BMCR 1997.03.18

1997.3.18, Martin, Ancient Greece

, Ancient Greece : from prehistoric to Hellenistic times. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. xiii, 252 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780300067675.

Perhaps the most striking passage in this book comes in the introduction where Thomas R. Martin (hereafter M.) defends the relevance of books on the grounds that “the convenience and portability that books allow make them indispensable tools for learning and thinking.” M. goes on to note that he “see[s] an ongoing need for both books and software in the study of ancient Greece” (p. ix). These statements presumably stand as retort to those who would argue that software has already or will soon supplant books as “tools for learning and thinking.” M. is led to address this question because the text of his book is actually an expansion of a text available electronically—his own “Historical Overview” which comprises one of the electronic databases published in Perseus: Interactive Sources and Studies on Ancient Greece, Gregory Crane, editor in chief, versions 1.0 and 2.0 (Yale University Press, 1992 and 1996 respectively) and now accessible to all on-line at M. expects his hard-copy text to be able to stand alone, but also sees it as a “complement” to the computerized materials and hopes that it will contribute to the “synergy that [books and software] can create when used together” (p. ix). This review must, then, address two questions: first, how well does the book stand alone, and second, how much does it complement the on-line version? Ultimately, it succeeds fully at neither of these aims.

The book includes a short introduction and ten chapters: Backgrounds of Ancient Greek History; From Indo-Europeans to Mycenaeans; The Dark Age; The Archaic Age; Oligarchy, Tyranny, and Democracy; From Persian Wars to Athenian Empire; Culture and Society in Classical Athens; The Peloponnesian War and Its Aftermath at Athens; From the Peloponnesian War to Alexander the Great; The Hellenistic Age. Each of the chapters begins with a very brief summary of its content, and each is divided into short (sometimes no more than a page or two) sections marked out by useful sub-headings. The book is designed as a brief overview for the general reader with probably no prior knowledge of Greek or other ancient history.

The background of Ancient Greek History M. discusses in any detail begins with habitation in the Francthi cave, so the book covers some 20,000 years in its modest 252 pages. Despite this daunting chronological breadth, M. does an admirable job of covering a range of topics as well. As he notes in the introduction, he concentrates “on the full development of the Greek city-state as a religious, social, political, and economic entity” (p. ix). Thus there is an entire chapter devoted to Culture and Society in Classical Athens, and art, religion, literature, economics, philosophy, and social and cultural history appear as frequent topics in sections of chapters throughout the work, such as “The Social Values of the Greek Elite” and “Religion and Myth” in the chapter on the Dark Age. The book is decidedly not simply a narrative of battles and political events. Nowhere is this more evident than in the last chapter on the Hellenistic age. Here the entire course of political and military history from Alexander’s death to Cleopatra’s is covered in one section of three and a half pages, while “Defending and Administering Hellenistic Kingdoms,” “Economy and Society in the Hellenistic Kingdoms,” “The Greek Literature and Art of a New Age,” “New Ideas in Philosophy and Science,” and “Hellenistic Religions,” take up the remaining eighteen pages of the chapter. Although one might argue that the political history of the Hellenistic period deserved more space, M.’s description of the social and intellectual innovations of the Hellenistic world is perhaps the most polished and gripping in the work. Indeed, M. shows an admirable facility for conveying complex concepts and major themes clearly and briefly.

Overall the text of the book serves as a good brief overview of Greek history that is impressive in scope, topic, and clarity. It is well-organized, well-written, and generally easy to read. The interspersed sections on society, art, and religion break up the narrative of political history in a way I expect will be welcome to the general reader, but when M. resumes his narrative he is always careful to reorient his audience. The book will be useful as a text book for a semester-long course on the history of Greece from Mycenaean to Hellenistic times or as one of several textbooks for an even more general “Caves to Constantine” survey. It does have several serious drawbacks, however.

The first results from its brevity. M. is aware of the dangers of his brevity, which necessarily requires oversimplification of controversial points and omission of many issues, but notes in the introduction that he hopes that “readers of this book will be challenged to convert their dissatisfaction … into energy for researching questions they have been provoked to ask” (p. xi). To this end, he provides for each chapter a list of from 12 to 27 books in English or articles collected in books as suggestions for further readings. This will give the reader who desires more on a given topic immediate opportunities for further information.

