BMCR 1998.02.09

98.2.09, Greece in the Making, 1200-479 BC

, Greece in the making, 1200-479 BC. Routledge history of the ancient world. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. xix, 396 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780415035835.

As recently as thirty years ago, the fifth and fourth centuries were considered the premier epochs of Greek history, and the era to which most general studies of Greek antiquity were devoted. Indeed, the very term “Classical” used to designate this period demonstrates the widespread belief that the accomplishments of these centuries and the historical sources which document them set the standard by which other phases of Greek history and historiography were to be judged. This is no longer the case, as is demonstrated by a steady stream of books devoted to Archaic Greece, broadly defined as the period between the collapse of Mycenaean society and the Persian Wars. Several of these, notably Oswyn Murray’s Early Greece and Anthony Snodgrass’s Archaic Greece, have become classics in their own right. 1

Robin Osborne’s book, Greece in the Making, is the latest contribution to the burgeoning interest in pre-Classical Greek history. It is one of a series of texts published by Routledge designed to cover all major periods of ancient Mediterranean history. Several aspects of Greece in the Making reveal its conceptual origin as a general handbook: it is generously illustrated with numerous plates, maps and tables, and it has no footnotes; instead, a series of bibliographical notes at the end lists a large number of secondary sources, both books and journal articles (almost all in English), a practice which makes the work useful both to the novice and to the serious student of Greek antiquity. Within the framework of a general survey, Osborne’s object is to cover the basic material and present it in a manner accessible to the non-specialist, and at the same time establish his own identity through a new reading of the evidence.

Osborne confirms his intent to do exactly that in his first chapter, “The Traditions of History”. This is a somewhat theoretical discussion of the values and pitfalls of studying ancient history, directed ostensibly at the undergraduate who is new to the subject but actually at those who would accept the traditional documentary sources on the Archaic period (primarily Herodotos) as thoughtful attempts at recording the past. Osborne’s approach is to view Classical and post-Classical discussions of the Archaic period as records of traditions firmly anchored in their own times, valuable more for what they tell us about Classical attitudes towards early Greece than for factual information about earlier eras. He discusses as a test case one particular episode of Archaic Greek history, the foundation of Cyrene. Drawing on the well-known fact that all the ancient narratives and many epigraphical sources (his example is the fourth century Theran inscription) describing this episode are much later than the events they recount, Osborne uses the historical data to discuss, not the actual circumstances of Cyrene’s foundation, but the reasons why various groups party to this foundation might have altered the facts to suit their needs in later centuries. The propensity of ancient sources on the Archaic period towards “selective memory” will be a recurring theme throughout the work. Osborne’s return to this topic in an Epilogue, with reference to George Orwell’s 1984, implies a certain overarching pessimism with this common human fallacy.

The initial chapters on the Dark Ages and the developments of the eighth century in Greece skirt this theme and offer a fairly standard reading of the material, echoing in many places the conclusions of Snodgrass’s work. Osborne’s comments here effectively outline the current status of the debate on this era, but do not offer any startling explanations for the amazing tempo of social and material change during the late eighth century. A chapter on the physical environment of Greece, awkwardly placed between discussions of the Dark Ages and the eighth century (why not put it at the beginning?), provides a useful review of the impact of both geographical factors and human demography likely to influence human events.

It is with the development of the polis that Osborne expands more fully on his theme of the mythology of history. He applies his thesis that deliberate manipulation of the past served as a vehicle to express present concerns to his discussion of Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. The peculiar status of Homeric kings, powerful and powerless at the same time, becomes for Osborne not a depiction of a real Greek political situation, but a device used by the poet to explore conflicts between personal and communal values; similarly, the pastiche of Bronze and Iron Age material culture in the Iliad is not the product of Mycenaean survivals in the oral tradition, but the poet’s selective use of his poetic inheritance to highlight contemporary concerns. Some may object that this is an overly self-conscious reading of an oral poetry which surely had strong traditional and formulaic elements, but Osborne notes that the poets’ treatments of morals and ethics are quite subjective, a point with which I would agree; this certainly lays open the possibility that poetic presentation of political circumstances and material culture was equally deliberate. Osborne’s comparatively late date for both Homer and Hesiod, around 700 B.C., encourages such calculated readings.

