Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.34

Paul A. Cartledge, The Greeks. A Portrait of Self and Others. Second edition.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. xvi, 260.  ISBN 0-19-280388-3.  £9.99/$18.95.  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Ancient History, University of Amsterdam (
Word count: 2101 words

"It is of course presumptuous, almost perhaps hybristic, to call a book The Greeks. No one author, obviously, could hope to do anything like full justice to the remarkable achievements of all the ancient Hellenes ..., even during the relatively short period of two centuries to which I deliberately confined myself- from c. 500 to c. 300 BC." This is the realistic, though at the same time rather late, warning of Cartledge (henceforth C) nearly at the end (p. 199) of this book regarding its content.

The content is the reflection of an undergraduate lecture course at Cambridge in the years 1989-1993, largely focused on the always shifting image (realistic or not) the Greeks presented of themselves, or rather that part which we deem it worthwhile to elucidate at the moment. One of the elementary images in this respect is the Greek notion of which things were to be considered 'Greek' and which as 'non-Greek' or 'other', like the unfree, minors, females, gods and goddesses, and, of course, non-Greeks.

The core of the book, intended for non-specialist readers (p. 7), consists of a prologue, two chapters, an entr'acte, another five chapters and an epilogue. It is followed by an afterword to the second edition, suggestions for further reading, a bibliography, and an index.

Chapter 1 (pp. 8-17) is called 'Significant Others: Us v. Them'. It discusses the sources we have to determine what to consider Greek and what not. Historiography offers sufficient examples for the Greek (though in fact mainly Athenocentric) point of view. As C puts it (p. 12-3): "The Greeks ... constructed their identities negatively, by means of a series of polarized oppositions of themselves to what they were not." Polarity, however, was (and still is) a common phenomenon; but during the fifth century BC it got, in a number of aspects, a negative load. Common as polarity may have been in the Greeks' minds, uniform it was by no means. Antitheses, and the way to arrange them as well as their respective importance, varied over time and over 'school'.

Chapter 2 (pp. 18-35) discusses the 'Inventing [of] the Past: History v. Myth'. Both terms are, to say the least, ambiguous: they are hard to define precisely and even when defined in principle, the practice may prove to be elusive. We may be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, but it may be hard, especially after some 2400 years, to delineate the boundary between fact (or history) and fiction precisely. Focusing on Herodotus and Thucydides, and taking Athens as the point of reference, C considers three permutations: myth as history, myth in history, and myth versus history. C notices that, given the omnipresence of myth in the Greek world, it is little short of a miracle that something like history developed at all. Myth, e.g. on the Alkmaionids, was all Herodotus had at hand when he started his enquiry and all he could mould into one coherent story, whether reflecting upon Athens or any other Greek subject or upon some subject of 'otherness'. Sometimes myth prevailed, resulting in myth as history, sometimes myth influenced the rendering of historical events (myth in history), sometimes Herodotus (and, for that matter, Thucydides) rejected myth because it was discredited by his own enquiries. A splendid example of this evolutionary development in a coherent story is to be found in Thucydides' 'Archaeology' (Th. I.1-10).

The 'Entr'acte: Others in Images and Images of Others' (pp. 36-50) is an addition in the second edition. It deals, as the title suggests, with the iconography of 'otherness', or even 'Counterworlds', in Greek art. C's examples illustrate each a chapter of the book, adding to the clarity of his argument. It is a pity that the editors of the OUP inserted the plates themselves only between p. 128 and p. 129. The separation makes this chapter, unfortunately, less coherent.

Chapter 3 (pp. 51-77) is entitled 'Alien Wisdom. Greeks v. Barbarians'. C's theme here is that "history has always been used ideologically for purposes other than those ideally professed by historians" (p. 51-2). His illustration is the aims of Bernal and the latter's use of Herodotus. In the early fifth century BC 'othering' and stereotyping of 'the barbarian' was well underway in Greece: as Herodotus acknowledged the awareness of being Greek alone did not suffice to create a Greek nation-state. This inability was bemoaned by Aristotle, who openly advocated natural Greek superiority on various fields (cf. also Chapter 6). It is likely that Aristotle's views represented those of the majority of the Greeks, or at least of the Athenians, as the writings of the so-called 'pan-Hellenists" like Isocrates suggest. Not every Greek, however, was so addicted, or, for that matter, so consistent. Apparently some individual barbarians were deemed to be more equal to Greeks than others: they became honorary Greeks. A different status is preserved for some barbarian peoples in Herodotus' work: they serve as a mirror for the Greeks. To Herodotus 'custom is king of all' and, though being a Greek, he apparently tolerated barbarian customs. However, a barbarian's fault is a Greek's lesson, as the context of the histories often appears to show.

Chapter 4 (pp. 78-104) deals with 'Engendering History. Men v. Women". In many cultures, as indeed in ours, the superior status of men is often founded on religious dogma: such a dogma was absent in Greek religion (if we may use that word in discussing Greek religious practices). Even mythology provided no conclusive arguments: male supremacy had to be contested. The place where we can witness this ideological contest is, above all, (male dominated) Classical Greek literature. On the basis of the Hippocratic corpus Aristotle argued for the 'natural' superiority of man over woman, inferring also a 'cultural' superiority. It only appears a rationalization of the formal position of women in most Greek states (with the possible exception of Sparta), as reflected in most Classical authors: the behavior of women like Artemisia, Tomyris, or Mania is the exception to prove the rule.

