Classics: A Very Short Introduction by Beard & Henderson
Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (June 15, 2000)
Review written April 26, 2017
In the past 20 years I can hardly think of a tome I was so disappointed with as Beard and Henderson’s Classics: A Very Short Introduction. If by “Classics” they mean Classical Studies (and they do, despite never using that commonly-accepted term in this volume), a reader can leave the volume not really knowing the scope and meaning of the term. It’s prosaic touching of the subjects is quite ethereal, never really cutting into the meat, exposing the marrow of the subject. Despite bringing up good subjects in the later chapters, we are hardly given an overarching definition, and certainly not a 30,000 foot view.
Mary Beard is a first rate Classicist, so this is surprising. Her SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome* approaches brilliance. John Henderson, a fellow of Classics at King’s College, is also an art historian, and co-editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Art. They begin by giving us a POV walk into the British Museum, ending up in the room displays the frieze from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, Arcadia. Within the next several chapters, they do touch upon the wrongdoings and distractions purposefully foisted upon the inhabitants of the (at the time) semi-barren Arcadia, and also — in good fashion — do well in illustrating (in words and sketches) the problems museum officials had in determining which order the independently-sculpted pieces were to be reassembled. It is also properly noted that the friezes breed controversy to this day, not only for the deceptions surrounding their smuggling from Greece, but the order in which the panels should be re-arranged (the smuggler/archeologists didn’t take proper notes on the disassembly).
Yet these facts are given long treatment in a work which apparently is supposed to give “A Very Short Introduction” to what Classical Studies IS. No discussion of the pre-Classical Mediterranean Greek, including the Mycenaean and Minoan cultures, and their brilliance. The Linear B script, it’s semi-transference into later Greek, the main forms of Classical Greek, then their eventual influence on the Etruscan/Phoenician evolution of Latin; these items are nowhere even touched upon. No mention, even, of Magna Gracae. Most of the brilliant minds of Greece and Rome are not mentioned; religion and myth, inventions and social institutions, great and crooked leaders, all are glossed over with sometimes barely a mention. The subject’s role in the teaching of the humanities, the philosophy and everyday life in the Classical world are never even mentioned. The term “Greco-Roman World”, which is even mentioned in a 6th grade history book used in Texas, is within this introduction not used one single time. Of the c. 28 standard sub-subjects of Classical Studies (a.k.a. Classics), only about a dozen are touched upon here.
Lacking in scope and touching on humanities with a firecracker against an H-bomb, I cannot recommend, sadly, this ‘Very Short Introduction’.
*SPQR refers to the Latin term for The Senate and People of Rome, a phrase used by Livy and Cicero.