Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.12.11

Paul Cartledge (ed.), The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. xix, 380; ills., maps, 149 col.  ISBN 0-521-48196-1.  $39.95.  

Contributors: Paul Cartledge, Sue Alcock, Nick Fisher, Marilyn Katz, Edith Hall, Karim Arafat and Catherine Morgan, Lesley Dean-Jones, Richard Buxton

Reviewed by Brad L. Cook, Tulane University and Loyola University
Word count: 1845 words

With Dionysos sailing across the dust jacket (Exekias) and Pheidias giving tours of the Parthenon frieze on the title page (Alma-Tadema) we start this illustrated trip to Greece. As this is a book for the general reader, do we, as tour guides, want to suggest this trip to our students, friends, and family? The price is right, and the scenery is colorful, varied, and fascinating. But where quite does the trip go? It sounds something like a safari "to capture the multifariousness and greatness of ancient Greece," but ends up sounding somewhat like a socially correct safari, "but also to set that undoubted glory firmly in its proper historical perspective, in its widest context, even at the cost of tarnishing the halo a little...we hope to view the Greek achievement, as far as possible, from the bottom up; from the perspective of those unsung heroes and heroines [anonymous peasants and slaves] who made the famous deeds and words possible" (ix-x). Later we hear about an "anti-Olympian, 'worm's-eye' view ... the view of the free poor, foreigner, women, or slaves" (xvii). This is, to some extent, a sales pitch which is not (and cannot be) sustained. Most of the trip ends up being a typical visit to ancient Greece, with an emphasis on the fifth century and Athens. So to judge this particular voyage, we should sample the fare, to ascertain its distinctive flavors.

Paul Cartledge, the editor of the volume and author of much of the book, opens with the introduction "The Glory that was Greece" (ix-xix) -- a question mark is added on the Contents page. Starting from quips of Poe, Wilde, and Shelley, Cartledge tries to define our subject. In the process he writes of the Greek alphabet, our political and linguistic inheritance, and muses on the above-mentioned issue of methodology -- the "king-and-battles" approach versus the "worm's-eye" view, along with an inset -- a key feature of the series that offers a close-up glance on some subject -- on Byron, Shelley, and Wilde. This mélange serves as light mezethes to what follows. The chapter is "illustrated" by eight portraits, five ancient and three modern, a painting of Solon meeting Kroisos (17th cent.), and a map of the Mediterranean in Trajan's day.

Part I, The World of Greece (1-73), consisting of the first three chapters plus an intermezzo, serves to better define the subject. In chapter 1, History and Tradition (2-12), Paul Cartledge defines history and describes historians from Herodotos to Polybios, with Gibbon added to introduce modern historiography. Cartledge emphasizes the value of images "as a way to understand the society that produced them" and vaunts that "this book is filled with images, which are supposed to tell their own stories rather than merely provide background colour to tales told solely in words" (12). Five ancient portraits, the Apotheosis of Homer, and a RF cup with Aisop conversing with a fox illustrate the chapter.

In Chapter 2, Environment (13-34), Susan Alcock opens with two quotations, one from Aristotle and one from Ernst Curtius, that typify what some moderns describe as a "naive type of environmental determinism". Alcock proceeds to show, quite rightly, that "the pressures of the environment shaped and encouraged certain aspects of Greek society" (32). This is an excellent and readable introduction to topography, climate, and society, with thirteen illustrations, three maps, and four insets (Vine and viticulture, Mines and mining, The resources of the sea, and The myth of Arcadia).

In Chapter 3, Who were the Greeks? (35-53), Paul Cartledge recounts his difficulties in answering this question. He ends up using the linguistic criterion, and through eight pages of text and images he reviews Linear B, the dialects of the Greek, and various migrations on a dialect map, then touches on cultural interaction throughout Magna Graecia, and suddenly jumps to Philip II of Macedon to stop the chapter. Sixteen illustrations, two maps, and three insets (Schliemann, Mycenae and Homer, Greece and Egypt, The tomb of Philip) complete the chapter.

Part I ends with an Intermezzo, Historical Outline c. 1500-146 BCE (54-73), also by Cartledge, a chronological framework based on textual and physical sources. Cartledge roughly sketches the major cultural, social, and political movements of the period along with noteworthy terms, names, dates, with fifteen illustrations and maps of the battle at Marathon.

Part II begins the topical half of the text with Chapter 4, Rich and Poor (76-99), a very good, straightforward introduction to the socio-economics of polis life by Nick Fisher, with sections on "Aristotle the class-analyst? (76-80), "Money maketh the man?" (80-81), "The Spartan route to consensus: uniformity?" (82-85), and "Athenian routes to consensus: incentives, freedom, diversity, and control" (85-99). Four insets (Archaic justice, Dynastic dedications and display, Poverty's self-defence, and Two Athenian estates) are well-done vignettes of the larger issues of the chapter. Of the fifteen illustrations to this chapter, perhaps half can be said to fit well.

