Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.24

Allison Glazebrook, Christina Vester (ed.), Themes in Greek Society and Culture: An Introduction to Ancient Greece.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xxii, 481.  ISBN 9780199020652.  $80.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by John Bloxham, The Open University (

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This is an ambitious and extremely wide-ranging introduction to almost every aspect of ancient Greek studies encompassing a timespan from the Bronze Age to 31 BC and utilising approaches from archaeology, history, literature, art, philosophy and reception studies. The introduction does not claim to provide a narrative of the entire period and suggests that the authors will not ‘privilege’ political change (9). The volume contains two broad overviews of time periods, one chapter on the Bronze Age and another on the rest of Greek history down to the end of the Hellenistic period, as well as chapters giving thematic treatments of aspects of Greek life such as the polis, the economy, religion, law, slavery, gender, sport and so on.

As an introductory companion, each chapter aims to provide a clear overview of the topic, a window into current controversies and questions, and pointers towards further reading. At the end of each chapter there is a section titled ‘Questions for Review and Discussion’ which could be a useful resource for course designers. Some of these sections are quite basic, although the better ones will encourage more active students to reflect upon their learning. There are a range of useful illustrations in black and white, presumably to reduce the expense, and there are two maps, of Greece and the Aegean at the beginning of the book and Greece and the Middle East towards the end. However, it is quite a short book and the result is that some of the chapters are little more than superficial overviews of the topic under consideration.

This review will assess the strengths and weaknesses of the book as a whole, whilst of necessity only looking in detail at a few chapters emblematic of broader issues. The work contains a number of solid if somewhat pedestrian surveys, such as those by A. Faulkner (‘Literature and Performance’), which manages to squeeze in discussions of epic, lyric, tragedy and comedy, and M. Haworth (‘Art and Architecture’). Chapter Two (‘The Ancient Greeks’), by R. Kroeker, is less successful. It provides an overview of the period from the Mycenaeans to 31 BC, and is concerned primarily with military and political developments on whose basis the later, more focused, chapters can be constructed. However, condensing such an expanse of history into a 20-page chapter (18 once the references, questions and so on are excluded) inevitably paints a simplistic picture. In addition, the ‘sources’ discussion for this section only lists authors concerned with the same small sliver of the chapter’s range (Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon), as does the ‘Further Reading’ section. Other periods are barely touched upon, including the Hellenistic period which is given just over a single page, and the interpretations are very much geared towards a traditional ‘Great Man’ view of history. The chapter also has a tendency towards vagueness (for example, providing no dates when talking about the emergence of the polis and providing population figures for a ‘typical’ polis). It may be heresy to suggest it, but it is difficult to see what this chapter offers that could not be gained by asking students to read the relevant Wikipedia page. Likewise, F. Pownall’s chapter on Macedonia provides just the sort of narrative political history that was disavowed by the editors in the introduction.

The volume is strongest where it sticks closest to the introductory aim of providing thematic treatments and avoiding political narrative. Sears’ chapter on the polis provides an excellent discussion which should really get students thinking about differences with the modern world where they might before have seen only similarities. That said, there is arguably too much emphasis placed upon the ‘specialness’ of the polis. A brief indication of the alternative views in existence (for example, Vlassopoulos’ Unthinking the Greek Polis 1) would have been useful, even if only added to the ‘Further Reading’ section. Sears also supplies the traditional account of the egalitarian nature of the polis being a consequence of the rise of hoplite warfare, but in this instance provides useful further reading suggestions which contest this view.

Kroeker’s chapter is not the only one to largely ignore the Hellenistic period, which merits a short postscript in most chapters. V. Provencal’s chapter on philosophy goes a step further and explicitly ignores all Greek philosophy after 300 BC. Chapter Four (‘War and Peace’) by S. Ager is one of the few chapters to give serious attention to the Hellenistic period. The chapter is also strong on hoplites and navies, although other important aspects of Greek warfare, such as sieges, logistics or irregular troops, are hardly mentioned. One small complaint is that she compares the period before the Peloponnesian War with the Cold War to argue that ‘bipolar alignments resulted in a dangerously combustible international situation’ (87), which oversimplifies the situation in Greece but might also leave the reader with the misleading impression that the Peloponnesian War was an aberration, whereas warfare was actually a fairly normal state of affairs in Greece.

A couple of points on especially good chapters are in order. ‘Sparta: Separating Reality from Mirage’, by N. Humble, is one of the strongest of the book. The question running throughout the chapter is whether Sparta can be classed as, ‘above all, a militaristic state?’ (106). Humble engages admirably with the scholarship of recent decades which has transformed Sparta by normalising it, whilst at the same time acknowledging the ‘othering of Sparta’ undertaken at times even by contemporaries such as Xenophon (109). In contrast to some of the more simplistic, narrative chapters, Humble does an excellent job of bringing out the complexity and ambiguity of both the literary and archaeological source material. B. Akrigg (‘Going to Market: the Economy and Society’) has also produced a thought-provoking introduction to his topic. He concisely lays out some of the main current and past debates concerning the Greek economy, acquainting students with the questions at issue between the primitivists and modernists, substantivists and formalists and so on. Akrigg adopts the position that Greece had a ‘high standard of living by historical standards’. A minor criticism arises from Akrigg’s argument that the Greek economy grew because Greeks became more productive (not just because there were more Greeks), for which he offers no real evidence in support.

Any study of ancient Greece will necessarily present a fairly unbalanced picture due to the preponderance of Athenian sources in the surviving evidence; however, this makes it all the more essential that non-Athenian evidence is utilised whenever available to establish a more inclusive representation of ancient Greece. Some of the best chapters make admirable efforts in this respect, such as those by J. Trevett (‘Status and Class’), R. Tordoff (‘Slaves and Slavery’) and C. Vester (‘Women and the Greek Household’). In contrast, a number of others are excessively Athenocentric, of which J. Fletcher’s chapter on law is a good example. The absence of any discussion of the Gortyn law code is especially regrettable, particularly as it is included in an illustration. There are a few references to non-Athenian evidence from Locri, Croton and so on, but no sustained comparison or discussion. This criticism notwithstanding, it is an excellent introduction to (largely) Athenian ideas of law and justice. Whilst a number of chapters can be criticised along similar lines for their overly narrow focus in terms of excluding the Hellenistic period or non-Athenian evidence, M. Liston’s chapter on disease and health suffers from the opposite ailment. Ignoring the scope of the volume, Liston frequently draws upon much later Roman authors as if Greeks and Romans are interchangeable and time has no meaning. Indeed, even Byzantine authors and evidence make an appearance. She is very good on different treatments given in the ancient world, but the chapter could have contained more on Greek attitudes to sickness and the body. Fortunately this drawback is rectified to some extent by Glazebrook’s stimulating discussion of the female body in her chapter on gender.

The work is largely free from editing errors (although an Egyptian statue illustrated on page 368 is mistakenly labelled as Greek). As I have indicated above, the volume occasionally oversimplifies, which can be further highlighted with a couple of examples concerning Sparta. Considering the importance that the falling number of Spartiates had in Sparta’s decline, and the controversies surrounding the extent and reasons for the fall in numbers, it is surprising that Sears simply describes the Spartiates as ‘typically around 5,000 in number’ (64). Sears also conflates different and occasionally contradictory ancient sources on Sparta to depict something close to the ‘Spartan Mirage’ discussed by Humble. A larger drawback is the frequent repetition of material. Chapters two and four both provide narrative outlines of the wars and changing political alliances of the Classical and Hellenistic periods and both cover the dynamics of warfare in a similar fashion; the structures of the polis are outlined in chapters two, three and four; and the Athenian attack on Melos is described in a large text box in chapter two and then again in chapter four. Likewise, chapters four and five each begin with discussions of the Battle of Thermopylae as the ‘hook’ to draw readers in. Both descriptions are fine in themselves, but a more assertive editor might have suggested that one of them be altered to avoid duplication.

The major strengths of the volume are its breadth of coverage and its straightforward readability. Additional selling points are the suggestions for further reading, which are largely current and authoritative, and the excellent introductions it provides to the types of evidence available and the different ways it can be interrogated. The glossary will also be a useful tool for students new to the ancient Greek world. However, whilst there are strong individual chapters, the volume as a whole tries to do too much. The result is that some of the periods which are ostensibly part of the work are barely touched upon. For example, every chapter includes a timeline sketching events from across the whole period covered by the book; however, the chapters themselves often concentrate almost entirely on the Archaic and Classical periods. By cutting out some of the chapters which do not fit with the book’s main thematic and chronological focus (the one on the Bronze Age, the political overview and the reception chapter), as well as each chapter’s sections on the Hellenistic period (usually the briefest of afterthoughts anyway) and the elements of repetition, the remaining chapters could have been made much more comprehensive.

Finally, it is worth adding a few words on the possible market for this work. For students intending to continue their studies of ancient Greece throughout their degrees, it is likely that even the introductory courses they take will demand more depth than many of the chapters in this volume provide. There are introductory works elsewhere which break the Greek world down into manageable units of time or theme, but delve much deeper into their chosen fields. Consequently, these alternatives are likely to be more suitable in many cases. However, the main market for a book like this one would be the large introductory survey courses popular in North America, in which ancient Greece might be just one part of a broader course on, for example, ‘Western Civilization’. Despite its drawbacks, this volume would serve as a very serviceable companion on such wide-ranging courses.


1.   Vlassopoulos, K., Unthinking the Greek Polis: Ancient Greek History beyond Eurocentrism, Cambridge; New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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