Thursday Book: Phalanx symbols of military might

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