BMCR 2005.09.13

Hesiod’s Ascra

, Hesiod's Ascra. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xii, 208 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780520929579 $45.00.

Anthony Edwards (hereafter E) offers in Hesiod’s Ascra an ambitious re-assessment of both Hesiod’s home village and Hesiod’s quarrel with his brother Perses. The roots of the book lie in a larger project exploring the representation of the countryside in the literature of Archaic and Classical Greece. While conducting that study, E became dissatisfied with existing scholarly accounts of the historical context of Works and Days (hereafter WD) as well as characterizations of Hesiod’s village of Ascra as a subordinate peasant society, and so he set out to re-evaluate the poem and its world. His conclusion is that Ascra, at the time Hesiod is writing (c.700 BCE, is fully autonomous and independent of its powerful neighbor, the polis of Thespiai, and should therefore be more closely identified with the autonomous, largely egalitarian Dark Age community than with the emergent polis and its attendant social stratification and economic and political tensions. With this observation E calls into question the common placement of Hesiod’s Ascra within a developmental continuum of Greek social and political evolution from Homer to Solon.1 On the surface, E’s appeal for a more nuanced view of community in Archaic Greece is not so revolutionary and fits comfortably within current historiographical trends that reject developmental or archetypal continua.2 What makes this book controversial is E’s insistence that Ascra is autonomous, that the elite of Thespiai do not hold social or political authority in Ascra, and that the conflict between village (Ascra) and city (Thespiai), which has drawn much scholarly attention to WD, is of less importance to, and only a side effect of a dispute between two villagers (Hesiod and his brother Perses).3 E suggests that Ascran self-sufficiency, and Perses’ disregard for it, drive the poem more than any official or regularized control of Ascra by the elite of Thespiai. The text is clean and relatively free from errors.4

The book is organized into 6 chapters, each arguing a portion of the main thesis.

Chapter 1, “Introduction,” asks if Hesiod’s Ascra is comparable as a community to the Homeric polis, the Athens of Solon’s time, an early modern peasant society, or something fundamentally different from any of these. As befits a book that seeks to correct misinterpretations as well as offer a new model, this chapter provides a full historiographical review of past characterizations of WD and Ascran society, particularly with respect to the linear developmental arguments of Will and the models of a subordinate peasantry of Walcot.5 At the end, E suggests that Ascra is both more primitive than a polis and more autonomous than a peasant society.

Chapter 2, “External Relations: Ascra and Thespiai,” approaches the problem more concretely, through four inter-connected topics: the conflict between Hesiod and Perses with respect to outsiders, trade between Ascra and the outside world, arrangements for pooling village resources, and general relations between Ascra and Thespiai.

After showing that previous scholarship has assumed a pre-existing inequity in Archaic Greece between small-holding farmers and their aristocratic neighbors that resulted in debt, E returns to the text of WD to re-examine what inheritance, land tenure, and debt signified for Hesiod and his audience. In WD, debt and the need that leads to borrowing are associated with food and with immediate neighbors, not with external trade, markets, or lenders. Poor harvests or poor farming can lead to food shortages, but instead of forcing owners to alienate their land, as many scholars have suggested, E shows that this food shortage only requires borrowing from those fellow farmers nearby who have surplus. Even failure to repay debt merely results in loss of future credit. “Debt” as Hesiod conceives it, does not comprise a lien against property, cannot lead to seizure of assets, and does not by itself connect the village to the polis. A farmer abandons his kleros not to pay off formal debts to outsiders but in exchange for subsistence when his relatives and neighbors are no longer willing to share their resources with him freely. To support this contention, E demonstrates that Hesiod does not complain about land shortage or protest debts, rents, taxes, corvée, interest, unfavorable trading terms, or oppression by a powerful, outside aristocracy. Hesiod complains about litigation and false-swearing, about Perses’ gifts to the basilees of Thespiai, and above all about shiftlessness. But none of these problems is imposed by an external elite — they just represent poor choices made by individuals such as Perses. Indeed, E argues that the ills Hesiod complains about are not caused by the presence of an elite but rather by a regulatory elite’s absence.

