Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.02

Edith Hall, Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.   New York; London:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.  Pp. xxviii, 305.  ISBN 9780393351163.  $16.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Gribbin, University of Melbourne (


Introducing the ancient Greeks undertakes the ambitious task of describing ancient Greek society in the 2,000 years between the Mycenaeans and the triumph of Christianity (roughly 1600 BC to AD 400). Although Hall does not state her purpose within the book, it is clearly intended for a popular rather than a specialised audience. A number of reviews in the general media indicate that she has successfully catered to that market and it is easy to see why.

Hall’s writing style is clear and accessible. She adopts an almost conversational flow, with the discussion moving from one topic to another in a naturalistic, story-telling manner. She makes sense of the vast mass of people, places, events and social change within the 2,000-year ambit of the book by providing snapshots of 10 different points in time. For each period, she provides an overview of key developments and discusses a number of different events, people or texts. Hall makes regular use of primary sources, usually paraphrasing or quoting them in short bursts. She also makes reference to several objects which illuminate particular points, though unfortunately few of them are illustrated within the book.

The book focuses on the nature of Greek society in each period rather than the details of history. Key historic events are noted, but usually at a high level (the Persian Wars, for example, are covered in six paragraphs split across three chapters —pp.117f., 133f., 159). Literature is the predominant focus in most chapters, with Hall providing a number of outlines of ancient texts. These outlines have been done very skilfully, with each outline providing a flavour of the text, while illustrating the period under discussion and enticing readers to go and discover the text for themselves.

Hall’s approach makes for an interesting and engaging work which is readily accessible by someone with no background in the subject matter. She manages to convey a great deal of information in a gentle way. The division into ten periods communicates the key changes across the period and gives the reader enough insight into each period to make it tangible. The examples used to illustrate each period are apposite and demonstrate the breadth of Greek culture and what remains of it.

Of course, there is much left unsaid. A project of this type is necessarily an act of construction almost as much as description—such a project requires decisions about which people and times to include as Greek and which parts of their culture to explore. Inevitably, there are things that are included which other people would leave out and things left out which others would include. Hall rarely gets into an explicit discussion of such matters. Similarly, she shies away from getting into the details of academic debate about issues. Sometimes she gently notes the existence of academic debate on a point, simply stating that we are not certain about a topic (without bogging the reader down in the details). At other times, she glosses over debated issues without comment and provides a best guess (see, for example, the discussion of hoplite warfare on pp.174-5, which makes no mention of debates about the othismos or casualty rates).

Of course, the book is only intended to be an introduction. One can hardly expect a 275-page discussion of 2,000 years to be a comprehensive analysis of all aspects of Greek society and all the debates associated with them. Indeed, detailed methodological discussion or complex philological debates would get in the way of engaging the general reader. Endnotes might have been used to note some debates and point the interested reader in the direction of further reading. This appears to have been eschewed in favour of a large bibliography (pp.279-87), though the works included in the bibliography are quite varied in terms of accessibility—highly academic works sit next to more introductory works without any differentiation. This mixed nature may make it a bit unhelpful for laypeople wanting to start their exploration of Greek culture and I think that this is something of a missed opportunity.

Hall starts the book by setting out what she sees as the essence of Greek culture. She identifies ten characteristics of the Greeks that she contends can be seen throughout the period covered by her book. In her view, the Greeks were seagoing; suspicious of authority; individualistic; inquiring; open to new ideas; witty; competitive; admired excellence in talented people; were wildly articulate; and were addicted to pleasure (p.1).

As she points out in the preface (p. xv), none of these characteristics is unique to the Greeks, nor are they universally shared throughout all of the different Greek communities across the 2,000-year focus of the book. Nonetheless, Hall contends that, “most of the ancient Greeks, however scattered across time and space, shared most of these qualities most of the time” (p. xv).

The list of characteristics and associated discussion are a real strength of the book. The characteristics provide an overall theme that runs through the whole book. They pop up regularly in the following chapters and act as a framework on which readers can build their understanding.

Of course, the list is not exhaustive of all characteristics which one might attribute to the Greeks. There is certainly scope for debate about whether they are necessarily the ten most salient characteristics for understanding Greek society. I would, for example, have wanted to include “exploitative” in the list, given the dependence on slavery, unpaid female labour and the forcible acquisition of land and resources from non-Greeks, not to mention the Athenian Empire. Similarly, it is surprising to me that nothing about religiosity made the list, given its prevalence in so many aspects of Greek life (and its regular discussion in this book).

The list may also suffer from a degree of Athenocentrism (though the book as a whole does not). The world of Classical Athens seems to have a privileged position, with Hall describing it as “perhaps” the only period and place to demonstrate “ample endowment with every one of the ten characteristics” (p.127). The Spartans, in contrast, are characterised by Hall as “very strange Greeks” who fail to embody several of the ten characteristics (p.178). These assessments may tell us more about the selection of characteristics than about the nature of Athenian or Spartan society.