M.’s brevity will certainly lead to some confusion for his reader, however. For example, in the chapter From Indo-Europeans to Mycenaeans M. describes the Minoan civilization as “characterized by large architectural complexes today usually labeled ‘palaces,'” and later calls these “sprawling, many-chambered buildings” the “so-called palaces” (p. 24). This must lead a general reader to understand that some scholars interpret these buildings as something other than palaces, but what that interpretation might be is left unexpressed. When M. goes on immediately to say that “the palaces housed the rulers and their servants and served as central storage facilities, while the general population clustered around the palaces,” the reader can only assume that he has misinterpreted M.’s earlier quotation marks, or that M. completely rejects the hinted-at alternate interpretation. Perhaps a general reader faced with this passage will be driven to further investigate the question in M.’s suggested readings, but it might have been best either to give a brief mention of the alternate interpretation or to leave the controversy out of the text altogether. This situation arises throughout the text. Controversies or debates are briefly alluded to but not discussed. Since M. gives no footnotes or references to the sources for these debates, and the books listed in the suggested readings for each chapter are not divided by topic, it will be hard for the general reader to know how to pursue these questions.

M.’s quest for brevity, mentioned three times in the three-page introduction, also presumably led to the omission of several other items that might have been helpful to the reader. First, there is no discussion of the evidence on which the work is based. Thus, when M. argues for the need to privilege the silence of the archaeological record in judging the historicity of the Dorian invasion (p. 38), the general reader, with perhaps no understanding of archaeological techniques or evidence, may not be able to follow the argument. So too, the general reader may be confused when M. discusses the Athenian tribute quota lists or other epigraphical evidence, since there is no general discussion given of this kind of material. Finally, M. rarely makes clear the primary sources for his narrative. His account of the Persian wars, for example, follows Herodotus, even accepting Herodotus’ penchant for personal and emotional causation (for example, he presents Darius’ invasion as the result of a vow to avenge the Greeks’ disloyalty [p. 100] and as “revenge” [p. 101] rather than as a calculated and reasoned policy of expansion) but never notes explicitly that this narrative is derived from Herodotus.

Another drawback is that M. never gives a description of the major questions he hopes to answer in the book, whether they be the rise of democracy, the development and change in the organization of the city-state, the reason for Greek divisiveness, etc. It is obvious, however, that a primary focus is the social status of women and the origins of patriarchy. (M. devotes much time to the supposed “egalitarianism” of early neolithic society [p. 7, 12, 19, 20], and seems to have accepted the “myth of matriarchy.”1) M.’s interest in the status of women is admirable and not out of place in a work that covers social and cultural history, but it does lead at times to curious overemphasis on the point. Indeed, in the book’s index the category “women” extends to thirty-one lines, matched only by the combined entries of the three categories “Athenian military,” “Athens,” and “Athens/Sparta relations.” At times M. raises the question where it does not seem entirely appropriate. In his discussion of the Spartan Pausanias, for example, M. writes: “The Greek forces under his command soon became enraged by his arrogant and violent behavior toward both his allies and local Greek citizens in Anatolia, especially women. This kind of outrageous conduct was to prove common in the future for Spartan men in positions of power when away from home” (p. 105). M. is presumably referring to the story of Pausanias’ treatment of Cleonice of Byzantium mentioned by Plutarch ( Cim. 6), but it is hard to see how one anecdote means Pausanias’ violent conduct was directly primarily against women. M.’s presentation makes the Spartans seem a nation of Bob Packwoods, unable, when in positions of power, to control themselves around women.

When M. comes to discuss Socrates, we learn that “we cannot say with certainty what Athenian women thought of Socrates or he of them” (p. 171). Only an author convinced that the role of women in Greek society is the one burning question on the minds of his readers would think, in a work of this length, to take the space to note that we don’t know anything about Socrates and women. Although I expect the status of women will be of interest to many of M.’s readers, it does not, perhaps, deserve this level of investigation.

