Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.01.16

Kostas Vlassopoulos, Unthinking the Greek Polis. Ancient Greek History Beyond Eurocentrism.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. xiv, 288.  ISBN 978-0-521-87744-2.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Angela Kühr, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main (
Word count: 1889 words

[Table of contents at the end of the review]

"To the liberty of oppressed peoples:" The dedication of Vlassopoulos' thesis illuminates the author's intention to initiate paradigm changes with political aims. You could speak of political historiography if it was historiography, but Vlassopoulos does not write a new history of the Mediterranean in those times which used to be characterised as an era of Greek poleis. Instead, he deconstructs old approaches and gives instructions to further researchers on how their work could be done. It is a book of announcements, in a double sense: Vlassopoulos not only begins every section by explaining what he wants to demonstrate and ends it by concluding what he wanted to show (the reader is guided perfectly through the outline of his argumentation), but he also summarizes in the very last paragraph: "I have not attempted to rewrite Greek history from a different perspective in this study; I have merely tried to show that the perspective is deeply problematic, and that an alternative perspective is both feasible and illuminating. But as the English say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating" (p. 240). Indeed. Being young, to write a book like this may be easier than being old and looking back on a long researcher's life. At least it is courageous. This book has to provoke, and the author wants to do so, even to be polemical (p. 4).

In the introduction (pp. 1-10) Vlassopoulos describes the starting point of and the motivation for his considerations: the politically powerful dichotomy between Orientalism and Eurocentrism, which is frequently traced back to the ancient opposition between Oriental despotism and Western freedom. To criticize the usual approach, the characterization of the Greek polis as the inventor of liberty and freedom, which tends to be conceptualized within the frame of the beginning, acme and fall of the Greek nation, Vlassopoulos names two principal aims: first to describe the historiographic tradition and then to develop a new approach, which includes all the alternative narratives never told, oppressed narratives and narratives of the oppressed. Following the model of Braudel's "The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II," nationalist and ethnocentric views on Greek history should be overcome by an interlinked history of the wider Mediterranean and Near Eastern world.

"Part I: Defining the contexts of thinking about the polis" (pp. 11-96), consists of three chapters. The first, "An archaeology of discourses" (pp. 13-67), offers a well-informed doxography on polis historiography from Ancient Greek concepts to recent tendencies. Vlassopoulos describes the emergence of approaches focused on the autonomous polis as the result of nation-bound and imperialist thinking in the 19th century, and juxtaposes this still dominant orthodoxy with counter-tendencies since the 1980s. In the second, "The ancient discourses on the polis" (pp. 68-84), Vlassopoulos propagates Aristotle as the starting point for new approaches to Greek history, mainly his largely ignored concepts: the polis not only as a community of citizens and as the telos of good human community life, but also as a form of koinônia and as a unity of merê. From an ancient Greek point of view, the polis is to be understood not only as a specific community, but as a term for human communities in general. The third chapter, "Making use of Aristotle: concepts and models" (pp. 85-96), stresses that the Aristotelian concept of koinônia offers a model to overcome the linearity of our polis histories by looking at the plurality of levels and temporal scales involved, and that the concept of merê provides a fresh approach to people in action, determined by various roles they fulfil in polis life, instead of describing supra-personal entities. Finally, the polis should not be seen as a self-sufficient entity but as part of a 'world-system,' deeply influenced by inter-poleis relationships.

In "Part II: Rethinking the contexts. The polis as an entity: a critique" (pp. 97-141), Vlassopoulos criticises the common view of perceiving history as the succession, or juxtaposition, of entities like nations, West and East, societies, economies, or poleis. Instead, the entities' boundaries should be resolved in favour of interactive histories within wider systems of multiple scales and levels. In the chapter "East and West, Greece and the East: the polis vs. Oriental despotism" (pp. 101-122), Vlassopoulos dissolves the contrast between the two opposed entities, aiming at a Greek history as part of the wider Eastern Mediterranean one. He treats city identity, self-government, magistrates and assemblies, political deliberation, settlement of disputes, representation to authorities, arriving at the conclusion that they do not explain Greek distinctiveness, and that our teleological view of Greek history as leading to the outcome of the polis and finally democracy is misleading. In "The consumer city: ancient vs. medieval/modern" (pp. 123-141), he criticises the schematic view on the ancient consumer city, which does not take into account the variety of Greek poleis, their interconnected economies, and the co-existing levels of economic activities. This chapter contains the only orthographic mistake the present reviewer noted in this meticulously edited book, : "Konsummmentenstädte" instead of the correct spelling "Konsummentenstädte" (p. 125).

"Part III: Beyond the polis: the polis as part of a système-monde" (pp. 143-240) tries to develop possible new approaches to Greek history. Vlassopoulos stresses that research has not been done yet to realize it (p. 143), but that the first step consists of providing an analytical frame, which relies on three premises: "(a) that the polis is part of a larger system (b) that there exists a multiplicity of co-existing temporal and spatial levels within that system and (c) that the poleis should be analysed within the 'environment' created by the systems and its multiple levels" (p. 145). Vlassopoulos discusses the aspects "The polis as a unit of analysis: poleis and koinônia" (pp. 147-155), "Poleis and space" (pp. 156-189), "Poleis and polities" (pp. 190-202), and "Poleis and time" (pp. 203-220). Finally, he poses the question, if his considerations lead "Towards new master narratives of Greek history?" (pp. 221-240), and suggests looking at Herodotos and his way of telling an interconnected history of the Mediterranean, even inventing dialogues or speeches to visualize how life could have been in former times.

