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Kenneth Dover


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Kenneth Dover was probably the foremost Greek scholar of his generation (he died in 2010 at the age of 89). In this book he provides an introduction to a number of aspects of Greek life. He was writing for an audience that is unfamiliar with the classics; the book arose from the author's two-year participation in the making of a set of television programmes about the ancient Greeks. It does not attempt to cover every aspect of its subject (how could it?) but it gives a remarkably vivid impression of how the Greeks felt and thought about life.

There are six chapters, The first, Greeks and Others, is about interactions between the Greek city states and their neighbours, notably the Persians. This theme continues in A View from Syracuse, which describes the war between Athens and Sparta and the ill-fated attempt of the Athenians to conquer and subdue the Spartans' allies in Sicily.

The visual arts are discussed in two chapters. Stone, Metal and Flesh is about sculpture, while Poetry and Painting is a short chapter about the depiction of Homeric themes on vases.

Next comes drama, concentrating on the Oresteia—the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus that describe the return of Agamemnon after the Trojan War, his murder by his wife Klytaimestra (Clytaemnestra) and her lover Agistheus, and the avenging of his father's death by Orestes. For killing his mother Orestes was pursued by the Furies, and the final play in the trilogy describes Orestes's acquittal in Athens thanks to the intercession of the goddess Athena. Dover does a fine job here of explaining to a modern reader how a Greek audience would have understood these plays.

Drama in ancient Greece was set in what we would call a religious context, and the final chapter in the book, God, Man and Matter, looks at other aspects of Greek religious and philosophical ideas. Much of this is about Socrates, whose ideas we know of only at second hand, mainly via Plato. Dover illustrates the problems this causes by analysing one of the dialogues attributed to Socrates in some detail. He also makes some insightful, if regrettably brief, comments about the Stoics and the Epicureans. Both these schools of philosophy were different from how most people think of them today, and the Epicureans, in particular, seem to me to be more interesting than the popular idea of them would suggest.

The great merit of Dover's book is that on almost every page one comes across a way of thinking about the Greeks that challenges one's assumptions and preconceptions. In an age when knowledge of the classics has become very much a minority pursuit, Dover makes it clear why the Greeks matter, even though, as he concedes, not everyone will like them.

We all differ in our tastes, criteria and priorities, and some may see in Greek civilisation the root of what they dislike in ours. The Greeks were, after all, fiercely and deliberately competitive … They were also an extraordinarily articulate people, devoted to the structuring of art and utterance, contemptuous of immature and undisciplined self-expression. About competitiveness I have misgivings; on structured articulateness, I side wholeheartedly with the Greeks … My Greeks were neither sophisticated layabouts nor pious fatalists, and least of all were they portentous gurus brooding on the Lost Secrets of the Ancients. They were resilient, sceptical, cheeky people, whose distinctive contribution to our history was to combine a readiness to ask 'Why?' and 'Why not?' with a conviction that only sane, reasoned, and clearly expounded answers to those questions were worth listening to.

%T The Greeks
%A Kenneth Dover
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxford
%D 1982
%G ISBN 0192851144
%P 160pp
%K history
%O illustrated

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