Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.35

Stanley M. Burstein, Nancy Demand, Ian Morris, Lawrence Tritle, Current Issues and the Study of Ancient History. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians 7.   Claremont, CA:  Regina Books, 2002.  Pp. 92.  ISBN 1-930053-10-X.  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Bert Lott, Vassar College (
Word count: 1539 words

The goal of the publication series of the AAH is "to further the teaching and study of ancient history through succinct accounts describing basic directions in the field." (7) To this end, Current Issues and the Study of Ancient History introduces four approaches to ancient history that have affected the field in recent years. Recent thought and work on ethnicity, gender studies, archaeological theory, and psychological studies are each treated expertly in a separate chapter. Two basic introductory points seem important before proceeding: First, all four approaches and their proponents in Current Issues are unabashedly cross-disciplinary, reinforcing the reviewer's conclusion that the most exciting new insights into ancient societies are coming from the exchange and re-purposing of methods and ideas across disciplines; and second, the precise methodologies of each, as well as their real and potential contributions to our understanding of antiquity, remain contested ground. This is what makes them both current and interesting.

The first chapter, "A Contested History: Egypt, Greece, and Afrocentrism" by Stanley Burstein, introduces and contextualizes the Black Athena controversy incited by the work of Martin Bernal. (Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vols 1-2. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989-1990) As most classicists and ancient historians know, the thesis of the volumes of Black Athena that have appeared is twofold: first, that important elements of Greek culture were "borrowed" from Egyptian culture; and second that in the nineteenth century European scholars repressed this fact because of racial and national prejudices. After summarizing Bernal's arguments and the sometimes impassioned responses they provoked from scholars, Burstein goes on to note the linkages between Bernal's work and Afrocentrist curricula in public education, pointing to the centrality of ancient Egypt in both projects. Next Burstein traces in some detail the development of Afrocentrist scholarship from nineteenth century arguments related ultimately to the debate over abolition to the current day. Brief remarks criticizing the historical methodology employed by Afrocentrist historians as "old fashioned" because of its reliance on the identification and literal interpretation of "authoritative" texts conclude the section. Finally Burstein considers three periods of possible intensive contact between Greek and Egyptian civilization: the middle and late Bronze Age, the Archaic period, and the Hellenistic period. Burstein concludes, not surprisingly, that there were indeed important interactions in each of these periods, but that the circumstances were different in each case. For example, Bronze Age contacts were primarily governmental in nature, involving the exchange of luxury goods, whereas in the Archaic period Greek mercenaries settled in Egypt and were integrated to more than a casual extent into Egyptian society and culture. The need to differentiate among the specific circumstances and outcomes of specific kinds of interactions at specific points in time, rather than relying on a universalizing rhetoric, is an important if implicit point here.

In the second chapter, "Gender Studies and History: Participation and Power, Nancy Demand introduces readers to current scholarship applying the theories and methods of gender studies to ancient history. Noting that Gender Studies has in general grown out of contemporary women's history, Demand begins with a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Women's movement in the twentieth century. The remainder of the essay describes, "recent work that refines the picture of participation and power, especially outside the home, by women of all classes." (32) Demand surveys recent work on Athenian women (ranging from pessimistic arguments that democracy curtailed the public power of women to arguments that democracy improved the situation of women) noting both the ideological backgrounds and methodological approaches of authors. Demand concludes that at present, "the uneasy question still lurks -- did (Athenian) democracy itself make women's lives more narrow and confined?" (36) Demand passes on in the same vein to ancient medicine, to the public roles of elite women at Athens and generally in the Hellenistic period, and briefly to the Roman world. Demand concludes, mirroring the comments of Burstein about Afrocentrist history, that, "recent work on women in ancient history has profited in the last decade by a closer and more sophisticated analysis of the evidence, including an increased awareness of the cultural context in which it was produced." (42) This chapter is for the most part a valuable bibliographic essay for someone beginning to think about Gender Studies. It does not, by design, have the depth or breadth of inclusion to be used by those already basically familiar with the subject but looking for the specific closer analyses that Demand praises.

