Ancient History & Civilisation



The first chapter of this book explored the work of Arthur Evans at the prehistoric palace of Knossos, in particular his reconstruction of the architecture, the paintings and indeed the whole matriarchal and peace-loving civilisation of Minoan Crete. I mentioned only in passing one of his most important and intriguing discoveries there: that is, hundreds of inscribed tablets, written in scripts that – despite considerable effort – Evans himself failed to decipher. He did realise, however, that they fell into two distinct types: a few were written in what he called ‘Class A’ or ‘Linear A’; the rest (the vast majority) were in what he called ‘Linear B’. Neither, he thought, was any form of the Greek language, even a very primitive one.

Half a century later Michael Ventris, an architect and brilliant code-breaker, proved Evans at least half wrong. Although Linear A remains undeciphered, Ventris realised – with the support of John Chadwick in Cambridge – that Linear B was indeed a version of Greek. There was, in other words, a linguistic link between some of these prehistoric civilisations in the Mediterranean and the Greek world that we know much better, from Homer onwards. It was the most exciting decipherment of the twentieth century (even though, to the disappointment of some hopeful classicists, the tablets proved not to be early epic poetry but largely bureaucratic lists); and it gained, rather than lost, glamour when Ventris was killed in a car crash in 1956, at the age of just 34, before the full publication of his results.

But the cracking of Linear B had already been announced in 1952 – not in a scholarly publication at all, but in a talk on what was then the BBC Third Programme (now Radio 3). That was thanks to the enterprise of a young BBC radio producer, Prudence Smith, who much later reminisced about her scoop:

Michael Ventris worked with my husband … and we knew him and his wife well … Michael was said to be working on the Cretan tablets – ha ha, a funny thing for an architect to do. But he was, he damn well was.

One night (I shall never forget it) we went to dinner at his new house in Hampstead … And Michael didn’t appear; he was in another room … His wife went on serving the sherry and niblets, but Michael did not appear and didn’t appear. And we got a bit hungry. Finally he emerged, looking totally exhausted, saying ‘I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting but I’ve done it, I’ve done it!’ – as though he’d been putting up a wardrobe or something. ‘I know’ he said ‘that the language is Greek’…

The following week at the Third Programme Talks Meeting, I rather timidly said ‘I know the man who has deciphered the tablets from Knossos’. ‘What do you mean?’ said someone, ‘They’re indecipherable’. ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘I do assure you, this is IT. We must put him on.’ And they trusted me and it was put on; it was the first public announcement of the decipherment… It wasn’t difficult to persuade [Ventris]. He thought [the radio] was the right place.

This is partly a story of serendipity, and partly one of good journalism. But it is also a happy reminder of how close ‘front-line Classics’, and big classical discoveries, have stayed to a wide audience in Britain. Ventris thought that ‘the radio was the right place’ to break the news of his decipherment. Many others too have found that the ‘right place’ to float radically new interpretations of Classics, and to continue debating the classical world, was outside the lecture room or academic journal. As we have already seen (Chapter 24), some of the most important re-readings of Greek tragedy have been devised on the stage not in the study; and probably the most influential version of Homer’s Iliad for more than a 100 years, by Christopher Logue, also started life on the Third Programme. What is more – despite the sometimes savage cutbacks suffered by ‘review sections’, and literary journalism in general, over the last decade or so – you can still read careful and considered discussions of books on the ancient world in the average broadsheet newspaper or weekly magazine. One of my most influential predecessors in Classics at Cambridge – the American-born Moses Finley, brilliant and awkward by turns – published many more words in reviews and re-published radio talks in the late 1950s and through the 1960s than he ever did in academic journals.

In this context, I am very pleased to remind you that each of the chapters in this book originated in an essay or review in a nonspecialist literary magazine. It is true that the ‘reviewing business’ has a decidedly mixed reputation. For a start there is the basic issue of partiality, if not corruption. The critical ones are often put down to some personal grudge, the favourable ones can look like thinly disguised back-scratching. But there is also the question of how much they matter, what impact they have, or even how carefully they are read at all. The irony is that, while publishers continue to harass literary editors to review their books, they also rightly reassure their anxious authors that what the reviewers say appears to have very limited effect on how many books get sold. To put it another way, the only person who can be absolutely guaranteed to read, and to re-read, a review with intense concentration is the author of the book concerned. (So, authors, however bruised you feel by what you think is a piece of unfair criticism, never write in to complain; the chances are that you will just draw attention to something that no one else has much noticed!)

But this is to miss the point of why book reviews are still so important – and why we need them more than ever. Of course, I am biased. For the last thirty years I have written dozens of reviews a year for papers and periodicals of all sorts, and for the last twenty years I have been the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, choosing which books are to be reviewed, by which reviewers, and editing the pieces when they come in. Is this to be the centre of a little world of literary corruption? I think not. For what it’s worth, my basic rule is never to send any book to any reviewer if I’m fairly sure I can predict what they will say about it. And if the reviewer knows the author (as in the relatively close-knit community of Classics is sometimes bound to be the case), I have to be confident that the reviewer would feel able to write either a positive or negative review, depending on what they found (I don’t send books out to people who are only prepared to be nice about them). But the simple fact is that it’s not all that difficult to be fair – indeed, it’s probably a lot easier to be fair than to be successfully corrupt.

So what are reviews for? I am sure there are big differences here between fiction and non-fiction. But in my area, they have a vital job to do as a basic quality-control mechanism – not a perfect one, I admit, but about the best we’ve got. If the Latin is all wrong, or the mythology and dates all mixed up, then someone has got to say so (and not merely in a scholarly review appearing in an academic journal five years after the book has come out).

But even more important and engaging than that (for who would be bothered to read a series of glorified errata slips?), reviews are a crucial part of the ongoing debate that makes a book worth writing and publishing; and they are a way of opening up the conversation that it provokes to a much wider audience. For me, part of the fun of reviewing in literary magazines has been to reflect on some of the most specialist contributions to my subject, to try to get to the nub of their argument and to show why it might matter, be interesting or controversial, well beyond the walls of the library and lecture room (I think the author himself was a bit surprised to see his technical commentary on Thucydides discussed in the pages of the New York Review of Books (Chapter 3) – but I tried to show that it raised big issues about how we understand and misunderstand, quote and misquote, Thucydides even now.)

I hope that I have done this with all the fearlessness and frankness that it deserves. In taking on a book’s arguments, I don’t pull my punches. But I do have one golden rule: I never put something in a review that I would not be prepared to say to the author’s face. ‘If you couldn’t say it, then don’t write it’, should (in my view) be the reviewer’s unwavering maxim. In fact, looking back through the chapters of this book, I realise that sometimes I have said it to the authors themselves. After more than a decade, on and off, of debate and disagreement in seminars and conference bars, Peter Wiseman (Chapters 6 and 10) will not have been shocked to find me responding with a combination of admiration and dismay to his imaginative reconstructions of early Roman history and theatre.

Whether I am right or not is, of course, quite another matter. But, in editing and adapting the reviews for their new home in this book, I found that I had not often changed my mind very much (though I do think, in retrospect, that I was perhaps a bit over-enthusiastic about the various different ‘mouths’ of the Delphic priestess in Chapter 2). My hope is that they will find a new readership here, and will bring both old hands and new into the classical conversation. I hope – as Ventris put it, referring to a discovery much greater than I shall ever make – that this will prove the ‘right place’ for them.

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