BMCR 2001.06.05

Ancient Greece. The famous Monuments: Past and Present

Ancient Greece.. Past & present. Los Angeles: Vision S.R.L., 1997. 70 pages : color illustrations ; 21 x 29 cm.. ISBN 8881620677 $29.95.

The title of the book describes its focus on the history of ‘famous’ ancient monuments in Greece, and promises to offer a view of their development through time. The timeframe of the monuments’ history is defined from the outset as one that encompasses past and present. This comparison and contrast between what was then and what is on the ground now is primarily done by means of illustration comprising both colour photographs of the principal monuments of the sites selected and line drawings of the sites themselves. The colour illustrations of the surviving monuments are accompanied by colour overlays which bear their reconstructed images reflecting how the monuments would have looked like in antiquity.

It is this particular feature that makes this book so different from any other guide to ancient monuments and so much fun to explore. Behor effectively manages to blend, and at the same time contrast, ancient and modern glimpses of buildings and sculptures through this device which relies and builds on the reader’s ability to observe and think creatively about what he sees. An interactive approach is thus attained whereby the reader is not an outside intruder to the mysteries hidden behind the old stones. On the contrary, he is invited to get actively involved to explore how they once functioned and looked via the overlays which add onto the existing monuments their missing parts reflecting the complete visual impression that they would have made to their contemporaries.

This method of presentation of an ancient civilisation serves well the major purpose of the book which is to introduce the general reader to the Greek past by an interactive exploration of selected sites. Also, it compensates for the weaknesses of this, namely the constant inaccuracies in the use of terms, arbitrary use of historical personalities, confusing order of historical events, awkward and confusing presentation, spelling mistakes in the names of sites and terms, and omissions in the structure of the book.

The book begins with an introduction (pp. 3-8) containing a brief, and at points rather simplistic, history of Greece from the Neolithic period to the establishment of Christianity in the 4th century AD. The author seems to be aiming to give a broad background to the general reader of this book in order to prepare him to approach the individual monuments. Some of the striking features of this section are the lack of any discussion or justification about the aim of the book, its nature, its structure and the criteria for choosing the particular monuments. The order of the discussion is given through an extremely laconic list of contents cited on the last, unnumbered, page of the book. This simply consists of a series of site names to which special sections were devoted in the guide proper.

The historical information included in the introduction about developments in the greater Aegean area is not accompanied by a map of the area, thereby leaving the reader practically unguided through the physical environment of the monuments. A stream of names and places follows, combined with much generalised information and inaccuracies. Concepts are often hard to follow in parts where dense narration inhibits understanding of the sequence of, or the relationship between, events. To mention one example, in the first paragraph (p.3) two Neolithic sites are discussed alongside Achaean and island tribes and the civilisations around the important Minoan and Mycenean centres of the Bronze Age in Greece. A rather old fashioned term (‘dark’ p.3) is chosen for the early Iron Age Greece. The link between sanctuaries and alliances (p.4) is left unexplained while major chronological leaps are attempted, as for example from aristocracies and tyrannies in the 7th and 6th centuries to those of the 9th (!) century in connection with the expansion of the Persian kingdom. The history of Greece in the 4th century (pp.5-6) is particularly dense, contributing very little to the reader’s understanding of the broader ‘picture’ of Hellenic affairs at that chronological stage. Terms such as ‘Dories’ (p.3), ‘Pithykousa’ (p.4), ‘Kyro’ (p.4), ‘Potoidaea’ (p.5), ‘Mantinea’ (p.6) are valid in neither Greek nor English. Transliterations are not consistent: ‘Pisistratos’ (p.4), ‘Thermopilae’ (p.5), ‘Ellyspontos’ (p.4), ‘Filokratean'(p.6), ‘Fokeans’ (p.6) and ‘Philip’ (p.6). Typographical mistakes also occur, such as in ‘Tessaly’ (p.7) as opposed to the correct spelling ‘Thessaly’ on p.6.

The guiding proper begins with the monuments on the Athenian Acropolis (pp. 10-22). Although a line drawing of the site is included as well as several good quality illustrations of the monuments and their decoration, they are awkwardly positioned in relation to the text. Discussion of monuments in the text is rarely accompanied by an illustration at a convenient place for the reader. An example is the discussion of the Erechtheion on pp.21-22, illustrations of which may be found on pp.17-18. Several statements may be questioned here with regard to historical validity, and to pick one, I mention the point made about the myths which took place (!) on the sacred rock of the Acropolis (p. 10) including Theseus living on the acropolis. King ‘Pergamos’, mentioned on p.12, is difficult indeed to pin down as a historical personality while a range of references to Pheidias (for example, p. 10, 12, 18, 19, 20) fail to accurately describe his involvement in the project by tending to associate him individually with most of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon. A wrong interpretation of the term ‘Gigantomachia’ as ‘wars between the Giants’ (p.18) accompanies the unexplained term ‘Amazonomachia’ mentioned on p.16. Questions pertaining to transliterations of Greek terms arise in the case of ‘Panathinaea’, ‘Arreforae’ and ‘Calcotheke’ on p.18 while wrong spelling is found in the names ‘Kekropas’, ‘Boutos’ and Callimacus (p.21).

Selective presentation is made of certain monuments not situated on the top of the Acropolis but on its south slope, such as the theatre of Dionysos (pp.22-4) and the Odeion of Herodes Atticus (pp. 24-6). Brief sections are devoted to the Agora of Athens (pp.26-30) and to significant sites outside the city proper, namely the temple of Poseidon in cape Sounion (p.30), and to places within the immediate geographical locality like the temple of Athena Aphaea on Aegina (p.32), Corinth (pp.34-6) and Epidaurus (pp.38-43). As in previous sections, no explanation is given with regard to the selection of these particular sites and the omission of others that are equally important, such as Kerameikos, Eleusis, Rhamnous or Brauron. The order of description of the individual sites varies and does not follow a clear topographical or chronological ‘line’ to guide the reader. In the cases of sanctuaries, the focus rests on the temples, without justification of the particular importance of this type of building as opposed to the rest of the structures in the sanctuary. Misspellings of terms occur here too; I note the term ‘opisthodrome’ (for ‘opisthodomos’ p.30, 32), ‘Vellelrephontes’ and ‘Dories’ (p. 34). Wrong spelling may be found elsewhere, notably on p.36 (‘Orato’s pedestal’ instead of ‘orator’s’) or in the unnecessary capitalisation of the initial letter of words like ‘sanctuaries’ (p.32, 38, 40, 4 and elsewhere) or ‘pedestal’ (p.36). Further vague points include what Behor describes as ‘cult of the waters’ (p. 38) in connection with the site of Epidaurus.

Similar descriptions of a very generic character are offered for Mycenae (with a focus on the ‘Treasury of Atreus’ and the Acropolis, pp.44-8), Olympia (pp.50-60), Delphi (pp. 61-6), Delos (pp.68-9) and Crete (pp. 69-70). Disproportionate accounts are given for the different sites which the non-connoisseur might misleadingly interpret as reflections of the significance of the respective sites. As seen by the page numbers given above, Olympia has been allocated by far the longest guided tour at the expense of equally significant sites which are dealt with unfair brevity, and I single out the Cretan palaces as the most striking example.

Overall, one should admit that the lack of specific purpose behind the organisation of themes and sites which relate only superficially to the well-picked illustrations often confuses the reader and reduces substantially the instructive value of the book. Inaccuracies and constant inconsistencies in the spelling and transliteration of terms combined with the amount of unnecessary detail at parts and the absence of a map do not constitute features of a particularly handy guide to the monuments described.