In order to illuminate the specific nature of external relations, E focuses on the more personal interactions between Hesiod, Perses, and the basilees of Thespiai by raising the question of whether Perses has already taken the family quarrel before the kings. On page 42 he offers a word-by-word analysis to show why the case cannot have been brought before the judges, demonstrating that Hesiod is specifically referring to the dividing up of the inheritance, not going to court again. Since the estate has already been allocated, it cannot be reapportioned. Thus, E reconstructs the dispute as follows. After their father’s death the brothers divided the land and Perses began to cultivate the basilees of Thespiai with gifts and watch their judicial activities in the agora. Because he was spending so much time away from the farm, he needed to rely more on his brother for food handouts. Hesiod threatened to cut him off and so Perses countered with his own threat to go before the kings of Thespiai and have them reconsider the division of the farm. WD is an attempt to dissuade Perses from doing this.

As for the basilees themselves, E explores their role in both trade and credit. Contrary to Tandy, who sees regularized long distance trade as subordinating Ascra to Thespiai, E views Ascran trade as sporadic at best and only a hedge and assist in times of hardship. Hesiod and his neighbors are engaging in trade only opportunistically and then only to aid their subsistence economy. In WD, there are no elite from Thespiai controlling and manipulating markets, just self-interested individual Ascran oikoi. Nor are the basilees creditors to subordinate Ascran peasants. WD addresses the basilees exclusively as judges — associated with agora and polis — and gives no evidence that the kings have political, military or economic power over Ascra. Indeed, the kings of Thespiai have jurisdiction over conflicts in Ascra only if those disputes have been brought to them voluntarily. Of course, Thespiai, as a larger, more stratified community is interested in expanding its resource base and security by incorporating settlements such as Ascra within its territory — that’s why Perses’ threat carries weight — but Ascra controls the relationship. And while Ascrans such as Perses are interested in benefiting opportunistically from contacts with their wealthier, more powerful neighbor, WD suggests that Ascran households wish to preserve their autonomy, and especially their freedom from the costs of full participation in the political economy of Thespiai. This balancing act between interests is the medium in which Hesiod and Perses’ conflict takes place.

In Chapter 3, “Internal Relations,” E delves into the organization and priorities of Ascran households in order to determine the degree to which they might be integrated into more complex structures. After showing that Hesiod viewed the household almost exclusively in its productive aspect, as an individual unit organized to carry out labor and acquire subsistence and surplus, E argues that Ascran households defined all relationships in terms of productivity and control over resources. Moreover, each oikos is set against all others since status and respect can be gained by both self-sufficiency and sharing. But because a household had only small reserves to share, debt obligation was very much an ad hoc system, in which the claim of one household on another was limited. The impact of debt itself was also limited, since failure to repay resulted only in the end of sharing — no repossession, no expropriation.

The absence of a well-developed generalized reciprocity among households left village membership devoid of any large advantages and the village boundary with nothing really to enclose; oikos membership was much more significant. Because status is tenuous at best — a bad year could make anyone a borrower — authority in Ascra is informal and based upon individual prestige, not on age, office, or some other form of inherited status. E concludes that Ascra lies outside the political economy of the polis, is egalitarian by nature, and therefore holds no place for the mesos, the “middle class” man who has become so prominent in developmental models such as Hanson’s. E suggests that Hesiod’s ideals of autarchy and the nobility of the small, hardworking man arose in opposition to the polis and the obligations imposed by its integrated hierarchy. Yet E does not deny that Hesiod’s ideals later held appeal to the Classical mesoi; indeed, the democratic ideology of the Classical mesos adopted and preserved the values and egalitarianism of the village.

