BMCR 1999.07.08

Ancient Greece. A Political, Social, and Cultural History

, Ancient Greece : a political, social, and cultural history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. xxix, 512 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780195097429.

This text gives a general view of Greek history from the earliest civilizations in Greece up to Hellenistic times with a short view of Greece in the Roman period (Epilogue, pp. 471-475). Unlike older books, the description follows a more modern concept of writing history with the aim to present not only the main historical events, but also the cultural history, and to illuminate structures and developments beyond material evidence. So “four scholars with different backgrounds and varying interests” (xiii) came together in order to compose a book which is worth reading for many reasons, because it offers an abundance of information, questions, and insights without abandoning the guiding concept of writing a history of Greece. The book is intended to serve both readers with a general interest and students of ancient history rather than scholars. Its length is supposed to be “suitable for a course lasting for a semester or a quarter devoted to the history and civilization of Greece long enough to provide depth and detail, short enough to enable the instructor to assign primary sources that will expand the student’s understanding of a world that is both familiar and alien” (xiii). There are several illustrations, maps, figures, and source material throughout the text, which serve to illustrate what is said. Remarkable is the time line (xix-xxvii), which has the rubrics of military events, political/social events, and cultural development and serves to give a schematic view of Greek history from the neolithic to the battle of Actium. The authors explain the most important Greek terms in a glossary (pp. 476-489), and a comprehensive index helps the reader to work with the book. There is no general bibliography, but some important titles are listed at the end of every chapter. The criteria for selecting a certain book are not always clear. In chapter ii, for example, which also deals with early Greek writings (pp. 73-74), one misses Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, and in chapter x concerning the rise of Macedon Hammond’s History of Macedonia is lacking.1 In general some reference to the volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History regarding Greek history would have been useful.

It is hardly possible in a short review to treat in detail a book which contains so many topics and covers a period of some thousand years. So I want to emphasize that the few points criticized in the following lines are taken from a text of nearly 500 pages. The book as a whole is a very successful description of Greek history.

Chapter i: Early Greece and the Bronze Age (pp. 1-40). The authors rightly emphasize the influence of Near Eastern cultures on early Greek civilizations (especially the Minoan culture), which has been much discussed in recent times. They have doubts about older theories concerning the existence of a united kingdom of Greece ruled by the king of Mycenae and demonstrate that we have to abandon the idea of great empires of Homeric kings. Regarding the decline of the Mycenaean culture, the authors think that there was a sudden downfall (pp. 40-41). But not all Mycenaean sites have been “suddenly swept away” (41), as, for example, the settlement of Athens demonstrates. The end of the Mycenaean civilization was more a gradual decline than an abrupt crash. It is possible that the “Sea people” caused the fall of many Mycenaean sites (37), and also a “system collapse”, as the authors assume (39), should be taken into consideration, but there is no certain evidence, so that the authors conclude that “the picture is hopelessly confused” (38). Concerning the coming of the Dorians the authors rightly emphasize that this was not really an invasion but an intrusion of small groups of Doric-speakers, which lasted a long period (39).

Chapter ii: The “Dark Age” of Greece and the Eighth-Century Renaissance (c. 1150-700 BC) (pp. 41-81). The authors explain the “darkness” of this period not as much a cultural decline (as often is read) as the lack of archaeological evidence, but they also point out that there is some important progress in Dark-Age archaeology since the 1960s (42). Nevertheless, they describe the submycenaean settlements as societies “in a deep depression, both economic and cultural” (43). Much space is devoted to the Homeric basileis. The authors rightly want to describe them rather with the anthropological term “chief” than the common word “king” (47). Concerning the abandonment of Nichoria in Messenia (c. 750 BC) the authors think that this was caused by Spartan aggression (48), but this is only possible if this aggression preceded the First Messenian War, which is hard to believe. In general, the dates of the Messenian wars given in this book (730-700, 650 BC) are too early.2 I think we have to look for another cause to explain the abandonment of Nichoria in the 8th century. Some informative remarks are given about the results of oral-poetry research (pp. 51-53). The main reason for the Greek colonization was — according to the authors — scarcity of land, which resulted from the growth of population in the 8th century (72, see also 90-95). There are also other reasons of similar importance we have to take into consideration, especially conflicts within the ruling aristocracies. The authors also use the term “renaissance” to communicate the importance of the 8th century for the development of Greek culture.3 In general they call the Dark Age “the cradle of the city-state society and culture that was to follow” (80). However, to demonstrate this, some aspects should have been treated more extensively, such as the Homeric society, which did not consist solely of the basileis. One misses discussion of the role of the masses in Homeric epic poetry and on the structure of what we call the “Homeric” polis.4

