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Be Spartans!

James Romm: Thucydides, 21 January 2016

Thucydides on Politics: Back to the Present 
by Geoffrey Hawthorn.
Cambridge, 264 pp., £21.99, March 2014, 978 1 107 61200 6
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... Thucydides​ may well have been the first Western author to address himself to posterity. His forerunners – Homer and Herodotus, principally – show no awareness of a readership extending beyond their own time. But Thucydides called his work ‘a possession for eternity’, and spoke of the chaos of civil war as something ‘that is and always will be, as long as human nature remains the same ...

One and Only Physician

James Romm: Galen, 21 November 2013

The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire 
by Susan Mattern.
Oxford, 334 pp., £20, July 2013, 978 0 19 960545 3
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... How fortunate you would have been, as a Roman patient of the second century AD, to be attended by Galen, the greatest Greek physician of the age. Galen would have paid housecalls, several times a day if needed, and brought you food. He would have questioned you with earnest concern about the onset and progress of your symptoms. He would have supplied medicines mixed from as many as 64 ingredients ...

When was Hippocrates?

James Romm, 22 April 2021

The Invention of Medicine 
by Robin Lane Fox.
Allen Lane, 403 pp., £25, September 2020, 978 0 241 27705 8
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... The doctor​ who first urged his colleagues to ‘do no harm’, and also instructed them, less memorably, to ‘observe all concretions of excreta’, was a pioneering Greek practitioner of the fifth century BCE. We don’t know much about him, not even his name, but the writings he left behind helped lay the foundations of Greek medical science. He was probably a contemporary of Hippocrates, the shadowy figure who was later largely credited with those foundations, or perhaps, as Robin Lane Fox suggests in The Invention of Medicine, may even have been Hippocrates himself, just as the Greeks suspected ...

Among the Barbarians

James Romm: The Other, 15 December 2011

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity 
by Erich Gruen.
Princeton, 415 pp., £27.95, January 2011, 978 0 691 14852 6
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... Custom is king of all things,’ Herodotus proclaimed, arguing that if customs were like goods in a marketplace, set out alongside other such goods, each people would choose its own above all others. An experiment conducted by the Persian king Darius proved the point for Herodotus. Greeks, who buried their dead, had been confronted with Callatian Indians, who ate theirs: both groups were equally disgusted ...

Hot Flanks and Her Sisters

James Romm: Amazons, 22 October 2015

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World 
by Adrienne Mayor.
Princeton, 512 pp., £19.95, October 2014, 978 0 691 14720 8
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... We wield​ bows and arrows, throw javelins and ride horses; we know nothing of woman-ly tasks,’ the Amazons said of themselves, according to Herodotus. He had learned the legends of the women warriors on a trip to the southern outskirts of their territory – the region the Greeks called Scythia, the vast steppe lands to the north and east of the Black Sea ...

Site of Sin and Suffering

James Romm: Theban Power, 2 July 2020

Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece 
by Paul Cartledge.
Picador, 320 pp., £12.99, May, 978 1 5098 7317 3
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... Anyone​ who doubts that Thebes is indeed a ‘forgotten city’ hasn’t spent much time in Greek souvenir shops. In a marketplace shaped by the interests of foreign tourists, there are countless mementos of Athens and Sparta, but barely a trace of a city that was at one time their equal and even, for a brief stretch, the leading power of Hellas. Two years ago, after a diligent search through the Plaka neighbourhood in Athens, I found a single souvenir recalling the glory days of classical Thebes: a tiny replica coin stamped with a figure-of-eight infantry shield, the artless image that appeared on nearly all the currency minted in ancient Boeotia, the region surrounding Thebes ...

Who started it?

James Romm: Nero-as-arsonist, 17 June 2021

Rome Is Burning 
by Anthony Barrett.
Princeton, 447 pp., £25, December 2020, 978 0 691 17231 6
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... The​ great fire that started in Rome on 19 July 64 CE not only destroyed much of the city but also helped to bring down the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had ruled the empire for nearly a century. Nero, who occupied the position of princeps (‘first citizen’) by virtue of being the great-great-grandson of Augustus, had destroyed all the other male members of the line by the time of the fire and had failed to father an heir ...