Strangely, M. sometimes presents the situation as better than it actually was. For example, he notes that tragedies “frequently portray women as central, active figures,” and remarks that both Sophocles and Aeschylus “show a woman who can speak like an Athenian man,” (p. 133) citing Antigone and Clytemnestra, but he nowhere notes that for Clytemnestra, at the very least, her “man-counseling heart” is not meant to be a compliment. When M. comes to discuss Aristophanic comedy, he describes the female heroines generally as characters who use their “wits and their solidarity with one another” and states that the Lysistrata“presents women acting bravely and aggressively” (p. 165). M. remarks that an Athenian audience would have found the revolutionary reactionary Lysistrata “ludicrous” (p. 166) but nowhere notes that if Aristophanes presents women using their wits and solidarity with one another, he most certainly also presents them, as do many of his male contemporaries, as irrational slaves to food, wine, and sex who can barely organize themselves to do anything.

When M. discusses the actual position of Athenian women, and not just their representation in literature, the result is the same. For example, M. claims that “under Athenian democracy, women could control property, even land—the most valued possession in their society—through inheritance and dowry, although they faced more legal restrictions than men did when they wanted to sell their property or give it away as gifts” (p. 135). Given the fact that a woman was from birth to death under the legal guardianship of her kyrios (whether husband, father, or other male relative), and, according to Isaeus, was, like a child, prohibited “from being able to make a contract [about anything worth] more than a bushel of barley,”2 this seems a misstatement. Given M.’s obvious emphasis on the status of women in the Greek world, I find the omission of several works from his suggested readings curious. Indeed, M. lists only 5 books specifically devoted to the topic (2 devoted to prehistory) and omits Jack Winkler’s Constraints of Desire (New York 1990), A. Cameron and A. Kuhrt, edd., Images of Women in Antiquity (Detroit 1983), S. Pomeroy, ed., Women’s History and Ancient History (Chapel Hill 1991), R. Just’s Women in Athenian Law and Life (New York 1989), and P. Schmitt Pantel, ed., A History of Women (Cambridge, MA 1992) to name only those that leap immediately to mind.

These are relatively minor criticisms of emphasis, however. The one major flaw that ultimately harms the book’s usefulness and, in my eyes, makes it fail fully to stand on its own is the poor quality of its maps and illustrations.

The nine maps (one listed as plan 1) are, quite simply, too small for their purpose because most include almost the entire Mediterranean. This presumably stems from M.’s desire to understand Greek history “in the broader context of Europe and the Mediterranean region” (p. x), which is, again, an admirable goal, but leads to maps that are very hard to read. Map 1, for example, which is to serve for the Neolithic, Minoan, and Mycenaean Periods, covers in seven by four and a half inches the Mediterranean region East-West from northern Italy and the area of present-day Tunis to an inch inland from Byblos. The only cities actually plotted on the map outside of mainland Greece, however, are Troy, Hattusas, Çatal Hüyük, Ugarit and Byblos, all of which find only brief mention in the text. Thus the locations of most interest—Macedonia, Thessaly, Boeotia, Elis, Sesklo, Dimini, Lefkandi, Gla, Athens, Mycenae, Lerna, Pylos, Tiryns, Athens and the Francthi cave—are all crammed into an area approximately an inch and a half square. The attendant jumble must be very confusing for a reader not already familiar with these sites and aware of their relation to each other. A full page map devoted to mainland Greece was in order. Most of the other maps suffer from the same flaw.

Even more disappointing than the maps, however, despite the book jacket’s claim that the text is “generously illustrated,” are the black and white photographs. First, the quality of many of them is extremely poor. Some are overexposed (i.e. #1, 25, 36), while many are too dark (i.e. #17, 34, 35, 37, 40) and others will be unintelligible to the general reader. The picture of the scrappy wall socles of houses at Dimini (#1) or the remains of buildings at Gournia (#4) will look like so many rocks to a student unfamiliar with prehistoric architecture. So the view of the Pnyx (#17) (which is to my mind unimpressive even in autopsy, though very compelling in models) will be unintelligible without a plan or detailed description. The same holds true of the view of the Telesterion at Eleusis (#31). The caption speaks of an “initiation hall” but the reader, seeing a rock-cut scarp and a long row of steps in the picture, will, without a plan, be hard pressed to identify the hall. I could give other examples.

