A whiff of the Fifties

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Oxford Children's Ancient History. By Roy Burrell. Oxford University Press Pounds 9.99.

The title has a ring of the Fifties about it, conjuring up a pre-TV age when children in dressing gowns turned pages filled with mighty conquerors, dastardly tyrants and intrepid explorers. In content, however, despite its stylised line drawings and hearty, avuncular text, this reissued bargain-buy paperback rarely misses its mark.

It is essentially a history of Greece and Rome, but the chapter on "Other early civilisations" is less dismissive than its title suggests, with sub-chapters on the Indus Valley and China.

The text provides sound introductory sections on the importance of river valleys and the effects of floods and irrigation, and there is a nice balance of information and explanation on such topics as the discovery of the royal ship of Cheops, mummification and the tomb of Tutankhamen.

The main sections on the Greek and Roman civilisations are comprehensive, using double-page spreads to examine almost every major theme - including less savoury aspects such as slavery and crucifixion.

Unfortunately, the book's strengths do not shine through on the bland contents pages, which gives little indication of the subjects covered inside. It is also difficult to take seriously such text as: "Let's ask this Athenian what he believes in and what he worships. 'Is there a service in your temple today?' we ask him. 'Service?' he says, 'I don't know what you mean'. " If this book is to serve a real need in the curriculum it should be accessible to the broad primary age range who must study the Romans in Britain and Ancient Greece as part of the national curriculum. But with its musings, phalanxes and draperies, this text is heading in a very different direction. Stranded between age groups, curricula and genres it will need the luck of Aeneas to succeed.

Mark Williamson

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