Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Red and the Green

One of my hats is as incoming London Meetings Organizer for the British Science Fiction Association. It's a fun role, that allows me opportunities to have interesting conversations with sf authors.

Last night's guest was Juliet E. McKenna. In the course of being interviewed, the subject of the extreme Marxism that popped up in Greek history in the 1980s (Juliet read Classics at Oxford about the same time I was reading Ancient History and Greek in Edinburgh). ("Is that like Extreme Sports?" asked the interviewer, hero of the BSFA Graham Sleight).

The book on the right is not the only instance of extreme Marxism in ancient Greek history, but it is the fountainhead from which all the other instances flowed. G.E.M. de Ste. Croix. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World was published in 1981 (by which its author was already 70). It is an overtly Marxist theoretical work, that looks at the whole of the history of the Greek world, from as the subtitle says "the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests" (so much of it covers what is often considered to be Roman history). It's a hefty tome, weighing in at 700+ pages including appendices, notes, bibliography and index. If you were an aspiring Greek historian in the 1980s, as I was, it was a book you simply had to have.

But I suspect it was a book more owned than read. Classicists are en masse a very conservative bunch, and much further behind most academic disciplines in adopting the latest trendy theory - post-modernism, for instance, has never really caught on. I think this theoretical conservatism is both a blessing and a curse, but that's a debate for another time. For now, I'd just say that this attitude means that Class Struggle is probably more respected by Marxist academics than by Greek (and Roman) historians, though its subliminal influence may be greater.

For myself, I can't say I've opened it very often, even when I did a lot of research into Greek history, which I haven't for a decade now. I used to refer to it as "The Big Red Doorstop", which says something about my attitude to it. When I pulled it off the shelf last night, I was surprised to find that the frontispiece is Van Gogh's 'The Potato Eaters', though I'm sure I must have occasionally consulted it in the past , and that this is not the first time I've actually opened the book.

On the left is de Ste. Croix's other famous book, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, published in 1972. My copy of this is rather more well-thumbed than Class Struggle - the pages are slightly dog-eared, the spine beginning to crack, and there are pencil annotations in the margins (yes I do write in my books - why do you ask?). It's also listed in the bibliography for my own book.* And it's something that used to come up time and again in other works. I rather think that, within the field of Greek history, this will be the more influential of his two major works. (And it's lighter.)

I never met de Ste. Croix, but I did see him across the common room in New College one time when I was visiting. This was in the early 1990s, and I gather that by this time he was quite unwell, and his faculties were not all they once had been. Yet he still continued to write up to his death in 2000.

In other news, Doctor Who is doing a story set in the Roman empire, the first since 'The Romans' in 1964. Be assured that I shall be blogging that when it is broadcast.

* Amazon appear to have misspelt my name. There was a time when this book was credited to 'Antony G. Keen' and 'Anthony G. Keen'. Clearly someone thought, obviously that's the same person (correct), and deleted what they thought was the least likely spelling, without checking the actual cover of the book (incorrect).

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