938: A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities by J. C. McKeown

by Gerard


938: McKeown, J. C. A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 273 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-998210-3.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 930: History of the ancient world (to ca. 499)
  • 938: History of Greece to 323 BCE

For centuries, the Greeks and their civilization were lauded by every classic scholar. Greek sculpture and architecture was considered the height of design and artistry. Western civilization itself was modeled after the Greeks’ system of politics and government. But J. C. McKeown has had enough of this blind idolatry (and to be fair, so has everybody born after 1850). He just wants to see them for who they were, even if they were just as flawed as the rest of us. His investigation into Greek literature, history, and culture has turned up some unusual findings. They were a raucous, slandering, witty, uncivilized bunch and in A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities, he sets out to show just how normal (or rather abnormal) they were.

The book is organized much like a book of quotations, which passages from translated texts arranged by theme. Under each theme, we get a litany of excerpts from Greek philosophers, historians, writers, dramatist, and even graffiti artists to show small facets of Greek thought and life. Here’s some of what’s in the volume:

  • On sex: Throwing apples at someone was sign of your affection for them (Aristophanes).
  • On athletics: For the first thirteen Olympic Games, there was just a single competitive event—the 200-meter sprint (Julius Africanus).
  • On mathematics: Plato thought that the word “geometry” was a ridiculous name for the discipline (Epinomis).
  • On animals: According to Strabo’s Geography, if you smear elephant fat all over your body, no other animal will come near you.

This book would definitely be more useful as a bathroom reader than to read straight through. It has fun and evocative facts that help to humanize the Greeks. You can dip in, pick up a few quips, and then dash on to other things. McKeown’s arrangement is straightforward and he includes a lot of illustrations of artifacts to break up the stream of excerpts. If you’re into Greek history and its various minutiae, then pick this one up. There’s bound to be at least one new thing for you to learn.