BMCR 1994.02.01

Early Greece

, Early Greece. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. 353 pages. ISBN 9780674221321. $12.95.

In view of the favourable reviews of the first edition and the fact that it has been translated into several foreign languages (Spanish, Italian and German), it is not surprising that this successful book should appear in a second edition.

The changes are not substantial, which is perhaps to be expected. In the text, some chapters appear to have been reproduced without alteration. In others, the changes amount to a paragraph or two, interspersed here and there. Some are not of great significance, others more so. The most important addition in chapter I is doubtless the reference to the recent finds at Lefkandi (12). In Chapter IV, there is an interesting paragraph on ‘the origins of the polis’ (62). In Chapter XIII, there are two new paragraphs, on the economy, which appear to be of some significance (222-25), although their impact is considerably reduced by the circumstance that we do not know to what degree these assertions are applicable to the Archaic period, at any rate to the early phase of it; we have far too few data to draw firm conclusions. Later in the chapter (227), two paragraphs are deleted; they are actually transferred to the discussion of tyrannis in Athens (in Chapter XVI), where they are also amplified (268-73). Also in Chapter XIII, there is reference to the lead tablet from Pech-Maho on the French Languedoc (227). Otherwise, there is a “Postscript” at the very end of the text, on the consolation of lost empires—in the words of Herodotus (301). In the “Primary Sources” (315-18) and “Further Reading” (319-42), there is substantial updating, although not all that is significant has been included.

In view of the above features, I shall opt to comment on a limited number of aspects of the book that strike me as calling for notice—beyond the observations made by S.Murray Perevalov, VDI (1983) No. 164, 178-84.

There is no statement at the outset on the object of the book; the reader is compelled to wait until reaching p. 62 to discover this—namely, “the origins [and development] of the polis.”[1] Nor is the precise time-frame of the study indicated. This makes the title somewhat puzzling. For some readers today, the term Early Greece evokes at least the Neolithic period, as well as the Bronze Age. It turns out that it is not the author’s intention to cover either of these important periods. Although the narrative proper begins with the end of the so- called ‘Dark Age’ (whenever that was), the Late Bronze Age is treated en passant in the first two chapters (“Myth, History and Archaeology” [5-15], and “Sources” [16-34]). There is no reference to anything earlier. Even in the cursory treatment of the Mycenaean phase there is no discussion of who the Greeks really were, ethnically. Nor is there here or in “The End of the Dark Age: the Aristocracy” (Chapter III) any discussion of the natural environment of early Greece. While there may be some truth in the claim that “it is no longer necessary to justify a book which spends as much space on the drinking habits and the sexual customs of the Greeks as on their political history” (1), one cannot begin to understand the culture of early Greece without a good appreciation of the natural environment of the inhabitants of this region.

There are other lapses in the early sections. Murray, e.g., explains that Schliemann “excavated at Troy, at Mycenae and at other sites in mainland Greece,” and “discovered a great bronze age palace culture, centred on ‘Agamemnon’s palace’ at Mycenae” (5). Hissarlik, however, in fact constitutes a separate culture, with nothing comparable to a palace culture prior to Late Troy VI—of which Schliemann discovered only the very first traces, near the end of the last season of his work at Hissarlik. At Mycenae, Schliemann discovered the Shaft Graves, dating to ca. 1600-1550 BC, for which phase no architectural remains suggesting a palace were found at this site nor at Tiryns nor Orchomenus nor Ithaca (the sites where he excavated).

Murray also still maintains the view that it is “generally agreed” that Troy VIIa forms “the historical basis of the Homeric Trojan War” (8). Readers should be aware that there is no longer general agreement that the level of the ‘Trojan War’ is Troy VIIa[2]. Likewise that a date “between 1250 and 1200,” alias, “1220” for Troy VIIa is being increasingly contested.

He also mentions iron and iron smelting, and maintains that this new technology came to Athens from Cyprus (12). No documentation of this is, however, provided, which is all the more relevant in view of the role which Sardinia now appears to be playing in the whole question of the emergence of iron.[3]

His account really begins with the ‘Dark Age,’ more precisely, the end of the ‘Dark Age’. This illustrates a continued preoccupation, so typical of English-speaking scholars, with the notion of a ‘Dark Age’.[4] Others, however, especially on the continent of Europe, treat it, more accurately, as a period of Transition.[5] Even without noticing the results of the recent Symposium on the “Crisis Years”, Murray concedes that “if it were ever possible to excavate the Lefkandi settlement in its entirety, the Dark Age would no longer be quite so dark” (14). He, however, still seems to lean towards the archaeologists of the past, who “tended to concentrate on change rather than continuity,” but at the same time concedes that “the contribution of archaeology in the study of early Greek history is enormously greater than for most periods of history,” and that “the light thrown on the Dark Age in the last generation is an outstanding example of what can be achieved” (33-34). The fact is that the more this very archaeology brings to light, the more the evidence for continuity accrues, with the result that the term ‘Dark Age’ becomes increasingly obsolete. And yet, for Murray, it is crucial to his hypothesis.

The lines of investigation into the main subject of the book (to explain the origins [and then the growth] of the polis) are predetermined—by establishing a specific vision in advance. What we are really looking at are above all

… the origins and development of Greek political institutions, the continuing process of change and reform towards a form of political rationality which seems unique in world history.


a society with little or no previous history emerged from the Dark Age, and was able to create a community based on justice and reason…in this sense the polis is a conceptual entity, a specific type of political and social organisation (63).

On the premise that virtually everything began anew, ex nihilo as it were, it is necessary to maintain that “discontinuity with the past was virtually complete,” and “its darkness is the darkness of a primitive society” (8).

Likewise, in contrast to the Mycenaean world and that of the so-called ‘Dark Age,’

the Greek world from the eighth century onwards is a fully historical world, in which the evidence of archaeology can be combined with the expression of the thoughts and feelings of contemporary individuals, to produce a comparatively detailed account, not only of what men did, but of why they did it, and of the pressures and limitations of their actions.

The reason for this difference is the advent of literacy: rather than contrast prehistory with history, we should perhaps talk of the difference between our knowledge of literate and non-literate societies (7)

This is, however, misleading, as the subsequent narrative demonstrates. Since we do not possess any other contemporary works, by which to judge ‘Homeric’ epic (whenever it was composed), it is impossible to determine to what degree it does in fact reflect “the thoughts and feelings of contemporary individuals”. Murray does not establish any definitive criteria for concluding that ‘Homer’ reflects contemporary society on many crucial points. With Archilochus, we do get the “expression of the thoughts and feelings” of the contemporary individual, but most of these “contemporary individuals” are from the seventh and sixth centuries.

Murray also attempts to advance his thesis by contrasting the single wanax (king) in the Mycenaean period with the numerous basilées (heads of noble families) at the end of the ‘Dark Age’:

… an assembly of all adult male members of the community (the agora or gathering) was subordinate to the boulé (council) of elders, which seems to consist of the heads of the noble families, the é (56).

Whether the Boulé existed already in Homer’s day, as is here maintained, is open to debate. Otherwise, we are told that basileus was clearly a later Greek term, although in the Bronze Age it applied to “a group of people somewhere much lower in the hierarchy,” and was subsequently used to designate “the heads of the noble families”; initially, however, in the Linear B tablets the word for king is wanax (38). This interpretation is appealing only until one realises that on the basis of the Linear B tablets there could have been almost as many wanaktes in Mycenaean times as there were basilées in later periods.

Where Murray most conspicuously gives away his presuppositional bias is in his discussion of religion—namely, on the view that it too really began only in “the later Dark Age,” authority for which he finds still in Herodotus’ famous statement that Homer and Hesiod “created the theogony of the Greeks and gave the gods their names” (66, cf. 65). Missing here is any acknowledgement of the fact, of which Herodotus himself was ignorant, that probably no fewer than eleven of the Olympian deities[6] appear already in the Linear B tablets.[7] Moreover, the chthonic side of Greek religion (Murray’s “fertility cults, orgiastic rites, propitiation of the dead and hero cult” [66]) also seems to be well represented in Minoan and Mycenaean cultic practice.

Given Murray’s omission of this prehistoric factor, it is appropriate to draw attention to several details here. As Chadwick pertinently noted, Dionysus had always been regarded as “a very late introduction” into the Olympian pantheon, “until the revelation of his name on two Pylos tablets upset this comfortable belief”.[8] Not only is Dionysus himself now attested for the Mycenaean period, but “Dionysos is likely to contain the name of his father, Zeus (genitive Dios), since Mycenaean now confirms the expected w, Diwo…”.[9] Furthermore, a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja is arresting, for “no Greek scholar could read [this] word without dividing it Athena Potnia ‘Mistress Athena,’ almost echoing the Homeric: potni(a) Athénaié“.[10] And Demeter, “probably also a latecomer” to the Olympians, can doubtless be recognised under the name Potnia in the person of the ‘Earth Mother,’ “being in origin a realization of the Earth-goddess”.[11]

All of this represents vital continuity between the Mycenaean Bronze Age and subsequent eras. This sometimes emerges in surprising secondary contexts. Thus the cult of Artemis at Amarynthus in Euboea/ Boeotia forms “an interesting link with later religion,” for “classical Amarynthus had a famous temple of Artemis, and the site was certainly occupied in Mycenaean times”.[12] Chadwick is also justified in suggesting that in the Mycenaean period cult statues were “most commonly made of wood,” and in noting that there are many references to “wooden statues of very great antiquity known as xoana”. He aptly asks: “is it impossible that some of these were not, as has usually been assumed, of the archaic period, but actually Mycenaean?”[13]

In light of this incontrovertible continuity in the religious sphere, it is no less possible that there was similar continuity in the social and political realm. As for the latter, if one can go so far as to maintain that “Homer and Hesiod show that the polis already existed in all its essential aspects by the end of the Dark Age” (62), is there really any reason not to conclude that the polis existed already in Mycenaean times? Certainly Murray does not demonstrate that it was formed in the so-called ‘Dark Age’. One has therefore to be very cautious about painting a picture in which just about everything begins all over again in the ‘Dark Age,’ and that from virtually ex nihilo we have a process of incremental progress. We simply do not possess the sources to trace or demonstrate such a hypothesis.

The picture of Mycenaean culture is one of great sophistication.[14] In connection with its end, one should perhaps talk more in terms of disruption than of destruction.

Murray maintains that one of the means of illuminating the vision is by tracing the phenomenon of urbanisation:

… the development of the polis is also a process of urbanisation, which can be traced in the physical remains,

and to this end cites the case of Nausicaa:

Around our city is a high fortified wall; there is a fair harbour on either side of the city, and the entrance is narrow. Curved ships are drawn up on either side of the road, for every man has a slipway to himself, and there is an assembly place by the fine temple of Poseidon, laid with heavy paving sunk in the earth (Od. 6. 262 ff.).

Murray can apparently cite only one concrete example—Smyrna, ca. 800-700 BC. The picture painted by Nausicaa certainly does not appear to apply to such places as Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Miletus, Thebes, Halicarnassus or Samos at a similar date—at least not on the basis of the archaeological record, to which Murray appeals. Which of these places, e.g., had walls at this time? It is easy enough to take cover in the argument that “the Gathering Place (agora), being empty, is hard to find without total excavation, and virtually impossible to date” (64). This argument, however, quickly evaporates, since in the next breath Murray refers to “the earliest temples,” but has just cited Nausicaa, who talks about “their assembly place by the fine temple of Poseidon”. It does not require total excavation to explore the area adjacent to a temple. And as for agoras being “virtually impossible to date,” the Athenian Agora is the very centre-piece of the chronology of early Attic culture and much else far beyond Attica.

Otherwise, Murray sees the polis as equivalent to the city-state, or the typical (and unique) Greek state. In the course of his narrative, however, he frequently refers to the “cities,” when he really means the various states. This is confusing in light of the emphasis on urbanisation.

In his chapter on “Tyranny” (137-158), Murray devotes considerable space to an attempt to find “general explanations” behind the phenomenon of tyrannis. After observing different features in various poleis he suggests that

it is more plausible to relate the phenomenon of tyranny generally to the emergence of greater freedom of thought and more flexible social relations consequent on economic change, than to see the tyrants specifically as the leaders of the wealthy against the aristocracy,

but then immediately adds:

More probable is the theory that connects this style of popular dictatorship with the emergence into politics of the hoplite class (141).

Both these are intriguing ideas. For the former, however, no detailed argument is offered. In support of the latter, Aristotle (Politics) is cited. But the hypothesis rests on admittedly weak support—that the evidence is “circumstantial rather than direct,” and on the even weaker support of the ‘evidence’ associated with the highly elusive Pheidon of Argos, not to mention the still weaker notion that the demos is synonymous with “the hoplite class”; it is therefore far too optimistic to claim that “in acting for themselves, the hoplites acted for the demos as a whole” (144). Furthermore, there must have been significant differences from one polis to another. This is, presumably, the point of the long discussion then devoted to Corinth, with much space given to Cypselus, including the unnecessary digression into the save-the-baby motif (even its alleged origin in Mesopotamia [Sumer]) (145-53). This section reads more like a general history of Corinth than it does as a specific illustration of a “general explanation” of tyrannis—and not least in light of the claim that the tyrannoi at Corinth merely continued where others had already led:

the commercial and artistic dominance of Corinth which had begun under the Bacchiads continued under the tyrants (150).

Equally elusive as “general explanations” are such “less rational factors” as “fashion” and “a form of mutual self-help between tyrants” (144-45). The latter should in any case be seen, not as a cause of tyrannis, but as a device to retain power once it had been seized.

The chapter on “Athens and Social Justice” (181-200) gives a rather idealised picture, with the (repeated) reference to Solon as “the founder of democracy/ Athenian democracy,” and that democracy is essentially synonymous with social justice. Although there is a long tradition in English-speaking scholarship that Solon is the founder of Athenian democracy, there are others who do not share this view.[15] It also seems questionable to suggest that “much of Solon’s political work failed,” whereas “in other respects,” above all in the field of social justice, he “had succeeded” (199). The various aspects of his reforms were inextricably linked. For instance, his political reform was designed to give teeth to his social measures.

There is much more that could be mentioned. Let me end with drawing attention to several lesser points. In view of the fact that one has throughout one’s career attempted to impress upon students the correct spelling of Mycenaean, it is somewhat disconcerting to find the use, consistently, of “Mycenean,” indeed with such persistence that there appears to be even an attempt to ‘correct’ others.[16] By contrast, one finds “Achaean,” consistently. But if “Mycenean,” why not then “Achean”? I found few typographical errors, but did note “peole” for “people” (139). It is also a trifle surprising to find a classicist using the phrase, “attesting to” (174). More serious, and intriguing, is how Peter Kuniholm has become transformed into Peter “Kulihan” (321). And as for there being a “complete series” of dendrochronological evidence for the period from 2200 to 530 BC, this seems to be somewhat optimistic.

While there is unquestionably much in this book that is valuable, on the whole it tends to give a somewhat oversimplified picture. After all, it deals with one of the periods that is most difficult to reconstruct.

[1] An added feature of the new addition.

[2] Troy VI is once more receiving increasing attention.

[3] See, e.g., W.A. Ward and Martha S. Joukowsky (edd.). The Crisis Years: The 12th Century B.C. from Beyond the Danube to the Tigris (Dubuque, Iowa, 1992).

[4] Given that the ‘Dark Age’ is one of the pillars of this study, it is a little surprising to discover that considerable chronological latitude is used in connection with it. Its beginning is placed, rather loosely, in 1250-1150 (309), and it is said to have lasted for “some three hundred years” (8). It should, accordingly, have ended ca. 950-850. But we are soon told that “the Greek world of the eighth century onwards” was an outgrowth of the ‘Dark Age’. Since the sources used for the “eighth century” are Homer and Hesiod, the “eighth century” must mean, in fact, ca. 750-700 (the invention of the Greek alphabet, only after which ‘Homer’ is possible, is dated to “750-700” [310]; and Hesiod “composed around 700” [18]). This would leave a gap of at least 100 years between the end of the ‘Dark Age’ and the beginning of the Archaic period.

[5] Cf., in Germany, H. Bengtson, Griechische Geschichte (Munich 1977), 56-66. cf. idem. History of Greece (Ottawa 1988), 21-31. See also now W.A. Ward and Murray S. Jukowsky (supra n. 3), especially the contribution by J.D. Muhly, “The Crisis Years in the Mediterranean; Transition or cultural Disintegration?” (10-26).

[6] The only one who seems to be missing is Aphrodite.

[7] Cf. J. Chadwick, The Mycenaean World (Cambridge 1976), 84-101.

[8] Ibid, 85.

[9] Ibid, 87.

[10] Ibid., 88.

[11] Ibid, 95.

[12] Ibid, 99.

[13] Ibid., 101. He notes that if wood is carefully looked after, it can last for a thousand years.

[14] Whether Linear B was inherently incapable of being used for anything other than business concepts (6), is open to discussion.

[15] Cf. Bengtson (supra n. 5), 126 and 73, respectively.

[16] John Chadwick did not publish his book as The Mycenean World, nor did Martin Nilsson publish his as The Mycenean Origin of Greek Mythology (320), but both as Mycenaean. Is this perhaps to be attributed to the editors?