BMCR 1997.11.01

1997.11.01, Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World.

, , Inventing Ancient Culture: Historicism, Periodization, and the Ancient World.. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. Pp. 238. $65 (Hb), $18.95 (Pb).

In the modern Western university, Classical Studies is unique as a discipline in that its parameters are set more in terms of periodization than according to any other factors, political, religious, or even geographical. Yet, as so often, periodization, along with the subtle and not-so-subtle ways it shapes our viewpoints of the ancient world, seldom comes under scrutiny. Inventing Ancient Culture aims to remedy that lack, specifically in regard to “affective institutions” (p. 1), which I take to be emotions as they are constructed socially and culturally. The contributors to this volume range widely in their interests and approaches, but one theme runs through all the papers—that the “otherness” of the Greeks and Romans has been overdone lately. Clearly, this emphasis is itself a reaction against the tendency (still prevalent today among opinion-makers) to privilege Greece and Rome as the foundations of Modern European Civilization, with populations differing little except sartorially from Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Germans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The editors believe that the reaction has gone too far, for which Michel Foucault bears much of the responsibility (pp. 4-5 et passim). In stressing “otherness,” Mark Golden and Peter Toohey fear that moderns have created an ancient world “so completely different in its characteristics as to be near impenetrable” (p. 1). Inventing Ancient Culture sets out to swing the pendulum more to the center. Not surprisingly, the essays vary in quality. The best are those which stick to questions of method without being seduced by theory. A few are genuinely stimulating and should have some impact on how we view classical Greece and Rome.

The essays start with Amy Richlin’s “Towards a History of Body History” (pp 16-35), most of which is taken up by a personal survey of the development of the field since the early nineteen-seventies (pp. 16-29), characterized by an odd combination of combativeness and old-fashioned complacence about the unique perspective of Classics. In the last four-and-a-bit pages of text (pp. 29-34), she considers the question, “In what ways were ancient sexual systems different from modern?” (p. 29). Not very much in the essentials is her answer; like Dixon’s view of Roman attitudes to the family later in the book, R. sees little change in perspectives of sexuality over the ages. For R., this static state is not due to any lack of evidence, but simply because nothing has or is likely to change (p. 33). She does see a disparity in definitions of “homosexuality,” constructing a model that relies on the modern convention of seeing the ancient adult male as penetrator. [[1]] For all its length, there is not very much here, although it must be granted that R. compares it to an Oxo cube (p. 17), exhorting us to read more to get the full flavor. I finished with a sense of irony that an article so concerned with revealing the invisible and centering the marginalized should concentrate exclusively on a narrow range of the most traditionally canonical texts from the two most tradi tionally canonical periods of Greco-Roman antiquity. In her focus on such traditional topics, R. is certainly not alone in this collection, and readers expecting any questioning of the fundamental periodization of the ancient history of Greece and Rome will be disappointed.

Martin Kilmer is on familiar ground in “Paides and Pederasts: Ancient Art, Sexuality and Modern Social History” (pp. 36- 49), a short, snappy article that sets the evidence of Athenian vase painting against the constructs of modern social historians. Criticized very recently for not taking cultural theory into account in his book, Greek Erotica,[[2]] Kilmer here neatly shows that an elaborate and seductive theoretical edifice, namely the relative ages of Athenian erastai and eromenoi and all it entails, rests on shaky evidentiary support indeed. K. examines several late archaic Athenian vases to show that the traditional monolithic pattern for male homosexual relationships—older/aggressive/ erastes vs. younger/passive/ eromenos—cannot hold. He even draws attention to a black-figure Tyrrhenian amphora showing a younger man anally penetrating an older man (p. 44 pl. 7). K.’s conclusions have wide-reaching implications for historians’ use of evidence conditioned by date and genre, in this case early fourth-century Athenian philosophical texts, as representative of a whole society’s attitudes over an extended period of time. Unfortunately, for an article in which artifactual evidence is so important the photographs are of low quality. In fact, this piece’s muddy and poorly reproduced few photos and a single small plan in Sourvinou-Inwood’s contribution (on which more later) hardly justify the book jacket’s claim to be “beautifully illustrated,” an exaggeration that borders on false advertising.

