Norton, £17.99. Order at £16.19 inc. p&p from the  Independent Bookshop

Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind by Edith Hall, book review

A new guide to the ancient Greeks details many neglected, diverse achievements. Sci-fi, anyone?

We may know – thanks to Monty Python, if nothing else – what the Romans did for us. But the Greeks are an altogether trickier proposition. They invented virtually every literary form (history, biography, comedy, tragedy, philosophical dialogue and plenty more), gave us the world's first democracy, and still found time to work out the length of a hypotenuse.

But they were a diverse group who lived across 2,000 years. And even contemporaries like 5th-century Athenians and Spartans had wildly different characters, priorities and dialects. The Athenians may have produced the great absurdist comic playwright, Aristophanes, but the austere Spartans – now seen as uber-masculine arrow-fodder thanks to the 300 movie franchise – were famously witty. (An Athenian woman once asked the Spartan, Gorgo, why Spartans were the only women who ruled over their men. "Because we're the only ones who give birth to men," came her reply.)

Edith Hall, professor of Greek at King's College, London – has taken on the enormous task of providing an introductory history to all these Greeks, from the earliest bronze-age heroes to Christian converts in the third century. As she moves through time, she also considers the Greeks in the light of 10 characteristics which these seemingly disparate people share, such as competitiveness, hedonism, articulacy and individualism.

The first of these qualities is sea-faring. The Greeks viewed themselves as a watery people. No wonder, as Hall points out, since Greece has more coastline to land area than any other country in the world. Plato describes them as living "like frogs around a pond", and Hall reminds us how often ships and water appear in Greek thinking and writing, from the catalogue of ships in Homer's Iliad through to Heraclitus's famously epigrammatic statement: panta rhei – everything flows.

Hall brings Greek geography to the fore: even keen philosophers may not have known until now that Heraclitus (who lived in Ephesus) saw his own nearby river silt up over many years. He was watching his own environment change. No wonder it formed a central tenet of his thinking.

To tackle not one but two huge projects – a chronological and a thematic history of the Greeks – in just over 300 pages is an achievement in itself. But Hall is doing far more than merely introducing the Greeks, as her title implies. Along the way, she reminds us why the Greeks are so extraordinary, though she is quick to credit other civilisations and individuals for innovations which the magpie Greeks took and made their own. It's hard to imagine any other classicist would have mentioned the only female stand-up comic in Ancient Greece (Iambe, in the Homeric Hymn, whose dirty jokes make the grieving goddess Demeter laugh again, after Persephone is lost to Hades). And Hall picks up on what is surely history's first gold-digger, too: "Do not let a flaunting woman coax and flatter and deceive you," warns the poet Hesiod in his agricultural manual, Works and Days. "She is after your barn."

It's an egalitarian history too. She confesses to an especial yearning for the lost books of Protagoras, who "became the most important political thinker in the democracy, as befits a working man who rose to eminence on the strength of his intellectual prowess". She also reminds us of texts that are too often forgotten: the satirist Lucian's account of a trip to the moon surely makes him the ancestor of all sci-fi.

This is a wonderful book, which serves both as introduction to the Ancient Greeks and a hugely entertaining, informative and thoughtful discussion of what made them so important, in their own time and in ours.

Natalie Haynes's debut novel is 'The Amber Fury' (Corvus)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?