Every bit as solid as Asimov's other histories, if not one of the essential ones like _The Greeks: A Great Adventure_.
I was a bit surprised because th...moreEvery bit as solid as Asimov's other histories, if not one of the essential ones like _The Greeks: A Great Adventure_.
I was a bit surprised because the general view of Asimov's histories is that they got weak as he approached the present. Still, I found this to be strong and engaging, and it's the next-to-last one he ever wrote. So I must break with the consensus on the data so far available to me.
The worst thing about it is the title, which sounds like one of those catatonia-inducing public school American history textbooks. This is even more unfortunate because the phrase is drawn from a particularly dramatic utterance of Andrew Jackson's. Robbed of context, it loses its force completely.(less)
I remember this book fondly from reading a copy from the school library some 22 years ago, and now that I at long last have a copy of my own, I found...moreI remember this book fondly from reading a copy from the school library some 22 years ago, and now that I at long last have a copy of my own, I found that it held up well.
Asimov entertainingly narrates in 18 chapters the history of Greece from the Mycenean Age (i.e., Bronze Age)--though a brief mention of the still-earlier Minoan Period is made--down to the present at the time of publication (1964). The book, as one might expect and possibly desire, is heavily weighted towards coverage of classical Greece, leaving only the last two chapters to cover the most recent two thousand years.
Everything you would expect to find is here: the rise of the city-states, the Persian War, the shifting alliances between the city-states, the Peloponnesian War, the rise and decline of Sparta, the Achaean League, the fate of Syracuse, the conquests of Alexander the Great and Hellenization of the ancient Near East, the successor kingdoms, and the rise of Rome. Asimov being who he was, all of the famous Greek playwrights, historians, and philosophers are introduced at appropriate points in the narrative, alongside the political and military leaders who drive the conventional historical flow. The author takes particular care to note the scientific observations of the ancient Greeks that have survived the test of time, whether they were retained by later Western civilization, or regrettably forgotten only to be recovered later, sometimes after an interim of a thousand years or more.
Asimov was an admitted classical Hellenophile and his enthusiasm for his subject suffuses practically every page. Nevertheless his survey is far from an uncritical one, even when it comes to his beloved Athenians, and he does not hesitate to remind the reader that this foundation of Western culture was built, propagated, and sustained on the backs of slaves. His disdain for the Spartans--the most slavery-dependent and anti-democratic of all the Greek city-states--is sufficiently overt that it is amusing rather than insidious, and a welcome counterweight to the recent(?) fetishization of the Spartans in popular culture. But Asimov is careful to give Sparta its due.
(The parenthetical question mark is because one will note that "Spartans" has for decades been occasionally used for the name of a sports team, but neither "Athenians" nor "Macedonians" are, despite the comparable military achievements of Athens and the superior ones of Macedonia. I suspect the Spartans have long been admired by reactionaries.)
While targeted at older schoolchildren under the publisher's "juvenile" imprint, the book can profitably be read by adults--particularly those who lament the erosion of classical education. Especially helpful is Asimov's offer of a phonetic pronunciation (with accent marks) of nearly every proper noun or proper adjective used, on its first occurrence. Because of the tortuous manner in which Greek names have made it into English--explained by Asimov on page 5 in the only footnote in the book--this is terribly useful. I noted with interest that his pronunciation of "Leonidas" (the famous Spartan king who fought at Thermopylae, recently portrayed in film by Gerard Butler) differs from that currently used, instead placing stress on the second syllable ("lee-on'ih-das", as he renders it). This pronunciation agrees with the only one offered in my copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, as it happens. This may thus serve as a shibboleth identifying people who didn't get their ancient Greek history from 300.
I have three gripes with the book: first, there are so many proper nouns and adjectives used that later in the book one sometimes forgets how each should be spoken--the only recourse is to go to the index, figure out that the first usage usually, but not always, is accompanied by the pronunciation key, and go look it up. Had Asimov ever revised the work, I would like to think he would have also placed pronunciations in the index, or otherwise addressed this matter.
Secondly, Asimov offers no sources for his research nor suggestions for further reading. While Asimov was famous for his powers of retention and breadth of reading, the notion that he prepared his manuscript from notes prompted only by his own recollections beggars belief. As I have come to devour more and more of Asimov's nonfiction corpus, I am disappointed to identify this as a systematic failing on his part, and not just a symptom of this title being aimed at middle- and high-school children. Even in his three(!) autobiographies/memoirs, Asimov calls out only one work of history for praise, and that is Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As much of a self-confessed narcissist as he was, Asimov is too openly admiring of the work of others (particularly scientists) to sustain a charge that he felt a reader needed no books other than his own. His reticence to cite his sources is therefore a mystery to me. This is a point I'd greatly like to discuss further with other Asimovophiles.
My last complaint, by contrast, cannot be laid at the doorstep of the author. I must lament that this book has been allowed to go out of print and never saw a paperback edition. As it is, one must haunt used bookstores (or Amazon Marketplace) for copies, and most of those on offer seem to be former library books. Even more regrettably, this title in particular goes for ridiculous prices, at least on Amazon--up to seventy dollars, regardless of condition. There are also multiple entries for it, despite the fact that there is only one identifiable printing. If you don't want to feel ripped off, you may have to stake out the listings for weeks or months to snap up a good deal from a reputable seller. If there is little to be gained commercially from resurrecting and reprinting this book--and there may not be--then I wish Asimov's estate would release the text into the public domain. Or if they feel money must be made, they should sell the rights to Dover Publications.
My complaints with the work itself are minor, however. The Greeks was a joy to read, and I look forward to reading the other thirteen or so history titles Asimov wrote for Houghton Mifflin.(less)