BMCR 2006.03.02

The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society

, , The Greeks : history, culture, and society. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. xvii, 534, [23] pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 013921156X $52.20 (pb).

The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society by Ian Morris and Barry Powell (MP) joins the expanding array of textbooks which provide an introduction to ancient Greek history and culture.1 This new volume has much to recommend it: thorough coverage of a greater chronological range than most such books and welcome attention to Sicily, along with non-Greek cultures around the Mediterranean, but there are errors and rough spots characteristic of a first edition.

The book divides into 23 chapters, including a brief introduction to the subject (1), two short surveys of geography and society (2-3), and a concluding overview (23). The intervening 19 chapters (4-22) proceed chronologically for the most part, from 12,000 B.C. to 30 B.C. Each chapter ends with a list of Key Terms, the first occurrence of which in the text is helpfully highlighted by boldface type. The list also gives the page number of each term’s first appearance, a useful feature. A list of books for Further Reading and of Ancient Texts rounds out each chapter.

The introductory chapter, “A Small, Far-Off Land,” begins by posing the question why the dashing Lord Byron and others were willing to die in the fierce war for Greek independence. MP suggest that “the Greeks are good to think with” (7, original emphasis), while querying who the Greeks were ethnically.

The next chapter, “Country and People,” quickly establishes basics about geography and includes some broad claims about the demography of ancient Greece. MP introduce issues of life expectancy, health, and quality of life, to which they return periodically in later chapters. Teachers should be cautious here. “We can sketch a credible picture of ancient Greek demography,” say MP, but under the best of circumstances demography is a tricky art (and a “credible” picture need not be remotely accurate), and data for the distant past in a land where record keeping was erratic at best hardly serve as a firm foundation for scientifically sound conclusions. It is one thing to identify cultural tensions and contrasts about the expected norms of human life (as MP do well, e.g., with respect to infant mortality), but it is another to assert the scientific quantities behind such ideology.

Chapter 3, “The Greeks at Home,” outlines some further aspects of Greek domestic and social life: gender, sexuality, and adulthood. While the idea behind this chapter is probably to provide some general social background for Greek life and history, discussion here is in fact limited to a narrow chronological period, so the topics would fit better in the relevant later chapters (e.g., Sappho with the Archaic period, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus with the Classical Period).

The next few chapters benefit fully from the authors’ area of expertise. Reaching back to the end of the Ice Age in southern Europe, MP deftly present the Minoan and Mycenaean epochs (Chapter 4 “The Greeks Before History, 12,000-1200 B.C.”) and the ensuing Dark Age (Chapter 5 “The Dark Age, 1200-700 B.C.”). They devote the entire next chapter to Homer, surveying the rich scholarly exploration of the Homeric world and summarizing the Iliad and Odyssey. One cannot fault MP’s magisterial yet accessible coverage. Teachers should beware, however, that MP do not shrink from putting their individual stamp on the material. Their detailed explication of Dark Age society is extrapolation of Homeric texts and headings such as “The Tragic Iliad” and “The Comic Odyssey” give some idea of MP’s slant on the epics. This is not a criticism of the ideas presented, just a note that the chapter is neither an open-ended nor an understated presentation.

A transitional chapter on “Religion and Myth” follows, without disrupting the chronology, for Hesiod and other early sources for classical mythology are introduced here. As would be expected from Powell’s Classical Myth textbook (4th ed., Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003), the presentation is dense, rich, and provocative. The explanation of sacrifice here is excellent and the coverage of mystery cults and the afterlife is good. MP do not hesitate to make potentially unsettling comments which might either alarm students, spur lively discussion, or both (e.g., religion “begin[s] in fear wedded to illusion” [122]).

The following three chapters are dedicated to different aspects of the Archaic period (Chapter 8 “Archaic Greece, 700-480 B.C.: Economy, Society, Politics,” Chapter 9 “The Archaic Cultural Revolution, 700-480 B.C.,” Chapter 10 “A Tale of Two Archaic Cities: Sparta and Athens, 700-480 B.C. “). The coverage of the Milesian thinkers and the rise of new forms in art and architecture is particularly good. The accounts of archaic Sparta and Athens are careful and clear. As with the coverage of the Dark Age, however, MP’s classifications of the dynamics of social change (especially sections like “Ideology” on pp. 155-56) consist more of scholarly judgment than historical certainty.

