BMCR 2005.02.06

A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society and Culture

, A brief history of ancient Greece : politics, society, and culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xxiii, 360 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0195156803 $32.95.

(The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review)

As anyone who has ever taken or taught a survey course in Greek civilisation knows, integrating social and cultural institutions within the political narratives of the different Greek poleis can be frustratingly difficult, especially since most survey textbooks on Greek culture tend to be idiosyncratic in focus.1 A Brief History of Ancient Greece (henceforward BH) was created to offer a guide to important events, institutions, and works of literature and art, so that the reader might “appreciate the remarkable legacy of the ancient Greeks” (xiv). BH aims at a streamlined integration of social, cultural, and political narratives, intended for both the student and the reader with a general interest. Although BH seems at first glance to be a condensed version of the authors’ successful text on Greek history from the Stone Age to the death of Kleopatra, this book is not merely an abridgement of previous work. The authors have conducted a thorough review of the original text, correcting errors, shifting emphases, and creating new sections. Basically, they have tried to pare down the political and military narrative to allow for greater discussion of social and cultural subjects, or as the authors put it, to “incorporate those who did not belong to the ‘scribbling class,’ such as women and slaves” (xiii). The result is a comprehensive, chronologically oriented survey of Greek history and culture that is better integrated with respect to material culture and social theory than other syntheses.

BH benefits from all of the qualities that made its parent a success, such as the useful pairing of literary theory, material remains, gender studies, and the epigraphic record. The book offers a detailed timeline, organized by date, military events, political/social events and cultural developments, which the student preparing for exams will find most useful. In the year 399 BCE, for example, the timeline records the trial and execution of Socrates in the column of political/social events, while listing “dialogues of Plato; foundation of the Academy” in the cultural development column. There is no general bibliography, but each chapter contains a brief list of suggested readings. Here, perhaps, the authors seem not to have taken criticism of the parent volume into consideration and updated as rigorously as they might have done.2 There is also a useful index and glossary.

Since it is difficult to treat a book that covers so many topics in detail, and since in many respects certain chapters of BH are just trimmed versions of their well-known predecessors, this review will focus on what makes this book different from the original.

The new Introduction, which incorporates elements from the previous work’s first chapter, offers a useful discussion on the nature of evidence—both written and material records—as well as a synopsis of the main literary sources. This synopsis replaces the previous work’s rather abrupt, chapter-by-chapter discussion of authors and sources. The Introduction also contains a brief but useful discussion of the physical environment and the agricultural resources of the Greek landscape. And while van Andel and Runnels’ useful book on the Greek rural landscape is included, one misses a reference to Robert Sallares’ work on the Greek ecology.3

Chapters I and II have undergone little revision, though a short section on Geometric art and architecture has been added (56-58). Indeed, the other chapters have all gained short sections on art, architecture, literature, and society. Chapter Seven, “Greece on the Eve of the Peloponnesian War” (166-99), has undergone more substantial revision, with expanded sections devoted to the physical space of the polis and fifth-century historical and dramatic literature.

While BH intends to provide an historical “guide” to literature and art, it does not offer any real assistance for further reading on those subjects, and it remains largely a book on political and social history. This is especially evident in the “suggested readings” sections located at the end of each chapter, which are confined primarily to historical subjects. And it is in these bibliographical sections that the authors have revised and updated the book least, generally in fields outside their own areas of specialty.4 This is a useful collaborative effort, and the authors are to be commended, but it would be better employed as a history text, for a survey history course, as its title implies, and not as an introduction to art, literature, or architecture, as the authors might hope.


1. Two standard works, Amos and Lang’s These were the Greeks, Durfour, 1982, and Sowerby’s The Greeks: An Introduction to their culture, London, 1995, come to mind. Amos and Lang’s study, while comparable in scope with BH, and in some respects more focused on social and cultural themes, has not been revised and does not reflect recent work. Sowerby’s book is idiosyncratic in focus and less successfully integrates discussions of social and cultural institutions into the political-military narrative.

2. Mischa Meier, BMCR 1999.07.08, pointed out the parent work’s lack of reference to scholarship on Macedonian history, and BH still suffers in this area.

3. Tjerd van Andel and Curtis Runnels, Beyond the Acropolis: A Rural Greek Past, Stanford, 1987. Robert Sallares, The Ecology of the Greek World, Ithaca, NY, 1991. T.W. Gallant, Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece, Stanford, 1991, might also have been mentioned.

4. Especially lacking are recent works on Sparta, Alexander, and the Hellenistic world. Chapter IV on Sparta might have included Stephen Hodkinson and Anton Powell’s Sparta: New Perspectives, London, 2000, and Paul Cartledge’s Spartan Reflections, London 2001, while Chapter XI might have listed Brill’s Companion to Alexander the Great, edited by J. Roisman, Leiden, 2003, Ian Worthington’s, Alexander the Great: A Reader, London, 2003. F. Chamoux and M. Roussel, Hellenistic Civilisation, 2002, likewise might have been included in the final.