Homer’s Turks: How Classics Shaped Ideas of the East

Jerry Toner. Harvard Univ., $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-674-07314-2
In this unusually accessible academic work, Cambridge classics fellow Toner explores how classical learning has affected English perceptions of the East. For centuries, travelers and historians from Britain drew upon Greek and Roman plays, poems, and histories as “imaginative resources” for describing and trying to understand the cultures of Islam and “The Orient” that seemed alien. Toner ranges widely, from medieval to contemporary sources, to prove his thesis, emphasizing histories, such as by Edward Gibbon, and travelogues, from both famous names like Sir Richard Francis Burton and T.E. Lawrence and less recognized writers like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, perhaps the first secular European woman to chronicle Islamic practices. The concluding section considers the classics’ ongoing relevance, from popular entertainments like The English Patient and 300 to the op-ed pages. Toner focuses on representations of the East, rather than the region itself, showing how “the classical past has helped justify, sanction, and authenticate the English present,” while carefully distancing himself from Edward Said’s Orientalism theory, criticizing it as overly simplistic. While Toner’s argument is disappointingly modest in the end, the work makes a useful addition to understanding Western ideology and should appeal to academics and motivated laypeople alike. (Feb.)
Reviewed on: 12/03/2012
Release date: 03/01/2013
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