Friday, October 30, 2009

An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean - A lecture series by Robert Garland (Part One).

A few weeks ago I got my hands on a series of audio lectures by Prof. Robert Garland via TTC (the teaching company) and I've been listening to them quite attentively as I go about my daily business (I travel around a fair bit, and they're on my cellphone's music player).

The name of the lecture series is Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean and as the name suggests, the essential thrust of the course is to consider Rome and Greece (or Romans and Greeks) together, and not in isolation, as is perhaps common (he makes the simple yet valid point that most scholars of the ancient world consider themselves either Greek or Roman historians, and that should not be the case).

The course follows a loosely chronological path, but it is heavily affected by thematically driven discussion. Garland, in the first lecture, divides the course into 4 chunks, each following each other chronologically, give or take, but being distinct in matters of focus.

Lectures 1-11 cover general topics of life in the Mediterranean and the history of political interaction (and re-action) between Greece and Rome right up until Roman hegemony was established over the Greek speaking world in the 2nd Century B.C.E. Lectures 12-19 consider the repercussions of the Roman conquest and especially their relationship with one another, in cultural and political terms.

Lectures 20 - 29 cover the birth of what we refer to as Greco-Roman culture, taken from the reign of Augustus onwards and the final chunk of lectures, 30 -36, discuss how the Roman Empire dealt with the growth of Judaism and Christianity (two religions with great ties to Greece) and how the relationship between the Greeks and the Romans evolved during this period, until the Empire split into a Latin speaking West and Greek speaking East.

Thus far I've only listened to part one, and ergo that's all I'm talking about today.

Generally speaking, I've really enjoyed the lectures so far. Prof. Garland has such an obvious enthusiasm for the subject that it's infectious, and there is a didactic quality to his voice in a positive manner that makes listening a pleasure - definitely making any trip across town by tram or trolley bus much more enjoyable!

The first 11 lectures cover a quite disparate amount of subjects, all the while leading up to the mid 2nd Century B.C.E when Greece was finally conquered by Rome. Garland's aim, like I said, is to present Greek and Roman history as intricately connected, and not as separate entities.

He's immensely successful in doing this. My own experience of studying the ancient world is very much that the Greeks came first and the Romans second, when in fact it is much, much more complex than that. Garland overcomes that by considering them together - the opening 11 lectures illustrate this perfectly.

He discusses a variety of aspects to life in the Mediterranean that both Greeks and Romans would share, and how the respective systems were perhaps different - he covers political organisation, trade, law and order, slavery and "human rights", religion and their encounters throughout the 1st millennia B.C.E, right up until Rome has Greece totally overpowered. The result is that we are left with a holistic (ὅλος) understanding of Mediterranean culture during this period, and how it was truly Pan-Mediterranean. That is to say, there is something essential missed by studying just Greece or just Rome.

One of the greatest strengths of the series is the sheer depth of research involved. Garland quotes the ancient authors frequently, and modern scholars too (Erich Gruen, who's research I like very much indeed, get's the most mentions, I think), and this all adds to the texture of the series and it's intellectual weight. Almost every 30 seconds Garland drops in an interesting titbit, or story, making the lectures very easy to engage with.

Garland also stresses the understanding of everything in context (he mentions in the first lecture how different Greek and Roman culture is to ours), and as such he does not shy away from laying out straight the horrendous nature of Roman and Greek slavery, nor the human cost of Roman warfare. There is, however, no real judgements being made here, these things, after all, just were, and Garland remains much more interested in how the Greeks or Romans thought of such things as opposed to how we feel - which is to be applauded.

It's very hard to find any criticisms of the series. Although they're perhaps aimed at an interested member of the public, the depth does presuppose some knowledge of the ancient world, and I'd find it very hard to recommend them entirely to a beginner, although they're still of such high quality that any intelligent listener could benefit from them. Given that they're not exactly narrative history, but rather focused on the Greece/Rome relationship, it might be said that they are best suited to already knowledgeable listeners. Nevertheless, the integrated approach has much going for it, and I thoroughly recommend it.

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