The choice of images is also puzzling. Figure 2, for example, shows a fragmentary female statue from Malta which the caption says “shows the prominent endomorphy also characteristic of so-called Venus figurines from the Stone Age.” M. mentions such statues with their “extra-large breasts, abdomens, buttocks, and thighs” (p. 8) and one must wonder why he does not illustrate something like the Venus of Willendorf rather than this statue from Malta which has legs but, because of its fragmentary state, no obvious head, breasts or abdomen. Other choices are equally strange. For the one image of a vessel from the Geometric period, for example, M. presents a small vase from the Yale University Art Gallery (#7). It is not unattractive, but I would suggest that the Dipylon amphora might have been a more suitable choice. For the Mycenaean world, M. chooses to show the bathtub from Pylos (#6) rather than the Lion Gate and walls of Mycenae, the galleries of Tiryns, the Treasury of Atreus, etc. etc. The absences, however, are most puzzling. We have no images of the “mask of Agamemnon,” no inlaid daggers, no gold vessels from the Mycenaean world, no images of the sculpture from the Parthenon, indeed very little sculpture at all. Despite discussions in the text of the changes in sculptural style from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period, the only sculptures M. chooses to show are a Nike akroterion from the Stoa of Zeus (#42) and Dexileos’ relief from the Agora (#43). This is in spite of the fact that M. found it necessary to include a (dark) image of a church in Northwestern Greece overlying a nekromanteion (#34) and a (dark) image of someone standing in the nekromanteion’s pit, along with other less than obviously necessary illustrations.

Some of these choices are explained, I think, by the origin of the illustrations. All views of sites, buildings, and statues come from the author himself or the Perseus project and all but two views of vases come from the Yale University Art Gallery (the other two come from the Worcester Art Museum). I can only assume that it was cheaper to use the author’s photos than to arrange permissions for more conventional professionally-shot views, and that an arrangement was worked out between Yale University Press and the Yale University Art Gallery that made using images of its pots cheaper than more usual choices. The reader, however, has not been well-served, and most of M.’s discussion of art and architecture is rendered much less useful by his failure t illustrate it adequately.

Finally, the order of the images is not clear. The first set seems to follow the organization of the narrative relatively well, but by the second and third sets, the relation of text to pictures is far less obvious, and some images seem not to have even oblique reference in the text. M.’s failure to direct his reader to the figures at appropriate moments in his text further diminishes their usefulness in illustrating the narrative.

The poor quality of the illustrations and maps weakens the text’s ability to stand on its own. To fully understand the Greek history that M. presents, to follow his discussion of trends in art and architecture even minimally, to comprehend his discussion of the lay-out of city-states, the reader would have to supplement this volume with other sources. Many (but not all) of the images demanded by the text are available on Perseus 2.0, but that means that this volume is, in this sense at least, not a complement to the computerized materials (as M. hopes it will be in his introduction [p. ix]); rather the Perseus is a necessary complement to the book.

This leads, then, to our second question: how well does this book complement the historical overview of Perseus 2.0? First and foremost, the book misrepresents itself slightly. Both the book jacket and the introduction claim that the volume adds sections on “the prehistory of Greece, the Bronze Age, the Dark Age, and the Hellenistic Age” to the electronic version (p. ix), but the on-line historical overview contains material on the Dark age in sections 3.0-4.16. The text’s chapter on the Dark Age represents a revision and expansion of this, but no more so, as far as I could tell, than its revision and expansion of other chapters on topics also covered in the electronic version. Thus the text adds to the on-line version only chapters 1 and 2 on the prehistoric period and Bronze age, and chapter 10 on the Hellenistic age. This represents 59 pages out of a total of 252.

Furthermore, the expansion and revision over the electronic version of the historical overview seems in many cases to be relatively minor. Take the section on early colonization from the chapter on the Archaic Age (pp. 55-60). The entire first paragraph appears almost word for word as section 5.5 in Perseus 2.0. Minor changes include Perseus’ “Greek colonies were established” vs. the printed text’s “Greeks had established colonies,” Perseus’ “eventually the Greek world had perhaps as many as 1,500 different city-states” vs. the revised “eventually the Greek world included hundreds of city-states,” Perseus’ “revival of international trade in the Mediterranean in this era” vs. “revival of international trade in the Mediterranean in the Archaic era.” Perseus’ Archaic economy is described as “struggling” while the printed text’s economy is “struggling overall.” The printed text adds to Perseus’ description of Phoenician settlements that they were founded “usually at spots where they could most easily trade for metals.” Only the last line, “The natural resources of Spain included rich veins of metals,” is a complete addition.

