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By John Ross - Kathimerini English Edition
“Books and more books (on the Greek world)” might, at first glance, sum up the latest edition (No. 32, Autumn 2005) of the Anglo-Hellenic Review. With its copious reviews section at the back, summary of the Runciman (book) Prize leading off, and lots of cultural news sandwiched in between, it would be tempting to pass it off as a stand-alone books section of an obscure classics journal. Summarizing it does have its upside, even if it’s a bit like “reviewing the reviews,” fifth-hand style.
Aside from documenting the hard-pressed publishing industry’s continued interest in Greek culture, this brief biannual edition (26 pages of condensed text) also ruminates on the natural habitat of Chios, Alexander the Great, ancient drama in contemporary settings, even a forgotten naval hero. The coverage seems to be widening, with modern stuff creeping in to leaven the historical bread.
Contributing editor Paul Cartledge, in an adaptation of his spring lecture for the Macedonian Society of Great Britain, surveys the challenges of writing about Alexander, still a household name after all these years, with all the baggage that such popularity (and notoriety) entails for a figure suitably described as “epoch-making.” He points to the paucity of reliable narrative sources of information, as we depend heavily on much later texts like the Anabasis and Plutarch’s biography, and the strong bias that often colors both his admirers and his detractors (then no less than now).
He underscores two overlooked features of his personality, religiosity and a passion for hunting. Being both ruthless and religious may link to the fact that Alexander’s legend means such different things to so many: a warrior king to the West, a saint to the Copts of Egypt and a holy man to Islam, but a villain to the Zoroastrians, who still blame him for burning sacred texts in Persopolis. Cartledge then skewers Oliver Stone’s 2004 biopic, already a box-office bust (“I personally wouldn’t have followed this Alexander to the local pub, let alone to the ends of the earth”). This entertainingly informative piece also shows that effective prose needs to please the ear and not just the eye.
There is a substantial review of the 2005 Runciman Prize, an annual competition still expanding in importance and scope. With dozens of volumes submitted, six were short-listed: (Nobel Prize winner) Seamus Heaney’s translation of Sophocles’ “Antigone” called “The Burial at Thebes”; Richard Seaford’s “Money and the Early Greek Mind — Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy”; Hans van Wees’s “Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities”; Tim Rood’s “The Sea! The Sea! The Shout of the Ten Thousand in the Modern Imagination”; Stephen Miller’s “Ancient Greek Athletics”; and the winner, Mark Mazower’s “Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950” (reviewed in these pages on August 18). If there is a common denominator, all crossed high hurdles of original conception and readability.
Arts and nature
Dramatic arts aficionados will perk at Michael Barclay’s essay on staging ancient Greek drama under modern conditions — a yearly conundrum for the Epidaurus Festival but one that extends back to the Middle Ages and Christopher Marlowe, and also to France under the Sun King — underscoring that ancient Greek drama carries so well because of its political content as well as timeless moral dilemmas. Jean Paul Sartre, Eugene O’Neill, T.S. Eliot and countless others have mined this rich vein, adapted it, and made it an indelible part of the Western experience.
A refreshing change comes from Mike Taylor, a retired mechanical engineer-turned-naturalist, on the special ecosystem of Chios. The northeastern Aegean island, with its topographical variety, is not just a place for bird watching and flower plucking but has fine conditions for marine life, insects and butterflies, and even the occasional fox or jackal sighting. Enthusiastic eco-tourists, a pioneering breed there, now must cope with widespread use of agrochemicals. As so often, economic and ecological interests clash there too; he clearly hopes that the island of mastic doesn’t get too masticated by random and reckless development.
A review of the 1827 Battle of Navarino off the Peloponnese follows highlighting commander Edward Codrington’s contribution to the allied fleet and Greek independence. The book reviews section ranges very widely, from the ancient (Homer, Mycenae, Xenophon) to two books on modern Cyprus (by David Hannay and William Mallinson) to more modern culture. Lorna Gibb’s “Lady Hester: Queen of the East,” outlining the dramatic life of a friend of Byron and hostess of a prime minister who died destitute, gets a strong nod, as does a translated volume of Elytis’s poems by Carson and Sarris. Works covering food, customs and travel also appear — tellingly, in the back.
AHR remains a low-budget but high-brow publication, mainly by and for British academia, struggling to reach a wider audience. It is with detached humor rather than breathless excitement that the editors note AHR’s first-ever mention in the mainstream British press, where The Guardian described it as a “clubby affair,” with “the jovial fug of classical department common rooms.” Maybe so, but if they’ve got the classical Greek market cornered as a private concern, why go public?