BMCR 2001.04.18

Ancient History: Key Themes and Approaches

, Ancient history : key themes and approaches. Routledge key guides. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 1 online resource (xi, 241 pages).. ISBN 0203198271. $18.95.

Collections of primary sources translated into English have had a profound effect on the teaching of ancient history. Sources that were once accessible only to those with a working knowledge of Greek and Latin are now read together with translations of Thucydides, Livy, and Tacitus, providing the general reader with new approaches to the ancient world. What these collections have done for primary sources, Neville Morley’s Ancient History: Key Themes and Approaches may accomplish for secondary sources. As the book’s blurb states, this sourcebook of writings on ancient history “opens up the most important, stimulating and provocative arguments by modern writers on the subject.” The ideas of more than two hundred scholars are brought together in one convenient volume. It seems that the next generation of sourcebook is here.

Morley has collected over five hundred extracts from secondary sources designed to provide an introduction to key topics in Greek and Roman history. The author acknowledges that such a collection can not be definitive but necessarily reflects the interests and opinions of the compiler. Though some readers may quibble with individual selections, most will be impressed by the range of topics and views that Morley has included. Morley regularly juxtaposes contradictory interpretations, an approach that effectively stimulates and provokes the reader. The selections are usually insightful, and occasionally humorous ( Asterix and Monty Python’s Life of Brian appear in the section on “Romanization”). Although all passages are in English, a range of American, British, and Continental scholars are included. Morley makes use of published English translations and also furnishes his own translations of passages from work that is not otherwise available. Thus the whole collection is accessible to English-speaking students and other general readers—the audience that Morley envisions will be most convinced of the merits of his collection (p. xi). Teachers of ancient history may also benefit from this well-organized review of secondary scholarship.

The book is divided into two sections. Part 1, “Key Themes and Debates,” arranges extracts from secondary sources by topic. As is the practice with collections of primary sources, passages within each topic are assigned numbers for ease of reference. Included in the first section are discussions of administration, agriculture, Alexander the Great, archaeology, architecture, art, Augustus, barbarians, baths and bathing, Byzantium, Christianity, citizenship, city, class and status, coinage and money, colonization, crime and punishment, crisis, death and burial, decline and fall, democracy (Athenian), demography, disease, drama, economy, education, Egypt, emperor and principate, environment, ethnicity, euergetism, festivals, food and drink, freedmen, frontiers, games, gender and sexuality, Hellenism, Hellenistic age, history, Homeric society, household, housing, imperialism, industry, Jews and Judaism, labour, Late Antiquity, law, literacy and orality, luxury, magic and divination, metics, myth, Nero, patronage, peasants, plebs, polis, politics, rationality, religion, Republic (Roman), rhetoric, Romanization, Rome (early), sacrifice, science and philosophy, slaves and slavery, Socrates, Sparta, state, taxes, technology, trade and exchange, transport and communication, tyranny, and war.

Part 2, “Key Writers,” explores authors’ ideas about the ancient world and their views of approaches employed to study the ancient world. Morley has collected a range of writers spanning several centuries of thought, including representative quotations from Peter Brown, Jacob Burckhardt, Averil Cameron, M.I. Finley, Michel Foucault, Tenney Frank, Edward Gibbon, George Grote, Keith Hopkins, A.H.M. Jones, Ramsay MacMullen, Karl Marx, Eduard Meyer, Arnaldo Momigliano, Theodor Mommsen, B.G. Niebuhr, Friedrich Nietzsche, Louis Robert, M.I. Rostovtzeff, Ronald Syme, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Paul Veyne, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Max Weber.

The book includes an index of names of authors and a subject index that help the reader to navigate the collection and explore subjects that fall into more than one category.

At its best, the collection offers a stimulating overview of key issues and debates. The section “Homeric society” (pp. 86-88), for example, includes seven selections addressing the problem of interpreting the Homeric epics and reconciling literary and archaeological evidence. The excerpts provide a good overview of the topic, including passages from the work of Carl Blegen, M.I. Finley, A.M. Snodgrass, and Ian Morris. It even includes a provocative quote from Iman Wilkens’ writings suggesting a northern European origin for Homeric epic. The fifteen excerpts in the category “Imperialism” (pp. 93-96) offer an equally good discussion of both the Athenian Empire and the expansion of the Roman Republic. Representative passages from Tenney Frank, E. Badian, W.V. Harris, and J.A. North offer a range of views exploring the nature of Roman imperialism and point the reader to central works on the topic.

Ideally, a sourcebook of this type should encourage further reading, not serve as convenient crib. Indeed, in the preface to the book Morley suggests that his collection will be of use to those conducting research and will help in critical reading of the secondary literature. Unfortunately, Morley’s work lacks a bibliography, a regrettable omission that makes further exploration difficult. For source quotations taken from books, the reader is able to find a complete reference with relatively little work. Full bibliographic information is provided the first time that a book is cited in a section, though subsequent references are abbreviated. For articles from journals and published collections, the lack of a bibliography is more troubling. Complete page references are never provided for articles; Morley only notes the page or pages from which the passages were excerpted. Readers will need to consult L’Année Philologique or another guide to obtain the full bibliographic reference—a necessary step for anyone who would need to order articles through inter-library loan. A comprehensive bibliography would facilitate further reading; without one, Morley’s collection may in fact be used as a substitute for the secondary literature itself. With the “key themes and debates” of ancient history set out in short quotations, many readers may not see a need to explore the discussion in greater depth.

In the preface Morley reminds his reader that “quotations shouldn’t be left to ‘speak for themselves (p. xi).'” He cautions that quotations need to be analyzed and interpreted. This is sound advice. Morley, however, has left the quotations he has assembled to speak for themselves. Collections of primary sources regularly include introductory discussions that aid the readers in their interpretations. Morley offers no preface, and occasionally this leads to problems. For example, item 7 in the section “Crisis” (p. 41) is a brief quotation: “Crisis: what crisis?” Morley identifies the quote as the title of J.R. Patterson’s 1987 article in the Papers of the British School at Rome, but for those unfamiliar with this piece, this information alone is not sufficient to interpret the statement. Indeed, the reader is left repeating the question “Crisis: what crisis?” Morley does not define his categories for the reader. He does not explain what he means by crisis, and how “crisis” differs from other sections such as “agriculture” and “decline and fall.” Similar problems exist elsewhere. We are offered no explanation as to why most of the passages in the section on “household” refer to the Greek oikos (and not the Roman familia), while all of the selections on “housing” are Roman. All sections under the heading “politics” refer to the Greek world, as do the excerpts for “rhetoric.” Though one can imagine good reasons for these editorial decisions, Morley offers no guidance. Ancient history teachers will be familiar enough with most of the works so that this will not present an insurmountable problem. But for the advanced undergraduate or junior graduate student, some discussion of the scholarly debates and definitions of the “key themes” would make the selections more accessible and make Morley’s entire collection more useful.