As MP approach the Classical Period, they take time to establish Greece in relation to the other peoples around the Mediterranean. Half of Chapter 11, “Persia and the Greeks, 550-490 B.C.,” concentrates on the Assyrians and Persians, especially the steady rise of the Persian empire. The coverage here is good but a little uneven. The four pages on the Assyrians seem to have little point beyond being background for the founding of Carthage. Phrygia receives three sentences and yet is considered a “Key Term” for the chapter. Lydia nets more substantial but still uneven coverage. MP include the story of Gyges and Candaules’ wife but omit entirely the tale of Solon’s encounter with Croesus. While this meeting was not historical, Herodotus’ account is certainly worth reporting as a Greek interpretation of the contrast between cultures and something of the archaic Greek mindset generally (not to mention the story is a famous one and valuable for building up a reader’s cultural literacy about Classical Greece). MP are clearly not above including such material, as they quote chunks of Herodotus’ colorful, and at times silly, narratives of Cyrus’ and Darius’ early years. Twenty pages of this chapter are devoted to background of the Persian Empire before the last five pages document the watershed battle at Marathon. Some of the build-up would be better streamlined or deleted, especially the convoluted politics of the Ionian rebellion and the roller coaster (mis)fortunes of Histiaeus.

“The Great War, 480-479 B.C.” is the subject of the much shorter Chapter 12, which displays the greater strengths and weaknesses of this book. MP’s great innovation is to include coverage of Western Greece, i.e., Sicily, as well as the struggles on mainland Greece. Such a structure brings with it several advantages. Fuller coverage of Sicily, as a culturally rich and historically important area for Classical culture, is always welcome. Establishing Sicily early helps provide context for the disastrous Sicilian expedition decades later as well as the Roman occupation during the Punic wars. Unfortunately, developments on Sicily during this time amount to a series of squabbles among petty tyrants of medium-sized cities, most of whom never become major players, and MP are not up to making their account of these years riveting. Also, strangely, given that MP devote a good portion of Chapter 11 to establishing the cultural divide between the Greeks and other peoples of the Mediterranean, this aspect of the conflict is comparatively understated in this chapter.

The next chapter covers “The Democracy and Empire: Athens and Syracuse, 479-431 B.C.” MP continue to include developments in Sicily parallel to the rise of Athenian power around the Aegean. Both the advantages and disadvantages persist: the benefit of keeping an eye to the west on a wealthy and powerful part of ancient Greece and the disadvantage of a less-than-compelling narrative of the many events which are small of scale and of relatively little consequence except when taken collectively. There is, after all, a reason Thucydides surveyed these fifty years and began his detailed account with the squabble over Corcyra, because this was the petty event that finally had measurable consequences.

Part of Chapter 13 is devoted to social history, with brief sections on trade, slavery, and economic development. The next two chapters halt the chronological progress to survey other developments in the fifth century B.C. (“Art and Thought in the Fifth Century B.C.” in Chapter 14 and “Greek Drama” in Chapter 15). Chapter 14 does a solid job summarizing the developments in intellectual and philosophical thought among the pre-Socratics and the Sophists. The second part of the chapter turns to material culture (sculpture, architecture and painting). The coverage here is again uneven. For example, the Riace bronzes, here attributed to Phidias, receive detailed coverage while Myron, his Discobolus, Polycleitus, and his Doryphorus are never even mentioned. Drama fares better in Chapter 15. MP survey Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, dithyrambs, the structure of plays, theaters, and Aristotle’s theories for tragedy plus a few pages on the history and structure of comedy. This chapter is also unusual in that it contains extensive quotations from non-historical sources, including longer sections from Bacchylides 5, Euripides’ Bacchae, and Aristophanes’ Acharnians. As with comments on religion in Chapter 7, I cannot shake the feeling that for comedy MP chose the extremely harsh and pornographic scene of the Megarian selling his daughters in order to shock readers and students. Perhaps the most surprising characteristic of these two chapters, however, is a simple omission. MP in their introduction and conclusion date the Classical Period as beginning in 480 B.C., and yet once the body of the textbook reaches these years, there is essentially no celebration of the fact, no mention that this is the period, these the advances, these the works of art, literature and culture that defined the Hellenic ideal for later Greeks for the later Western world. Nor would one realize readily that historical writing, including Herodotus and Thucydides, come out of this fertile period. Perhaps these points seem too obvious to need such signposts, but when I taught a survey course on Ancient Greek Civilization using this book last semester, I found it necessary to remind students regularly that these developments mark the Classical period.