Next, Ian Morris addresses the (unrealized) value of new approaches and interests in archaeology to ancient history. He begins wittily, "Archaeology is to ancient historians what democracy is to politicians: everyone is for it, yet surprisingly few do it," before stating three basic questions he would like to answer, "1. What do we, as ancient historians, want archaeology to do for us? 2. Why is it (on the whole) not doing these things? 3. How should we do the archaeology of Greece?" (45) To answer these questions Morris first argues that archaeology is only rarely useful to those working on such political narratives as have traditionally been the central focus of Greek History; rather archaeology is better suited to answering questions of culture, social structure, and economics. While this recognition is not new, Morris argues, it has been hindered from yielding fruit because of the ingrained disciplinary structures of classical archaeologists interested mostly in classical art and ancient historians interested mostly in political narrative. Morris then asks how, in order to exploit the possible synergies, can ancient historians be encouraged to study economic and social history and how can archaeologists be encouraged to expand the range of artifacts they study? He concludes that the basic analytical categories used by ancient historians and classical archaeologists need to be adjusted. Event-oriented historians need to focus more on structural and geographic time frames, to use Braudel's divisions of historical time, and classical archaeologists need to focus more on depositional contexts and the "contexts of behavior" -- that is how objects were used -- rather than on the nature of individual artifacts. After discussing some methodologies and examples of how this is being, and might be, accomplished, Morris concludes with a resounding call to intellectual openness and interdisciplinary work as a whole.

The final essay is, "The Frontiers of Ancient History: Thucydides, Survival, and the Writing of History," by Lawrence Tritle. In his contribution Tritle argues for the inclusion of psychological interpretation among the tools and methods available to ancient historians. Tritle surveys some important work applying psychology to classics, including that of the usual suspects Nietzsche, E. R. Dodds, and Walter Burkert, before relating anecdotally the field's distaste for it and ancient historians' fear of psychological doctrines as, "too biological and deterministic." (73) Tritle argues that this fear and the resulting focus only on facts and rational motivations both ignore the important, demonstrated links between biology and psychology and rely on an overly simplistic and deterministic version of the relationship among biology, psychology, and society that scientists and biologists have already rejected. The remainder of the essay is a comparative case study using modern studies of the effect of war and violence on the psyche of Vietnam soldiers and veterans to inform episodes in Thucydides, himself a survivor of wartime violence and trauma.

Overall, Current Issues is a quick and easy read that without doubt accomplishes the basic task of generating general awareness of its topics. Only three broad critical remarks occur to the reviewer: First, the fact that three of the four contributors (excepting Ian Morris) are historians is clear from the approach they take to their topics. Only Morris and, to a certain degree in his case study, Tritle offer an explicit, forward-looking vision of where and how their topic might benefit ancient historians in the future. This may be because the directions are obvious or at least implicit, but some extended and direct futurisms, fallible though they might be, would both be welcome to readers and would allow the authors (all experts in their topics) to shape as well as describe the application of their particular methodologies to ancient history. Second, despite an introductory statement that "narrative is accompanied by bibliographic references to aid further investigation" (7), the works cited in specific footnotes throughout are not really sufficient to direct a reader into the basic scholarly arenas of each approach, with the possible exception of Demand's essay. No list of references or suggested further readings is included. (Perhaps in this the essays show their origins as papers presented at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in 2000.) Finally, more effort to define and address throughout a specific audience might have helped to unify the essays. It is unclear whether the intent is to educate teachers, to influence scholarship, or simply to provide historiographical summary. All three goals appear at different times, sometimes leaving this reader unsure if the essays were speaking to him or not. A clear choice of audience presumably might have led to a clearer justification for the inclusion or exclusion of bibliography or the inclusion or exclusion of oracular pronouncements. This third criticism, nevertheless, is somewhat nebulous and certainly minor in comparison with the overall benefits of reading Current Issues.

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