Michael Joseph, 2020
Actor, comedian, presenter, and all-round glitteratus Stephen Fry has added an ambitious retelling of the Greek myths to his many accomplishments. Following Mythos (2017) and Heroes (2019), both Sunday Times bestsellers, he has just published Troy, a fast, easy, enjoyable romp through the Homeric stories, with their ever-compelling mix of passion, jealously, and violence. A light infrastructure of timelines, genealogies, glossaries, and notes help readers keep their bearings, but the essence of the book is a faithful updating of the ancient tales, the characters sharply drawn, the action visceral, the whole narrative pumping with emotion and energy. Homer’s Iliad concerns a few days’ fighting. His Odyssey is the story of one hero’s return. Fry takes the tragic history of the city itself, from foundation to destruction, for his narrative thread, creating a succession of sparkling scenes – the Judgement of Paris, the Abduction of Helen, the Sacrifice of Iphigeneia, the Death of Hector, and many more. Strongly recommended.
Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death, and art
Rebecca Wragg Sykes
Neanderthal studies have entered a new phase. No longer portrayed as clumsy, stooped, shuffling, knuckle-dragging brutes communicating in grunts and bashing each other with clubs, a new image of the Neanderthals has been forged, one hyper-charged with fresh scientific data. Rebecca Wragg Sykes is at the cutting-edge of Palaeolithic research, but she is also gifted with an exceptional literary talent, and has produced a superb synthesis of the new thinking, wholly accessible to the general reader, frequently moving in its lyricism. The Neanderthals turn out to have been very much like us – ‘kindred’ – and to have ranged almost as widely across ecological zones, adapting to warm forests as readily as to frozen wastes, equipped to do so by their intelligence, creativity, manual skill, and social organisation. Adaptability made them a highly successful species, around for some 400,000 years, twice as long as homo sapiens. Time to meet our closest relatives: there is no better introduction than this. (A full-length review can be found in The Past magazine, Issue 1.)
The Invention of Medicine: from Homer to Hippocrates
Robin Lane Fox
Allen Lane, 2020
Robin Lane Fox, Emeritus Fellow of New College, Oxford, is well-known for a series of highly-regarded books about the Classical world. His first, Alexander the Great (1973), is widely considered the best biography of the Greek king ever written – it certainly earned him the consultant’s role on Oliver Stone’s 2004 cinema epic – but he is also the author, among others, of Pagans and Christians (1986), The Unauthorised Version (1992), and The Classical World (2005). In this wide-ranging survey of the Hippocratic tradition of Classical Greek medicine, Lane Fox sets the growth of scientific practice in its contemporary context, from Homer onwards, but a special focus is one doctor’s case histories of named individuals in their island setting. These case histories are used to shine a light on passing references in other Greek sources – Aeschylus, Euripides, Herodotus, Thucydides, and more – in a deft example of the particular being used to enhance understanding of the general.
A World Beneath the Sands: adventurers and archaeologists in the golden age of Egyptology
Toby Wilkinson is that rare creature, a first-class academic with a taste and a flair for popularisation that reaches out to a broad general audience. A highly regarded Egyptologist and prize-winning author, with books including Genesis of the Pharaohs (2003), Lives of the Ancient Egyptians (2007), and The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (2010), his latest offering is a history of scholarship and exploration in Egyptology’s golden age from 1822 to 1922. This century, neatly bracketed by Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphics and Carter’s excavation of the Tomb of Tutankhamum, encompassed virtually all the discipline’s great discoveries. It is, of course, a rip-roaring story of travellers and treasure-hunters, ethnographers and epigraphists, antiquarians and archaeologists, set against a backdrop of colonialism, nationalism, and orientalism. This is one of archaeology’s great stories, here told by one of the academy’s great narrators, but it is also a superb introduction to Egyptology itself.