In “Trimalchio’s Constipation: Periodizing Madness, Eros, and Time” (pp. 50-65), Peter Toohey attempts to show that the three concepts of the title, in their Foucaultian senses, were also known in the ancient world and thus not inventions of the Enlightenment, a period which has been, in T.’s words, “over-privileged” (p. 51). Trimalchio’s bowel movements (or lack thereof) are the common denominator: Petronius describes his constipation in terms associated with melancholia (p. 59), a form of madness akin to lovesickness (p. 62); all three phenomena were thought to manifest themselves in physical terms. T. weaves a rather tenuous web, providing little in the way of context for much of his discussion.

At times, he lapses into the error, condemned in this volume by Golden and Dixon, of not taking the type and quantity of the evidence he uses into consideration. For instance, he argues that a change in the conception of time took place between the Augustan and the later Julio-Claudian periods (p. 56): the old “traditional view of time” as circular, seen in Ovid’s Fasti, changed to a linear view by the time of Petronius (pp. 54-55). But the subject of the Fasti is the Roman festival calendar, i.e. “sacred time,” which is characteristically circular and ahistorical. Thus, the presentation of time in the Fasti is conditioned as much by its genre and subject as it is in the Satyricon. Moreover, Cicero describes life as a race course run only once in de senectute 33, surely a linear conception if there ever was one. There is, then, no reason to exclude the possibility, or indeed probability, that both ideas of time co-existed throughout antiquity.

In all, T. has some interesting but hardly earth-shaking things to say about the trio of affects in his title, but his concentration on a few purely literary texts hampers his ability to support his overarching statements on periodization.

“Philosophy, Friendship, and Cultural History” (pp. 66-78) is a generally successful attempt by David Konstan to bring some nuance to our understanding of friendship in antiquity. K. shows that the modern practice of taking Aristotle’s definition of philia in books 8 and 9 of the Nicomachean Ethics as valid for all of antiquity cannot stand. Instead, he proposes a periodized model of friendship: an early hierarchical relation ship, as seen in Homer’s portrayal of Achilles and Patroclus (pp. 72-73), becomes in Aristotle’s time a more-or-less equal relationship, fully in conformity with the “communitarian social order” of the polis (p. 75), finally reverting to inequality in the post-classical period (p. 77). Although some of this lesser points might be quibbled with, his aim to ground philosophical discourse more solidly in its contemporary world can only be commended by historians. K. himself claims, as a by-product of this research, that “philosophy itself may abandon some of its pretensions to timeless objectivity and accept its own subjection to history” (p. 78).

The point of Suzanne Dixon’s article “Continuity and Change in Roman Social History…” (pp. 79-90) is put succinctly on the first page: “I challenge the very quest for a historical narrative—that is, a story of change” (p. 79). A historical narrative is impossible for lack of evidence; as D. points out, what has often been taken as emblematic of a change or evolution in Roman ideas about women, the family, and children may actually represent adherence to, or divergence from, long-lasting conventions. There is not enough evidence to construct a picture of periodized change. Although much of the article restates the views of her earlier publications, D. ends with a recusatio of sorts (pp. 87-88) when she admits having attempted to link apparent shifts in sentiment to economic or political forces. Most historians will forgive her lapse. For me, however, D.’s most useful observation concerns the gap, or time lag, between social practice and legal codification in archaic Rome (p. 86), which dovetails nicely with Rosalind Thomas’ recent work on Greek customary law. [[3]]