In chapter 5, Women, Children and Men (100-138), Marilyn Katz picks up the term "male club" with which Fisher ended the preceding page. She questions a simple notion of the polis as a "male club", but by the end of the chapter can only add that the women formed a "women's auxiliary". In the process she offers a broad ranging survey of Athenian society, with emphasis on the role of woman and children of citizen families, and that of metics and slaves. The four insets (Ideology, Women in the assembly, Constraint of trade, and Spartan women, men and children) focus on provocative topics by combining fascinating details with large social issues. Of the twenty-three illustrations, the majority fit the text, but a third fail, and a few have no clear relevance to the chapter.

In chapter 6, Power and the State (139-165), we are back with Paul Cartledge and a review of Athenian political history, a somewhat longer review than the earlier Intermezzo (60-70), but a re-review nevertheless. Here the nineteen illustrations and the text work together well, and the five insets (Solon: The forefather of Athenian Democracy, Monarchy for ever, Democracy hymned, Democracy despised, and Democracy revised) punctuate the text with detailed studies.

In chapter 7, War and Peace (166-192), Paul Cartledge takes us, once again, through the Archaic and Classical periods, this time reviewing battles and warfare. The eighteen illustrations again generally serve the text, though three images suffer from bad technology, that of the Chigi vase (170), that of the Olympias (178), and that of a comic mercenary in terra cotta (188); and the details of a fourth image, a modern drawing, reveal Macedonians who could wield the sarissa with one hand -- no source given in the scanty acknowledgements (189). The five insets (Cavalry, The 'naval mob' strikes back, Engendering War, Mercenaries, and Alexander), as expected, succeed in combining details with the larger issues.

In chapter 8, Work and Leisure (193-218), Nick Fisher writes another very successful chapter. He artfully combines details and issues to address the question, asked of a young ancient, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Fisher has written such a good description of work-a-day life that you all but break into a sweat as you plant, pick, mine, carry, and count. When he turns to leisure, the symposium and sex dominant the section, but they are most prominent and oft-illustrated activities. The four insets (Farming: ideal and reality, Oleiculture, Cephisodorus -- slave owner, and Sex at the symposium) are again quite good.

In chapter 9, Literature and Performance (219-249), labeled Performance in the contents page, Edith Hall sets the stage for competition, athletic, political and oratorical, poetic and dramatic. She defines and explains the social context of this idea of competition, and considers each type of competition in turn. The four insets (Discobolus, The messenger speech from Electra, The opening of Gorgias' Encomium of Helen, and In praise of Dionysus) are not as sophisticated as in earlier chapters; the illustrations are generally good and in many cases closely fit the text.

In chapter 10, Architecture and other visual arts (250-287), Karim Arafat and Catherine Morgan present a splendid sampler of Greek architecture and art, with emphasis on the Archaic and the Classical periods. The insets (Potters and potting, The Acropolis of Athens, The temple of Athena Nike, and Painting) are excellent. A few images would have benefitted greatly if they had been put in color (esp. on pp. 273, 285 -- this could be said of other chapters as well).

In chapter 11, Philosophy and Science (288-319), Lesley Dean-Jones leads us through a gallery of great Greek thinkers. The theme at the start and at the end is natural philosophy or rather the origins of scientific inquiry. In between we meet everyone from Thales to Aristotle, then finish with a closer look at medicine and astronomy. The insets (Sources, The death of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Humoral theory and bloodletting, and Galen) are good. The illustrations, as can be expected, are almost completely incidental.

In the twelth and last chapter, Religion and Myth (320-344), Richard Buxton stresses the ritual side of Greek religion, festivals, rites of passage, and the presence of the divine in everyday life. But, Buxton turns back to myth and the nature of the divine, pointing out seeming paradoxes and difficulties, especially the difficulties we face in handling this complex subject. The insets (Sacrifice, The oracle of the talking oak, and Magic) succeed again in focusing on details that illustrate larger issues of the chapter.

In the epilogue, Legacy (345-358), Cartledge closes the text with a 2,000 year sampler of classicisms -- reinventions of the ancient Greek world. Cartledge advises that "the classical Greek tradition, if it is to continue, cannot be something fixed and static but must be constantly subject to reinvention ... multicultural relativism, rather than a sterile academic classicism that seeks merely to embalm the oldest dead white European males and their achievements, must be the ambition of all who value and love ancient Greece" (358). The insets (From papyrus to print and Rome's Greece) are valuable, though the image of the Riace warrior (A) flanked by a drawing of the same warrior involved with an Italian cartoon porn star stretches an "academic" understanding of Greece's influence on Rome. The book closes with a Who's Who (360-375), two-page glossary, one-page chronology, two pages of "Synopses of Plots" of various ancient texts, and an unannotated string of Further readings (371-374).

So is this new trip to ancient Greece distinctive? The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book, and some of the chapters are quite good: this is a good tool for intro survey courses. But, to ask the key question, how well are the illustrations and the history of this Illustrated History integrated? A fruit cake is what Oliver Taplin calls the book (dust jacket blurb), bringing to mind a dense English cake with fruit and dough coalescing in a symbiotic union. Such integration is not achieved. Reading and rereading the book I still feel as if the pictures were added to the text, like the frosting to the cake.

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