Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.10.11


Mogens Herman Hansen and Kurt Raaflaub (edd.), Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis. Historia Einzelschriften 95. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995. Pp. 219. ISBN 3-515-06759-0.


Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge

This is a book for the professional ancient historian. Its precise and narrowly defined questions are for the most part designed to fit into the long running project of the Copenhagen Polis Centre, and the technical material brought to bear may be rebarbative to all but the already committed. Greek is not translated, framing of material is scanty, and the implications of the evidence collected are often left for the readers themselves to explore. Within its own terms -- and the editorial team of Hansen and Raaflaub raise strong and indeed happily fulfilled expectations -- the book is largely successful, with its typically comprehensive and sometimes combative deployment of empirical data. The less empirically minded historian will want to interrogate the boundaries and assumptions of the project.

There are ten essays loosely focused around the question 'What is a polis?'. The last three (by Alexandru Avram on the extent to which a political definition of the term 'polis" should be applied to members of the two Athenian naval leagues; by Walter Burkert on civic cults in the polis; and by Lene Rubinstein on Pausanias' definition of sites as poleis) are each brief scholarly responses to papers that have already been published elsewhere in volumes produced by the Copenhagen Polis Centre. Burkert and Rubinstein reflect carefully on major issues, but the combination of the restricted scope of the genre of a response, as well as the fact that both are qualifying well-articulated and thoughtful essays (by Susan Cole and Susan Alcock respectively) results in a somewhat limited close to the volume. (It would surely have been better to have the responses and articles to which the respond in the same volume.) The advantage of a sharper juxtaposition of thesis and critique is readily demonstrated by the preceding pair of articles by Stephen Miller and Leslie Shear which both look at the archaeological evidence for the Metroon Bouleterion. Miller wishes to challenge this identification, and claims that the new Metroon replaced an Old Metroon, and that the Boule met in open air elsewhere in the fifth-century polis. Shear argues against him on this attack on orthodoxy with some trenchant points, especially about the expectations of temple plans and bouleterion designs. In particular, he states that the archaeological evidence 'leaves not the slightest doubt that they [the two relevant trenches] never carried a wall at any period [as Miller claims]. The proposal to restore the classical building with three interior rooms has simply been rejected'. Since it is important for Miller's reconstruction that there were three rooms in the earlier building, this is a damaging counter-claim. Indeed, Shear's careful restatement of the orthodox position seems repeatedly more convincing (though long familiarity with the standard identification makes any challenge harder to accept). Neither archaeologist, however, is willing to explore at any length what is at stake politically in such a debate, although the connections between topography and the symbolics of power are certainly interestingly invoked.

The two preceding chapters can also be usefully paired. Pernille Flenstead-Jensen offers 'an attempt to collect all information about the Bottiaians, and then give a description of where they lived, who they were, and which poleis they inhabited'. There are no doubt some Chalkidian or Macedonian experts who will be happy to have such a consolation of half-facts, cautious guesses and inconsequential testimonia about a group who have never played a major role on the international stage. I remained thoroughly unconvinced of the author's claim that 'the Bottiaians seem to be an attractive subject in themselves'. Montaillou it isn't (let alone The Cheese and the Worms). Thomas Neilsen asks whether Eutaia was a polis (a question which has not burdened scholars previously). Eutaia was on the frontier of Arcadia and was invaded by Agesilaus (Xen. Hell. 6.5.10ff). Nielsen notes that Xenophon calls it a polis, and concludes after trawling through all uses of polis in the Hellenica that 'Eutaia was in all probability a polis in the sense of "political community" and Xenophon did use the term 'polis' in the sense of town, in the same way as Thucydides, namely to denote the urban centre of a political community'. This is not a very surprising answer to not a very pressing question.

The first three pieces of the volume are more substantial. First, François de Poligniac offers a characteristically stimulating if short piece on archaic society, entitled 'Repenser la "cité"? Rituels et société en Grèce archaique'. He argues that in discussions about the development of the polis the frame of analysis must be set as widely as possible, and that each aspect of symbolic practice, ritual performance and site development needs to be treated as part of a cultural whole. In particular, self-representation and cultic activity need to be seen in a dynamical relationship. This very general piece about the determination of the polis as polis obviously is closely connected to Poligniac's recent (and not so recent) work, and in its preparedness to offer a discussion of models or paradigms, and in its inclusion of the category of symbolic self-representation, (and in its lack of detailed test cases), it contrasts strikingly with much of the work of the book.

The heart of the volume, however, is a pair of lengthy essays by Hansen himself. The first is on the use of the term 'autonomy' as an essential definition of the polis; the second is on the use of the term kôme to designate settlements that were not considered poleis by Greek writers. Both articles stand as exemplary demonstrations of Hansen's methodology and show well the possibilities and limitations of a rigorous empirical approach. He points out that modern scholars have repeatedly made 'autonomy' a defining characteristic of the polis and, what is more, have asserted 'autonomy' to be an express aim of ancient writers on the polis. He points out that 'in fact' many Greek poleis were dependencies and many were happy to be so. Autonomia, he argues, is not the same as the modern concept of 'autonomy' (as modern ideas of 'statehood' often prove misleading for the ancient world too), but implies only 'self-government' (which has a variety of often quite limited forms). Hansen is undoubtedly right that 'autonomy' has been used in and interestingly fast and loose way by modern historians, and his collection of evidence will allow many future historians to work on the problem more efficiently. But many historians will also be worried by Hansen's apparent commitment to a rather simple notion of 'definition' or 'denotation', especially with such complex political terminology. In particular, recent work on ancient and modern political language has made it much harder to avoid the way in which each and every use of 'autonomia' by a Greek writer is not just describing how things are, but is also staking out a political position and negotiating a set of power relations. The rhetoric of such self-definitions is scarcely recognized in this volume, despite so many of Hansen's own, often striking, examples coming either from such masters of the language of political manipulation as Thucydides, or from the world of political display and public declaration, the inscription. Autonomia functions not just as the description of an objective state of affairs but also as a performative in the agonistic system of power plays that makes up Greek political life and its rhetoric. So, to move to the second essay, despite the claim that he is pursuing 'the Greeks' understanding of their own environment', the definition of a settlement as a kôme rather than a polis is something that Hansen thinks can be determined factually, accurately and once and for all (as if it didn't involve an act of self-definition through a rhetoric of topography). This, despite his intriguing demonstrations that both Xenophon and Arrian use kôme only of non-Greek settlements (inventing the barbarian locus). (I have a friend -- to stick with 'the village', as kôme is traditionally translated -- who always says she grew up in a village although we all think it is objectively a town; and those who live in Hampstead village or Highgate village, rather than London, are making a statement, as no doubt Greenwich Village works for New Yorkers: the point made long ago by Bachelard and others, is that the rhetoric of topographical description is a rhetoric of self-definition.) A list of what the Greeks called kômai and what they called poleis can lead to some fascinating questions, but will not in itself give access to 'the Greeks' understanding of their own environment'.

The sentence I spent longest pondering over, however, is the credo on which the book stands: 'The concept of the polis found in the sources and in modern historiography ought, of course, to be the same'. It was the 'of course' that held me up at first: is it so obvious and incontestable that modern historiography ought to reproduce and use an ancient concept? Is is true only for 'the polis or for all concepts? 'The concept of "woman" ought, of course...'? The concept of "slavery"...'? I then wondered about how this 'concept' is to be found and recognized. Which concept of the polis? Not just 'whose?' (Aristotle's or a slave's? Pericles' or Dicaeopolis'?) but 'at what level?' Is it tacit knowledge or explicit definition? What all agree on? Is it the polis of the Assembly, or of the political theorist, or of tragedy or of a combination of them all (and more)? What happens if 'Greeks' disagree? I find it easy to concur with Hansen that a search for how the Greeks understood their environment is a useful and significant project. But the question which needs asking and discussing is 'what is meant by such an understanding?' -- and 'how is it to be analysed?'. To take a string of explicit statements by Greek writers based on single terms as the sole definitions of that understanding runs the risk of missing how discourse is organised and functions.

Hansen's work, as so often, takes the possibilities of empirical historical research to a new level, one from which all scholars can learn. It is his work that holds this volume together. But the more he moves into the language of ancient self-definition (a place where 'of course' is rarely the right qualification of a statement), the more telling is his unwillingness to interrogate the relations between rhetoric and political life. 'An inventory of all archaic and classical settlements that are explicitly called poleis in contemporary sources' will never be more than a bare starting point of 'an investigation ... to find out what the Greeks thought a polis was.'