Chapter 5 (pp. 105-132) addresses the situation 'In the Club. Citizens v. Aliens'. Politics gave the Greeks' life its distinctive meaning and value: essentially it determines their membership in the politeia, as a body of citizens, and their subordination to a particular nomos, custom or convention and law or the rule of law. It is an institution, man-made, which offered the free, with the exclusion of all 'others', the opportunity to discuss how to act properly. Much of the thinking on politeia may be followed in the literary works, notably those of Xenophon and, of course, Aristotle. More than others he specified the assets needed to be a true citizen. The prime point was the creation of a situation that was suited to avoid stasis, an all too frequent evil in Greek political life, which was potentially lethal for a proper politeia.

Chapter 6 (pp. 133-166) depicts the best known antithesis: 'Of Inhuman Bondage. Free v. Slave'. For the Greeks slaves, male and certainly female, were the natural opposites of the citizens, who by definition were free. The fact that free Greek women were generally not thought to be much higher than slaves by the free citizens is, apart from those aspects treated in Chapter 4, hardly relevant in this context: both are politically if not socially dead. In spite of the validity of the antithesis in general it should be noted that in practice there may have been some groups in the society belonging to neither side.

The striking aspect of slavery in Classical Greece is that it is justified, most influentially by Aristotle applying the doctrine of 'natural slavery'. Aristotle's views on this point are based upon household-management, i.e. in terms of hierarchical rule which precludes the free access to all commodities needed, including those tools, i.e. slaves, needed to perform the household's work. Since some people (especially those living in Thrace) are, by their ψυχή, already at birth singled out to be ruled, they are, by definition, naturally born slaves (though Aristotle concedes that some of the 'barbarians' had become slaves as a result of wars and not because they were natural slaves). The notion that Greeks should not enslave fellow-Greeks is formulated several times, by Herodotus and Plato for instance, but, especially during the Peloponnesian War, the practice was different.

Since Aristotle apparently formulated a principle that was tacitly shared by most other free Greeks, it may be obvious that liberation, let alone mass-liberation, of slaves was rare. There are, nevertheless, a few instances, most notably at Athens in 406: the slaves who volunteered to row the Athenian triremes were not only freed but even acquired Athenian citizenship. How many slaves remained is uncertain: this also goes for the ratio free-slaves, not only at Athens but also elsewhere.

Chapter 7 (pp. 167-189) relates the Greeks' attitude towards the divine others in 'Knowing Your Place. Gods v. Mortals'. In their world full of gods the Greeks' religious practice was, in contrast to the great monotheistic religions' focus on their respective revelations, centred on concepts of appropriateness and order and the efforts to maintain the proper balance, a kosmos, between the divine power and human action. Though different, the gods were unmistakably part of everyday Greek life and notions, frequently on a basis of sense of reciprocity.

Herodotus' assertion that the gods of the Greeks come from Egypt is taken as evidence by Bernal for his theory. Nevertheless, Bernal is misinterpreting Herodotus' message that was directed both at knocking down Greek ethnocentricity and at demonstrating the existence of a cross-cultural belief in gods (refuting relativism about their existence and/or shape by philosophers like Xenophanes of Kolophon, Diagoras of Melos, or Protagoras), though the way people communicated with their gods did vary -- not only between Greeks and 'others' but within the Greek world as well. What united Greek religious action was that it was essentially a communal, civic affair.

Though gods were often considered to be anthropomorphic, 'larger Greeks', Aristotle describes god(s) as a 'divine power ... holding everything together', as the informing principle of the kosmos, even as 'mind', moreover as a power too great for men to deal with on the basis of genuine reciprocity (or, too important to occupy themselves with daily human life). His views appear to have been shared by Thucydides, while Xenophon and Herodotus held to the anthropomorphic image. Their vision inferred necessarily a distinct interaction between gods and people. Especially Xenophon saw the hand of the god(s) everywhere at work in human history. Though much less direct, Herodotus too appears to have acknowledged the importance of divine intervention. Thucydides, on the contrary, consciously attempts to explain the Peloponnesian War in human, non-divine terms.

In the epilogue (pp. 191-198) C adds the finishing touch: "What I would contest are the validity and utility of assuming or asserting a near-complete cultural self-identification between 'Us' and 'the ancient Greeks'" (p. 191). Though we should not overemphasize the 'otherness' of the Greeks, we can not but admit that 'our' mentality is 'other' than that of the Classical Greeks, though, at the same time, we are very close to them -- as we may conclude on the basis of Athenian drama.

The suggestions for further reading are useful. Regrettably, though understandably given the intended readership, predominantly literature in English has been included. A second demerit is that, e.g. compared with the revised edition of 1997, relatively little new literature has been introduced in most of these suggestions: in my opinion that detracts somewhat of the value of this second edition. Surprisingly the bibliography (pp. 220-252) is updated somewhat better. The index serves its purpose excellently.

Comparing this edition with the remarks of A.G. Keen on the first edition (BMCR 94.05.03) one can not fail to notice that many of them still hold (apart from the appreciation of the views expressed in some personal notes). Precisely because of C's vast knowledge about Sparta the lack of information regarding 'Otherness' in Sparta (and Thebes) is a missed opportunity of importance in the second edition. In this respect it is but small comfort that the subtitle of the book is printed on the front cover of the second edition (where the imprint OPUS has disappeared). Nevertheless I believe that this book may serve as an excellent introduction to the perception of 'otherness' by, predominantly, Athenians during the Classical Age for students of all levels. At the same time it also offers both a sound basis for and a challenge to fellow scholars for further exploration of the wide and various field of research into the relations between Greeks and 'Others'.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:45, Friday, 03 April 2009