Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter
© 2003 Thomas Cahill
303 pages, including index

I believe I picked this book up years ago, but never finished it. Very little seemed familiar as I read through the book this week, so if I did read it I assume I did not make it very far. As you may be able to imagine from the title, this addition to the Hinges of History series focuses on the Greeks, part of the western heritage -- arguably the most important part of the western heritage. While the book's contents span the Mycenaeans to the late Hellenes, much of the content comes from the golden age of Athens (which Edith Hamilton wrote about in The Echo of Greece). Cahill's chapters weave the story of how the Greeks taught us "How to Fight", "How to Feel", "How to Party", "How to Rule", "How to Think", and "How to See". Cahill also manages to make these topics fit into a chronological framework: "How to Fight and How to Feel" both take as their primary sources Homeric legends, while "How to See" is set after the rise of Christianity and the absorption of Greece into the Roman empire. The transformation of the Greco-Roman world into the medieval world is the subject of his last chapter, and he manages to advertise for his other books as well. Cahill begins each chapter by retelling a story of myth. His motive is to convey to the reader the sense that we are only glimpsing fragments of who the Greeks were: we cannot understand them in their wholeness. "History must be learned in peaces," he comments in his very first sentence to the reader.

Most of what I have said of Cahill's previous works must be repeated here: he writes well. His narrative is neither overly wordy nor simplistic. He carries on a conversation with the reader, addressing us personally. Whenever his own biases slip into the narrative, the reader may recognize them as such without mistaking them as commonly held opinions. (He does misrepresent Epicureanism and Stoicism at the end, but commenting on this rather strikes me as nitpicking. It's not as if there are people out there who would embrace Epicureanism if only they hadn't been dissuaded by Cahill's off-hand comment.) The plates he includes are well chosen: Greek art could be quite exquisite, although I confess I don't see the draw of drinking goblets illustrated with orgies. I think he is successful in his goal of portraying the Greeks as a people who lived -- and not simply as the idealized forefathers of western civilization. They are represented here in all of their triumphs and failings. I must recommend the book to those interested in the period.

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