Monday, 21 May 2012

H.D.F. Kitto: The Greeks (1951)

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.

Edition: Pelican, 1958
Review number: 1456


Anonymous said...

I have just started it and already like the spirited and canny insights. I have read a couple of such general overviews eg. Burns and a little more contemporary,Cartledge. Motto reminds me of Bowra; a great stylist.

Jan Golden said...

To say that this astonishing book carry parity with the dead language of a Wiki entry nullifies your critical acumen. His command and scope of a very great subject filled me with, as he says "eros"; passion. He has awoken in me an understanding of the overall reach of the Greek mind that years of episodic, haphazard and partisan interpretations had left confused, fluid and muddy. The very qualities he admires in the Greek mind he brings to this magisterial summary; Reason, Clarity and the Essence. Yes, it is slightly dated, but so is anything after 1 year. You beggar a pithy concision with some personal wit with your petty analysis. For shame.

Simon McLeish said...

Your comment is really that I wasn't clear enough in what I meant in my review. I wouldn't claim that the quality of any Wikipedia article is likely to approach that of Kitto's writing. What I was trying to say is that he makes assumptions about the knowledge of the general reader who wants to learn about the ancient Greeks which are no longer valid. So Wikipedia will probably be much more comprehensible and serve better as an introduction; after gaining some understanding there, reading The Greeks is going to be a pleasure rather than too difficult.

It is a bit difficult for me to put myself in the position of someone who knows little about the subject, though, as my father was an eminent populariser of ancient culture, so I grew up with ancient Greek culture around me in a way which few even forty years ago would have done.