Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.06.40

Simon Goldhill, Robin Osborne, Rethinking Revolutions through Ancient Greece.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2006.  Pp. xv, 319.  ISBN 978-0-521-86212-6.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Fiona Hobden, University of Liverpool (
Word count: 2105 words

Table of Contents.

Rethinking Revolutions is the first of two volumes arising from the Arts and Humanities Research Board-sponsored project, 'The Anatomy of Cultural Revolution: Athenian art, literature, language, philosophy and politics 430-380 BC', led by Robin Osborne at the University of Cambridge.1 It is also the third collection edited by Osborne and Goldhill, whose previous collaborations -- Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge, 1994) and Performance Culture in Athenian Democracy (Cambridge, 1999) -- spiral outwards from a central theme on a myriad of trajectories to provide insights into the dynamics of Greek culture. This volume follows suit: proceeding from the question of how revolutionary was Classical Greece (a question that the book consciously seeks to move beyond, p. 6-7), contributors evaluate key moments in traditional scholarly narratives of revolution in politics, religion, history, philosophy, medicine, and music, and propose new instances of transformation too. Collectively, they break down the rhetoric of revolution that has underpinned intellectual engagement with the Greek world, exposing the priorities, preconceptions, and self-authorizing strategies of post-Classical thinkers from the second to twentieth centuries CE in their appropriations of the past as a revolutionary place, and highlight areas where real transformation occurred. Rethinking Revolutions thus disrupts old commonplaces and offers new assessments of the Greek cultural revolution as a construct and an event (or events). Its thought-provoking articles by some of the leading researchers in their fields provide essential reading for scholars of Classical Greek culture, as well as those interested in its ancient receptions and in the history of scholarship too.

The analysis of revolution grows organically through discrete investigations that are organized loosely by topic -- democratic Athens (chapters 1 and 2), viewing (chapters 3 and 4), religion (chapters 5 and 6), historiography (chapters 7 and 8), and philosophy (chapters 9, 10, and 11) -- and reach forward and backwards to their companion contributions. The tone is iconoclastic and constructive. For example, Robin Osborne (chapter 1) explodes the myth of democratic revolution. By asking when the supposed transition to democracy at Athens took place, he exposes how, from the earliest written accounts to the most recent scholarship, attempts to construct a narrative for the establishment of democracy have been affected by wider political preoccupations and assumptions. Tales of tyrannicide, Cleisthenic reform, and Solonic legislation in Herodotus, Thucydides, and Aristotle were influenced by fifth-century rhetorics of opposition between tyranny and democracy and the primacy attributed to the law-giver in the fourth-century. And for modern historians, whether democracy emerged with Solon's reforms, or Cleisthenes' restructuring, or Ephialtes' neutralization of the Areopagus was dependent upon political sympathies and struggles, tragic and romantic visions of the past, academic training, and/or personal experiences of the author. Osborne succeeds not only in undermining the very notion of democratic revolution, but in unsettling the idea of democracy as a definitive political form and a subject of scholarly inquiry. In this instance, rethinking revolution challenges the existence of one particular revolution, reveals the methods by which it has been constructed, and proposes new understandings of the period and processes under consideration.

In this respect, Osborne's opening chapter sets up a methodological paradigm that is pursued in various ways and to varying degrees by subsequent contributions. Davidson (chapter 2) presents a new understanding of the Greek concept of revolution as 'youngering' -- neoterizein -- and reveals the centrality of age-sets to the organization of human time in Classical Athens. Age-group classification -- the categorization of individuals by the membership of particular age groups -- offered a means to structure society and measure human time; age groups were also an institution of 'homeostatic revolution' (p. 38), enabling the stable passing of power between generations and down the age groups. But age-sets could operate discursively in the construction of revolution, as conflicts over social and political order were structured around age-grade terminology.

