Friday, December 11, 2009

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

I've been listening to Garland once again (I'm now finished the entire lecture series, but I plan to post about it in four parts, as they are broken down by Garland in the opening lecture).

The last section covers the full birth of Greco-Roman culture following the reign of Augustus and covers the whole spectrum of literature (Epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, history, the novel and more) as well as art, science technology and architecture.

All in all it's another fascinating series of lectures. Taken as a thematically related group, the lectures of literature are incredibly interesting - Garland outlines the origin of a particular genre, take Epic for example, and discusses how it evolves over time and is hugely important in the development of an integrated Mediterranean culture.

Epic, being one of the prime examples, has it's origin with Homer's Iliad - a tale which is very much at the root of the Greek character and is almost handed over to Rome as part of Greece's heavy cultural legacy. Rome appropriated the style and in Vergil found an artist skilful enough to take the art form and make it Roman (as Roman as it could be - maybe Greco-Roman is a better term!).

The same goes for the other genres. Garland managed to highlight the intricate links each has to Greece and Rome and how it's evolution over time into it's latter incarnation is very much illustrative of an integrated culture.

Garland is at pains to show the differences between Greeks and Romans and simultaneously how they formed such an interconnected and integrated culture (it's a paradox truly difficult to explain), and I found his discussion of architecture and science most interesting on this topic.

He mentions how the Greeks had an overwhelming focus on temples and religious areas, and their predisposition was to private spaces, while the Romans were quite the opposite and invested great energy into public spaces. I'm not sure how much I buy into this notion (the Greeks built many public areas too) but he argues convincingly regarding how the Greeks and the Romans conceived very differently of how to build a temple.

Science-wise, Garland makes the interesting point that the Greeks were the intellectual and speculative scientists while the Romans were much more practical - and that division seems to lie at the heart of how we depict the two cultures right up until today. The Romans' business was ruling the world, as it's put, while the Greeks could concern themselves with science.

Garland's lecture on science was actually one of the most useful to me. He highlighted the fact that our modern concept of science totally fails to work in the ancient world, and instead all was philosophy - or rather intellectual enquiry. There were no specifically defined disciplines like we have today. Garland manages to highlight the various cultural differences that make it difficult for us to understand the ancients - this is one such difference and how they conceived of work, another. I think he's to be appreciated for that.

Somewhat related is his nice habit of using modern phrases or terms to explain a certain quotation of situation he's describing. He'll often put something in the vernacular for us, so to speak.

On the flip side, he rarely references modern culture in relation to Greco-Roman culture, bar on a few occasions (he speaks of Harold Pinter in the philosophy lecture, which I enjoyed) and in some respects I think that it's missing. It may reflect simply my age/taste, but I'd like more of such things nonetheless.

Finally, the strength of the series remains in Garland's ability to expose the sheer amount of connections and interconnections between Greece and Rome (they truly are legion) and this part of the series illustrates that well. Coming out of these lectures, I was acutely aware of the cultural heritage passed not only through Greece to Rome but also to us and how it's not as simple as A-B-C but much more akin to evolution in it's slow ebb and flow.

I'll be posting about the last chunk of lectures soon. The topic for them is the rise of Christianity and the eventual splitting of the Empire into East and West.

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