Past looks bright in Grant's 'Historians'

February 22, 1993|By Patrick T. Reardon | Patrick T. Reardon,Chicago Tribune

"Readings in Classical Historians" is not a title to drive a book to the top of anyone's best-seller list. But if you like history, this is the book for you.

These are the inventors of history writing as we in the West know it: Herodotus, Thucydides, Julius Caesar, Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch and Suetonius, as well as lesser-known lights such as Nepos and Ammianus Marcellinus.

Michael Grant, who has spent his life writing about the ancient world for the general audience, is now in his late 70s. It's almost as if this book were a parting gift to readers, a delectable assortment of his favorite selections from the smorgasbord of classical history.

Here, for example, is Plutarch telling how Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, one-upped Mark Antony in 40 B.C., when he ordered her to visit him:

"She came sailing up the river Cyndus in a barge with a poop of gold, its purple sails billowing in the wind, while her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute, accompanied by pipes and lutes. . . . Great multitudes accompanied this royal progress, some of them following the queen on both sides of the river from its very mouth, while others hurried down from the city of Tarsus to gaze at the sight. Gradually the crowds drifted away from the marketplace where Antony awaited the queen enthroned on his tribunal, until at last he was left sitting quite alone."

The selections of each historian are introduced by Mr. Grant with a short biography of the historian and a balanced assessment of his contribution.

For instance, Mr. Grant complains about "Xenophon's banal style, moralistic sermonizing, loosely strung narrative . . . and lopsided biases," but also notes that the writer, a Greek general who was involved in many of the incidents he recounts, "is able . . . to handle gripping episodes . . . with . . . quick-moving effectiveness."

Evidence of this can be found in many of Xenophon's selections, including this one in which the Greek army has worked its way inside an enemy fortress:

"Then it was certainly a terrible sight. The women threw their children down from the rocks and then threw themselves after them, and the men did the same. While this was going on Aeneas of Stymphalos, a captain, saw one of them, who was wearing a fine garment, running to throw himself down, and he caught hold of him in order to stop him; but the man dragged him down with him and they both went hurtling down over the rocks and were killed."

Mr. Grant's writers don't just recount; they also analyze. They try to draw truths from the patterns they see in the chaos of history.

In addition, they mirror the attitudes of their times, as Ammianus Marcellinus does when he writes about the Huns in the fourth century A.D.:

.3l "They have squat bodies, strong limbs, and thick necks, and are so prodigiously ugly and bent that they might be two-legged animals, or the figures crudely carved from stumps which are seen on the parapets of bridges. Still, their shape, however disagreeable, is human; but their way of life is so rough that they have no use for fire or seasoned food, but live on the roots of wild plants and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal, which they warm a little by placing it between their thighs and the backs of their horses."

All probably true. Of course, the Huns ultimately won.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Readings in the Classical Historians."

Author: Selected and introduced by Michael Grant.

Publisher: Scribner's.

Length, price: 686 pages, $32.50.

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