Allen Lane 2005. ISBN 0-713-99853-9

Following a chronological sequence, the book is an epic of war and peace as the Mediterranean civilisations from Archaic Greece onwards expand and trade, found colonies, and fight for dominance. He gives full weight to the importance of war, describing for example the complete destruction of Carthage and the enslavement of it's people after the second Punic War.

He accepts that he has had to make hard choices and say little in areas on which he knows the most, so some chapters are cramped for space (e.g. Alexander the Great), with less context making way for more information - but all the same, this serves to give a more balanced view in time with greater emphasis than usual on the long periods of relative peace that were such an important characteristic of the (late) Roman Empire.

Western democracy has it's roots in Ancient Greece, and the faltering growth (and decline) of classical free speech, citizen voting, and trial by jury is a major theme of the book. He contrasts the early autocratic world of Homer with the experimental freedoms of the later Greek city states. As he says,"In 594 BC, again at Athens, a tyranny was within easy reach of Solon, another aristocrat. However Solon preferred to "call the people together", as the chief elected magistrate of that year, and then to write down wide ranging laws which regulated anything from boundary disputes to excessive display at weddings and funerals, provocative insults of a dead man's ancestors and the due sacrifices in the year's religious calendar."

He's not describing a modern democracy, but it was still a free debate among equal (if aristocratic) citizens,and thankfully Lane Fox avoids the trap of judging ancient societies by modern standards. He shows that this proto-democracy gained force, particularly in Athens, and was a viable alternative to dictatorships of various kinds with the combined Greek states proving capable of defeating a full
scale Persian invasion in battles on sea and land (Salamis and Plataea).

He emphasises that the Greeks and later Romans didn't believe in an afterlife of Heaven or Hell, and aimed to make the most of the present with the help of their many capricious Gods.
They didn't force their religion on the different peoples comprising the initial Macedonian and later Roman Empire, and this, along with the Roman peace (Pax Romana), their judicial system and the incentive of Roman citizenship for prominent locals seemed to make the new opportunities in the provinces an acceptable gain in return for Roman land and poll taxes.

Alexander's conquest of Persia and the subsequent Roman Empire encompassing all the Mediterranean and reaching from the British Isles to the Black Sea first made Macedonia and later Rome enormously rich. This "luxury" aspect of the classical world is another of the book's themes with a constant tension between the Greek / Roman ideal of a simple rustic living citizen and the reality of elaborate marble villas, heated bathhouses, amphitheatres and forums. To some extent the question was resolved by the obligation on the rich to provide public entertainments and buildings on a grand scale. The Circus Maximus could accommodate an almost unbelievable 200.000 spectators for popular chariot races.

He shows Imperial Rome gaining it's emperors, but losing the Democratic free speech that Pericles or Cicero would have recognised. The senate became a pointless sycophantic association and Lane Fox sees the origin of the renewed dictatorships in Alexander's return to the Homeric ideal, and Julius Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon (the armed seizure of Rome).

I highly recommend this book.

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