In this elegant new book, Salvatore Settis traces the ways in which we have related to our ‘classical’ past, starting with post-modern American skyscrapers and working his way back through our cultural history to the attitudes of the Greeks and Romans themselves.
Settis argues that this obsession with cultural decay, ruins and a ‘classical’ past is specifically European and the product of a collective cultural trauma following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This situation differed from that of the Aztec and Inca empires whose collapse was more sudden and more complete, and from the Chinese Empire which always enjoyed a high degree of continuity. He demonstrates how the idea of the ‘classical’ has changed over the centuries through an unrelenting decay of ‘classicism’ and its equally unrelenting rebirth in an altered form.
In the Modern Era this emulation of the ‘ancients’ by the ‘moderns’ was accompanied by new trends: the increasing belief that the former had now been surpassed by the latter, and an increasing preference for the Greek over the Roman. These conflicting interpretations were as much about the future as they were about the past. No civilization can invent itself if it does not have other societies in other times and other places to act as benchmarks.
Settis argues that we will be better equipped to mould new generations for the future once we understand that the ‘classical’ is not a dead culture we inherited and for which we can take no credit, but something startling that has to be re-created every day and is a powerful spur to understanding the ‘other’.
* Exam copies only available to lecturers for whom the book may be suitable as a course text.
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James Porter, Journal of Roman Studies
"A thought-provoking and very readable book, especially in light of the recent debate regarding the future of the Ancient History A-Level."
Anastasia Bakogianni, Journal of Classics Teaching
"This is a terrific book – the fundamental statement we have long been hoping for, that confronts the European Classical heritage with the full complexity of its resonance in the age of globalization and postmodernity. It is brief, punchy and bright – very learned, but wearing its learning lightly, engaged, committed, always enthusiastic. Settis writes as a great authority immersed in the living Classical tradition, yet very sensitive to its swathe of receptions (art historical, architectural, poetic and historiographic, as well as literary). He leads us through a dazzling and hugely stimulating confrontation with the deep pasts and the futures of the Western tradition."
John Elsner, University of Oxford
"Salvatore Settis seeks a contemporary answer to Arnaldo Momigliano’s question: why study ancient history? In this dynamic and urgent series of chapters, Settis considers the classical in a global setting. European culture is seen to be demarcated by its rhythmic returns to classical civilization as an “elsewhere” of both time and space. Settis places classicism under scrutiny as a cultural project, rather than revering it as an icon, and argues that, through the classical, myth is absorbed into history. The deep tradition of cycles of death and rebirth unique to European history offers rich opportunities for viewing the past as alien, and therefore capable of providing a wider understanding of “otherness.” This provocative text takes nothing for granted."
Elizabeth Cropper, National Gallery of Art