While Davidson unpacks a revolution in time and the role of time in the discourses of social and political change, Elsner (chapter 3) redefines developments in craft and representation in late Archaic/early Classical art. The movement towards naturalism in form was a consequence of voyeurism in Athenian culture. Whereas Archaic sculpture engaged the observer as a communicant directly through a shared gaze, Classical works offered scenes in the round to be examined and critiqued from outside. This development is associated with a broader emergent trend: on the dramatic stage, in philosophical dialogues, and in the historical investigations of Herodotus and Thucydides, and in political and social life more broadly, the Athenian viewer/reader/citizen was projected into an evaluatory spectator role. Thus, the imagined 'Greek revolution' in art was imbedded in another revolution specific to democratic Athens: a revolution in viewing.

If modern-day art historians have misapprehended revolutions in politics and art, ancient and modern scholars have colluded in the misrepresentation of the so-called Second Sophistic as an imperially-sponsored cultural revolution. By pursuing the question 'what's in a beard?', Vout (chapter 4) demonstrates how the 'Greekling' status of Hadrian, the emperor most frequently imagined as philhellene and an active proponent in the re-invention of Greek culture in Rome, has been consistently misconstrued. By examining Hadrian's bearded visages within their original settings and in terms of geography, body-types, and trends in the depiction of facial hair, she concludes that Hadrian's beard might be the beard of a hero, or a god, or an emperor: but even in Cyrene, where Hadrian's bearded face is set on top of a himation-clad body, it is not the beard of a Greek philosopher. Vout does not dismiss Hadrian's engagement with Greek culture; but her readings require a rethinking of his Hellenism, asking how, when, where and to what effect allusions to Greek culture in his iconography might be found and might operate. This in turn raises questions of the nature of Hellenism in the second century CE, and so of the Greek cultural revolution of the Second Sophistic itself.

Harrison (chapter 5) too re-imagines a revolution: where previously scholars have used the language of rationality to talk about changes in religious practice and to think about political developments, Harrison pursues a definition of rationality that embraces ancient practice and thinking, and searches for changes in religion within it. When Greek religion is viewed as a non-monolithic, active and flexible system that intertwines ritual and belief, a rationality emerges. Recognition of the 'unknowability' of the gods did not reflect a new agnosticism that equated to a new democratically-inspired rationality, but a position on which polytheism was formed; it also provided the bedrock for historical and philosophical inquiry. The encroachment on private religion by the democratic state was, moreover, an appropriation of religious knowledge and authority. By this reading democratic rationality did not emerge in opposition to religion; rather the two operated indistinguishably together in the fifth century.

The discourse of religious revolutions is again deconstructed in Goldhill's analysis of the writings of two fifth-century figures (chapter 6): Libanius, whose Hymn to Artemis asserts a primacy for the Hellenic tradition with which it plays, but at the same time addresses the goddess as his tutelary goddess, and Synesius, the bishop of Cyrene whose neo-Platonic philosophy determines his strikingly non-Christian (or rather, non-mainstream) views on marriage and the soul. Religious revolution of this period was not a triumph of Christianity over paganism but a revolution in the conceptualization and discussion of the divine, as non-Christian responses to the Hellenic tradition were influenced by Christian ideas about belief and salvation, while other writers imbedded their theologies and their Christian selves within Hellenic traditions.

The religious disappears in Dewald's re-evaluation of the contribution of Herodotus and Thucydides to a new engagement with the past that grounded their inquiries firmly within the secular realm (chapter 7). Circumnavigating now-defunct claims for the two historians' revolutionary 'scientific', 'rational' approaches, and more recent postmodern reductions of their narratives to constructed fictions, Dewald demonstrates the novelty of their authorial positioning and constructions of past human action, and their consequences for the reader. In both works, the method of critical evaluation that Herodotus and Thucydides assert as their own maps onto their presentation and critique of comprehension, decision-making, and action within their narratives. The dialogism of this approach draws the readers, historical actors, and audience into a shared understanding and intellectual process. Under the scrutiny of all three, the mortal past offers a model for and means of deliberating about future action.

