BMCR 2005.08.22

Greek History

Robin Osborne, Greek history. Classical foundations. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. ix, 175 pages : illustrations, 1 map ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0415317177 $19.95 (pb).

Pity the poor author who, in 135 pages of text, must (his publisher says) “cover all the most important topics in the study of the Greek past from the end of the Bronze Age (ca. 1200 BC) to the Roman conquest.” Osborne himself begins (p. 1), “This book does not claim to tell anyone everything about (ancient) Greek history.” Yet O. has done a most creditable job of presenting a lively and thoughtful, up-to-date discussion of (many) major aspects of Greek history. The many best parts of this excellent book are pure Osborne: a mix of social history and archaeology especially in the archaic period. Of his 135 pages, 23-84 are devoted almost entirely to the archaic age; I could find hardly any mentions of Greece before the eighth century; fourth-century history gets short shrift, mostly a chronological narrative of main events; and as for the Hellenistic Age, the answer to the title of O.’s last chapter, “Was Alexander the end of Greek history?,” must for this book be a resounding yes: O.’s discussion is little more than one page. Still, space limitations and the sheer excitement of archaic Greece mean that O.’s decisions were sound. Hellenistic monarchies and Roman conquests sometimes elicited men’s least attractive qualities. The danger of course is that archaic Greek history is an especially treacherous battlefield. As we shall see, on some issues O. can be engaged.

Mogens Hansen once distinguished between “spotlight” scholarship and “chandelier” scholarship. The first illuminates selected topics, the second casts a dimmer glow over the whole. Especially O.’s early chapters favor the spotlight: athletics, homosexuality, Pithekoussai, fibulae, life expectancies, nutrition, Cyrene, law, tyranny, hoplites, and Solon. Except for the first chapter, the narrative moves chronologically, although with frequent insertions. O. passes over some major historical topics (e.g., the origins of democracy), most political history (“our image of Athenian democracy needs to be a picture of both men and women queuing up for their share of roast or boiled mutton from sacrifice, not an image of Pericles haranguing a vast crowd” [100]), most individuals (it seemed somehow symptomatic that O. calls people “living organisms performing tasks,” “human actors” [2]), and most specific events. Instead, O. seeks to present the “foundations” of Greek history on which various “structures” might be built (5, cf. 1-5). It could be argued that O.’s “foundations” (here he lists the Greeks’ differences from us; skepticism toward written sources; environmental constraints and efforts to overcome them; some ways of organizing a community; war) are a selection consistent with his own historical vision. From other perspectives (e.g., mentalités, or social values such as honor) they are superstructures. They are nonetheless all central topics.

Ch. 1, “Familiar but exotic. Why Greece needs history,” illustrates the Greeks’ differences from us despite many ties through the examples of athletics (esp. nudity) and the homoerotic conduct sometimes associated with athletics and the palaistra. As social anthropology, the discussion is fine and à propos. Most moderns would certainly find puzzling the links between gymnastics and homosexuality on some Greek pots and in some Greek texts. As another difference, O. rightly notes (12-13) how even sophisticated modern students of Greek pederasty “have very largely avoided the issue of sexual relations with minors.” (A few years ago I heard a leading American scholar of homosexuality refer to Greek male objects of desire as “undergraduates.”) O. includes a superb sociology of the Olympic games (16-21). Perhaps the biggest difference between ancient and modern athletics, team sports, gets no mention, but space is limited. The importance of O.’s conclusion (22), that Greece challenges rather than reinforces many of our own core values, cannot be overestimated in classrooms where the theme of Oedipus Rex is still routinely presented as “pride comes before a fall.”