Vlassopoulos is right that many of the established, yet already questioned,concepts of Greek history have to be rethought and differentiated. The reflection on Eurocentric master narratives creates an awareness of interpretation frames we follow by custom or conviction. Vlassopoulos knows that deconstruction on its own would be the end of history. Floating on a sea of knowledge atoms without context, interconnection, and sense, human beings would lack identity, and this is exactly what Vlassopoulos does not take into account: Why do the Greeks matter to us? No historian can avoid this fundamental question. Yes, identity centred histories exclude possible alternative developments which would not have led to certain results. Therefore deconstructions stressing the 'oppressed' developmental routes are healthy and help to detect master narratives stemming from current identity concerns. We should not construct a European culture or a culture of the 'West' translating it to the Ancient world, but we should not neglect either that differences existed between the Near Eastern world and the world dominated by Greek-speaking people, who distinguished their way of living by referring to a specific form of settlement: the polis. If you want to show that the differences between a Greek and a Near Eastern world are constructed, you risk using a very general tertium comparationis which does not allow differentiation any more. Polemically speaking, every agglomeration of houses is either a settlement or a polis , if you adjust the level of comparison. What is more, Vlassopoulos argues ex silentio to make a point for Near Eastern citizenship (p. 106). And if we follow Vlassopoulos's request to go back to the roots and to have a close look at Greek perceptions of their world, we cannot deny that the Greeks defined their identity by opposing themselves to Persia, that they reflected systematically on political concepts, and that they provide discourses around terms like 'liberty' and 'democracy.' Does Vlassopoulos offer a good alternative to the condemned Eurocentric master narratives? His starting point: "all of history is contemporary history" (citing Croce, p. 1), equally refers to his own considerations. You wonder if Vlassopoulos's political, thus subjective approach does not lead to anachronistic views of Greek history, if it is not as problematic as the condemned Eurocentric approaches, though in another way.

To conclude.Vlassopoulos's book offers many good observations on recent or former tendencies of classical scholarship, and he comes along with intelligent suggestions of how to go on. However, he is no hero of a paradigm change, rather a good observer of changes which are in the air. To put them together in a coherent way is an admirable achievement. His picture of future research is interesting, though rooted in a land of dreaming: On the one hand, it can be problematic to combine ideals of scholarship with visions of a world as it should politically be. On the other hand, it is of course much easier to come along with suggestions of how to go on instead of proposing new historical interpretations of one's own. To cite the author: "the proof of the pudding is in the eating" (p. 240). There have been attempts to write interconnected histories of the Mediterranean, and Vlassopoulos mentions them.1 His reproach that Eurocentric views are still dominant is partly the result of his focus on social, economic and political history while leaving cultural and religious history apart, as he states himself (p. 9; 101). Whether the interlinked history Vlassopoulos dreams of can be realized is to be doubted. First, few scholars have the language skills to write such a history. Second, we lack sources -- there are no Near Eastern Politics, as Vlassopoulos mentions (p. 102) -- and depend on narratives of the ancient Greeks; archaeology cannot answer every question. Third, although categories of analysis are problematic if perceived as monads or closed entities, we cannot totally abolish them since it would make the description of phenomena impossible. Trying to un-think the Greek polis elucidates established concepts. But the polis will live, and the search for European identity by referring to the Greeks is not necessarily bad. After unthinking the Greek polis you have to rethink it, from different perspectives and in a more conscious way. Anyone interested in Greek history will be stimulated by Vlassopoulos' book. Historiographers and theorists like Vlassopoulos should come together not to un-think, but to re-think the Greek polis.

Table of Contents

Introduction (pp. 1-10)

Part I: Defining the contexts of thinking about the polis (pp. 11-96)

1) An archaeology of discourses (pp. 13-67)

2) The ancient discourses on the polis (pp. 68-84)

3) Making use of Aristotle: concepts and models (pp. 85-96)

Part II: Rethinking the contexts. The polis as an entity: a critique (pp. 96-141)

4) East and West, Greece and the East: the polis vs. Oriental despotism (pp. 101-122)

5) The consumer city: ancient vs. medieval/modern (pp. 123-141)

Part III: Beyond the polis: the polis as part of a système-monde (pp. 143-240)

6) The polis as a unit of analysis: poleis and koinôniai (pp. 147-155)

7) Poleis and space (pp. 156-189)

8) Poleis and polities (pp. 190-202)

9) Poleis and time (pp. 203-220)

10) Towards new master narratives of Greek history? (pp. 221-240)


1.   To name but few: M. L. West, The East face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Early Poetry and Myth, Oxford 1997; K. Freitag, Der Golf von Korinth. Historiographisch-topographische Untersuchungen von der Archaik bis in das 1. Jh. v. Chr., München 2000; P. Horden, N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea. A Study of Mediterranean History, Oxford 2000.

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