In “Periodization and the Heroes: Inventing a Dark Age” (pp. 96-131), Ian Morris traces the history (and pre-history) of the modern idea of the Greek “Dark Age” following the end of the Mycenaean period. The story is a fascinating but ultimately rather depressing one of growing fragmentation within our disciplines. M. traces the study of the pre-archaic period from the situation in the mid-nineteenth century, when textual evidence in general and Homer in particular dominated the field, to the present conceptual and ideological chasm between archaeologists and philologists. M. tells the story dispassionately; the article is thought-provoking nonetheless, raising matters of concern for everyone in the field we call Classics. By showing how, for most of the last 150 years, theories and evidence that threatened to disrupt disciplinary structures set in place during the nineteenth century have been assimilated into those very structures to the detriment of our proper understanding of that evidence, M. does a service for all who study the ancient Mediterranean from a non-philological perspective, whether they use textual or physical evidence. For M., periodization is a necessary evil, a tool to be used carefully lest it turn any particular period into a fetish (p. 131). Since Classics, a field whose name is more than a little tinged with just that fault, does privilege certain historical periods and types of evidence on moral and aesthetic grounds, M.’s article can be read as an expression of concern from a scholar who, despite the split between archaeologists and “classicists” in the strictly philological sense, still evidently takes thought for the health of classical studies as a whole.

In “Reconstructing Change: Ideology and the Eleusinian Mysteries” (pp. 132-164) Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood sets herself a challenging task: “to pursue independently the different lines of investigation that pertain to different sets of evidence” (p. 132) concerning the early history of Eleusis and the Eleusinian mysteries. Although she purports to examine three sets of evidence (archeology, literary texts, and epigraphy), it is no surprise when they all converge to support her view that Eleusis was part of the Athenian state from the beginning of the polis. How much more interesting it would have been if they had not converged, and new ways of assessing the evidence had to be devised.

Despite S.-I.’s claims to “rigour” in order to avoid “fallacious assumptions and unconscious adjustments to make the different parts of the evidence fit” (p. 132), the article is rife with just these failings. Perhaps the most blatant occurs when S.-I. tries to support her contention that the main entrance route to the sanctuary in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. was from the north, at the end of the Sacred Way that led from Athens (pp. 133-135). As an “independent argument,” she states that the geometric temple of Demeter in the sanctuary and a contemporary apsidal temple found under the later temple of Artemis Propylaia in the forecourt to the east seem to have been roughly aligned along the same axis and were oriented towards the Sacred Way. In fact, so little remains of the apses of both buildings that it is quite impossible to determine anything of either’s orientation. (She hints at this in endnote 8.) Nothing daunted, S.-I. fills another page with arguments based on this assertion, even adducng a parallel for such alignment with the sanctuary of Athena Pronaia at Delphi.

In general, frustration is the sentiment most likely to be felt by readers who attempt to follow S.-I through the archaeological evidence by relying on the single, cramped and inadequate plan of the Telesterion area (p. 133) reproduced from George Mylonas’Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries. Only by resorting to the plates in Mylonas and Travlos’Bildlexikon could I even begin to grasp the point she was making and realize that I disagreed with it. [[4]]

In considering the textual and epigraphical evidence, S.-I’s rigor does not evidently extend to taking into account the disparate dates of the texts she uses to illuminate the sanctuary in the early archaic period (esp. pp. 140-144). Plutarch’s Moralia, Aristophanes’Clouds, and inscriptions ranging from the fifth century BC to the third century AD are pressed into service without regard for the possibility that the information they provide may be chronologically conditioned. The pitfalls of this approach are formidable. A case in point: S.-I. begins her investigation of the Eleusinian cult’s place in Athe nian state religion by reviewing “the most important nexus” of ritual movements between Eleusis and Athens, the sacred procession of the Greater Mysteries. Relying on secondary sources, she presents a canonical picture of the processions from Eleusis to Athens and later, on 19 Boedromion, from Athens to Eleusis, involving priests, officials, and Athenian ephebes (pp. 144-145). To S.-I., the participation of the ephebes is one of the indicators that the Mysteries were part of the Athenian polis religion and, by implication, in conformity at least with her view that Athens always controlled Eleusis.