My only main query regarding this good chapter is whether it itself needs more history (a history that of course O. knows well). In sharpening the contrast between ancient and modern, O. glides over the ambiguous and shifting status of pederasty even among the Greek elite, notwithstanding one parenthetical remark about “variation in practices within the Greek world from place to place and time to time” (15). It is not stated (cf. 21) how far pederasty was an upper class phenomenon (and indeed, an ambiguous upper class phenomenon), or how common or accepted in different poleis and periods. General statements such as “the successful boy athlete expects to enjoy sexual relations with an older man” (21, see also 15, “whether sexual desire was for women or for boys was not an issue”) seem unshaded even for classical Athens (cf. J. Davidson, “Dover, Foucault and Greek homosexuality: penetration and the truth of sex,” Past and Present 170 [2001] 3-51). Theognis and Plato get a mention, but not Aristophanes. We move from the sixth to the fourth century, from Athens to “the Greek city” (16), with scarcely a blink. One 2nd century BC inscription from Beroia excluding paiderastai from the gymnasion inspired O.’s remark about variation. However, no conclusions are drawn, and we straightway return to the fourth-century Athens of Winkler’s protocols. Was pederasty in 2nd century Beroia socially unaccepted, or getting out of hand, or forbidden by the Romans, or what? O.’s generalizations stand in contrast to his brilliantly incisive discussions of diversity and evolution in the history of Greek cults (114-16) and the tendency of poleis to grow more similar, as in the alphabet, pottery, sculpture, and architecture (117-18).

Ch. 2, “Inventing the Greek polis,” discusses the problem that our principal literary sources for archaic Greece come from the fifth century or later. For O. these sources, while indispensable, have too often invented early history from their own anachronistic perspectives. Too many modern scholars strip away obvious anachronisms to find a story’s “kernel” of truth, which however is often illusory (29). The chapter begins with a detailed archaeological survey of later eighth-century Pithekoussai. Burial practices and a mix of pottery suggest a coherent community composed of different peoples. Moreover, from the many kraters, perfume vessels and cups, especially “Nestor’s Cup” from the rich grave of a boy about 13, “we see the glittering social life of a community that is at the forefront of all the latest developments” such as the symposion, “urbane witty parties reeking of perfume, at which drinkers showed off the latest technology of communication” (the alphabet) and “alluded knowingly to the hottest of poetic creations,” the Iliad and Odyssey produced some fifty years later (26-27). In this context O.’s major literary invention is early Greek “colonization” (for O. a misnomer), where he summarizes his own position that fifth- and fourth-century Greeks retrojected a contemporary colonial model (founder, Delphic blessing, equal land division, etc.) onto the past. His chief example is Cyrene, where our different versions of events have at least to some degree been distorted over time.

There is certainly some truth in conjuring messier patterns for the Greeks overseas, even if O. is brusquely dismissive of Irad Malkin’s counter-arguments (“the ‘kernel’ theory dies hard”: 139. In fact it is alive and kicking.). On the other hand, ancient writers including the researchers in Aristotle’s Lyceum had many more archaic texts to ponder than we have; not all was oral tradition or poetic fancies. A central passage for O.’s own interpretation of colonization is Archilochos’s comment about “the scum of all the Greeks” on Thasos (31, 32, 38). As for the truth of the “glittering” society on eighth-century Pithekoussai, that will take me a little more time. For the moment, it should make a difference that the verse graffito on “Nestor’s Cup” — for once (O. says) a “text,” providing “the wonderful glimpse of life in late eighth-century BC Pithekoussai” (37) — need not necessarily have been inscribed in Pithekoussai but possibly in east Greece where this ugly little pot came from (so the excavators; O. notes that the letters are Euboean [26]; compare English antiques in the US and that while Homer in some sense had predecessors, O. cannot disprove the truth of John Lennon that “before Elvis there was nobody.” How much weight can one graffito bear? All Greeks drank their wine mixed, so kraters and cups were needed; the decadent, “orientalizing” symposion is a seventh- and not an eighth-century phenomenon; Pithekoussai was an emporion, so many imports would be expected. O. states (138) that his discussion of Pithekoussai “is largely indebted” to a 1992 book by David Ridgway. For O.’s own critique of this “disappointing” book, see Antiquity 67 (1993) 461.

Ch. 3, “How many Greeks were there and how did any of them survive?,” begins with a detailed discussion of the (apparently) very large population on eighth-century Pithekoussai, of its staggering (if standard) mortality rates (life expectancy at birth = 22.5 years), and of the extensive need for imported grain. One main question, as O. says (46-48), is how far Pithekoussai was typical. Classical Athens is compared, but uncertainties prevail; mortality rates are calculated from Roman Egypt. A second question, raised also by various reviews of Ridgway, is how far we can generalize from the 2.5%-5% of the cemetery at Pithekoussai that has so far been excavated (on p. 51 O. says that all these deductions “may be seriously misleading.”) I myself also found it hard to grasp the demographics. If 39% of Pithekoussai’s burials were of children below 14, do O.’s population figures include these 39% who were shortly to die, plus presumably all the children who lived? How much room for adults does this leave? Imported grain leads O. into 6 pages on the ancient economy, where he adopts an anti-“primitivist” position, especially on the importance of trading and lending.

