First, in 1997 came The Mythology of the Greeks and Romans and its unbelievable popularity with the reading public. Next, two years later, came The Literature of the Greeks and Romans, including something most unusual – a large number of often very long quotations from the works of the ancient writers, from Homer, Hesiod, Sappho and the Greek tragedians to the poets of the late Roman Empire, all translated by the author. Now we have the final volume of Zygmunt Kubiak’s trilogy on the ancient world, The History of the Greeks and Romans, which to judge from the booksellers’ suggestions, will repeat, if not surpass the success of the Mythology.
This trilogy is the crowning achievement of many years, in fact a whole lifetime’s fascination with the Mediterranean world, which has given rise to relentless toil, though aided by great talent. And now, as the author of the Mythology, Literature and History of the Greeks and Romans, Zygmunt Kubiak must have a sense of achievement that few of us can match. For in spite of the set-backs imposed by history and fate, not only has he produced a comprehensive work including essays and translations, but he has managed to infect masses of readers with his passions. He is one of modern Poland’s most important teachers of tradition, who knows how to show us that the Mediterranean roots of our culture are still alive, and that it is simply up to us whether or not we wish to listen to voices from the past, extract a message from them, and breathe some different, purer air.
The History of the Greeks and Romans first takes us way back into the past, to prehistory, then to the beginnings of civilisation in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. However, that is just the introduction to the main story, which is divided into six parts: ”Greek Experiences” (which takes us up to the eve of the Battle of Chaeronea), ”The Hellenistic Epos”, ”The Vicissitudes of the Roman Republic”, ”Roman Civil Wars”, ”The Greatness of the Empire” and ”Tough Trials for the Empire”. The final part, starting from the decline of Emperor Constantine’s reign, is the shortest and most concise.
As the narrator, Kubiak often gives the floor to ancient historians and writers, witnesses who described the reality that was close to them. His narrative is freely interlaced with these voices as if he were one of them. So, for example, following Plutarch, he summons up the vision of the ghostly procession that was supposed to have haunted Mark Antony in his palace in Alexandria the night before his final defeat; many centuries later the noise of that procession ended up in Cavafy’s famous poem The God Abandons Antony. At the same time an unexpected digression occasionally takes us to the present day: in writing about reforms introduced by Cleopatra, Kubiak adds: ”She could have written ‘The economy, you fool!’ above her desk, just like one of our twentieth-century statesmen.”
In Kubiak’s work Greece and Rome are fundamentally distinct concepts that do not oppose, but rather supplement each other. For Greece, even after a Roman expedition had conquered the Achaean League and destroyed Corinth, ”continued to exist immortally, in an another, better life, washed clean of historical events… It is better to live in Rome than in Greece, but Greece, its beauty, liberates us, because it inflicts a wound on us that never allows us to feel settled in the world.”
”It is better to live in Rome…” In the argument between critics of Rome (who include Simone Weil, for example) and its defenders, Zygmunt Kubiak declares himself one of the latter. He is as equally fascinated by the ”arduous, grey” history of building the Roman state as by the macrocosm of the Empire at the height of its splendour. Writing about Marcus Portius Cato and ”the legend of the dying republic” he notes: ”And yet, deep in our hearts perhaps we know that what happened was for the best. The Empire that Caesar was aiming for, as if intuitively, not yet knowingly, for us at any rate turned out for the good, the better, because there was room for us in it, too, in that universal state elevated above history, above chance.”
For Zygmunt Kubiak the Empire is not only a form of state conditioned by history; it is also ”what the ancient world would pass on to future ages, right up to our own times – at least as a memory and a vision: a great community based not on ethnic foundations but on economic, political and cultural principals.” That is exactly why one of the heroes of the book is Octavian Augustus, and one of the most important of the texts cited in it is a list of his exploits engraved on a tablet that has survived in the city of Ancyra in Asia Minor. The empire builder’s autobiography in bronze is like the second wing of a diptych: the first, quoted 200 pages earlier, is a selection of aphorisms by Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who taught us to keep our distance from ”the turmoil and insanity of everyday history”. A salutary distance and inevitable involvement. The History of the Greeks and Romans goes up to the decline of the Western Empire, but the fate of Byzantium is outside its scope. This was a conscious choice. ”For all the admiration due to the East,” writes Kubiak in the conclusion, paying tribute to two early masterpieces of Byzantine culture in particular, the Codex Justinianus and Saint Sophia’s temple, ”I must admit that our Europe is the same West that collapsed in a tragic era, but not for ever.” Evoking the myth of Icarus, who ignored his father’s warning, flew too close to the sun’s rays and perished, he wonders: ”Perhaps the great rise of Greece and Rome, so ardent for so many centuries, is a similar case. It ended in disaster for the masterpiece – one of mankind’s most splendid works – that was the Roman Empire. Afterwards, in any case this Europe of ours, that we have been living in for thousands of years, has collapsed over and over again. And it can still go on falling apart and shattering like a jug.”
The drink that fills that jug is sometimes bitter, as bitter as the sun’s beauty proved for Icarus, but ”just when we are struck by its bitterness we recognise the taste of sobriety and our hearts become aware that patience and persistence are also a form of beauty, one that is fuller and more mature – not just a single beat of the wings, but a return, moving upwards again after a fall. We are still living in the Mediterranean empire – it is alive within us.” Europe’s great defects are simply the defects of human nature, while on the other hand ”the wonderful individuality of western tradition lies in the fact that it can see its own flaws more sharply than any other civilisation can. And, we trust, it will never be reconciled with those flaws.” Reading the History, and indeed Kubiak’s entire trilogy, provides an important lesson as we make our latest attempt to stick the European jug together. It teaches us persistence, and at the same time humility, which stops us from getting drunk on our own triumphs. It encourages us to take action – and warns us against illusions.