The manipulation of sources is more convincingly argued in the second half of the book, on the seventh, sixth and early fifth centuries B.C. This is in part because the narrative histories available on this period, primarily Herodotos and Aristotle, are manifestly later than their subject matter. Here Osborne expands on his theme considerably, arguing that many of the developments in early Greek history can be attributed to elite jockeying for power; since the elite class frequently controlled the content and transmission of source material, our reading of Archaic Greece is influenced to a large extent by what this class wanted later generations to know. To choose one instance, Osborne discusses the evidence available for early lawgivers, expressing skepticism (as many have done) about the accuracy of the traditions concerning Lykourgos, Drako, Bias and others, traditions which exalt their contribution to a fair and just state. Yet within the conflicting information provided by ancient sources, he is able to make a strong case for the genuine concerns of the early lawgivers, in procedure and property, and the political goals for which they worked, not to strengthen the community but to diffuse conflict among the elite.

Osborne’s reading of the sources on tyranny is similar: the reaction of the fifth century B.C. and later to tyrants and tyranny was heavily colored by the desire to view the Persian Empire or the Athenians as tyrants and by the sense of shame which democratic assemblies felt at having tolerated tyranny. These attitudes form a real stumbling block to an understanding of tyranny in a seventh or sixth century context. Osborne’s contention is that it was elite resentment of a strong ruler, rather than popular discontent, which gave a negative cast to tyranny.

Osborne develops this theme in reference not only to significant events but also influential institutions of early Greece. His interpretation of the role of the Delphic oracle, presented in Chapter 6 and again in the Epilogue, furnishes a good opportunity. The fact that the oracle played a more active role in Greek statecraft during the Archaic period than it did in subsequent history was commented on even by later Greeks themselves (e.g. Plutarch). Osborne argues plausibly that the oracle’s prominence during the Archaic period stemmed from the fact the elite factions in Greek cities needed divine sanction to support their actions and justify their claims to entitlements, in lawgiving, political choices and warfare, among other issues. Lykourgos and Themistokles, for example, needed an oracle to justify what they were going to do anyway, just as the Spartans needed an oracle to justify their war against Messenia. Mother cities on the Greek mainland needed an oracle to claim ties with colonial foundations, particularly if it became more desirable to emphasize such ties at a date long after the colony’s foundation (as the incident of Cyrene and Thera noted above illustrates). Divine authority offered the rationale for current conditions, especially when such conditions were under stress. A democratic assembly, on the other hand, would be less likely to seek divine support for its actions, since doing so would be to undermine the whole concept that decisions should be made by the people. In giving this self-consciously manipulative reading to the Delphic oracle, Osborne is following closely the arguments of Fontenrose, 2 that most early oracles are not genuine but were invented to support subsequent courses of action or events. This has not been a particularly popular line of argument, but Osborne argues persuasively that in the larger context of early Greek history there were many cases in which it was in the best interests of elite individuals or factions to alter, or even create, a past oracular precedent.

One particularly interesting section applies the principle of ex post facto source bias to an analysis of the formation of democracy in Athens at the end of the sixth century. This is clearly an event with powerful resonances, both ancient and modern (witness the interest in the 2500th anniversary of democracy in 1992/3), and one which is usually seen as a positive step forward in political thought. Osborne’s efforts to see the chain of events in 508/7 B.C. in a late sixth century setting is fairly successful in wishing away such positivism. He places Kleisthenes’ motives in a contemporary context, citing Kleisthenes’ desire to use popular support in a contest between different factions of elite families and the wish to combine different regions of Attica to create a more specifically Athenian sense of identity, as distinct from a broader Ionian identity. These factors, rather than any popular altruism, led to the construction of a democratic assembly.

