Hadrian, Roman emperor from A.D. 117 to 138, looked back appreciatively on an earlier classical world. Although the Roman world had been greatly expanded by his time, Hadrian was keenly interested in the developments that occurred in Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. and that continued to evolve. He took several tours of his empire and was especially respectful of Athens and gave generously to the city. Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox gives readers a magnificently crafted overview from ancient Greece to Hadrian's time in The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, concentrating on political life and thought, literature, art and philosophy.

Fox particularly emphasizes the Athens of Pericles and Socrates, and the Rome of Julius Caesar and Augustus. He notes than an important part of the classical world was the creation and development of the writing of history, and he gives us incisive views of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus. Throughout, Fox focuses on three favorite themes of historians of antiquity freedom, justice and luxury. He shows how these were flexible concepts open to quite different interpretations and applied only to the aristocracy in virtually every society. Conquest and slavery were taken for granted as essential to economic growth and stability, and women had virtually no political rights, although a few were able to influence or change the direction of events.

It was Cleisthenes, an experienced elder statesman, who, in the summer of 508 B.C., made the first known proposal of democracy, the lasting example of Athenians to the world, Fox tells us. By our standards this democracy was limited, but it continued to develop, with only two interruptions, for 180 years.

In Fox's hands, the seemingly never-ending stream of warfare, hypocrisy, tyranny, murder and other violence (and courage, too) of the classical world, explained in proper context, never becomes merely names and dates. The Classical World is a dazzling achievement, wonderfully erudite and joyfully readable. It is a marvelous introduction to its subject and the extensive bibliography is the ideal place to find additional sources for the many readers who will want to explore specific subjects in greater detail. Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.

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