Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.34

Carol G. Thomas (ed.), Ancient History: Recent Work and New Directions. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians, 5.   Claremont, CA:  Regina Books, 1997.  Pp. xii + 107.  ISBN 0-941690-79-2.  $21.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-941690-78-4.  $12.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Graham Shipley, Ancient History Division, School of Archaeological Studies, University of Leiceester (
Word count: 1389 words


Stanley M. Burstein, Ramsay MacMullen, Kurt A. Raaflaub, Allen M. Ward

The usefulness of this volume far exceeds its modest extent. The four distinguished contributors take their cue from Chester Starr's Past and Future in Ancient History (1987), and dedicate the work to him. They offer an updated overview of recent and current work on Greek and Roman history, arranged in chronological divisions: Raaflaub on archaic and classical Greece (pp. 1-36), Burstein on the hellenistic world (pp. 37-54), Ward on the Roman republic (pp. 55-78), and MacMullen on the empire (pp. 79-104). A short bibliography of reference works (pp. 103-4) and notes on the contributors (pp. 105-6) are appended.1 As the coordinator points out in her preface, the contributors had a free rein and each essay reflects the character and preferences of its author.

The longest and most impressive survey is that of archaic and classical Greece by Raaflaub. Not restricting his purview to works in English, he first points to the important trend towards understanding ancient Greece (especially in the early historical periods) in its near eastern context. He synthesizes issues concerning the end of the bronze age, especially continuity versus discontinuity, and stresses that Greece changed radically between 1200 and 800. Twelve pages on the archaic period are structured around the rise of the polis (from Finley to Morris), the historicity of Homeric society (something Raaflaub confesses to believing in, a view gaining the status of orthodoxy but still controversial), military change, communal developments, and the ethnos, and conclude with an emphasis on civic subdivisions and law. Raaflaub's knowledge of the Copenhagen Polis Centre gives him a good take on definitions of the polis. Outlining recent work on archaic Sparta and Athens, he poses serious questions about Morris's ideas. On the fifth and fourth centuries he groups his comments into five areas: (1) sources and historiography; (2) Greece outside Athens; (3) the two polar opposites of Sparta and Athens themselves, including many studies of democracy and aspects of social relations (Raaflaub professes himself unsatisfied by our current understanding of women and slaves within democracy and calls for work on the fifth-century transformation of Athens); (4) economic and social history (where many tasks are urgent); and (5) the reassessment and upgrading of fourth-century history. The survey concludes with a plea for more interdisciplinary work, such as linkages between archaeology, textual studies, and the political science of other regions and ages. The maturity of Greek history as a discipline, though in many ways admirable, can inhibit theoretical elaboration and an awareness of wider contexts. Raaflaub's chapter, citing as it does (on a cursory estimate) some 800 works in its footnotes, is far more than a bibliographical compendium: it is a reflective and stimulating contribution to debate about the nature and goals of our work as Greek historians.

On hellenistic studies, Burstein begins with perceptive remarks about the history of scholarship in the field and rightly identifies a turning-point in the late 1980s, pointing to the escape from the long legacy of European imperialism as the key feature of the widespread revision now under way. The idealization of Alexander the Great has been put to flight by most (though not all) recent work, accompanied by the deconstruction of his image in iconography and literature. The lives and activities of the Successors have been extensively analysed once more, while new archaeological and epigraphic data on Macedonia have inspired a reevaluation of that kingdom both before and after Alexander. That the Greek polis continued to exist and to adapt is now accepted by most scholars and supported by studies of individual states and bodies of documents; but we still need a better understanding of citizenship and the role of élites (here Burstein, though he explicitly concentrates on work in English, might usefully have noted Gauthier's reassessment of Veyne's ideas).2 While the historical sources for the Seleukid lands continue to stimulate research on the western empire, archaeology and non-Greek documents have been used to set a new agenda for research in the east, though political troubles will continue to hinder exploration and are contributing to the destruction of evidence. For Egypt, Préaux's thesis of the separate existence of Greek and Egyptian societies has now been modified. In historiography, Polybios and other writers have been reconsidered as active participants in their own times. The archaeology of Alexandria is taking shape as never before. In conclusion, Burstein identifies pressing needs for new corpora of source data and -- more controversially, perhaps -- for a new over-arching model of hellenistic history and culture as opposed to yet more works emphasizing diversity. I suspect, however, that the synthesis of archaeological evidence, particularly for urban and rural settlement, is at least as urgent a task as those, and that such an exercise would highlight both regional differences and regional interaction.