Osborne continues his interest in source manipulation by elite factionalism in his treatment of social history as well. His reading of Solon’s reforms suggests that Solon’s legislation was designed to curb excesses of elite groups, but not to alter their fundamental position of influence. There is also a section on women and on poetry by and for women, reviewing attitudes towards bonds between women. Here, however, the discussion is less sure; by placing women as a separate (and short) category, Osborne seems to acknowledge the necessity of mentioning women’s history, yet is uncertain how to integrate it into his narrative.

One of the effective tools Osborne uses to support his interpretations is the frequent citation of ancient sources, placed in a separate box within the text. This draws the modern reader’s attention to precisely what the Greeks of the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries said about themselves. Such judicious use of contemporary texts is a forceful reminder that later Greek sources are not always reliable witnesses to the Archaic era. Another valuable device is the inclusion of case studies drawn from all parts of the Greek world, including Italy and Sicily, a departure from the approach found in several histories of early Greece which focus most of their attention on Athens and Sparta. Greece in the Making offers extensive discussion of these two cities also, but emphasizing material from a variety of locales draws attention to the wide dissemination of Greek culture during the Archaic period, in itself a salient feature of early Greek history.

The foregoing comments give some indication of the critical approach Osborne brings to Archaic Greek history and the stimulating interpretations he offers. At the same time, the book has a number of shortcomings which limit its effectiveness as a handbook. The first must be the author’s complex, at times confusingly obscure written style. In several cases single sentences run on for five or six, sometimes even eight or nine lines, leaving the reader unsure what the point is. Along with such a dense writing style is a frequently excessive use of detail which obscures the main thrust of an argument. In reviewing the thorny question of population growth in the eighth century B.C., Osborne offers a detailed presentation of various arguments on this issue, pro and con, but does so primarily to point out their weaknesses, not to construct a clear alternative. A reader not familiar with the conflicting arguments on this issue will undoubtedly be confused rather than enlightened. In another instance, his discussion of early Sparta and the conquest of Messenia gives a very detailed exposition of the sources on this period and the problems involved in reading them but never gives a clear description of the progress of events in these communities. Similarly, the discussion of age classifications and the Spartan military does not explain clearly what these were and how they differed so dramatically from the practice of other Greek cities. Osborne’s arguments in favor of a comparatively late date for the formation of Spartan military organization are persuasive, but they are unlikely to be accessible to one who has little background on the subject.

Another distracting feature is the author’s tendency to disperse the presentation of a single topic. Discussions of Archaic Greek art, including objects contemporary with one another, are scattered piecemeal throughout the text. The discussion of tyrants in Chapter 8 provides many anecdotes about the tyrants’ private lives while only casually relating them directly to an analysis of the social and political implications of the institution of tyranny; the more theoretical discussion of tyranny is to be found earlier, in Chapter 6. Such randomness may be due in part to a desire to follow the chronological format set out by chapter headings, but it is another feature which makes the book distracting to the reader, particularly one who is not already familiar with the major issues and monuments of Archaic Greek history. The author seems to recognize this potential for confusion and addresses it with frequent cross-references to other sections of the book, but one wonders if it would not have been better to discuss major topics (such as tyranny) in one unified setting, even if this meant disrupting the strictly chronological presentation.

My overall reaction to Greece in the Making was somewhat mixed. The difficulties of the writing style, confused internal organization and lack of clarity make it a less effective introductory handbook to the world of Archaic Greece than some other general studies of this period, including the ones mentioned at the beginning of the review. I would be reluctant, for example, to recommend this book for background reading to my undergraduate class in Archaic Greek art. Moreover, many of the individual subjects treated here, e.g. tyranny, democracy, have already received much attention, and specialists on these problems may not find much that is new. At the same time Osborne’s provocative approach to many of the broad-ranging problems of political structure and class conflict in early Greece make for stimulating reading, and it is hard to see how Osborne’s views could have been presented in a format other than a general historical survey. His book is sure to draw renewed attention to this most fascinating period of ancient Greece.

1. Oswyn Murray, Early Greece (2nd ed., London 1993); Anthony M. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece, The Age of Experiment (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1980).

2. Joseph Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle. Its Responses and Operations (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London 1978).