Had she looked further, she would have seen that the participation of the ephebes in the procession rests on a single inscription, IG II/III (2) 1078, a decree dated to about AD 220. More worrying than the huge chronological gap is that the decree actually provides for the ephebes to begin to accompany the hiera all the way to Eleusis as they had done at some unspecified time in the past. Thus, the inscription tells us that before it was passed the ephebes had not in fact been taking part in the procession all the way to Eleusis. We should not take the references to ta archaia and ta patria nomima (lines 6, 10-11) at face value, as such “revivals” were commonplaces of the time and sometimes lacked foundation. [[5]] In consequence, to retroject the information from this third-century AD document to the classical period, let alone to the archaic, is methodologically unjustifiable. The participation of Athenian ephebes in the processions beginning under the Roman Empire tells us nothing about the antiquity of the connection between Eleusis and Athens.

This and other examples of lax method are cloaked in arcane, jargon-riddled prose that sometimes betrays a less-than-firm grasp of English idiom (things “entail” when they should “imply:” e.g. endnote 56) and which transforms even the simplest of concepts into edifices of complexity. Ironically, S.-I.’s proposed history of the Mysteries reduces the amount of change into a neat schema: eighth-century Athenian polis cult turns into sixth-century polis mystery cult and then into later- sixth-century panhellenic mystery cult. S.-I. (p. 149) holds that all the subsidiary elements of the fully-developed Greater and Lesser Mysteries, as well as the Eleusinia, were put in place at about the same time, early in the formation of the Athenian state. This may be very tidy, but the article’s serious deficiencies will allow it to have little impact on the orthodox view.

Cutting to the heart of one of the collection’s main themes, Barry Strauss’s “The Problem of Periodization: The Case of the Peloponnesian War” (pp. 165-175) addresses the consequences of accepting Thucydides’ unitary conception of the hostilities between Athens and Sparta during the closing decades of the fifth century BC. S. begins by showing how Thucydides laid out his view that there was a single war between 431 and 404 (pp. 165-170) before attempting to reconstruct contemporary perceptions about the inevitability of the conflict and the stability of blocs entering the conflict (pp. 171-173). He ends with some entertaining speculation on Thucydides’ motives for presenting the series of conflicts as a single war: perhaps Thucydides saw Pericles as a father figure whose advice the Athenians wilfully ignored in the course of a “epochal twenty-seven-year-long struggle” (pp. 173-174). In the ten pages of his article, S. induces us to consider that what we have all learned was one of the pivotal events in Greek history may not have been seen by contemporaries as a single event, or even all that pivotal.

Mark Golden’s article (pp. 176-191) represents the first tentative steps by an acknowledged expert on children in Classical Athens into the more diffuse expanses of the Hellenistic world. It makes much the same point as Kilmer’s in cautioning against a ready extrapolation of Greek society’s views of children throughout the Hellenistic period from evidence shaped by the literary genre in which it appears. Despite the all-encompassing title, “Change or Continuity? Children and Childhood in Hellenistic Historiography,” G. tightly circumscribes his field of investigation. He compares the attitudes to children of four historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon in the Hellenica, and the extant portions of Polybius) to determine whether any differences can be detected and to assess their significance for our understanding of the Hellenistic view of children. After canvassing the views of various modern authorities (pp. 177-182), the majority of whom see a growing sentimental attachment to children after the Classical period, G. studies the occurrence in his authors of words denoting children (i.e. pais, paidion, paidiskos, meirakion etc.). He sees no qualitative difference between the Classical authors taken as a group and the Hellenistic historian. What divergences there are between Polybius and individual earlier authors also appear between the Classical historians themselves. As in Kilmer’s article, G. argues, surely rightly, that these differences are due mainly to genre, with Xenophon and Thucydides considered to be Polybius’ models as “politico-military historians of interstate relations,” while Herodotus is something else (p. 190). As G. himself acknowledges (p. 191), his results might seem disappointing, but they are methodologically important in clearing the decks for what I presume will be a fuller study of Hellenistic children.