Allen Ward portrays the Roman republic as a field that has changed radically in the last decade, and here again archaeology has played a large part. Examining the state of the evidence for Greeks and others in early Italy, he stresses that Rome must be viewed as part of a Mediterranean culture sphere. The regal period, too, has been the subject of wide debate, and Ward traces the development of thinking in the light of archaeological evidence for a central Italian koine. He devotes several somewhat technical pages to alternative interpretations of the Struggle of the Orders and to the definitions of tricky matters like plebeians, patricians, nobiles, and magistracies; these paragraphs are an excellent summary of the issues, and Ward takes the opportunity to propose his own solutions. Land hunger, aristocratic competition, and other factors in Rome's conquest of Italy are explored, and recent trends in analysing the Roman economy are helpfully characterized. On ethnic and cultural history, the recent rethinking of what Starr called 'the Indo-European myth' is judiciously assessed, and reappraisals of Roman myths and cults are set out. From a wealth of recent work on hellenization and social history, Ward selects highlights and shows how Roman history is being informed by new methodologies and other disciplines.

MacMullen's elegant chapter on the Roman empire takes a more selective approach to the bibliographical material, focusing on material in English and mainly on the first four centuries AD, and exploring fewer issues and key works at greater length than his colleagues. Despite the maturity of classical disciplines, radical shifts of interest have taken place, notably the foregrounding of women's history under the stimulus of new theoretical avenues and sometimes new evidence such as papyri. Advocating the view that history becomes mere antiquarianism if it deals with things that do not influence events and social change and alerting the reader to the possible gap between scholarly aspirations and the interests of a wider audience, MacMullen nevertheless identifies new approaches to traditional topics such as emperors' lives and art styles. Here, too, archaeology has opened up new fields of research, particularly on the economy, and has led us to modify the minimalist view that once prevailed. MacMullen skilfully deploys case studies to exemplify shifts in theoretical understanding and manages with a light touch to warn of the pitfalls of approaches that depart too far from evidence. New work on frontiers and Rome's strategic aims is matched by new pictures of Roman religions, though christianizing analyses still rear their heads. MacMullen concludes by identifying the rising trend towards an 'affective' history which complements 'descriptive, quantifiable' history.

Despite the differences in tone and coverage, each of the four essays manages to give a strong sense of current debates and, implicitly or explicitly, to recommend and characterize the principal works (mainly in English) on any given topic. A guide such as this is always going to pose difficulties of selection, and the authors are to be congratulated on providing a reliable compass that will help students, teachers, and researchers to navigate through the increasingly vast landscape of writing about Greek and Roman history. In addition, the volume provides an illuminating snapshot of a discipline undergoing rapid expansion and change. The common ground between current debates in all four chronological periods will be obvious from my summary: relations with non-classical cultures, regionalism, economic change, ethnicity, society and the individual, demographic and religious change, and above all the use of archaeology. Like the different regions of the classical world, the different subdisciplines of ancient history may have pronounced specific characteristics but are also interdependent.


1.   The last two items are misnumbered in the table of contents. Apart from a few misspellings of scholars' names the volume is well produced.
2.   P. Gauthier, 'Les cités hellénistiques', in M. H. Hansen (ed.), The Ancient Greek City-state (Acts of the Copenhagen Polis Centre, 1; Copenhagen, 1993), 211-31.

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