In Chapter 4, “The Agricultural Regime,” E explores the mechanics of agriculture in Ascra and its effect on community organization. Extrapolating from the methodological frameworks created by Boserup and others, E suggests that extensive, short-fallow agriculture is the mark of a dispersed, loosely-stratified community.6 Therefore, WD, which advocates a multi-crop, short-fallow regime, requiring draft animals, substantial human labor, and dispersed plots that were fairly extensively farmed, describes a loosely-populated, egalitarian society. Although he has made a thorough survey of the relevant scholarship, E seems in this chapter to be farthest from his home field of literary analysis, and perhaps for this reason he often makes naive assumptions, as on p. 134, where he simply assumes the presence of irrigation in a semi-arid country like Greece.7

In Chapter 5, “The Shape of Hesiods’s Ascra,” E unites the various strands of his argument by offering a composite view of Hesiod’s village. The community Hesiod describes is fairly egalitarian, with no perceived hierarchy or centralization. WD offers no evidence that any segment of the community has gained a favorable or exploitative control over essential resources such as water or land, and Ascra’s out-of-the-way location isolated it from other villages and discouraged synoikism and outside relationships. Prestige and authority in Ascra are based solely on the agricultural productivity of individual households, and productivity depends more on the family’s willingness to work harder than required for normal subsistence than on land quality or labor resources. Competition, eris, fuels production, and competition for prestige fuels sharing. But this sharing takes the form of balanced reciprocity — the sharer expects to be repaid, even by close family members, and will cease to be generous if the loan of food remains unpaid for too long, or if the borrower asks for additional loans without repayment. Because reciprocity is balanced, there is no mechanism for the construction of a fixed elite. Instead, E postulates a group of lenders who have some influence in the community because of their ability to maintain a surplus of food, but who are divided by infighting and “one-upmanship.” These men supply leadership and guidance in special situations where community needs required cooperation, but they have no permanent status because their power is rooted in the resources of their individual houses, for, as Hesiod warns, a bad year can turn anyone into a borrower. As for the basilees of Thespiai, E concludes that their influence over Ascra was limited to disputes brought before them voluntarily; Thespiai itself enjoyed only a certain vague prestige over Ascra that any organized, wealthy community has over weaker, less centralized, less wealthy neighbors. For E, Hesiod’s Ascra is a very small world that has remained “unhierarchized and unregimented by the polis system, by the need to supply a basileus or an elite with a surplus. The desire to enjoy the benefits of cooperation is balanced against the desire to hoard the resources of the household and not share them with others” (166). Ascra’s inhabitants are unwilling to risk the autonomy and wellbeing of the household for such intangibles as prestige and authority.

One of the strengths of the book is that E approaches everything from the Ascran point of view, casting the discussion in terms of what the Ascrans would or would not find advantageous. But the Ascrans might not always have things their own way — as E notes, Thespiai was larger and more powerful, and, if Thespiai, or the basilees of Thespiai, saw a need to subordinate Ascra, they could easily do so. In fact, E suggests that Thespiai may have conquered and absorbed Ascra soon after Hesiod’s death. Thus, WD portrays an Ascra on the verge of assimilation and Hesiod documents a process by which the elite of Thespiai begin to establish their dominance.

In Chapter 6, “Persuading Perses,” E treats the rhetorical purposes of the poem. He argues that Hesiod is trying to enclose Perses within the world of the village, to show him that his only options are hard work or starvation and that his appeal to outsiders will only end in failure. Hence, the conflict between polis and village enters the poem only as a side effect of the wider conflict between successful and failing farmer; it is only Perses’ threat to take the family dispute to the basilees that brings Hesiod’s attention and criticism against the polis. E argues that WD is didactic only in the sense that it is trying to teach Perses how to become good, how to become a functioning member of the village. “Hesiod does not intend to instruct Perses in farming technique but to exhort him to lead a moral life by glorifying labor and its benefits” (180). And, by the end of the poem, E argues, only Ascra and its concerns are important — Hesiod has wiped the city of Thespiai from the map and from the consciousness of his listeners. He has shifted attention from the moral conflicts “sparked by contact between country and city and towards the rhythms of justice and prosperity epitomized in the agricultural cycle, the idealized cadence of village life” that have a special resonance with Hesiod’s wider audience (181).

