Friday, April 9, 2021

Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece by Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins

Encyclopedic book of lists
The Handbook to Life series is a set of comprehensive books on ancient civilizations (and has recently expanded into medieval and Renaissance times as well). The Handbooks seem intended as undergraduate textbooks but are suitable and satisfying reading for any armchair archaeologist interested in the ancient world. I believe the Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece, compiled by British archaeological power couple Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins, was the first volume published in the series, and it set a high standard of quality for the books that followed. It was originally published in 1997 by the publisher Facts on File, but the series has since been acquired by Oxford University Press, who have published the series in paperback editions.

I have read three other volumes in the Handbook to Life series, those on Prehistoric Europe, the Ancient Maya World, and the Aztec World. The Aztec and Maya volumes are excellent at examining all aspects of a civilization and providing a vivid look at what life was like in those periods, not just for royalty but for the common people as well. The Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece is less successful on the latter score. Like all of the Handbooks, the text is arranged in thematic chapters highlighting various aspects of the culture in question. In this Greek volume, only one brief chapter covers common aspects of everyday life such as food, clothing, and funerals, though an extensive chapter on economy and trade also helps to illuminate the lives of common working stiffs. The authors devote their heaviest coverage to religion, warfare, and historical events.

The problem, of course, is that so much is known about ancient Greece, what do you cram in between the covers of a one-volume synthesis? The Adkins’s strategy for solving the problem is to devote the bulk of the volume to a series of comprehensive lists, with each alphabetical entry elaborated by a paragraph or two of text. Thus, in addition to an extensive historical chronology (12 pages), the reader is treated to a smorgasbord of historical personages (42 pages), regions and alliances (24 pages), place names (11 pages), authors (17 pages), gods and mythological beings (49 pages), artists and architects (5 pages), and philosophers and scientists (9 pages). This makes the Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece a very good reference for looking up individual facts, but for those readers seeking a general overview of Greek civilization, this is not the most satisfying text for linear reading. Amid the morass of detail, it is often hard to see the forest for the trees.

Like other books in the series, this volume is heavily illustrated. Most of the illustrations are photographs of architectural ruins or artifacts such as sculptures, pottery, and coins. There are also some helpful labeled diagrams, though one wishes there would have been more of those, particularly in the architecture and art sections. The maps of Greek regions and city-states are very detailed. They are not the easiest to read but are more than informative enough for all but professional archaeologists.

New discoveries are constantly being made, so the information in this book can’t help but become dated with time. I’m sure professional archaeologists could find details to quibble about, but the layman or student will find this an abundant source of knowledge on the complex history and culture of the ancient Greek civilization. The Adkinses also wrote Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, which I look forward to reading next.
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