The Greeks has long been touted as the best basic introduction to the culture of ancient Greece, where the foundations for much of the way we think and live today were laid but which still can seem strangely alien from a viewpoint two and a half millennia years later. Now over sixty years old, is it still worth reading?
Clearly, the book itself has not changed in any way (especially as mine is quite an elderly copy). It remains an excellent basic description of ancient Greece, concentrating on the aspects of the culture which are especially influential. Kitto is occasionally self-indulgent, getting carried away by his love of the literature, as when he translates large portions of the first book of the Iliad which are not directly relevant to the aims of the book (though it does illuminate aspects of the culture almost in the way that a lengthy Bible quote would shed light on Western culture, or a section from the Koran would on Arab thought). My background (growing up with a parent who had not just studied classics, but who wrote books about Greece and Rome alongside translations of ancient texts) does not make me an ideal test for the use of The Greeks as an introduction, but from what I can see it does seem to do the job it sets out to do.
One thing which has certainly changed is the correctness of the assumptions Kitto makes about how much of Greek culture is already known to the general reader. Kitto assumes a certain amount of knowledge in his readers, and in the 1950s he would have been able to assume more than would be the case today; after all, most British schools still taught at least Latin in those days, and hardly any do so today. This has two consequences: the number of people who have any idea that the book might be interesting to them is smaller, and the likelihood is that they will find it far harder to understand. On the other hand, web sites like Wikipedia will fulfil many of the needs which The Greeks was intended to, so it is not as useful as it once was.
Review number: 1456