Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.02.36

Robin Sowerby, The Greeks: An Introduction to their Culture. 2nd edition (first edition 1995). Peoples of the Ancient World.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2009.  Pp. xii, 240.  ISBN 9780415469371.  $32.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Denison University (

Although the first edition of Sowerby's The Greeks: An Introduction to their culture was reviewed primarily as a book for a general non-classicist audience, I will consider this new edition for its value as a classroom text. The first edition, deemed "idiosyncratic in focus" by one reviewer (BMCR 2005.02.06, n. 1), has been expanded into include a chapter on religion and society as well as material on the Mycenaeans and Minoans and the Hellenistic period. Sowerby states in his preface that despite these additions, he is not trying "to offer a general survey of Greek life," but to offer instead a "series of representative texts and works which are in some ways typical of what is distinctive and best in their cultural legacy" (xi-xii). Unfortunately, this approach limits the value of the text and runs contrary to its common use by classicists. Some factual errors noted by P. Cartledge in a review of the first edition1 remain uncorrected and new errors have crept in along with the new material. The treatment given the Hellenistic period especially shows that Sowerby does not consider much of it "distinctive" or "best." As a result, The Greeks falls far short as an introductory text for a civilization or literature course.

The book is divided into six thematic chapters followed by a chronological table, a list of translations, a glossary of terms and suggestions for further reading. For those who teach a Classical Civilization course covering both Greece and Rome in one semester, the thematic break down can provide an accessible route for presenting such a vast amount of material without the sometimes daunting slog of a more chronological approach. The breadth and depth of the book, however, may be too limited for a full semester Greek civilization course. The Roman equivalent to Sowerby's book, Antony Kamm's The Romans: An Introduction (BMCR 2009.04.14) is similarly structured and so the idea of being able to pair the two together in a single course is appealing.

The Greeks opens with an engaging first chapter, "The Homeric World," which has been filled out from the first edition with contextual material on the Bronze Age and Homer's relationship to it. Noticeably absent in this new material, however, is any mention of colonization in the period after the fall of the palaces and, most surprisingly, the development of the alphabet, probably the most significant advance in Greek culture that resulted from increased interactions with the advanced cultures of the Near East. Otherwise, the chapter serves as a fine introduction to the Homeric poems, some of their main themes and the importance of Homer in Greek culture.

Chapter Two, "History," provides a concise overview of Greek history from the period just before the Persian Wars to the Hellenistic period. The failure of the first edition to recognize Greek history after 133 BC, noted by Cartledge, has been addressed to some degree in this edition. Although some sections are better than others, the historical overview is generally accurate and clear though two elements of the chapter are baffling. First, Sowerby places here a lengthy literary treatment of Herodotus and Thucydides, which would be better situated in Chapter Four, "Literature." The historians' absence in that chapter is jarring and their presence here is confusing and needlessly delays the overview of the history proper. Second, it is odd to find Demosthenes so prominent in this chapter. The section titled "The Opposition of Demosthenes" is longer than the discussions of Philip, Alexander and the Hellenistic period combined.

Chapter Three, "Religion and Social Life," is meant to give readers a broader general context for the philosophy, literature and art of Greece. Although such content is a welcome addition to any text on Greek culture, Sowerby's presentation of this material is unsatisfying. The opening section on the Olympians gods is needlessly confused. Twice we hear of the twelve primary Olympians, but only Zeus and a few others are named. There is a genealogical chart on page 72 that includes a list of Olympians in all capital letters (the rest of the family is in normal script), where we find not twelve Olympians, but fourteen! Sowerby provides only a limited discussion of sacrifice and religious practice, using what he calls "representative" moments. He begins with discussion of sacrifice followed by discussions of the mutilation of the herms and Nicias' delayed retreat after the battle due to seeing an eclipse, the dokimasia, Zeus as protector of the courtyard, Apollo patroos and the "ruler cult" of Alexander. While these are interesting topics, they hardly give a student a basic understanding of Greek religious practice.

Although the treatment of religion and myth is unsatisfying, the sections on social life are disquieting. For example, in the section on hetairai, Sowerby perpetuates the Plutarchian fallacies that Aspasia was both a non-Athenian and yet legally married to Pericles and that, though Pericles was careful of his reputation, he not only married a courtesan but allowed her to run a brothel from his home. More importantly, though, is the misattribution of source material. In quoting Plutarch on Aspasia, Sowerby includes three lines on Aspasia's supposed use of her influence over famous Greek men to win them to the side of the Persians. Anyone who knows their Life of Pericles knows that these lines do not refer to Aspasia but to Thargelia, whom Plutarch claims Aspasia modeled her career after. This misattribution not only paints an inaccurate picture of Aspasia and Pericles but also reveals an unacceptably cavalier attitude to the primary sources. It is true that there is some pedagogical value in forcing students to check the sources in their textbook for accuracy, but it is perhaps not the best use of students' time in an introductory course.