Chapter iii: Archaic Greece (c. 700-500 BC) (pp. 82-130). In chapter ii the authors describe council, assembly, and law court as the government in Homer (59), but they state that the most important step to the polis is the “formal political unification of the demos and the creation of a central government” (84). At this point it is necessary to draw a clear line between Homeric society and the world of the archaic city-state. Outlining the development of the polis, the authors join important stages in a problematic manner: They write, for example, on p. 87 treating the development of city-states: “The importance of the council of aristocratic ‘elders’ increased, while that of the assembly of the people decreased”, but on p. 89 we read that “the total sovereignty of the aristocratic council […] was short-lived […]. Before the end of the sixth century, even in oligarchic city-states, the assembly had gained the ultimate decision-making power”. Some questions arise: What do we know about the role of aristocratic councils in Homeric society? What does “total sovereignty of the aristocratic council” mean? In which way is the decrease of the importance of the assembly compatible with its “ultimate decision-making power” towards the end of the 6th century? And, finally, there is the problem that we have to make distinctions between the individual city-states. Furthermore, something should have been said about the development of the ethne, which constitute an alternative to the principle of city-states. Rightly the authors reject the familiar description of Hesiod as a “champion of the oppressed” and call him “the voice of middle-class indignation” (103). I cannot accept the thesis that the phalanx was fully developed by 650 at the latest (103). In Sparta, for example, even in the time of Tyrtaeus, who wrote his poems after 650, the phalanx system was not in place. When the authors state that in many poleis the phalanx caused a development from more oligarchic to more democratic systems (see p. 106), this is not correct: the terms “oligarchy” and “democracy” do not appear before the late 5th century in our sources, and so in archaic times we cannot describe any change of government as a change from oligarchy to democracy. No one in 7th century Greece knew about oligarchic or democratic systems. Worth reading is the passage concerning the rise of the Greek tyrants. The authors clearly demonstrate how rivalries of aristocrats lead to the power-gaining of one single person (pp. 106-109). A good treatment of the most important archaic poets, of their works, and of their social background is also given in this comprehensive chapter (pp. 116-121). Art and architecture (pp. 109-116) and philosophy and science (pp. 121-124) are treated in a similar way. What is lacking, however, is a clear description of Greek aristocracy in archaic times including the important social element of the hetaireia. Likewise one misses treatment of the development of early legislation and the coming and role of archaic lawgivers.

