Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is Thomas Cahill’s fourth volume in the Hinges of History series, which includes his How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. In these books, Cahill interprets the achievements of the ancient civilizations that are foundational for our own culture.
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea represents Cahill’s broad interpretation of what is most important about Greek civilization for understanding our contemporary world. He does not present original scholarship, but instead seeks to raise the dead to life by portraying the feelings and perceptions of another age, and insofar as possible, real and rounded men and women. Along the way, he offers some trenchant criticisms about contemporary politics, warfare, sexual mores and the situation of women. Those who teach classics for a living might question whether Greek civilization needs to be raised from the dead, since classics courses enjoy widespread popularity on many college campuses. Still, Cahill presents a remarkable survey of Greek culture that, one hopes, will inspire interest in Greek literature and culture among many nonspecialist readers.
The volume is organized around a series of sketches of modes of Greek thought significant for contemporary culture. These sketches are usually linked with a principal literary text, from which Cahill quotes extensively. Thus The Warrior: How to Fight (Chapter 1) is based on Homer’s Iliad, and The Wanderer: How to Feel (2) is inspired by the Odyssey. The Poet: How to Party (3) looks at Hesiod and the Greek lyric poets, Sappho in particular. The Politician and the Playwright: How to Rule (4) examines the development of Athenian democracy from the point of view of the fifth-century Athenian playwrights. In The Philosopher: How to Think (5), Plato’s Symposium provides a way of introducing Greek philosophical thought, while The Artist: How to See (6) is devoted to the Greek visual arts. The final chapter, The Way They Went: Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian, addresses the influence of Greek culture on, and ways of thinking about, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Finally, an appendix guides the reader to further literature on the topics treated in the book.
In such a broad sketch of Greek life there are bound to be omissions. Indeed, Cahill all but ignores the history of Greece in the Hellenistic period, after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. This was a crucial period in which, among other things, Greek became the language of culture and government in the Mediterranean world, Alexandria in Egypt became the cultural center of the ancient world with the creation of its great library, and the Jewish people began the long interaction with Greek culture that would change Judaism and help to establish the basis for Christianity.
There are also some misleading impressions about life in the ancient world. To cite one example, in discussing living conditions in Athens, Cahill makes the casual remark that the average life span reached the mid-40’s for men and the mid-30’s for women, the lower figure for women resulting from the dangers of childbirth. Such a statement is likely to make a lasting impression with readers, but it has little basis. Current research shows that average life expectancy at birth in the ancient world was short, between 20 and 30 years, because of high infant and childhood mortality. But this does not mean that by their 40’s most people were facing the end of their lives. For adults, death from disease or other causes was much more likely than today, but many people in their 40’s could expect to live to a ripe old age.
These points notwithstanding, this volume has some very appealing aspects. One is the extensive quoting of texts from Greek literature. Cahill seems to have a knack for picking the most poetic translations available, like Robert Fagles’s recent translations of Homer. On occasion, especially with the Greek lyric poets, Cahill will provide his own translations, and these are always poetic and clear. Cahill’s survey of Greek literature reminds us of its beauty and profundity, and he conveniently provides those interested in reading more of Greek literature with a guide to appropriate translations. Cahill also brings these texts to life by showing how they are relevant for grappling with the fundamental problems affecting the contemporary world. For example, his discussion of the Iliad turns into a disquieting reflection on the centrality of warfare in Western civilization.
One refreshing aspect of this survey of Greek civilization is that it is not simply an idealization of the past that praises the ancient Greeks for values that we have regrettably lost. Indeed, Cahill seems quite willing to point out some of the less attractive aspects of Greek civilization, such as the exclusion of women from public life. This exclusion, and the assumptions about society that underlay it, have had, in Cahill’s view, lasting consequences for women in the contemporary world, even in the Catholic Church.
All in all, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is a very entertaining book that achieves the author’s purpose of making Greek civilization more accessible to the contemporary reader. It presents a lively introduction to a very important subject. The book not only provides the reader with the resources to investigate matters further on his or her own, but it also shows that the effort can be worthwhile.