Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.07

Walter Donlan, The Aristocratic Ideal and Selected Papers.   Wauconda, IL:  Bolchazy-Carducci, 1999.  Pp. xviii, 364.  ISBN 0-86516-411-8.  $40.00.  



Reviewed by Carol Thomas, University of Washington
Word count: 812 words

Approaches to the study of ancient history have changed so considerably in the last generation that it is often difficult to discover works of true durability. One exception to that rule has recently been reprinted: Walter Donlan's The Aristocratic Ideal (Coronado Press, 1980; rpt. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1999). The study remains, in the words of one 1983 reviewer "a 'golden treasury'" (A. R. Burn, The Classical Review 33 [1983]: 147).

Burn was describing the excellent collection of ancient social commentaries on which the book's argument rests. Much of the discussion is a running analysis of Greek texts, translated as an aid to readers. The analysis is "thick" (à la Geertz), providing insights that often provoke the reaction, "Well, of course, why have I failed to notice that." A second reviewer of the first edition, Y. Verniäre, signaled for praise Donlan's "fines analyses de vocabulaire" (REG 95 (1982) 181). In his analysis, Donlan is adept with inner comparisons between sources that are roughly contemporary: for example, Homer and Hesiod on the early aristocratic ideal and Theognis and Pindar in the discussion of the later crisis of identity.

Beyond this quality associated with the author's knowledge and use of sources, the book's subject remains a central topic in the investigation of ancient Greece. The work is a study of values extending from 800 to 400 BC, that is, from the point at which "the civic and communal functions of the early city-state" are first apparent (ix) to the end of the full Classical Age. Its underlying premise is that the aristocratic ideal exemplified by the Homeric heroes is persistent but not static; that ideal is rather a "series of flexible 'stances'" (177) that are transformed in response to economic, political, social, and intellectual changes that pressed archaic Greece from ca. 700 to 500 BC. An appreciation of the heightened significance of the entire community of the polis is a sturdy thread in the narrative as chapters move from "The Ideal of the Warrior-Aristocrat," to "The Old Ideal under Challenge," "The Crisis of Identity: Theognis and Pindar," "The Aristocratic Ideal in the Classical Period," concluding with "Aristocratic Life-Style in the Fifth Century." By the fifth century, expressions such as Simonides' poems show that goodness was now found in "service to the commonality" (115) rather than in either a single figure or a particular class. An aristocracy persisted, but the definition of its superiority had been transvalued.

Methodology is a further ground for durability. Donlan is among the leaders in employing the tools of sociology, anthropology, and economic history to the study of early Greece. This direction was not uniformly appreciated when the book first appeared: of its "good deal of modern sociology," Burn wrote, the "application of this discipline (if that is the word) to history is notoriously liable to produce controversial results." Today these cross-disciplinary efforts are far more prevalent -- and valued. In fact, Donlan admits that he would rely more heavily on yet another tool, the "reading" of material evidence ("vase-painting, sculpture, grave monuments, burial gifts, ... domestic architecture, and other relics of social class behavior") if he were writing the book today (vii).

Finally, the style of presentation serves as an excellent model. The prose is graceful; assumptions are clearly spelled out; translation of Greek texts, identification of names, terms and incorporation of brief contextual descriptions make the study entirely manageable. One of its finest features is the summaries, at chapter ends and, sometimes, between sections of a chapter. From them, one can easily create a condensed narrative of four centuries of social development and perception of social status. There is, however, no element of oversimplification, as Philip Holt noted in his review of the first edition (Classical Outlook 60 [1983]: 133).

Eight selected papers newly reprinted with The Aristocratic Ideal are a fine enrichment of the book. I chose to read the articles in tandem with related sections of the book: in chapter one, for example, Donlan treats the encounter between Glaukos and Diomedes; the ramifications of that encounter are treated more fully in "The Unequal Exchange Between Glaucus and Diomedes in Light of the Homeric Gift-Economy" (267-82). The other seven papers are equally well selected to complement the book.

Moreover, as examples of Donlan's writing from 1970 to 1994, they demonstrate the continuity of his scholarship. Certain assertions in earlier works -- about the deep-rooted egalitarianism of early Greek culture and the on-going development of that culture from the early Dark Age through the Classical period, for instance -- are repeated with what seems like growing confidence in later ones, with good reason in this reader's opinion.

In spite of its inherent worth, the book's cost ($40.00, paperback) will discourage potential purchasers. The collection could provide excellent supplementary reading in upper-division courses on Greek history or literature or philosophy, but the price makes a widespread adoption unlikely. A true pity.

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