Chapter iv: Sparta (pp. 131-158). The main problem in Spartan history, the lack of reliable sources, is described in great detail (pp. 131-134). The attempt to date the end of the First Messenian War around 720 BC by using the Olympic victor list, in which victors from Messenia disappear about that time (136), is highly questionable. It seems hardly possible to take athletic contests, where we find individual aristocrats rather than representatives of city-states in archaic times, as an indicator of interstate relations. Rightly, the authors refer to the emigration of a lot of Messenians to southern Italy and Sicily after the Spartan victory in the Second Messenian War (137), but it was not before the reign of the tyrant Anaxilaus of Rhegium in the early 5th century that Zankle was renamed as Messene. The ‘Great Rhetra’, which is the oldest and most discussed document of the history of constitutions of Greek city-states, deserved more comprehensive remarks than the authors have given. They only cite the text of the rhetra (138), which is hard to understand without any comment, especially for students. Describing the Spartan system of education (agoge) the authors give an illustrative picture (pp. 139-141), but they neglect to point out that the sources for the agoge are highly problematic, because the earliest text, Xenophon’s Lakedaimonion politeia, was written in the 4th century BC by an author who was not a Spartan himself, and the other sources, especially the chapters of Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus dealing with the agoge (chs. 16-17), are even much later still. So it is difficult to give a coherent description of the Spartan education system, as recently stressed by N. Kennell.5 Concerning the Spartan dual kingship the authors state that the two kings “were both cooperative and competitive with one another” (150), an important point to emphasize because there was not always friction between the two kings, as is still said.

Chapter v: The Growth of Athens and the Persian Wars (pp. 159-200). Describing the aristocratic families of archaic Athens (e.g. the Alcmaeonids) the authors seem to work with a concept of aristocracy which is far too rigid (pp. 162-163). So they wrongly describe these families with the term “genos” (“clan”), though “genos” is not found in the sources until the 4th century with this connotation.6 Worth reading is the passage dealing with Solon (pp. 164-169). Rightly the authors emphasize that “Solon was not a democrat” (169). When they point out that after the expulsion of Hippias from Athens “the way lay open for the development of the democratic institutions” (171), they imply that Cleisthenes’ aim was the establishment of democracy in Athens, but what Cleisthenes practised was rather a ‘popular’ form of aristocratic factional-policy than the attempt to introduce a democratic system. The statement of Herodotus, who says that Cleisthenes tried to join the people to his hetairia, is significant at this point (Hdt. 5,66,2). That in 510 BC the Spartans forced the Athenians to join the Peloponnesian League is not as sure as the authors suggest (174). Cleomenes I’s support of Isagoras is not a good example to show that Athenian oligarchs were always backed by the Spartans (176), because in 510 there were no oligarchs, either in Sparta or in Athens. Treating the Persian Wars, the authors rightly point out that the purpose of the Persian expedition in 490 could have been the punishment of Athens and Eretria for their support of the Ionian Revolt some years earlier (185). In my opinion this was the only purpose. What the authors do not mention is the fact that the Athenians surrendered to the Persians in 507/06 BC (Hdt. 5,73).7 So the Persian attack on Athens 490 was an attack on a subjugated city that had revolted. This fact is very important for the interpretation of the Persian Wars because the Persians’ primary aim was not to subdue every Greek polis.

Chapter vi and vii: The Rivalries of the Greek City-States and the Growth of Athenian Democracy (pp. 201-245) Greece on the Eve of the Peloponnesian War (pp. 246-286). In these two chapters the history of Athens during the Pentecontaetia is treated. The authors have successfully arranged the few scattered and very controversial sources in a clear description and have also considered the cultural developments in detail (tragedy, historiography, the sophists, the archaeological monuments of the acropolis and the agora). These chapters are among the best two in the book. The authors stress repeatedly the imperialistic aspects of Athenian foreign policy after the Persian Wars (“naked imperialism”, 215). The Athenian assembly, however, should have been treated more extensively to emphasize its role in Athenian policy and within the democratic system. It would have been desirable to deal with the sophists before treating the Athenian authors of the late 5th century, because in this way the sophists’ influence on these writers would have been much clearer.

