Thursday Book: Phalanx symbols of military might

CLASSICAL ART AND THE CULTURES OF GREECE AND ROME BY JOHN ONIANS, YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, pounds 35

THE REVELATION of previously unsuspected snakes in the grass is a central feature of most good narratives. But our taste for such exposes has accelerated in direct proportion to our disbelief in the story that gave rise to the metaphor - the Garden of Eden, with its insidious serpent. In our post-Christian world we go to ever more extreme lengths to convince ourselves that we live in a world that is either fallen, or about to fall.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern attitudes towards the Classical world. By the late 19th century, it was pretty much taken for granted that Ancient Greece had come close to being an earthly paradise. Henry James thought antique sculpture exuded a "noble quietude" that "slowly drops on the spirit the large white mantle of peace". But this view of the ancient world as a pain-killer-cum-tranquilliser was blown apart by German-speaking intellectuals. For Nietzsche, Greek culture certainly did have a peaceful "Apollonian" side to it, but this was a veil of illusion. If the veil were torn aside, a "Diorysian" world of irrational and violent exuberance would be revealed. For Freud, a keen collector of antiquities, the ancient world was the cradle of the Oedipus complex.

John Onians's latest book is very much in this veil-ripping mould. It is an intellectual and imaginative tour de force in which we are asked to see the art and architecture of ancient Greece as the visible outcrops of a culture that was militaristic to its fingertips. He begins by discussing the Greeks' own self-image, with its uniquely materialist qualities. Because of the availability of stones and minerals, the Greeks imagined themselves as being made of stone or metal, whereas in other cultures people were more likely to think of themselves as made of clay. This, in turn, led the Greeks to think of themselves as potential and actual tools and weapons, which were also made from stone and metal.

Onians points out that Greek poets began as "aoidoi", singers, but soon became "poietai", makers - craftsmen of the spoken word. But the crucial manifestation of this mind-set was in the Greek military, where generals were regarded as craftsmen who moulded their soldiers into artefacts of invincible force. In the Iliad, Onians shows, the Trojan soldiers are compared to natural forces and raw materials such as boulders rolling down hills. The Greeks, with their phalanx formation, were compared to intricate artefacts. (A phalanx was a rectangular unit composed of heavily- armed foot-soldiers, about eight deep.)

Onians goes on to argue that Greek temples have a phalanx-like structure. This, he believes, is the only satisfactory way of explaining the Greek preference for repetitive sequences of columns around the outside of temples. The Parthenon is the key example and although its surviving fragments, such as the Elgin Marbles, are often thought of as the epitome of "calmness and refinement", no major building "has been so comprehensively decorated with scenes related to war." With magnificent understatement, Onians declares that the notion that "war shaped Greek art and architecture will be unattractive to many, but it did receive explicit support in fascist Germany". For phalanx and Phidias, read the Nuremberg rally and Speer.

Onians is a general of great ingenuity and boldness, but some of his weapons feel more like zeppelins than Stealth bombers. If Greeks so identified with stone and bronze, why did they paint their sculptures and temples? Moreover, why was the centrepiece of the Parthenon - a colossal statue of Athena - made from gold and ivory? The main argument - that the Greeks thought of themselves as malleable materials - is not invalidated, but the idea that their sculpture is an expression of stoniness is. And why, if sequences of columns are like phalanxes, can one walk so easily between and behind them?

The historical analysis of "mentalities" is usually seen as a postwar French innovation, but Onians's own approach seems very English. He reminds me of those 18th-century English critics who interpreted French formal gardens and architecture - all perspectival vistas and symmetrical displays of statues, hedges and trees - as symptomatic of the autocratic nature of French society. They contrasted French rigidity with the informality of English gardens and houses, which had labyrinthine paths, undulating terrain and asymmetrical arrangements of flora. Then they claimed that such informality was the visible manifestation of a free society.

In keeping with this type of antithesis, Onians contrasts the rigidity of the Greek phalanx with the flexibility of Roman formations. Roman units were more compact and more mobile. Individual soldiers could turn to face the enemy from any direction, and they could adapt to variable terrain. We learn, with dismay, that the Roman soldier was "more free".

The reviewer's new book, `The World as Sculpture', is published by Chatto & Windus

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea