Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.14


Terry Buckley, Aspects of Greek History, 750-323 B.C.: A Source-Based Approach. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Pp. xvii, 542. $19.95. ISBN 0-415-09958-7.


Reviewed by Jon L. Berquist, Editor, Westminster John Knox Press, P.O. Box 17, Lawrenceburg KY 40342-0017, Jberquist@aol.com.

Buckley designed this textbook to fill a particular need: introductory courses in Greek history or classical studies that require attention to English versions of original texts at the same time that the class is introduced to the overall historical picture of classical Greece. The resulting product meets this goal with a general historical survey of mid-eighth-century to Alexandrian Greek history with special attention to the literary sources that form the backbone of Buckley's historical presentation.

Buckley has organized the material into 26 chapters, which keeps each chapter short enough (around 20 pages) for sensible assignments. There are two introductory chapters. The first surveys the backgrounds and tendencies of the six historical writers considered key to Greek history (Aristotle, Diodorus Siculus, Herodotus, Plutarch, Thucydides, and Xenophon), and also describes the extent of each of their relevant historical writings. The second chapter sketches the argument about overpopulation and trade as causes of Greek colonization; Buckley recognizes that trade was a factor in the placement of some colonies but concludes that overpopulation and the "need for land" was the dominant cause of colonization. The remaining 24 chapters deal with historical periods and places within Greek history, considered chronologically. There is no attempt to give equal space to each historical period. In fact, about 85% of the book deals with 500-323 B.C.; the brief attention paid to the first 250 years of the stated time span may make some readers feel misled by the title. Each of these historical chapters begins with a description of what the six literary sources provides for the history of the topic at hand, assessing the reliability of the source as well as delimiting the boundaries of what it discusses. Most of the rest of the chapter then presents a narrative version of the history, with occasional interjections about severe difficulties in the sources or the hesitations of current interpretation. Each chapter then ends with a short bibliography, usually containing 8-10 references. Throughout the chapters are 14 helpful maps (some of which show the course of particular military conflicts), and a 4-page glossary of Greek terms provides additional assistance for students.

This structure is well-suited to use as an introductory textbook, and in this sense the book succeeds at its stated purpose. A wealth of information is presented in easy-to-read prose, and from the book the student can successfully learn not only the fundamental narrative of Greek history but also the basics of these six ancient historians of ancient Greece, presented in a critical fashion through the comparison of different literary sources.

The book contains a few Briticisms that may leave American readers confused. Nowhere is this clearer than in the preface, which explains the purpose of the book in terms of J.A.C.T. Ancient History, Section A topics and the "A" level students whom the author has taught for over twenty years. For many American readers, these statements would be virtually empty of content. I would even hazard to suppose that many American college students would read the preface and think that this book must be so difficult that only students with 4.0 GPAs could understand it, even though the book is written so that a much wider range of college students would find it appropriate. Even for those somewhat familiar with British education systems, it leaves the book with an odd feel, as if one is reading over the shoulder of the intended reader, or perhaps as if the book resides at a bit of an awkward distance from the American reader.

Of greater concern to me, however, is one of the effects of the book's basis in literary sources. Although the book takes a critical stance toward these sources and even nuances the critical reading of each separate source, these sources have shaped the narrative of the history to an extent that makes at least my own reading a nervous and hesitant one. At each point in retelling the history of Greece, Buckley pauses to describe the extant sources and to sketch quickly the history of scholarship on that source. Then, Buckley assesses how much trust the reader should invest in the source. But it seems to me that Buckley finds each of these sources to be basically trustworthy. He tells his students to suspect the motives of strangers, but then introduces each source by saying, "Don't worry! He's a friend, not a stranger. Of course, he's got a few lovable quirks, but don't we all?" This is not quite the hermeneutic of suspicion that other readers might bring to these texts.

Buckley has produced a conversation among (ancient) friends, and he seems to assume consistently that at least one of his friends is telling the story basically as it happened. The other sources can shed light on the topics left unmentioned by a source, but there are problems only in a few cases of contradiction. While there are nods to the interpretive problems in moving from one writer's narrative creation to assertions about history as events that actually happened, the result is a retelling of the history as if it were an objective and verified record. I use the word "retelling" consciously to point to the book's function as a summary and harmony of the sources, rather than a "telling" re-reading of the sources to move beyond them. Only rarely does the book digress into non-literary evidence or archaeological or anthropological interpretations. While it is true that such digressions would have moved away from the purpose of the book, the inclusion of these other factors would have created a book much more appealing to me, as a reader who wishes to set textual and non-textual data side-by-side as a start to historiography.

Let me offer one example that I believe to be representative of the book. Chapter 9 is titled, "The Persian War: Greek Strategy and the Leadership of Sparta in 480-479" (pp. 161-188). For this chapter, Buckley's focus narrows to two years' time in one city. He first notes that "the fullest description of Xerxes' invasion of Greece is contained in the last three books of Herodotus" (p. 161). Thucydides is not very helpful, in that his history follows Herodotus despite his criticism of Herodotus' general performance as a historian. The logic here is problematic: we accept Herodotus' accuracy because we accept Thucydides' accuracy when this latter writer parrots Herodotus, but we deny Thucydides' accuracy when he criticizes Herodotus' accuracy. Aeschylus is available as a supplement to Herodotus. Ephorus and Ctesias wrote at a later date. Their work disagrees with Herodotus' narrative at several points, and Buckley interprets these disagreements as errors that discredit the later writers' value as sources. As fits the intention of the book, archaeological evidence and any Persian texts are not considered. Although I would agree with several of Buckley's assessments of the value of sources, the two-and-a-half page discussion of sources in this chapter leaves me unconvinced and concerned that students would gather the impression that these accounts are much more certainly known and much more reliable than I would find appropriate. The book employs a language of assessment and critical appropriation in order to teach students the appropriate use of literary sources, and yet the presence of this language in conjunction with less critical practices may well produce undesirable results, giving students the impression that these sources are inherently trustworthy and may be accepted wholeheartedly after only the most cursory of critical analysis. In the case of chapter 9, Buckley does offer a disclaimer before moving directly to the acceptance of Herodotus' reliability:

Although he [Herodotus] has been criticized justifiably by modern and ancient historians for his weaknesses ... , his strengths, especially when compared with later writers, are such that his account of these events should be considered reasonably trustworthy. ... This accuracy was due to his painstaking research and interviews with many of the eyewitnesses, both Greek and Persian, of the events that he narrated (p.161).
Although Buckley notes a few of Herodotus' predilections, the chapter does not address the serious problems with Herodotus, nor does the bibliographic information at the end of the chapter provide a guide to the modern historians who criticize Herodotus.

I would argue that, behind this unwillingness to adopt a highly critical stance, there is often a confusion of narrative with history. The relationship between narratives and history is a tenuous thing. Both the ancient writers whose literary sources are labeled "histories" as well as the modern historians who write narratives about ancient Greece are engaging in the activity of writing narratives. But is this history? Do narratives of politics and military maneuvers ever represent "what really happened" in ancient Greece? I would argue that history and narrative cannot be reduced to the other. Thus, there are immense difficulties in ever presenting a narrative as the "reality" of an ancient society.

Of course, this critique does not diminish the usefulness of this book within its own limits and stated intentions. Its frequent references to literary sources, including both quotations and citations, make it a very helpful resource. I will certainly turn to it often, especially when looking for indications of what ancient authors wrote on certain topics or periods and how their comments compare to each other. It also makes a quite serviceable summary of Greek history at almost any point within the period covered. There is special attention throughout to the political and military aspects of Greek history, and the interrelationships between the two are well represented, as well as are those between different regions and different periods. The book is a well-integrated summary of the Greek historians' view of ancient Greek political and military history, organized so as to make it friendly to the student's first-time learning of the source material and yet also useful for the scholar's reference. As such, it deserves wide acceptance.