Greek Hearts and Diadems

James Romm: Antigonid Rule, 18 November 2021

The Making of a King: Antigonus Gonatas of Macedon and the Greeks 
by Robin Waterfield.
Oxford, 277 pp., £21.99, September 2021, 978 0 19 885301 5
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... No part of Greek history should come home to us like the third century bc,’ William Tarn wrote in 1913. ‘It is the only period that we can in the least compare with our own.’ And yet the third century – standing midway between the classical age and the coming of Rome, undocumented by any intact surviving source – gets little attention even from specialists, despite the many intriguing figures who helped shape it ...

No Cheating!

James Romm: Olympia, 26 May 2022

Olympia: A Cultural History 
by Judith M. Barringer.
Princeton, 281 pp., £28, January, 978 0 691 21047 6
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... No​ ancient Greek site, except perhaps Delphi, is now so richly imbued with the spirit of Hellenism as Olympia in the Peloponnese. Its ruins and museum suggest lofty Greek values: the drive (among males, anyway) to excel, simply for the honour of being the best; the aspiration towards the wise use of power (again, by males only), as seen in the site’s idealised portraits of Zeus; and the hope that rival, even warring states could put aside conflict in favour of athletic competition ...

Who was in Tomb II?

James Romm: Macedon, 6 October 2011

Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy 
by Angeliki Kottaridi et al.
Ashmolean, 264 pp., £25, April 2011, 978 1 85444 254 3
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A Companion to Ancient Macedonia 
edited by Joseph Roisman and Ian Worthington.
Wiley-Blackwell, 668 pp., £110, November 2010, 978 1 4051 7936 2
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Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon: Studies in the Archaeology and History of Macedon, 650 BC–300 AD 
edited by Robin Lane Fox.
Brill, 642 pp., €184, June 2011, 978 90 04 20650 2
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... Almost 35 years ago, the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos opened a large, unplundered chamber tomb in the northern Greek village of Vergina, and a great controversy began. The tomb housed the cremated remains of a man aged between 35 and 55 and of a younger woman, a pair Andronikos soon identified as the Macedonian king Philip II – father of Alexander the Great, builder of the army and the European empire that gave his son the means to conquer the world – and one of his seven wives ...

The First Career Politician

James Romm: Demosthenes, 20 June 2013

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece 
by Ian Worthington.
Oxford, 382 pp., £22.50, January 2012, 978 0 19 993195 8
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... At first glance, Demosthenes, the leading politician of ancient Athens in the era of its decline, would seem an ideal subject for a biography. Dozens of his speeches survive, a huge corpus composed both of policy addresses delivered in the Athenian assembly and apologias written for defendants in the courts. Several of these, including the once celebrated but now little read ‘On the Crown’, deal directly with Demosthenes’ own political career, while surviving speeches by other, rival politicians – one recently recovered from a palimpsest thanks to digital imaging techniques – analyse his career from an opponent’s perspective ...

Fratricide, Matricide and the Philosopher

Shadi Bartsch: Seneca, 18 June 2015

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero 
by James Romm.
Knopf, 290 pp., £18.45, March 2014, 978 0 307 59687 1
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Seneca: A Life 
by Emily Wilson.
Allen Lane, 253 pp., £25, March 2015, 978 1 84614 637 4
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... to Lucilius, he warns his correspondent to stay out of politics altogether. The new biographies by James Romm and Emily Wilson explore the tensions generated by Seneca’s life and legacy without resorting to the reductive choice between saint and hypocrite, Stoic idealist or stony practitioner of realpolitik. ...

What would Plato have done?

Christopher Krebs: Plutarch’s Lives, 29 June 2017

The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives 
by Plutarch, translated by Pamela Mensch.
Norton, 393 pp., £28, March 2017, 978 0 393 29282 4
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... and the ever helpful ‘On Praising Oneself Inoffensively’: ‘an uneven collection’, as James Romm writes in his engaging preface to The Age of Caesar, which has nonetheless provided ‘a model for modern moral essayists, including Montaigne and Emerson’. Plutarch’s Lives exerted an even greater influence. They can be imagined as a ...

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