It is a challenge to be asked to write a history of some nine hundred years, especially when the evidence is so scattered and diverse, but it is a challenge which I have enjoyed. I have not assumed a familiarity with the subject but I hope that readers who do or do not have one will be drawn in and retained by what I have had space to discuss. My hope is that they will leave it, as I have, with a sense of how this history varied but can still be made to hang together. I also hope that there will be parts which they will want to pursue, especially the many which I have had to compress.
I have not followed the conventional thematic presentation of classical civilization which discusses a topic (‘a gendered world’, ‘getting a living’) across a thousand years in a single chapter. For theoretical reasons, I have chosen a form with a framework of narrative. I believe that changing relations of power, sharply changed by events, changed the meaning and context of most of these themes and that these changes are lost by taking the easy thematic short-cut. My approach is shared in contemporary areas of medical thinking (‘evidence based medicine’), the social sciences (‘critical juncture theory’) and literary studies (‘discourse analysis’). I owe it, rather, to the hard old historical method of putting questions to evidence, reading with it (not against it) in order to bring out more of what it says and constantly retaining a sense of turning points and crucial decisions whose results were shaped, but not predetermined, by their context.
I have had to make hard choices and say little on areas where I feel I know most. One side of me still looks to Homer, another to the still-green orchards near Lefkadia in Macedonia where my vaulted tomb, painted with my three great horses, sixty-petalled roses,Bactrian dancing girls and apparently mythical women awaits discovery by the skilled ephors of the Greek Archaeological Service in 2056. I have chosen to give slightly more space to narrative for one cardinal era, the years from 60 to 19 BC, not only because they are of such significance for the role of my assumed reader, the Emperor Hadrian. They are so dramatic, even to my post-Macedonian eye. They also attach initially to the letters of Cicero, the inexhaustible reward for all historians of the ancient world.
I am extremely grateful to Fiona Greenland for her expert help with illustrations. The jacket was the publisher’s choice, but the descriptions of the illustrations are otherwise mostly mine. I am also very grateful to Stuart Proffitt for comments on the first part which forced me to go back over it, and to Elizabeth Stratford for expert copy-editing and correction. Above all, I am grateful to two former pupils who turned a manuscript into discs, Luke Streatfeild initially and especially Tamsin Cox whose skill and patience have been this book’s essential support.
Robin Lane Fox
New College, Oxford