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The Splendor of Greece May 8, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Books Life.
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“The Splendor of Greece” > By Robert Payne (Harper)

Robert Payne’s “The Splendor of Greece,” published in 1960, takes the armchair traveler back nearly 50 years to a time when travel book writers came to their subjects with intentions different from their modern counterparts.

Contemporary books recounting the adventures of an eager pilgrim in Paris or romantic rural Spain or hidden and lovely Portugal tend to focus on the private and the problematic. How I coped with a flat tire in this or that charming, dusty town; how my 5-year-old learned to curse in patois while I grew fresh basil and got over my divorce.

Payne, a hugely prolific writer with a seeming penchant for seeing and describing the whole world “The Splendor of Persia”, “The White Rajahs of Sarawak” and “Forever China” are among his 110 other titles, sets each of his 16 chapters in a different part of Greece, taking the reader on a tour of noteworthy areas, sketching the town’s history, myths and archaeology, discussing, sometimes over-rhapsodizing about, its art, and making note of what its current inhabitants are doing. Payne’s prose is that of a man pays attention to detail, and fully intends that we will see what he sees.

“Splendor” is also a travel book with a simple thesis: most Western ideas about freedom, beauty and truth came from ancient Greece in the wake of its winning liberty from the Persian empire in 480 B.C. The recent movie “300” tells part of this story. Victory over Persia ushered in the classical age with all its art, drama, learning and science; human achievement became akin to holiness. As Payne tells it, “holiness must come again, for it has been too long from the earth.”

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