Nothing new under the sun

15th March 1996 at 00:00
LEGACIES series ARCHITECTURE. By Richard Wood. COSTUME AND CLOTHES. By Penelope Paul. LANGUAGE AND WRITING. By Peggy Burns. POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT. By Richard Wood. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY. By Julian Rowe. SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT. By Peter Hicks Wayland Pounds 9.99 each Age range 8 - 11

There used to be a foolish fashion for saying that Britain should play Greece to America's Rome. This might have made sense to Old Etonian Tories, but it blandly ignored two essential facts. We don't derive our inheritance from Mediterranean classical civilisation alone. Nor do we have exclusive claims on world significance, other countries have reinvested their patrimony, including the Graeco-Roman, in ways the English-Speaking peoples haven't got round to imagining.

This lively and often fascinating series explores those rich and plural legacies most informatively. They go back to Crete, Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, Babylon, Sumer, Phoenicia, India, Syria and Mexico to retrace some of the paths along which contemporary civilisations have grown. They show how the ancient - things that happened before the fifth century of the Christian era - still lives on in the modern. Moreover, they make the whole enterprise comprehensible to thoughtful pupils and do it with style and gusto.

The authors do not restrict themselves to dealing with techniques and styles, important though these are. We can indeed see the connection between ziggurats and the Chrysler Building, between Egyptian jewellery and the art deco style, between Chinese fireworks and modern Guy Fawkes celebrations. We are shown the evidence in drawings and photographs. What is more interesting and unusual in books of this kind is to be shown connections of ideas and purposes as well. Cyrus's postal system is linked to e-mail in a comparison of the communication needs of complex social organisations. A Lutyens war memorial is linked to Roman arches, not only as an architect's procedure but as the expression of a triumphal imperial wish.

Even deeper lie the perennial human requirements served by all civilisations. The need for food, warmth, shelter, company, entertainment, knowledge are all illuminated by enlightening sets of comparisons. Togas and business suits, leather armour and bikers' gear, ideograms and road signs, all find a place in this network of contrast and correspondence. It's useful to be reminded that sporting riots are nothing new, the Blues and Greens probably killed 30, 000 people rioting over chariot races in the sixth century.

The text is demanding rather than patronising. The writing is organised in brief chapters about specific civilisations rather than numbing two-page spreads. There are useful short glossaries, but it's sometimes assumed that a reader will take in a notion such as "Celtic" through its use in the text without specific explanation. Excellent maps and photographs help too. Three compelling examples show Indian saris, Siberian furs and Bolivian shawls on successive multicoloured pages.

While it might take an adult to appreciate the finer ironies of history, there can be no harm and much good in getting young people to think about the similarities between Solon and Vaclav Havel or Caligula and Saddam Hussein. These books show our national heritage as it is. Politicians use it as a shibboleth but it comes alive here in its sprawling global variety.

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