Synopses & Reviews
In Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea
, his fourth volume to explore “the hinges of history,” Thomas Cahill escorts the reader on another entertaining—and historically unassailable—journey through the landmarks of art and bloodshed that defined Greek culture nearly three millennia ago.
In the city-states of Athens and Sparta and throughout the Greek islands, honors could be won in making love and war, and lives were rife with contradictions. By developing the alphabet, the Greeks empowered the reader, demystified experience, and opened the way for civil discussion and experimentation—yet they kept slaves. The glorious verses of the Iliad recount a conflict in which rage and outrage spur men to action and suggest that their “bellicose society of gleaming metals and rattling weapons” is not so very distant from more recent campaigns of “shock and awe.” And, centuries before Zorba, Greece was a land where music, dance, and freely flowing wine were essential to the high life. Granting equal time to the sacred and the profane, Cahill rivets our attention to the legacies of an ancient and enduring worldview.
"Like his other books, this one is a moving history of an ancient culture." George Cohen, Booklist
"[H]ighly readable....Like having a worldly, well-versed, and imaginative uncle tell you a good story, tendering the known while fearlessly filling in the gaps with seamless, colorful graftings." Kirkus Reviews
"[An] elegant introduction to Greek life and thought....Once again, Cahill gracefully opens up a world that has provided so much of Western culture's characteristic way of thinking." Publishers Weekly
In the fourth volume of the acclaimed Hinges of History series, Thomas Cahill brings his characteristic wit and style to a fascinating tour of ancient Greece.
About the Author
THOMAS CAHILL is the author of the three previous volumes in the Hinges of History series: How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, and Desire of the Everlasting Hills. They have been bestsellers, not only in the United States but also in countries ranging from Italy to Brazil. Cahill was recently invited to address the U.S. Congress on the Judeo-Christian roots of moral responsibility in American politics. He and his wife, Susan, also a writer, divide their time between New York and Rome.
Reading Group Guide
1) In his analysis of Homers Iliad
, Thomas Cahill cites the epics intense depictions of loyalty, villainy, and the honorable way to fight. Yet Homer ascribes noble behavior to both Trojans and Greeks. What parallels do you see between Homers perception of heroism and our own? What do you make of the mythic justification for the Trojan war—a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest,” bestowed by the Spirit of Discord? Do the mythic aspects of the Trojan War reveal any truths about why we do battle?
2) The book addresses the question of luck versus prowess in the rise of a powerful civilization [see p. 49]. Intellect and drive obviously contributed to the Greeks success, but do you consider them to be fortunate also? If so, in what ways were they luckier than those they defeated?
3) The tragedies written by Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides often feature tremendous violence, such as Oedipuss blinding self-mutilation and the bloody conclusion to Antigone. One effect of this was catharsis for the audience, while demonstrating the power of the gods in determining our destinies. Do modern-day depictions of violence—in video games, films, and the media—serve a similar purpose?
4) In what ways was the Greek perception of sexual power reflected in male-dominated politics? How does Athena—the female goddess of battle—fit into this schema?
5) In your opinion, was Pericless version of democracy too inclusive or not inclusive enough? How did scales of economy shape Greeces political landscape?
6) In the introduction, Thomas Cahill writes that his role as historian is not to expose breakthrough discoveries but to bring history to life. How would you characterize your role in this process? In what way do reader and writer serve to shape history? Does this process differ in ancient oral traditions?
7) What does our knowledge of homosexuality in ancient Greece indicate about this cultures understanding of sexuality in general? What are the contemporary implications of this ancient approach?
8) Does Sapphos “finishing school” represent a particular notion about the ideal woman?
9) In contrast to Sappho, instructors in Sparta attempted to excise all but the most brutish traits in their students. Do you consider the Spartan approach to military training to have been successful?
10) What did Platos writings reveal about the nature and reality of love, in its complete spectrum of manifestations? Did the death of Socrates contradict or reinforce those observations?
11) Discuss the emotional and psychological subtext conveyed by Greek art and architecture. Does it appear to glorify or subjugate humanity? What does it imply about the psyche of its creators?
12) The Greco-Roman world was in many ways a hostile locale for the seeding of Judeo-Christian values. Yet Greek became the language of the New Testament, and the geographic strongholds of the “Latin West” and “Greek East” survive to this day. In what ways did the ancient Greeks shape Christianity?
13) The book cites several Western poets, from Tennyson to Yeats to Auden, whose works often refer to classicism (a cornerstone of these poets schooling). Thomas Cahill, who first encountered Latin and ancient Greek in high school, provides us with a few of his own translations of Greek lyric poetry. Would it be valuable to make such a curriculum more widespread among twenty-first century American schools?
14) Was hubris at the heart of the Athenians fall from prominence? What lessons could they impart to todays superpowers?
15) What common threads emerge in Greek pantheism, spanning the seasons of Demeter, the retribution of Icarus, the unbridled pleasure of Dionysus? How would you say the Greeks understood their faith?
“A triumph of popularization: extraordinarily knowledgeable, informal in tone, amusing, wide-ranging, smartly paced.” —The New York Times Book Review