Ch, 4, “Law, tyranny and the invention of politics,” begins with a “chandelier” presentation of central developments in archaic Greek law. In a minor masterpiece of compression — nearly every sentence introduces a major topic — these pages work toward a thesis, the primacy of politics. O. speeds from Homer and Hesiod to early laws’ focus on procedure not substance, then on to Drakon, different governmental regulations, and the Spartan rhetra. O. contends that the development of law was related more to politics than to dispute settlement. Thus, laws often regulated who had magisterial power or adjudicated; many early laws target the abuse of power by individuals. These observations are central, even if other scholars will not minimize law’s importance in fairly resolving disputes. If many early laws do not define offenses but only name them, offenses were nonetheless their raison d’être. O. dismisses (58) Euripides’ claim that written laws meant equal justice for all, but Solon made that same claim (fr. 36.18-19 West = Ath. Pol. 12.4). Even modern judges and juries must decide “what counted” (59) as offending behavior.

Politics leads O. to tyranny. He stresses that our accounts of the tyrants are mostly invented by tyranny’s later enemies, as in the many stories that tyrants abused women (a theme I myself have lectured on). Why did tyrannies arise? O. mentions (62) Aristotle’s linking tyranny with popular support. He is very suspicious of Aristotle’s and many modern scholars’ linking tyranny with the emergence of hoplite warfare, which is well discussed (62-65). To explain tyranny O. turns to Solon, whose poetry “gives a very good indication of the political issues” involved (66). These prove to be the economic problems of the poorest (66-67). The only law of Solon that O. describes in detail is his division of the Athenians into four political classes. (If “there is no evidence for a closed aristocracy” before Solon [67], what about the Eupatridai, or Solon’s comments about kakoi vs. esthloi?) O. accepts that Solon reformed the constitution (69) but does not otherwise describe these reforms, except to mention in a later chapter “the explicit extension of power to the people that had become statutory with Solon” (86). Was then the demos a political force behind tyranny, as Aristotle supposed? O. states that Solon did nothing to “address whatever economic roots there may have been to the economic crisis which he was brought in to deal with” (68). He then mentions restoring people’s land, freeing slaves, abolishing hektemorage, and outlawing debt bondage. Surely all this helped. Solon is squirrelly, but O.’s hesitancies make it difficult to see what he was about.

Ch. 5, “Making enemies,” opens with the theme that later writers distorted accounts of early wars for contemporary political purposes; fifth- and fourth-century wars don’t fit these patterns. In a sociological excursus O. then explains hoplite warfare as farmers defending their fields. Finally, in a chronological narrative, O. elegantly and critically summarizes Herodotos (Lydia, Ionian revolt, Marathon, 480-79) minus the excursus, and the pentekontaetia. O. is hard on Athens right from the start of the Delian league (82).

Ch. 6, “The city of freedom and oppression,” offers a political and social analysis of classical Athens, including slavery and the status of women. After summarizing democratic government and the courts, O. makes four excellent points about Athens’ democracy: each individual was to take part in politics rather than surrender his initiative to a party; each individual was judged to have basic political capacities, “sharing” in governing; citizens did not consciously vote as a “tyrannous majority, which pursues factional interests at the expense of a minority” (89); and “all citizens could take equal part in politics at every level” (89). To be sure, it might also be emphasized that these were ideals. Sometimes some people thought that the demos did vote as a tyrannous majority, and sometimes hostile groups were acknowledged (e.g., the cavalry class in and after 404, contrast p. 90). O. at times may overstress the equality of Athenian citizens, especially by not always distinguishing ideological status from economic realities. “To make Kleisthenic democracy thinkable few demeaning tasks can have been in the hands of freeborn Athenians” (91) reflects a social ideal, not the reality. After stating that “slave conditions varied enormously” (92) and could be reasonably good, O. juxtaposes harsh generalizations about slave life. We should be cautious of statements delivered in different social contexts. The exclusion of metics from the citizen body is “seen once more in terms of maintaining the fiction that the citizen body was all alike” (96); so too the exclusion of women (97). The evidence for that fiction is unclear to me. O. is again hard on Athens, at home and abroad. “In 432 the Spartans went to war with Athens to preserve Greek freedom” (85). The next chapter begins by repeating, “The city of liberty and oppression was Athens.” Notwithstanding the vagaries of chance, I would rather have been an Athenian slave than a Spartan helot, and the situation of Athens’ women seems to have greatly improved from the second half of the fifth century, as O. himself has demonstrated (“Law, the democratic citizen and the representation of women in classical Athens,” Past and Present 155 [1997] 3-37). Athenian texts are often hard on Athens, but they are not “snapshots” of realities but ideological. Their complaints reflect brutality but also sensitivity to brutality, and such sensitivities may even have been unique to Athens.