In “Did Roman Women Have an Empire?” (pp. 192-204), Phyllis Culham looks at some well-known evidence for one of ancient history’s chestnuts, the Augustan settlement. She sees some significant changes in the life of women (i.e. elite women) that resulted from Augustus’ attempts to re-invent a Roman aristocracy of privilege after the tumultuous decades of the first century B.C. C. argues that his creation of a senatorial class necessi- tated the inclusion of women and enabled women to take on some of the public roles that had previously been exclusively male preserves (p. 196). C. uses a restricted range of testimonia. The usual suspects are lined up: Suetonius, Dio, Livy, Vergil, et al. But she does draw some insights from an interesting juxtaposition of Livy’s improving tales of shamed but heroic women with laws in the Digest attributed to Augustus that regulated the conduct of the elite (p. 199). Beyond the well-thumbed literary refer- ences, she relies on secondary sources; this leads her astray. Attempting to show that this change (or improvement?) in status was not confined to the imperial elite at Rome, she notes the apparent integration of women into Italian municipal settings over time and cites MacMullen’s 1980 article for the spread of such practices “eventually” into the Greek East.[[6]] All of this, she suggests (p. 203), was due to the social transformation of Rome under Augustus, which had a perceptible and lasting impact on the lives of Roman women. For women’s history, then, conventional historical periodization can have value. Had C. looked beyond the Latin literary evidence, she would have seen that the Greek epigraphical sources paint quite a different picture. Female civic benefactors are attested in the second and early first centuries B.C. In turn, these women no doubt took as their models the great queens of the Hellenistic age. [[7]] This evidence is important, since it shows that, once again, Rome was not leading the way in social change but was following the Greek East. The increasing visibility of elite women at Rome should be seen as yet another instance of the city’s hellenization, and, as C. points out, of the growing stratification and crystallization of status in Augustus’ Rome. While the changes he effected may have had a perceptible impact on the lives of Roman women in Rome, the role of elite women in many cities of the Empire was well established before Augustus’ reforms. Did Roman women have an Empire? Yes, Roman women did. Whether women outside Rome noticed they too had one is another question.

The back cover asserts the book’s classification as Classical Studies/Cultural Studies, nicely juxtaposing what the public often sees as the most hidebound of traditional disciplines with the trendiest, most streetwise field. But the Library of Congress cataloging data puts the book firmly in its place, DE 59 I58. We must hope our colleagues in Cultural Studies will find their way up to the forbidding reaches of their libraries’ Classics sections and see that there is still some real life left in an old intellectual warhorse.


[[1]] Kilmer’s article (see below) challenges this view.

[[2]] R.F. Sutton, rev. of Greek Erotica on Attic Red-Figure Vases, AJA 101 (1997) 413-14.

[[3]] See R. Thomas, “Written in Stone? Liberty, Equality, Orality and the Codification of Law” in L. Foxhall and A.D.E. Lewis, eds., Greek Law in its Political Setting: Justifications not Justice. New York 1996, pp. 9-31, esp. p. 26.

[[4]] G.E. Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, Princeton 1961; J. Travlos, Bildlexikon zur Topographie des antiken Attika, Tuebingen 1988.

[[5]] As can be seen in Commodus’ “revival” of the Athenaia, a festival known only from legend: IG II/III (2) 2116.

[[6]] R. MacMullen, “Women in public in the Roman Empire,”Historia 29 (1980), pp. 208-218.

[[7]] The evidence is gathered by P. Gauthier, Les cites grecques et leur bienfaiteurs, Paris 1985, pp. 74-75.