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Travelling Heroes, By Robin Lane Fox

East to west and back again: an epic of our roots

In his posthumous The Greeks and their Heritages, Arnold Toynbee pronounced that "the crowning evidence that a new civilisation had come to birth is... the adoption and adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet in the eighth century BC for writing Greek".

Here, Robin Lane Fox sets that mighty achievement, the implications of which are with us to this day, in its full East-West context – or contexts. Phoenicians and other oriental peoples, Euboean islanders and other Greek travellers, merchants and settlers, generations of composers and reciters of Homeric epic poetry: all are produced with a sweeping narrative flourish worthy of a cinematographer or screenwriter. But the whole is seasoned and leavened with a wit that only writing can afford.

Lane Fox is "our most widely read historian of the ancient Greek world", according to the dustjacket. Certainly, he is one of our most original, daring and arguably life-enhancing. More than any other historian known to me writing today, he gives "ancient history" its most generous interpretation, emulating if not exceeding his undergraduate teacher Geoffrey de Ste Croix.

His preceding book, The Classical World, was an engaging and enjoyable bite-size feast of mezze from early Greece to the reign of the philhellenic Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138). But in Pagans and Christians (1986) he took the religiously transformed story of Greek history deep into Late Antiquity. Religion – or rather his principled opposition to any fundamentalist version of it – was also the keynote of his excursion into Biblical criticism, The Unauthorized Version (1991).

I give these bibliographical details partly because Travelling Heroes comes ballasted with a huge (50-page, about 1,000 items) and not always quite accurate bibliography, which follows an even huger (65 pages) section of notes. This new book cannot be recommended, as The Classical World could be, as a work for the ordinary general reader, no matter how entertainingly, often brilliantly, written it is. The non-specialist should stick firmly to the main text, which takes off from an image of the goddess Hera airborne in the 15th book of Homer's Iliad. It transports us to and fro, East-to-West and vice versa, from Mesopotamia to central Italy and on to Spain and back, and concludes with a "just-so" story of the author's own hyper-fertile invention.

Which goes like this. "Hipposthenes" (Greek name, "strong in or with horses", but of mixed Euboean-Greek and non-Greek parentage) flourished in the eighth century BC and died a heroic death. Born in the northern Aegean city of Mende (famous later for its wine) in what became Macedonia, he travelled to the islands of Chios and Cyprus, and from there on to Syria, where he acquired a young slave-girl concubine, a sort of Sheheradzade figure. Thence he removed himself to more islands – Crete, Cythera, Ithaca (Lane Fox doesn't buy the new, persuasive theory relocating Homer's Ithaca further west), Corcyra (Corfu) – and through the straits of Messina to Cumae in the bay of Naples, before making his final return via Zancle in north-east Sicily to his paternal homeland of Euboea (that long island, "rich in cattle" literally, athwart Athens's eastern shoreline) to die in battle. Who says romance is dead? Among his other quirks and quiddities along the way, the author – not "Hipposthenes" – shows a strange preoccupation with mammoths.

But Lane Fox can also be very down-to-earth. Underlying the myths (ancient) and romance (his), there is a very serious message about inter-ethnic cultural contact and civilisational change and development. I'd guess it's the desire to put this across that has driven him to publish in a semi-popular form what is at bottom a long-meditated scholarly monograph. Since "9/11" the "clash of civilisations" has acquired a massively renewed topical urgency, and with it has come a renewed interest both in defining what is essentially "Western" and in deciding when, how and why the "West" came into being.

The Graeco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century BCE are one obvious possible big-bang flashpoint in antiquity – a view favoured by, for example, Tom Holland and Anthony Pagden in recent large-vista studies. Herodotus rightly features in both as the very incarnation of an Eastern-inspired but quintessentially Western thinker.

What Lane Fox does is take that story back to the eighth century, to the Phoenicians and Euboeans, and to (among much else) the invention of the alphabet. The Greek inventors of the first fully phonetic alphabetic script, child's play to scribe, could not have done it without the Phoenicians. But their borrowing was problem-solving and creative, far from the merely derivative. That is emblematic, for Lane Fox, of Greek-Oriental cultural interaction as a whole, including the borrowing of "myth" – but not the invention of the Homeric epic.

Paul Cartledge is the AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University