul Cartledge is the author of After Thermopylae, set to published by Oxford University Press. Read an interview with Tom Holland about his new translation of The Histories, for which Cartledge provided an introduction and notes, in the October issue of BBC History Magazine