Chapter viii: The Peloponnesian War (pp. 287-329). There are some short remarks on Aristophanes as a political author which are very informative (pp. 300-303). Regarding the destruction of the herms before the Sicilian Expedition in 415 BC (306) it would have been useful to treat the role of drinking-groups in late 5th century politics more extensively. The authors assume that the disastrous end of the Sicilian Expedition was the turning-point of the Peloponnesian War. Down to the peace of Nicias (“essentially a victory for Athens”, 301) the Athenians still had the advantage (pp. 305-311). There is a comprehensive passage regarding the trial of Socrates (pp. 323-326). The authors state that “the execution of Socrates is the most serious charge that has been brought by critics of Athenian democracy” (pp. 325-326). Worth considering are some remarks on the role of the Peloponnesian War in Greek history. The authors assume that this war undermined the so called polis-citizen-axis transforming the Greek world: battles were not only fought in summer, but also in winter now. The concept of the citizen-soldier eroded, while mercenaries, helots, and slaves were used in the war, and so the concept of polis itself eroded, too, because “the lines that had traditionally divided citizens from noncitizens” disappeared (328).

Chapter ix: The Crisis of the Polis and the Age of Shifting Hegemonies (pp. 330-370). The changes that were the results of the great war between Athens and Sparta are reflected in 4th century Greek history down to the rise of Philip II of Macedon. But it is highly questionable to describe this period with the term “crisis”, as some new studies have demonstrated.8 The chapter provides a clear description of the Athenian democracy in the 4th century. The authors point out the new role of the law courts, but they rightly refuse to overestimate them (pp. 343-347). There are also some remarks on the 4th century rhetors, but the authors emphasize that “there was no official ‘board of rhetores’ to which such men belonged” (348). Very important are their general remarks on Athenian democracy. They emphasize that Athens was the “stablest state” in 4th century Greece (349).

The first Macedonian contacts with the Greek world and the rise of Philip II are treated in chapter x (Philip II and the Rise of Macedon, pp. 371-394). Chapter xi (Alexander the Great, pp. 395-426) deals with the campaigns of the Macedonians and Greeks in Asia, with the fall of the Persian empire, and with the problems arising in Greece down to the death of Alexander. The authors estimate the achievements of Alexander in a very negative way (“Alexander’s greatest achievement was negative”, 425): The new ‘Hellenistic’ world was not the work of Alexander himself, but that of his successors, who are treated in the last chapter (xii: Alexander’s Successors and the Cosmopolis, pp. 427-470), which also introduces the reader to the Hellenistic period.

Despite these few criticisms, the authors have written an exciting book, which contains a lot of information, sometimes even in great detail. But the text deals nearly exclusively with the history of mainland Greece. We are not supplied with any information about the Western Greeks and the Greek city-states of Asia Minor. This is regrettable in a book like this, in a history of ancient Greece, as is the lack of a chapter on Greek


1. L. H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, Oxford 2 1990; N. G. L. Hammond, G. T. Griffith, F. W. Walbank, A History of Macedonia, 3 vols., 1972-1988.

2. See V. Parker, “The Dates of the Messenian Wars,” Chiron 21, 1991, 25-47.

3. Cf. R. Hägg (Ed.), The Greek Renaissance of the Eighth Century BC. Tradition and Innovation, Stockholm 1983.

4. On this see K.-J. Hoelkeskamp, “Agorai bei Homer,” in: W. Eder, K.-J. Hoelkeskamp (Eds.), Volk und Verfassung im vorhellenistischen Griechenland, Stuttgart 1997, 1-19.

5. N. M. Kennell, The Gymnasium of Virtue, Chapel Hill – London 1995.

6. See F. Bourriot, Récherches sur la nature du gènos, 2 vols., Lille – Paris 1976.

7. F. Schachermeyr, “Athen als Stadt des Grosslkönigs,” GB 1, 1973, 211-220; M. Zahrnt, “Der Mardonioszug des Jahres 492 v. Chr. und seine historische Einordnung,” Chiron 22, 1992, 236-279.

8. See W. Eder (Ed.), Die athenische Demokratie im 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Vollendung oder Verfall einer Verfassungsform?, Stuttgart 1995; H. Beck, Polis und Koinon, Stuttgart 1997; M. Jehne, Koine Eirene, Stuttgart 1997.