Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.08

Mait Koiv, Ancient Tradition and Early Greek History: The Origins of States in Early-Archaic Sparta, Argos and Corinth.   Tallinn:  Avita Publishers, 2003.  Pp. 427.  ISBN 9985-2-0807-2.  

Reviewed by Stephanie Larson, Bucknell University (
Word count: 2288 words

Mait Koiv's recent work on the early archaic period takes on the daunting task of evaluating Classical and post-Classical sources for the earlier Greek history of Sparta, Argos and Corinth, territories for which we have relatively abundant archaeological and literary evidence. For each community K analyzes and compares literary traditions in an attempt to distinguish the historical from the mythical; he sets the traditions in their own historical context when possible, and he carefully compares the accounts to the archaeological record.

K's work may prove useful for advanced graduate students and ancient Greek historians but is too specialized for an undergraduate audience. The exhaustive footnotes are particularly noteworthy and will be of value to those reviewing or first encountering the details of early archaic Sparta, Argos and Corinth.

After assessing the variety of approaches to the eighth century,1 by way of an introduction K quickly rehearses problems in using later evidence in reconstructing these three communities' early history. He pays close attention to Classical and post-Classical historians' sources, particularly to stories transmitted through oral tradition and their attendant problems of interpretation for modern scholars. Despite the prevailing skepticism toward the validity of such stories for an understanding of earlier history, K maintains that many of the traditions reflect a certain amount of historical reality. K concludes his introduction by giving a spirited defense of this currently unpopular approach and by admitting its weaknesses (pp. 28-33).

In section II K first summarizes the main strands of Peloponnesian history as they seem to have been understood by ancient historians after the beginning of the fourth century. Ephoros' accounts, of course, strongly inform K's review of the ancient narrative, but he also includes details from earlier writers such as Pindar and Herodotos. Because of its summary nature, little need be said about the treatment of the literary accounts, although this reviewer would like K to have dealt further with the Heraklids and the Dorian invasion, despite its scholarly treatment elsewhere.2 Such additional treatment would have complemented K's extensive review of the archaeological evidence, which he rehearses from the Bronze Age onwards in the second section of this chapter. It is with a concise yet complete summary of archaeological material that K shines here. K treats Laconia in section III and begins by examining the two distinct main literary strands of early Spartan history: the accounts of the fifth- and fourth-century historians and the account of Pausanias. Here K concludes that the traditions of the martial king Charillos and early Spartan wars against Tegea reveal more about local Tegean anti-Spartan traditions in establishing various cults than they do about historical events. K also considers traditions of Spartan conquest of Amyklai and Helos, including the involvement of the Aigeidai. The dense style with which K rehearses details of one ancient account after another without interjecting his own commentary or conclusions (or even an introduction) makes the beginning of this section rather difficult. However, when K does comment, many of his conclusions are appealing: the Aigeidai and other immigrants (e.g., the Lemnians) were traditionally linked with the establishment of Spartan territorial, institutional, cultic, and colonial power (e.g., Thera, Crete, Kyrene); stories of these marginalized populations are often thematically parallel and share characteristics with initiation ritual; the old traditions of the Aigeidai in particular were likely transmitted at the Hyakinthia and the Karneia, festivals which at the same time provided for the future of the Spartan state. These and other aspects related to early Spartan statehood were transmitted in Laconian, Theran, Kyrenaean, and Cretan oral tradition and are visible in the literary, material, and topographic records from as early as the beginning of the archaic period.

In this section K stretches the genealogical links between Laconia, Boiotia, and Crete in the mythic tradition by suggesting that they reflect possible earlier historical ethnic associations between these areas, perhaps as also seen in an overlap between Laconian, Arkadian, and Aiolian dialects (pp.97-98). That Greek dialects do not always mark historical identity but rather serve to emphasize constructed identities is an issue that K should have raised here.3

K next turns to the Spartan conquest of Messenia, western colonization, and Spartan relations with Argos and Asine. For K various local traditions of the murder of Teleklos and the partial Messenian foundation of Rhegion are linked to the border cult of Artemis Limnatis. K also discusses traditions of the foundation of Taras, its links to the Messenian war, the role of the Partheniai in the colony, and the variants and significance of the traditions in both Taras and Sparta. K indicates that while the traditions of Rhegion and Taras are initiatory in nature, they also corroborate eighth-century archaeological evidence pertaining to the colonies' foundations. Roughly contemporaneous, K suggests, was the Argive destruction of Asine and the migration of the population to Messenian Korone, perhaps assisted by Sparta, an Argive enemy and potential ally of the Asineans, as attested by dialectical, genealogical and archaeological evidence from the eastern Argolid. Also to the period near the end of the Messenian conquest K assigns the beginning of Spartan and Argive tensions over Thyrea. That these traditions of Spartan conquest became significant in various Peloponnesian communities indicates their potential reliance on real events, which also seem to follow Pausanias' account of the development of the Lakonian political community.