The next paragraph appears as section 5.6 in the electronic version, again with only small changes made in the printed text. The introductory sentence in Perseus, “Like other peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, Greeks also established their own trading posts abroad,” has become: “Although it was very common for emigrant Greeks to take up residence in overseas Phoenician communities, they also established trading posts abroad on their own.” “Traders from Euboea” has been revised to read “Traders from the island of Euboea.” “The Etruscans, who lived in central Italy” has become “The Etruscans, a thriving population inhabiting central Italy.” The greatest change in the two texts comes in the description of the limited evidence for Greek trade abroad in the tenth century. Here it is the Perseus text that is the more detailed. Perseus notes that “for the tenth century, by contrast, only two pots have been found that were carried abroad,” while the printed version is content to note that “by contrast, almost no pots have been found that were carried abroad in the tenth century.”

The next two paragraphs of the printed text make similar minor changes to the text which appears in Perseus as section 5.7 and 5.8, although one sentence about the exclusively male nature of colonizing ventures is imported from section 5.8 into the text that comes from section 5.7. The next paragraph on the foundation of Cyrene appears in Perseus as section 5.9. This shows the largest revision yet. A much longer section of the text of the inscription referring to the Theran colonization of Cyrene is provided in the print version than in the on-line version. The next six paragraphs, however, show only minor expansion or revision from their on-line version.

It was impossible to make such a detailed comparison between printed and on-line text for the whole book, but I found the situation to be the same where I checked carefully in the section on Athenian tragedy, and my impression is that the level of expansion and revision of on-line text to printed version is substantially the same for the whole book. I am not convinced that these expansions are a necessary complement to the information available on-line; nor do I think that the user of Perseus will feel it necessary to have the printed text at hand so that he can check for any additional information. The additional chapters on prehistory, the Bronze age and the Hellenistic world are a very useful addition to the on-line text, and so complement it, but if the Perseus Project were simply to add these to Perseus’ historical overview, the usefulness of the book to an audience comfortable with on-line texts would virtually disappear. Thus the book can not fairly be called a complement to the on-line historical overview, except for the 59 new pages on prehistory, the Bronze age, and the Hellenistic age.

Those who want the portability of a printed text, or who prefer to read large swathes of text on the page rather than on the screen would prefer M.’s printed text to the on-line version even if the on-line version included the three chapters now available only in this book. Because of the limitations in the text’s maps and illustrations, however, the book should be used only with Perseus as a complement for Perseus provides easy links to relevant maps, images, and encyclopedia entries. In many cases, therefore, Perseus gives more information than M.’s new text. In the discussion of Pausanias’ arrogance with women referred to above, for example, M.’s text gives no reference to the sources about Pausanias (p. 105). One must go to Perseus section 9.1.1 to find references and even links to the sources: Hdt. 5.32 [Text]; Thuc. 1.94-95 [Text]; Thuc. 1.130 [Text]; Plut. Cim. 6 [Text]. The “synergy” that M. hopes for between his printed and on-line texts is made more difficult, however, by the failure of the printed text to make any reference to the various links available on Perseus. The reader of the printed text must on his own find the relevant section of the on-line overview to access the various links available. Often the relevant section is obvious, but in some cases this will not be the case, and the reader of the printed text may search for some time before finding the appropriate section. For the reader determined to use the additional information available on the Perseus I think that the result will be that the printed text is soon abandoned.

This book, then, does not fully stand on its own because of its poor maps and illustrations and its lack of references. Furthermore, its generally minor revision and expansion (apart from the three new chapters on prehistory, the Bronze age, and the Hellenistic age) does not really complement Perseus, which in many cases provides more information than the print version. Nevertheless, those desirous of a well-written, readable, clear and comprehensive overview of Greek history in specifically printed form will find M.’s book a useful addition to present printed surveys.

1. On this concept see S. Georgoudi, “Creating a myth of Matriarchy,” in A History of Women, P. Schmitt Pantel, ed. (Cambridge 1992).

2. Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, edd., Women’s Life in Greece and Rome (Baltimore 1992), #83.