Thursday Book: Phalanx Symbols of Military Might CLASSICAL ART AND THE CULTURES OF GREECE AND ROME BY JOHN ONIANS, YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, Pounds 35

By Hall, James | The Independent (London, England), August 5, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Thursday Book: Phalanx Symbols of Military Might CLASSICAL ART AND THE CULTURES OF GREECE AND ROME BY JOHN ONIANS, YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, Pounds 35


Hall, James, The Independent (London, England)


THE REVELATION of previously unsuspected snakes in the grass is a central feature of most good narratives. But our taste for such exposes has accelerated in direct proportion to our disbelief in the story that gave rise to the metaphor - the Garden of Eden, with its insidious serpent. In our post-Christian world we go to ever more extreme lengths to convince ourselves that we live in a world that is either fallen, or about to fall.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern attitudes towards the Classical world. By the late 19th century, it was pretty much taken for granted that Ancient Greece had come close to being an earthly paradise. Henry James thought antique sculpture exuded a "noble quietude" that "slowly drops on the spirit the large white mantle of peace". But this view of the ancient world as a pain-killer-cum- tranquilliser was blown apart by German-speaking intellectuals. For Nietzsche, Greek culture certainly did have a peaceful "Apollonian" side to it, but this was a veil of illusion. If the veil were torn aside, a "Diorysian" world of irrational and violent exuberance would be revealed. For Freud, a keen collector of antiquities, the ancient world was the cradle of the Oedipus complex.

John Onians's latest book is very much in this veil-ripping mould. It is an intellectual and imaginative tour de force in which we are asked to see the art and architecture of ancient Greece as the visible outcrops of a culture that was militaristic to its fingertips. He begins by discussing the Greeks' own self-image, with its uniquely materialist qualities. Because of the availability of stones and minerals, the Greeks imagined themselves as being made of stone or metal, whereas in other cultures people were more likely to think of themselves as made of clay. This, in turn, led the Greeks to think of themselves as potential and actual tools and weapons, which were also made from stone and metal.

Onians points out that Greek poets began as "aoidoi", singers, but soon became "poietai", makers - craftsmen of the spoken word. But the crucial manifestation of this mind-set was in the Greek military, where generals were regarded as craftsmen who moulded their soldiers into artefacts of invincible force. In the Iliad, Onians shows, the Trojan soldiers are compared to natural forces and raw materials such as boulders rolling down hills. The Greeks, with their phalanx formation, were compared to intricate artefacts. (A phalanx was a rectangular unit composed of heavily- armed foot-soldiers, about eight deep.

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Thursday Book: Phalanx Symbols of Military Might CLASSICAL ART AND THE CULTURES OF GREECE AND ROME BY JOHN ONIANS, YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, Pounds 35
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