For Allen (chapter 8), another revolution in thinking and practice is revealed through a revolution in language. She connects the sudden appearance of prohairesis in the Attic orators following Aristotle's lecture on rhetoric in 355 BCE to conceptual shifts in discourses about the display of excellence and recognition of honour and to 'new technologies of power': the primacy of speech over military might in the leadership of Athens in the late fifth century BCE. Aristotle's prohairesis denoted an ethical choice and commitment towards a desired end that promotes directed action. Used critically, it presented a framework for establishing intent and evaluating action, and so for determining responsibility. His theorizing was determined by questions that arose from developments in the political arena that complicated traditional assessments of citizen worth, namely the leadership of Alcibiades and the oligarchic coup and democratic restoration of 403/2. In turn, it presented contemporary rhetores with a means to assert their own leadership values and denigrate their opponents.

Attention then turns to another accredited revolutionary: the philosopher Parmenides. Catherine Osborne (chapter 9) evaluates whether his methodology (rationalist) and conclusions ('nothing comes from nothing') caused a dramatic break with the past by examining immediate influences on fifth-century Presocratics; she then explores why modern philosophers have been committed to the proposal that they did. Parmenides' arguments have been crafted into a narrative about doing philosophy that neglects the continuities between his style and arguments and those of his predecessors, ignores the failure of his immediate contemporaries to break with earlier conceptions or respond to his ideas, and overstates his commitment to monism. This narrative, constructed by nineteenth century philosophers pursuing their own dialectic, requires Presocratic philosophy to be dialectical rather than, as might alternatively be posited, constituting the presentation of world-visions.

King's (chapter 10) exploration of how and why revolutions in ancient medicine might be identified, and how and why the occurred, emphasizes the discrepancy between modern explanations and ancient understanding and the significance once again attached to the presumed rationality of fifth-century Greeks (cf. chapter 5). Again the construction of narratives in the pursuit of disciplinary origins is influential (cf. chapter 9), both in ancient and modern conceptions of the field, while Greek writers working in the Roman Empire are once more influential in shaping modern responses to the discourse of revolution (cf. chapter 4) through their representation of Hippocrates as the Father of Medicine, the founder of the discipline (according to Scribonius Largus) and its epitome (as crafted by Galen and Aelius Aristides).

Second Sophistic writers have also shaped modern understandings of musical developments by applying the language of novelty and revolution to late fifth-century BCE practices, according to D'Angour (chapter 11). This time, however, they reflect contemporary rhetorics of innovation and change. Although musical advances could be seen as part of a development stretching back to the sixth century, a dedication to technical and stylistic novelty altered the public performance and experience of music in the late fifth century. Advances in theory impacted on instrument design and musical form, and the priority of rhythm and harmoniai in composition allowed for flexibility in melody. This generated a new sound, followed by a system of notation for inscribing that sound.

The contributions to Rethinking Revolutions reorientate our relationship with the Classical past, replacing the prosaic examination of 'what the Greeks did for us' with a vibrant critique of what we have done for (or rather, to) the Greeks. Long-standing revolutions in politics, religion, history, philosophy, and medicine are exposed as scholarly fabrications, determined by the contemporary preoccupations of writers, ancient and modern. Some are reconstructed: the rationality of Greek religion, the doing of history, the creating of music. Moreover, new revolutions emerge, striking shifts in the perception of time, in viewing practices, and in the language of leadership and responsibility. Although wide-ranging in their subject-matter, the various contributions thus operate as an integrated whole. While it may seem trite (and too easy) to claim the book revolutionizes understanding of processes of change in Greek culture and of scholarly responses to them, future attempts to grasp the specified cultural revolutions or the 'Greek cultural revolution' will need first to address the dynamics explored here. By changing the trajectory of scholarly investigation in the area, Rethinking Revolutions performs its own cultural revolution.


1.   The second is: R. Osborne, Debating the Athenian Cultural Revolution: Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Politics 430-380 BC, Cambridge, 2007.

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