Hesiod’s Ascra offers a rich, coherent argument, but in the end this reviewer is left somewhat unconvinced that Ascra is an autonomous entity still fully independent from Thespiai. Autonomy is certainly possible, but E has not fully dispelled the prevailing scholarly view that Hesiod’s village has already been conquered by Thespiai. Of course, this may stem more from the nature and focus of WD than from E’s carefully constructed arguments; as E points out, Hesiod is uninterested in anything other than the very small, self-sufficient world of himself, his brother Perses, and their immediate neighbors. But there is that lingering dissatisfaction that E does not fully refute the thesis, advanced by Tandy, Morris, and others, that Hesiod is working so hard in WD to assert the independence of himself and his village because Ascra has already in some sense become subordinate to Thespiai, with its autonomy and productivity being siphoned off by the basilees. Regardless, Hesiod’s Ascra is a useful book that brings a new perspective, as well as an excellent blend of social theory and literary analysis, to a well trodden subject — the rise of the Greek polis and the nature of community in the Archaic period. E’s book is worth reading and is destined to spark much debate about the nature of the village in Ancient Greece.


1. As E demonstrates in his first and second chapters, this pervasive use of WD as context to the conditions that caused Athens’ Solonic debt and political tensions was first articulated by Éduard Will in his 1957 work, “Aux origines du régime foncier grec. Homère, Hésiode et l’arrière-plan Mycénien, Révue des Études Anciennes 59: 5-50 and more recently by Victor Davis Hanson in his controversial book The Other Greeks, New York: The Free Press, 1995. Indeed, Hanson sees Hesiod’s peasant farmers as the forerunners of the Athenian farmer-hoplites who inspired Athens’ democratic system. Hanson argues that the borrowing, concomitant debt, and “crooked justice” of the elite basilees exposed in WD, coupled with political exclusion of the farming class by that same elite, caused farmers to rise up and seize power — the most far-reaching example being the Kleisthenic revolution that brought democracy to Athens.

2. The studies produced by the Copenhagen Polis Centre under the aegis of Mogens Hansen are excellent examples, as are those essays collected in Brock and Hodkinson, edd., Alternatives to Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

3. David Tandy, Warriors into Traders, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997, offers a good review of the main arguments for Ascra’s subordination to Thespiai and argues persuasively that the elite of Thespiai were able to become elite through controlling trade and markets in the region. He also suggests that WD is a bitter, anti-aristocracy, social commentary on that control; hence Tandy sees Hesiod’s focus on self-sufficiency as a way to point out what has been lost in the conflict between village and polis.

4. Although the text itself is free from typographical errors, the index is not. The rendering of Greek into Latin characters has created a computer error that mars an otherwise clean presentation: an “a” is placed before long “e”; hence klêros becomes klaêros. Indeed, the uneven treatment and transliteration of Greek throughout the text has puzzled this reviewer. Whenever a text longer than a few words is reproduced, it is presented in Greek characters, with all proper diacritical notation and accentuation, but whenever a word or phase alone is used, transliteration into Latin characters is employed. The logic behind this choice is unclear, especially in this day and age of electronic publishing, and creates unnecessary difficulty for the reader.

5. P. Walcot, Greek Peasants, Ancient and Modern, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1970.

6. Unfortunately, there is little consensus on this issue, and the alternative view, articulated by Paul Halstead, that the more stratified and densely populated a region is the more extensive the agricultural strategies used, has wide support. P. Halstead, “The economy has a normal surplus: Economic stability and social change among early farming communities of Thessaly, Greece,” in P. Halstead and J. O’Shea, edd., Bad Year Economics: Cultural Responses to Risk and Uncertainty, pp. 68-80, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, and P. Halstead and G. Jones, “Agrarian Ecology in the Greek Islands: Time Stress, Scale and Risk,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 109(1989): 41-55.

7. Irrigation is rarely mentioned by Greek agricultural writers and seems to have been used sporadically, even in the more densely populated Classical period, even in wet places like Boiotia. Springs and wetlands were reserved for grazing animals, while digging, composting and manuring were the preferred methods of moisture supplementation. See L. Foxhall, “Feeling the earth move: cultivation techniques on steep slopes in classical antiquity,” in G. Shipley & J. Salmon, edd., Human Landscapes in Classical Antiquity: Environment and Culture, pp. 44-67, London: Routledge, 1996, for digging and soil improvement, and Christophe Chandezon, L’élevage en Grèce (fin V e -fin I er s. a.C.). L’apport des sources épigraphiques, Bordeaux: Ausonius, 2003, for the most recent discussion of Ancient Greek animal husbandry and pasturing.