To this discussion K adds excellent analysis of eighth-century Lakonian ties to the epic past through genealogies and worship of Menelaus, Agamemnon, Orestes, and other figures of local importance, including Helen, Sparte, Lakedaimon, and the Tyndarid family in general. The Heraklids were also brought into this local genealogy perhaps as early as the beginning of the seventh century and thus competitively emphasized the right of return to Lakonian territory. K closes this section by speculating on the involvement of the epic poet Kinaithon in the articulation and maintenance of these genealogies.

In the lengthy section V K examines the origins of early Spartan legislation associated with the figure Lykourgos. He begins with the origins of the perioikoi and helots, both of which he dates to the second half of the eighth century. Here K focuses partially on the possible non-Dorian ethnicity of the helots as seen in cult and epigraphic evidence. Putting aside the problematic biography of Lykourgos, K turns to the traditions of "Lykourgan" institutions, which, he argues, preserve certain details of real change at least by the archaic period. These details include the whipping ritual and the early traditions linked to the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia (themselves connected to a series of stories about the fictional King Eunomos, among others). K then retrojects the existence of the basics of the Spartan educational system and Spartan land tenure back at least to the first half of the seventh century, if not the second half of the eighth.

K next discusses traditions of the Great Rhetra and their relation to the poetry of Tyrtaios as remembered by Greeks of the Classical period. For K these memories were of such interrelated strength that they help reconstruct archaic Spartan opinions about eunomia. From Tyrtaios the archaic Spartans are seen to have dated the establishment of eunomia before the Messenian conquest, and for K this antiquity causes the sentiments of the Great Rhetra to be dated at least to Tyrtaios' time, although they were believed to have originated earlier. K argues that there was also an independent and contemporaneous seventh-century tradition ascribing the establishment of the Rhetra's institutions to a Lykourgos. K closes his treatment of Sparta by considering later traditions about different origins of certain Spartan institutions (e.g., the ephorate) and their relation to the kings Theopompos and Polydoros. In the end, then, through this complex analysis of all the literary traditions as well as the relatively abundant archaeological evidence of Laconia, K dates the fundamental formation of Spartan statehood to the eighth century.

On p. 216 K turns at last to the early histories of Argos and Corinth. K begins with a review of the literary sources concerning mythical early rivalries of Temenos, his descendants, other more obscure figures, and early attestations of Argive government and foreign relations. K then examines traditions of early Corinthian history, including those of Aletes the founder, Bakchis and the Bakchiads, Corinthian relations with Megara, and other traditional early and eighth-century phenomena, such as the division of Corinth into eight tribes and territories.

K fully examines traditions about Pheidon of Argos by first reviewing the ancient accounts and ascribing much of the detail to Ephoros as source. He pays particularly close attention to late accounts of Pheidon's aggressive links to Corinth through initiatory tales of Corinthian Aktaion's death and the resultant colonization of Syracuse. As a partial foundation myth associated with the rise of Corinth, Aktaion's story thus links Pheidon with the emergence of Corinthian statehood. K also raises the irksome problem of Pheidon's date, especially in light of Herodotos' relatively late date for the tyrant. K shows that other accounts link Pheidon chronologically with Lykourgos as part of a wider tradition of Spartan ascendance, or, relying on Ephoros, they synchronize Pheidon's activities with interruptions at Olympia and the end of Corinthian monarchy, among other events. K sifts through all the varying traditions and concludes that, given the near impossibility of dating most of the events or figures in question, an eighth-century date for Pheidon is preferable, in part on the basis of Ephoros' link between Pheidon and the end of Corinthian tyranny. Lastly, K turns to Pheidon's links to weights, measures, coinage and obeliskoi. While noting the early use of Pheidonian measures abroad, here K must challenge the tradition that Pheidon was associated with the sixth-century minting of Aeginetan coins per se. K proposes that Aeginetan coins were originally based on an already established Pheidonian weight standard and a connection between the figure and the silver coins themselves originated subsequently.

