UnRoman Activities

The Mask of Jove

by Stringfellow Barr
Lippincott, 598 pp., $15.00

Enemies of the Roman Order

by Ramsay MacMullen
Harvard, 370 pp., $7.95

After The Will of Zeus, The Mask of Jove, a “history of Graeco-Roman civilization from the death of Alexander to the death of Constantine”—“a narrative,” says Stringfellow Barr, “not an argument, a drama in which I have again allowed the actors to tell the story in their own words whenever available documents permitted.” Some translation is required. I shan’t quibble over the equation, narrative=drama, but the reader must not expect documents in the sense in which the historian and the layman both customarily employ that world. Mr. Barr’s method is to quote extensively from Greek and Roman historians, poets, orators, and philosophers, and from early Christian writers, but almost never from laws, decrees, treaties, epitaphs, or private letters, and they are available in much greater number than the unsuspecting reader might imagine. But then, “available” also has to be translated: “whenever a quotation suits my purposes.” The result, in the nature of the case, is that the actors almost never tell the story in their own words, except when the actors are themselves historians, poets, orators, philosophers, or Church fathers.

We are, in sum, still in the world of the Great Books, about which a younger generation probably knows nothing but which my generation remembers well. If Mortimer Adler was the High Priest in that world, Mr. Barr was its Minister of State, presiding for ten years in the late Thirties and Forties over St. John’s College, Annapolis, where the curriculum consisted of a close reading of the Great Books. The underlying idea is expressed in Mr. Barr’s two-page bibliographical note to the present volume. He mentions four modern historical works, those of Gibbon, Mommsen, and Max Cary (the latter for the reader who “wants greater factual detail than the plan of this book has permitted me to present”). Otherwise he repeats the recommendation already made in the preceding volume, where he had “urged the reader not to content himself with what historians of our own day said that the Greeks said but to let the Greeks speak for themselves.” It is the final six words that are the nub (whether applied to Greeks or to Romans), and the difficulty.

WHAT CAN THEY MEAN? Consider the following four quotations, selected almost at random from the book:

Jupiter set apart these shores for a righteous folk, ever since with bronze he dimmed the lustre of the Golden Age. With bronze and then with iron did he harden the ages, from which a happy escape is offered to the righteous, if my prophecy be heeded. [Horace, Epodes 16]

I refused to accept any power offered me which was contrary to the traditions of our ancestors. [Augustus, Res gestae]

…what you hold and call your own is public property—indeed, it belongs to mankind at large. [Seneca, Moral Epistles 88]

I next asked him [Homer] why he began with the wrath of Achilles; and he said that it just came into his head that way, without any …

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Letters

Most Excellent Books Program July 13, 1967