Ch. 7, “The unity and diversity of the Greek city,” briefly sketches a history of Greek literary texts. O. then presents some principal social, economic, and constitutional aspects of Sparta, contrasted with Athens. Finally, similarities and variations across the Greek world, in government, law, intercity relations, the treatment of prisoners and the dead, and rituals and sanctuaries, are concisely presented. On religion O. discusses mostly archaeological differences among poleis rather than panhellenic texts such as Hesiod or panhellenic beliefs. His exposition of his material is consistently fine, although I would be cautious in reporting (111-12) Thucydides’ presentation of various episodes of the treatment of prisoners. That writer is consistently diabolical.

Finally, Ch. 8, “Was Alexander the end of Greek history?,” briefly narrates mainland history from 404 to 360 (with flashbacks to the Peloponnesian War), and then Philip and Alexander. O.’s new focus on individuals is justified by the Greeks’ own crisis in community confidence (130), although I wish to point out that fourth-century criticisms of democracy (cf. 131) mostly come from anti-democratic writers. The book ends with brief comments on the Hellenistic world and on our debt to Greece.

If the preface’s opening words, “That I should write this book was Richard Stoneman’s idea,” suggests an author’s anxiety; both gentlemen should rest assured. O.’s is a bright, wiry, densely packed little text, rewarding to read and very much a product of its author and his milieu. It is graced with a detailed bibliography (136-47) and very detailed index (“Napoleon, sometimes suffered from bladderstone 41”). O.’s great strength, his simultaneous mastery of archaeology and social history, is ever on display. To judge from the back cover, the publisher is clearly hoping for big classroom sales and I won’t hesitate to recommend this book for anything having to do with archaic Greece, as a text to learn from and also play against. However, its compressed intelligence, frequent and sometimes unmarked disregard for the chronological order of sometimes obscure events, various particular claims and perspectives and other idiosyncrasies (Pithekoussai!), will make it difficult for beginners. The average US undergraduate would be at sea. That, however, is their problem (if also Stoneman’s). Osborne has written a splendid little volume.

Misprints and slips in the text are trivial (18 line 5 up read “Thasos”; 27 line 18 “Laestrygonian”; 53 line 8 “of”; 39 line 4 up “di”; 85 line 9, Peloponnesian War begins in 431 not 432; 95 line 10 “exceptional”; 104 line 7, Sophokles’ first victory in 468/7, not 447; 125 line 5 up, “369-367”; 127 line 1, battle of Chaironeia in 338 not 337). On the other hand, someone ought to have proofread the bibliography, where I found some 35 errors both minor and not, from missing punctuation to “Vandenhoeck of Puprecht” and hiccups at both Hanson and Howgego; also, my coauthor is Westbrook not Westbury. For other minor points, “record times and distances” (9) are surely another difference between ancient and modern sports. On p. 82 Athens’ “probable formal peace” with Persia is dated 451, not 449. On p. 87 odd numbers of dikasts are not recorded until the 4th century. Page 102 should probably not positively report that Thucydides VIII is said to have been written by his daughter. Even Marcellinus brushed aside that criticism (and also that its author was Xenophon or Theopompos). “In drama, history and philosophy Athens’ predominance may be a result of its size” (103, but contrast 117-18). Finally, my book-in-progress is on personal and not political freedom (cf. 143), but I’m nonetheless grateful for the mention.