Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Review: Travelling Heroes

One of the reason I wanted to read this book is that it was recommended by Tom Holland, a writer who used to be a neighbour, and who's books on Rome (Rubicon) and the Greek / Persian wars (Persian Fires) are classics in both senses of the word.

It also looked an interesting topic, as Robin Lane Fox explored how the intrepid seafarers of 8th century Greece - and we're talking 8th Century BC here - sailed the Mediterranean. As they travelled they encountered new sights which they wove into their myths of gods, monsters and heros.

It is certainly convincingly argued, with 120 pages of notes and references, and it is an example of a neglected art, the ability to continue a coherent, compelling and complex argument through several hundred pages.

And it does, so that you can follow the threads of evidence, discovering new civilisations, lost empires, strange Gods and for me, a whole new set of Greeks, the Euboeans. I should have been familiar with them, having sailed in those waters last year and indeed stayed on night at the top end of Euboea where was amazed by a giant marble bull.

But it is quite dense, lacking the rattling yarn pace of Tom's books. Pages are to be read slowly, with relatively small font and complicated arguments.

One problem is that Robin Lane Fox seems to be writing for two audiences, not just the average lay reader but also the experts in the field. And so every point must be answered and backed up by reams of archaeological facts. I also wondered who phrases like " specialist who has kept up with the subject would now contest it" are aimed at - not me for sure!

In the end I was glad I had read it, as it enriched my understanding of that time, and its central thesis seemed sound. As the Euboeans sailed the Mediterranean their heads filled with stories of heros and gods they understood the sights they saw through them. So fossils of giant bones were taken as evidence of the giants who battled with Zeus and the rest of the Gods.

By the end you not just understood the Euboeans, sailing across strange seas, encountering other civilisations like the Phoenicians, you understood how they thought. You could join them as they crossed the seas in night passages and imagine yourself in their heads as they tried to understand what they saw though the prism of their myths.

And that is a remarkable achievement - to bring the age of Homer back to life. Though I suspect that those already versed in the minutiae of ancient Greek history - like, indeed, Tom - would have gained a lot more from it than me.

1 comment:

JP said...

Coincidently Tom was on TV this evening presenting a program about St Paul - see this link for more info: