BMCR 1994.05.03

1994.05.03, Cartledge, the Greeks

, The Greeks : a portrait of self and others. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. xii, 232 pages : maps ; 19 cm. ISBN 9780192192660. L30.00 (hb).

Caveat emptor. A paperback entitled The Greeks by a respected Cambridge scholar might lead the unwary to expect something similar to those works by Andrewes, Finley or Kitto 1 that have been the staple of introductory Ancient History and Classical Civilisation course for decades now. This, however, is not such a work, and certainly not for the uninitiated. This is not to say that it should not be recommended to students; it is clearly written for such an audience, and it comes as no surprise to discover (p. 4) that the text has its origins in an undergraduate lecture course. But it is a work best read by advanced undergraduates.

For this, as the subtitle (perhaps unfortunately kept off the front cover by OUP) and the publisher’s blurb make clear, is a treatment of the various ways in which the Greeks (or rather adult male free citizen Greeks) conceptualised themselves in opposition to other groups. The concept of altérité is one which has become progressively more important in studies of the Greek world in recent years—one thinks immediately of Edith Hall’s influential Inventing the Barbarian 2—and rightly so. Human beings have always wanted to see the world in simple black-and-white terms, to break the world down into “Them” and “Us”, even where such distinctions have no relation to reality. One thinks of the joke about a man asked if he is a Catholic or a Protestant, who replies that he is Jewish. “But,” says his interrogator, “are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?”

The above example does not appear in The Greeks, but it would fit well with the general tone, for this is what one might term a “user-friendly” book. Each chapter is prefaced by a quote (the sources of which run the gamut from Simonides to George Bush), and is broken down into short sub-chapters, each of which has a snappy punning sub-title. This is the sort of approach that will either be seen as a thoroughly modern approach to communication or an irredeemable trendiness, depending on whether one approves of this sort of approach or not. I suspect the intended student readership will appreciate it. For myself, while I fall largely into the former of the two camps identified, I could wish for a work broken up into somewhat less bite-sized chunks; at times the stop-start reading this promotes does not encourage one to persevere through the work and gives it an impression of superficiality it does not merit. Nonetheless, the text is more readable than the rather indigestible prose that mars C.’s otherwise impressive Agesilaos. 3

C.’s chapters cover nearly all the (often overlapping) groups of “Others” against whom the Greeks conceptualized themselves—barbarians, women, foreigners, slaves and gods—together with chapter on the opposition between history and myth. The one topic that lacks a full discussion, though it is occasionally touched upon, is the opposition between the cultural constructs “Athens” and “Sparta”. No doubt C. has avoided this deliberately (“Athens was not of course Greece… I have tried to resist ‘Athenocentricity'”, p. 176), but in justifiably avoiding promoting the popular misconception of “Athens = Greece” I suspect he has missed an opportunity to make some very interesting observations about how the Athenians promoted their version of “Greekness” at the expense of other versions such as those one might find in Sparta or Thebes. After all, much though we might regret it, the most important of our sources for ancient Greece (including all four of the authors whom C. considers important enough to name in sub-headings) either were Athenian or lived and worked in the city (no matter how much Herodotos—as C. often tells us—subverted traditional ideas of “Greekness”), so it might well help the reader to have some idea of how far their idea of what it was to be Greek was really a concept of what it was to be Athenian.

At times C. is largely bringing together strands worked on by others, rather than making any significant new contribution of his own; this is particularly apparent in the chapter on Greeks vs. barbarians, a subject which has been well worked over by Hall, Hartog, etc., 4 leaving little scope for fresh observations. In contrast to this is the impressive chapter on the ideology of slavery, where C. relies less on others’ work and more on his own thoughts. But even where C. is drawing on work done elsewhere (sometimes, it must in all fairness be admitted, by C. himself), it is an extremely valuable exercise to bring all these threads together into one volume which may act as a starting point for the reader new to these approaches.

One could undoubtedly quibble with various individual points. One wonders how “Greek” the Carian queen Artemisia ought to be considered (pp. 82-83). A discussion of “Chattel slaves in battle” (pp. 132-34) by definition excludes Sparta’s neodamodeis (freed helots), but a passing reference would be useful (from C. one would not know they existed at all). There has been a considerable amount written on Herodotos’ story of Lycian matrilineality since 1965, the date of the most recent reference C. gives (p. 191), 5 but then even a University Lecturer at Cambridge can’t be expected to have kept right up to date with every topic (and if the truth be told, what has been written has not advanced the subject very far, though C.’s assertion that Herodotos’ story is “demonstrably false” must be open to question). I also would question whether the prime impulse behind Aristophanes’ writing the Lysistrata was “the need to write … about the identities of and relations between men and women” (p. 74) rather than a desire to comment how fantastic a prospect an end to war seemed in 411, though of course at one level the play certainly is about sexual politics. And there are two typographical comments on the “Further Reading”: on p. 187 the last three sentences of that given for “Myth Versus History” belong with the next section, “An Archaeological Myth”, and on p. 191 the further reading for “A Perfect Wife” has been entirely subsumed into that for the preceding section, “A Modest Proposal”, of which it forms the last three sentences. There are further points where one might argue with C., but they do not detract from the overall work.

The final verdict: this is not a book, that can, in all fairness, be used as a students’ first introduction to the world of the Classical Greeks; but to the advanced student with a good grounding in the subject, it can be warmly recommended as a source of new insights and new approaches, and it can also be recommended to the student of other manifestations of altérité in search of Classical material for comparisons. And as far as the student of the Classics is concerned, perhaps ironically for a book one of whose professed objectives is to demonstrate that, pace Shelly, 6 we are not “all Greeks”, The Greeks will, by its intelligent use of theory and comparanda, cause the reader to think about the Classical world in a much wider context than he might otherwise be exposed to.

And this in a way brings me back to my starting point. In the short term, this will probably be seen as a minor work in C.’s oeuvre compared with Sparta and Lakonia 7 and Agesilaos; except in a few cases scholarly literature will continue to cite the works C. cites rather than C. (though C. will often have served as a guide to point the way). In ten or twenty years’ time the view perhaps will be different; it may well be that to generations of students in the future “Cartledge” will be as central a textbook as “Andrewes”, “Finley” or “Kitto”.

  • [1] A. Andrewes, Greek Society (London, 1967); M.I. Finley, The Ancient Greeks (rev. ed., London, 1971); H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks (rev. ed., Harmondsworth, 1957). [2] E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford, 1989). [3] P.A. Cartledge, Agesilaos and the Crisis of Sparta (London, 1987). [4] Hall, op. cit.; F. Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: the Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (Berkeley, 1988) (an English translation of Le miroir d’Herodote: Essai sur la représentation de l’autre [Paris, 1980]; a revised French edition appeared in 1992). [5] C.’s reference is to S. Pembroke, “Last of the Matriarchs: a Study in the Inscriptions of Lycia”, JESHO 8 (1965), pp. 217-47. A more recent treatment is to be found in T.R. Bryce, The Lycians 1 (Copenhagen, 1986), at pp. 143-150. [6] P.B. Shelly, Preface to Hellas (1822), quoted by C. at p. 174. [7] P.A. Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: a Regional History 1300-362 BC (London, 1979).