BMCR 1993.01.18

1993.01.18, Alan E. Samuel, The Greeks in History

, The Greeks in History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 208. $17.95.

“Intended for people with no prior knowledge of Greek history” (xi) this book will prove enlightening to all kinds of readers while at times overwhelming with detail those with no prior knowledge, at times speculating in generalities, and sometimes giving way to minor inaccuracies.

In the first chapter, “Why Greek History?”, the answer is that our cultural affiliation with the Greeks combines with their differences from us in mind-set and the comparative simplicity of their history to make their experience useful as a commentary on our world with its related problems and values.

“City and Citizen” examines the causes of changes in patterns of authority and in the transfer of power. Examples show both the ways in which early kingships gave way to aristocracies and how tyrannies arose in various circumstances. Similarly, the origin and character of Peisistratos’ tyranny in Athens are shown to have been instrumental in the subsequent invention of democracy with its recognition of citizenship as an effective force. Fifth century tragedy is seen as reflecting the balancing of priorities needed among the imperial democracy’s various constituents, while Thucydides’ version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration urges the participatory ideal. No mention is made here of metics and slaves, whereas briefer looks at political membership in Sparta and elsewhere take note of underclasses.

In “We Know How to Be Greek” Samuel uses a variety of early Greek contacts with other peoples in the so-called Orientalizing Period and the Age of Colonization to show how the Greeks not only maintained their Greekness but even influenced their new neighbors in the West and North while converting to Greekness much of the thought and produce of the East. The examples of Naukratis and Poseideion are seen to demonstrate the strength of Greek culture in the midst of older and stronger peoples, while their extensive trade all over the Mediterranean seemed only to intensify their separateness and sense of superiority. And in fifth century Athens, at least, the presence of foreigners as both metics and slaves with no real share in the city as citizens contributed to the feeling of difference.

“Greek Imperialism” is a somewhat sterile survey of fifth and fourth century history that suffers from both too much and too little detail: too much for the general reader to absorb; too little for any student of Greek history. Various efforts to dominate are seen to have been flawed, and there is the implication that the Greeks would have done better to unite and attempt to dominate barbarians. The final judgment against Athens seems to leave Sparta, Thebes and Philip comparatively guiltless.

In “Civic Values” the Greek philosophers’ disapproval of political innovation (νεωτερίζειν) is contrasted with the modern predisposition for change and betterment, even though there is little that is static (except στάσις) in Greek constitutional history and much effort at amelioration. Aristocratic values based on land are seen to be eroded with the accession of wealth from commerce and industry with a resulting decline in civic responsibility and increase in the use of mercenaries. Nevertheless, Samuel sees Greek society as strongly conservative in its ideals despite the evidence he cites of shifting values.

“The Oppressive Society” takes up the extent and variety of Greek dependence on slavery, identifying different kinds of slaves, their origins, the conditions of their servitude, and their role in the economy of various cities. Greek women, particularly as they appear in Hesiod’s Works and Days and in Athens, are viewed as equally subject, limited in scope except for participation in some religious rites, and hard at work both in house and fields.

In “One-Man Rule” examples of early mainland tyranny and the later Sicilian variety serve to preface an analysis of the rise of Macedonian kingship which in the persons of Philip and Alexander so drastically changed Greek history and provided a pattern of rule for succeeding centuries.

“Hellenism and Culture” surveys the origins and development of Greek literary and intellectual endeavors: natural philosophy, epic poetry, tragedy, history, moral philosophy, rhetoric, and medicine.

The impact of writing on the development of prose is noted, as is the role of women in the area of personal poetry. Whether the centrality of culture in ancient Greece is so very different from its present place (“Today we think of the artist or intellectual as separate from society” 185) may be questioned.

In “Forward from the Greeks” we are reminded both of how much we owe to Greek ideals and the extent to which we are better equipped economically and socially to universalize them.

In summary, The Greeks in History is essentially a History of Greece reformulated by themes: prefatory apologia in “Why Greek History?”; early constitutional development in “City and Citizen”; Orientalizing Period and Age of Colonization in “We Know How to Be Greek”; Pentecontaetia and Peloponnesian War in “Greek Imperialism”; later constitutional development in “Civic Values”; social history in “The Oppressive Society”; the rise of Macedonia in “One-Man Rule”; intellectual history in “Hellenism and Culture”; l’envoi in “Forward from the Greeks.”

Because this volume “is, in a way, a preliminary edition” (xii) and the author will be grateful for comments, I shall write him personally about a variety of typographical errors and verbal infelicities. But readers too ought to be aware of inaccuracies that might matter; for example, it is not true that Hippias “was told that he would be buried in Athenian soil” (1) but he dreamed that he slept with his mother, and thought it meant that he would regain his homeland and be buried there. Xanthippos was not an Alkmeonid (81) but married to one. Theramenes was not sent to Sparta (106) but to Lysander. The “honest politician Cleophon died poor” (125) but he was a violent demagogue who was condemned to death in 404 B.C. Syloson was not the steward’s brother (155) but the brother of Polycrates himself. Ptolemy Aloros was not an adventurer who married Amyntas’ widow (164) but a cousin of Alexander II who married Amyntas’ daughter. Open to some misunderstanding are other statements; here it is perhaps because Samuel prefers interpretive history to what he calls the technical kind that establishes fact that he is often willing to sacrifice exactness of detail on the altar of interpretation. For example, “King Agamemnon’s wife kills her husband to exact punishment for his sacrifice of their daughter” (29). “It is without doubt the culture-consciousness of the Athenians that led to the development of Athenian tragedy….” (126). “The Boeotian Hesiod, who wrote while the Iliad was still being sung orally, … ” (173).