The relevance of ancient civilisations to the modern world is not immediately obvious in a culture obsessed with TV soaps, pop stars and football. Hamlet's question: "What's Hecuba to him and he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?" probably draws more blank looks these days than at any time since Shakespeare wrote it, 400 years ago. And when David Beckham injured his foot in 2002, throwing sports fans into a frenzy of anxiety, few people noticed the classical resonance: the country's chief sporting hero had just revealed his Achilles' heel.
Simon Goldhill, professor of Greek at Cambridge, has embarked on what may seem a hopeless task, reminding us of the debt we owe to the civilisations of Greece and Rome. His subject matter is not just sex and politics, where any reasonably educated person should be aware of Greek love and Athenian democracy. Goldhill takes Cicero's observation, "If you do not know where you come from, you will always be a child", and suggests that human beings who do not recognise the origins of their civilisation "cannot fully understand" their lives.
"A classical inheritance is all around us and in us," he argues. It is a huge claim for anyone unfamiliar with Greek and Latin, and Goldhill sugars the pill by organising his material almost like a self-help manual. "Who do you think you are?" he asks in his first section. Even more seductively for modern readers, he poses questions that suggest Greek and Latin literature might be the road to personal empowerment.
The answers are not what devotees of self-help literature might expect. A candid discussion of homosexuality in ancient Athens demonstrates that it is not the unproblematic model for gay liberation sometimes assumed. On the contrary, it is based on an unequal power-relation also evident in heterosexual relations. Boys and women don't get much of a look-in with a theory of sexuality concerned with "how to be self-controlled, dominant, the subject who acts and desires, not the object who flees".
Goldhill acknowledges the total absence of female voices from ancient Athens. If I have a criticism of this book, it is that a more nuanced picture might have emerged if he had devoted more space to Roman culture, where the role of women was complex and troubling, at least to upper-class men (Juvenal's sixth satire is the locus classicus here). The book is also wholeheartedly occidental, so that his ancient world omits cultures - Persian, Egyptian, Arab - outside Greece and Rome.
These are not major caveats, and I make them mainly because I am a Classicist and hence a sucker for most of Goldhill's arguments. I hate living in a culture that often seems to favour a willed amnesia, with all the attendant dangers that Goldhill spells out in his discussion of the way the Nazis created a bogus historical pedigree. He is also terrifically good on early Christianity, demonstrating the debt it owes to Classical ideas. Christian angels borrow their form from Greek statues of Nike (Victory), and early Church fathers adapted pagan art, asceticism and philosophy.
Russell Crowe's gladiator and Kirk Douglas's Spartacus demonstrate Hollywood's continuing fascination with the ancient world, although Goldhill's discussion of the Roman games suggests uncomfortable parallels with the tastes of TV audiences. (Big Brother is a modern gladiatorial contest, with viewers usurping the emperor's privilege of providing the thumbs-up or -down.) Freud's fascination with Oedipus is expertly dissected, with the reasons why the king's anguished quest for self-knowledge is still relevant.
Goldhill writes with breezy wit in a style accessible to readers who did not grow up on Plato and Tacitus. This can disguise the fact that his intent is deadly serious, comparing the modern world to teenagers who believe themselves the first to discover sex and swear-words. If you do not know your history, he insists, you cannot be self-aware. As this brilliant book demonstrates, a familiarity with the ancient world is about much more than a life in ruins.
Joan Smith's latest book is 'Moralities' (Penguin)Reuse content