It’s All Greek to Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World – book review

It’s All Greek to Me:
From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath,
How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World
Charlotte Higgins
Harper; hardcover; 240 pages
March 2010
3 stars

It's All Greek to Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our WorldCharlotte Higgins knows an awful lot about really old stuff. When she says “classics,” she’s not talking about rock ‘n’ roll shredders from the 1970s. She’s talking Greek and Latin language writers from before Jesus first spit up on a pile of hay.

It’s All Greek to Me is one of those compendium books that, in a series of snippets and vignettes, tries to give the casual reader (commuting on the train or hanging out in a café trying not to be distracted by everything go on around her) a sense of where she came from.

But that sense will only be even moderately inclusive if our imaginary casual reader is very, very white. There’s no sense in Higgins’ book of there being any foundational culture other than the Greeks. Indeed, there’s no indication here that having the Greeks as the foundation of all that is good, true and beautiful might not be such a good or beautiful thing. There’s no sense here of the horrible xenophobia that is central to the ancient Greek cultures nor of the racist sense of superiority that infuses much of ancient Greek literature. Even though they lived in a Mediterranean culture themselves, the Greeks figured that pretty much everyone living in the “warm climates” was lazy, uncultivated – and dark skinned.

That said, there are no real surprises in what Higgins includes or excludes from her book of snippets. It’s all been done before, pretty much in exactly the same way. Higgins loves her Homer, so that’s what we get here: a love letter to Homer, along the lines of her Latin Love Lessons: Put a Little Ovid in Your Life. If you haven’t read Homer (or Ovid, for that matter), her books are worth checking out.

But if you’re up for the dark side of ancient cultures, there’re plenty of more interesting books out there. Simon Critchley’s morbid, wacky and all together fun The Book of Dead Philosophers will help you put your ancient Greeks into a far-sighted context. James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, for instance, is a wonderful (and wonderfully twisted) look at everyday life in that ancient navel of culture (until you’ve thought of fish addiction, you’ve never really thought about addiction). Or Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, by the ever-marvelous Thomas Cahill, gives a decent introduction with much more depth and narrative arc that Higgins’ light-weight book. Likewise, Vicki Leon’s book on Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World or Philip Matyszak’s The Classical Compendium both harbor all sorts of offbeat naughtiness that, once you’ve had your eyes opened, will make you wonder why milquetoast books like Higgins’ still get published.

The reason, of course, is that Higgins is brainy, generous with what she does chose to include, and an elegant writer. It’s All Greek to Me is an idiot’s guide to a key ancient culture and so, for idiots, it’s a great place to start.

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