There is ample room for debate about the ten characteristics. But the characteristics that Hall has selected reflect the focus of her book and the aspects of Greek culture than she wants to share. For example, the fact that there is very limited discussion of the Greek economy may be one reason why “exploitative” did not make the list. It is a virtue of the book that, by including the list of characteristics up front, Hall explicitly identifies the sort of topics that she will focus on. The fact that the list is contestable highlights another great advantage of it—it can be used as a starting point for further discussion. I can certainly see the list being useful in that way as a teaching tool.

Following this introduction to Greek culture as a whole, the remaining 10 chapters of the book discuss the development of Greek society over the period of focus.

Chapter 1 (“Seafaring Mycenaeans”) seeks to understand Mycenaean culture. Hall starts with the world depicted by Homer, which she sees as representing the historic Mycenaean world, albeit “imaginatively re-created” by Greeks in the eighth century BC (pp.31-2). She then moves on to the evidence about the Mycenaeans from Linear B and archaeology. She concludes the chapter with the Dark Age, though mostly discusses those communities that were relatively thriving during that period, rather than focusing on decline.

Chapter 2 (“The Creation of Greece”) explores the eighth century BC, primarily by looking at the poems of Homer and Hesiod. Hall provides an overview of the poems and explores how they not only reflect various aspects of life in the eighth century but also shape the identity of the Greeks going forward.

Chapter 3 (“Frogs and Dolphins Round the Pond”) looks at the seventh and sixth centuries. The discussion includes colonisation, tyrants and the poets of the era, along with the symposium and the role of the dolphin in Greek society.

Chapter 4 (“Inquiring Ionians”) looks at Greek philosophy, science and medicine. The chapter provides a brief overview of each of the major early thinkers, including the Hippocratics. Hall seeks to explain the Ionian intellectual revolution, with a particular interest in contacts with other cultures. She finishes with a discussion of Herodotus, focusing on the form of his work and its relation to earlier literature and thinkers, rather than the content.

Chapter 5 (“The Open Society of Athens”) looks at Athens in fifth and fourth centuries BC, which Hall sees as Greek civilisation’s “apex of creativity” (p.127). The chapter focuses on Athenian democracy and the Peloponnesian War, while also touching on other aspects of Athenian society, including the figures of Socrates and Plato.

In Chapter 6 (“Spartan Inscrutability”), Hall tries to reconstruct Spartan society. She looks not only at the military culture, but at other aspects of Spartan society, such as religion and the lives of women, helots and the perioikoi. She is very careful in this chapter to note the limitations of our sources.

Chapter 7 (“The Rivalrous Macedonians”) looks at the Macedonians, primarily considering Alexander’s conquests and the Wars of the Successors. Hall discusses some of the ancient controversy about how Greek the Macedonians were, ultimately concluding that they were Greeks. The chapter is also an opportunity to look at Aristotle and make some points about Greek religion.

Chapter 8 (“God-Kings and Libraries”) explores the Hellenistic kingdoms, with a particular focus on Ptolemaic Egypt. Hall sees this era as characterised by monarchs competing “for the status of rulers of the most impressive empire” (p.205) and she discusses examples of this, such as Ptolemaic spectacle, the Great Altar of Pergamon and the Library of Alexandria. Much of the chapter is taken up with a discussion of Hellenistic literature, especially poetry.

Chapter 9 (“Greek Minds and Roman Power”) looks at the Greek-speaking intellectuals of the Roman Empire. For Hall, “Greek culture offered expressive ways to talk about the superpower that now ran the world” (p.250). A wide range of Greek authors and their works is considered, from Polybius to Galen to Epictetus. Hall also considers non-Greeks who wrote in Greek, such as Josephus and Lucian of Samosata. In each case, Hall provides an outline of the author’s work and consequently builds a picture of the great diversity of intellectual endeavour during the Roman period.

Chapter 10 (“Pagan Greeks and Christians”) looks at the rise and dominance of Christianity in the Greek-speaking world. The focus is on the Greeks’ reactions to Christianity, from the first to fourth centuries AD. Neoplatonism is also featured along the way. For Hall, Christianity (and not Roman imperialism) “put an end to the ancient Greeks, with their caustic wit, sculpted gods, inquiring, independent minds, philosophy, and love of sensual pleasures” (p.253). On this basis, the book ends with the fourth century AD.

Overall, this book sets out to be an introduction to the ancient Greeks and it achieves that aim admirably. There’s no paradigm-shifting new interpretation of Greek culture or history that will change academic perspectives. But the book presents an accessible, entertaining and thoughtful analysis of Greek society. It paints a lively picture of a culture and I would have no hesitation recommending it to somebody wanting an entry point to understanding ancient Greece.

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