If one reason Why Homer Matters (John Macrae, $30) is his unblinking presentation of the realities of war and heroism, loyalty and grief, another is “for the sake of the singing hereafter,” and Adam Nicolson’s heartfelt and illuminating book is surely in that lyrical heritage. Describing Homer as “the human spirit on fire,” and the epics as having been “invented after memory and before history,” Nicolson follows that spirit through a wide range of times, landscapes, cultures, and languages; he’s assembled a rich composite picture of the Homeric tradition, one that’s as personal as it is scholarly. Having bonded most fiercely with the Ancient while sailing, Nicolson embarks on a fascinating look at the sea in Homer’s poetry. Similarly, he traces the roles of horses, metals, and storytelling—which raises a host of age-old questions: where did Homer’s stories originate? And when? Are they products of stock formulas, improvised performances, or both? And was “Homer” one or many? Nicolson surveys the theories. He also looks at various timelines for Homer’s work, and, using linguistic, archeological, and cultural evidence, dates the poet back to the Bronze Age—further in the past than many critics do—with intriguing glimpses of a pre-Greek “subconscious,” from when Homer’s people inhabited the landlocked Eurasian steppes, circa 3000 BC.
Pompeii was buried in 79; it came back to a new kind of life in the late 1700s. Rowland, a Rome-based professor of classical and Renaissance history, first visited in 1962, and the snapshot of her eight-year-old self that introduces this engaging survey of the ancient city’s “afterlife” sets the warm and familiar tone of the whole. A scholar, Rowland offers fascinating insights on the area’s volcanoes and excavations, its recovered art and structures, and interprets evidence for clues to Pompeii’s culture and beliefs. The heart of her narrative is the modern experience of this revived site, and she profiles the diverse individuals smitten, as she is, with both the old and new Pompeiis, assembling a multi-faceted view of Pompeii and its evolving image in world culture.
Simon James vividly surveys Rome’s history from a fresh and insightful perspective – at the sharp end of the famous Roman short sword. He skillfully traces the development of the feared gladius with which Rome’s super-violent troops quite literally carved up their neighbors and each other. This is a blood-curdling tale told with conviction, and leaves one wiser and more ambivalent about this civilization.