In the following section K dates the rise of Argive power in the northeast Argolid to the second half of the eighth century. K supports this conclusion with a variety of evidence, including the spread of the cult of Apollo Pythaieus in the Peloponnese and a possible Argive, Spartan, and Epidaurian amphiktyony based upon it. By looking closely at the genealogies of Phoroneus, Argos, Melampous, Proitos, Danaos, Perseus, and other figures of mythic importance in the Argolid, K demonstrates that by the sixth century, if not in some instances by the seventh or late eighth centuries, many genealogical traditions in the region show marked pro-Argive tendencies. Manipulation of the tradition of the Heraklid founders of Argos in particular can be traced back to the second half of the eighth century. From this evidence and the testimony of the Argive Heraion, K suggests that Argos had already achieved a certain amount of hegemony in the region at this time.

K then reviews the evidence for the development of Corinthian and Argive statehood in the eighth century. At this time Corinth displays territorial demarcation through cult, the emergence of an identity marked through poetry, and westward colonization. Territorial solidification through cult is also apparent in the Argolid, as is competition between neighboring communities, evidence for military conquest in the region, and Pheidon's central place within this history and in the history of the Peloponnese as a whole, particularly at Olympia.

In his concluding chapter, K comments on the oral nature of the tales of eighth-century events in Sparta, the Argolid, and Corinth. Since many traditions of institutional establishment were transmitted primarily in association with local cults and often exhibit mythic narrative, it is difficult to accept the stories as accurate reflections of historical reality. But for K the consistency with which both the archaeological and the literary records seem to correlate signifies that the eighth century was most significant in the development of early statehood in these regions. The overall traditions of these origins (although not the specific details) are thus worth serious consideration by historians of ancient Greece.

Overall, this volume made an interesting read and was full of useful remarks about the local significances of later traditions of early Greek history and statehood. K achieves a fine balance between the literary and the archaeological evidence, although the material is often unnecessarily repetitive. Nonetheless, for this reviewer K's work still contains many positivistic assumptions about the veracity of literary accounts dating centuries after the events under review. Although K does set many of the later stories into their historical contexts, the attendant question of why these later versions often differ from earlier reports is not always answered sufficiently.4 Similarly, K occasionally argues for the veracity of early events based almost solely on later beliefs about the past, e.g., the occurrence of an early Spartan-Argive battle over Thyrea on the basis of non-extant songs of Alkman and Thaletas and strong later beliefs in the antiquity of the disagreement (p. 132); the possibility of a pre-Kypselid divison of Corinth into eight tribes and territories (pp. 235-236). K additionally assumes the familiarity of certain authors with narrative details which they do not mention (e.g., Aristotle's familiarity with Pheidon's Olympic celebration, p. 242).

Despite the obvious research behind the volume, stylistic considerations severely detract from the work as a whole. K's prose style is often quite formal (e.g., overuse of the definite article), but this heaviness is likely due to a strict translation of the original text (presumably Estonian) into English. The text unfortunately includes complicated sentences with frequent grammatical problems and spelling errors (e.g., p. 14, sentence 1 of the first paragraph; p. 15, "the traditions ... must there fore be red for most part," etc. ).5 There are also occasional formatting problems (e.g., p. 25, n. 88). Such mistakes annoy the reader and at their worst prohibit quick reading and understanding of the text.


1.   Here K should have included more information on those who advocate a relatively late date for the Homeric epics; see e.g., Cook, E. 2000. The Odyssey in Athens. Ithaca.
2.   E.g., Malkin, I. 1994. Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean. Cambridge (included in K's bibliography).
3.   Hall, J. 1995. "The Role of Language in Greek Ethnicities," PCPS 41, 83-100.
4.   E.g., pp. 74, 76, 98.
5.   A list of pages which contain one or more grammatical, formatting, or spelling difficulties: pp. 14, 15, 19, 22, 26 (n. 91), 33, 36 (n. 9), 44, 60, 63, 65, 67, 70 and 70, n. 8, 71, 74, 86 (n. 95), 87, 90 (n. 121), 107, 108, 112, 118, 120, 123, 134 (n. 326), 137, 144, 149, 150, 151, 156, 157, 162, 176, 177, 178, 181, 188, 191 (and n. 232), 193, 206, 220, 225, 226 (n. 61, Billot 1989 not in bibliography; and n. 63), 230, 231, 232, 242, 245 (n. 24), 247, 249, 261, 277, 282, 287, 295, 316, 345, 365.

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