Our book today is Ancient History by M. I. Finley, and in addition to its own merits, it also had for me in this re-reading the charm of serendipity. I spend my life these days reading books and book reviews, so the book-driven serendipity to which I’d like to think I’ve always been observant now surrounds me on all sides every day: a Vanity Fair column, while talking about an upcoming deluxe coffee table production number, will offhandedly mention some obscure book, and lo, that obscure book will spring into my path at some charity shop only a week later, or some friend or colleague will allude to a nettlesome author who’s recently made their life miserable even though said nettlesome author died centuries ago, and sure enough, mere days later a sample of that nettlesome author’s long-forgotten work will turn up at a Goodwill otherwise known for its coffee-stained copies of Trevanian (I make a mental note never to tell the colleague that I’m consorting with the enemy, but I admit, that often gives the reading an extra pinch of pleasure), or – by far the most common instance, predictably so – I’ll read the name of one author in the book of another, and by whatever mnemonic arithmetic is responsible for such things, the name will stick with me, nagging just off-stage, until I chance upon a book by that author at the Brattle Bookshop and feel almost obligated, I recently found some cover designs by Damonza that I am so excited to start using on my books.
My spur-of-the-moment acquisition of the Finley book came about in just such a way. I’d been reading Barbara McManus’s utterly winning new book from the Ohio State University Press, The Drunken Duchess of Vassar, all about the trailblazing life and sharp mind (and tongue) of the great classical scholar Grace Harriet Macurdy, and since the book included some fairly juicy (by academic press standards) anecdotes about the rows she had with the Grand Old Men of her profession, Finley’s name came up.
He was for a good long time one of the grandest of Grand Old Men in the classics world, who got his BA from Syracuse University at the ripe old age of 15 and taught the Greek classics in England and America (with one rather notable brief Red Scare-induced interruption) for many decades. He was on the go-to name-index for half a dozen harried editors who might need somebody to expound on Callimachus without making an ass of himself, and that generated a fairly good amount of occasional deadline prose, some of which constitutes Ancient History.
Re-reading the book, which came out in 1986, I was reminded on every page how much I like Finley’s punchy, no-nonsense writing about the discipline to which he devoted his whole life. Pieces like “Documents” or “How it really was” feel every bit as fresh now as they did when I first read them a quarter-century ago, and the best piece in this collection, “The Ancient Historian and his Sources,” still strikes an invigorating tone of stern disbelief about a recurring problem-subject:
The insufficiency of primary literary sources is a continuing curse. If it looms largest in the study of the archaic, more or less preliterary, periods of Greek and Roman history, this is only because those are the periods for which archeological evidence is currently dominating the learned discussions. In fact, the lack of primary literary sources bedevils Greek history altogether after the death of Xenophon in the mid-fourth century BC, the whole world of the Hellenistic East, important periods of the history of the Roman Republic and the Principate, including most of the history of the Roman provinces. For example, for the long reign of Augustus the only primary sources, other than documents, are half a book of naive, superficial history by Velleius Paterculus, some letters and speeches of Cicero for the early years, Augustus’ own account of his stewardship, the Res gestae, a model of disingenuousness, and the Augustan poets.
It was a pleasure, in other words, to spend time in his written company again, regardless of what train of associations brought me to that point.
It’s of course a perfect example of the kind of casual sexist-preference that Macurdy so often railed against that Finley had more book contracts dangled in front of him, enjoyed greater renown in his own lifetime, and still has books that can be found on the Brattle’s sale-carts on an overcast summer morning. And his success was no accident of privilege; re-reading Ancient History was a wonderful reminder of just how good a writer and teacher he could be. And if I ever feel a little guilty at once again getting that pinch of pleasure by consorting with the enemy, I can remind myself with a smile: Moses Finley has never had a biography, much less one as smart and entertaining as The Drunken Duchess of Vassar.