Chapters Four, Five and Six treat literature, philosophy and art respectively. The second edition has expanded from the first edition to include material on the Hellenistic period. While these chapters are generally practical and even provide moments of interest, major deficiencies make them less than serviceable as a text for an introductory civilization course. In Chapter Four, "Literature," the most noticeable issues are the very limited and confusing section on lyric, the fact that almost every reading of text offered is filtered through either Aristotle, Dionysius of Halicarnassus or Longinus and the embarrassingly scarce addition on the Hellenistic period. There is little effort to discuss important texts such as Apollonius' Argonautica. When he writes about Apollonius, Sowerby fails even to mention that the epic poem is about Jason and Medea and functions in an ironic relationship to Euripides' play, which he had highlighted in an earlier section. In fact, the discussion of the entire poem takes only one sentence. The rest of the Hellenistic period gets a couple of paragraphs with the library and museum [at Alexandria?] mentioned only in passing.

The treatment of Aristophanes also brings up another difficulty with the text. In discussing the key elements of Aristophanic comedy, Sowerby remarks upon "the persistent and frank indecency with regard to sexual matters and bodily functions" (127). This comment comes after an almost apologetic section on Greek homosexuality that ends Chapter 3 and which is entirely rooted in a discussion of the beauty of male-male love in Plato's Symposium. It is apparently shocking to Sowerby how Aristophanes sullies such beauty (despite crediting Aristophanes with a moving paean to love in Symposium) with his "frank indecency" on stage. In fact, it seems that Sowerby is uncomfortable mentioning sexuality at all. As an example of Aristophanes' frank indecency, he states: "In Lysistrata. . . the men folk are in an acutely priapic state for much of the play" (127). Thus, when he does mention sexuality, he is obfuscates and demonstrates a discomfort with it although it is an important component of Greek culture.

Chapter Five, "Philosophy," has further issues. While the discussions of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, which make up most of the chapter, are solid and well-written, the headers of the opening and closing sections make clear where other philosophers rank on Sowerby's scale of distinctive and best. The opening section is on the pre-Socratics who are treated as if they were in fact only a prequel to the great Socrates. After reading the section, a student would be hard pressed to know that many of the pre-Socratics came from Ionia, were influenced by Near Eastern and Egyptian cultures, that they are associated with a revolution in Greek thought and that there were more than four of them. In fact, medicine, mathematics and science are almost entirely absent from the text as a whole. The final section of the chapter covers the "post-Aristotelians" and, while the Stoics are given some mention, one would not know what they actually taught. Of a period when Greek mathematics, medicine and science made important advances, Sowerby says only, "Advances were made in mathematics with the Elements of Euclid (fl. c. 300) and the discoveries of Archimedes (c. 287-221). Aristarchus of Samos even advanced the hypothesis of a heliocentric cosmology. As the Greeks did not invent the microscope or telescope, progress in experimental science was limited" (167).

The final chapter, "Art," is the longest in the book, in part because of the ample images provided. This is the most even of the chapters and, for once, the coverage of the Hellenistic period is in keeping with its importance in understanding ancient Greek culture. Sowerby treats the usual standards (e.g. the Critian boy, Exekias' Achilles and Ajax, Polyclitus' doryphoros, the Parthenon, the works of Praxiteles, the Altar of Zeus and Laocoon) and as a stand-alone overview of Greek art from the Geometric to Hellenistic periods, the chapter works well. Sowerby still inaccurately calls Athena Parthenos the "presiding goddess of the city" (187) despite it being pointed out as incorrect in Cartledge's short review. Such easy to correct mistakes should have been weeded out in the revision.

In sum: Classical civilization courses requiring that both Greek and Roman cultures be covered in one semester are becoming increasingly popular. There is no good single textbook for such a class2 and, while there are many good books on Greek civilization alone,3 they may either be too history driven for some or too intensive and detailed for a half semester (or quarter-length) treatment of the Greeks. Kamm's The Romans, now also in a second edition, is a solid introductory book and it would be nice if the Greek counterpart were of the same quality so that both could be used together in such a class. The Greeks, however, was generally poorly reviewed in the first edition. Cosmetic revisions and some additional material have not improved it. Although the thematic structure is appealing, what is needed is a textbook that provides a broader, more even and more accurate picture of the scope of Greek civilization and its impact than provided by The Greeks.4


1.   Cartledge, Paul. "Less than Olympian Greeks". Times Higher Education December 8, 1995.
2.  Popular single texts such as D. Brendan Nagle's The Ancient World can be good, but are very history focused and include more material on the Near East than a classics course would need (and the cost is high). Such books are, perhaps, not as useful for more culturally focused courses. Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World has its good points, but also has idiosyncrasies and does not offer some of the benefits that a book written as a textbook often does.
3.   For example, David Sansone's Ancient Greek Civilization and Sarah Pomeroy, et al A Brief History of Ancient Greece.
4.   Possible texts in this category currently available include the Oxford Histories (illustrated or not) and the Cambridge Illustrated Histories. The Cambridge versions may be cost prohibitive as the Roman version runs $55 while the Greek version is near $40. The Oxfords are lengthy but the chapters are broken down in such a way as to let professors choose what should be read. In the end, all of these books need supplementing with primary sources, of course, so cost and length are factors. In this sense, the Oxford non-illustrated histories are the best. Neither are the Oxford or Cambridge texts plagued by errors, as is Sowerby's.

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