Chapter 16 narrates “The Peloponnesian War and its Aftermath, 431-399 B.C.” In this time frame, of course, the interleaved narratives of mainland Greece and Sicily come crashing together. Unfortunately, political and military narrative is not MP’s strong point, so what could and should be a moment of climax is simply clumsy. While the key information is present, the coherence and force of the narrative is not (if there is something profound to be learned from the detailed account of sieges and retreats at Syracuse, MP do not tell what it is). This chapter and the battles of the Persian Wars were the only two where students in my class openly expressed their confusion. For this chapter in particular, I felt the need to recast the narrative and provide entirely new maps in order to make clear the basic dynamics of the period.

The following chapter (17: “The Greeks between Persia and Carthage, 399-360 B.C.”) represents an improvement, pleasantly despite the fact that the events of this period are extremely convoluted. MP keep the writing brisk and brief here, to much better effect. The compactness, vividness, and coherent use of anecdotes found here should be a model for recasting some of the earlier chapters.

Chapter 18, “Greek Culture in the Fourth Century B.C.,” runs parallel to the surveys of art, thought and culture found in Chapter 14. Again the coverage of sculpture is odd, discussing Praxiteles but ignoring Lysippus. The coverage of philosophy means Plato (consisting of a political reading of the theory of Forms and the Allegory of the Cave) and Aristotle.

Chapter 19, “The Warrior-Kings of Macedon, 359-323 B.C.,” charts the rise of Philip II and concludes with the death of Alexander the Great. This is another good chapter, although it is a strange narrative that devotes more space to Timoleon than to Isocrates or Demosthenes.

Chapter 20, “The Hellenistic Century, 323-220 B.C.,” is one of the best in the book, deftly organizing and surveying the dizzyingly complex shifts of empire and authority during the first century of the Hellenistic period. MP carefully describe, with accompanying charts and maps, how Alexander’s successors build and compete with each other for empire. Also included are sections on the decline of Athens and Sparta during the third century. The description of Athens from Heraclides of Crete (456) and the sympathetic account of Sparta’s attempt to regain its former glory in the face of a new world are powerful codas to the history of the Classical Period.

As with the fifth and fourth centuries, MP next provide an overview of artistic and cultural developments. Chapter 21, “Hellenistic Culture 323-30 B.C.,” looks at Hellenistic historiography, various genres of poetry, sculpture, architecture, painting, philosophy, medicine and science. Most of the coverage here is welcome and adequate, though Hippocrates, Galen, and Claudius Ptolemy appear out of their proper chronological frame.

The final chronological chapter covers “The Coming of Rome, 220-30 B.C.” down to the suicide of Cleopatra VII and the rise of Augustus. MP do a good job delineating the Greek perspective on the rise of Rome and its encroachment into Greek territories. Fans of the Romans, however, should be warned that MP’s account of Brutus and Cicero borders on the vindictive, consisting of little more than an expos of the men’s hard-line attitude toward the financial exploitation of mainland Greece. A brief overview chapter closes out the book.

I have pointed out shortcomings in several chapters, but these should not overshadow that much of the book is detailed, well-written and up-to-date. Most of the book’s flaws are sure to be addressed in subsequent editions. As well as the weaknesses outlined above, there is a scattering of typographical errors.2 On the positive side, the broader perspective on Greek interaction with the rest of the Mediterranean is also quite welcome.

Among its greatest strengths is its expanded chronological coverage, from pre-history down to 30 B.C. This represents an improvement over most books, which stall at the death of Alexander the Great. Still, I yearn for a book that completes the story.3 MP begin their tale with Lord Byron fighting for the independence of modern Greece and ask why he would have risked and lost his life in 1824 for the cause. The reader who completes this book will still wonder. What happened in and to Greece during the intervening 1,800 years? There is much in this period which is compelling to modern readers. MP discuss Galen but not in the context of the peak of the Roman Empire, where he belongs. Like most textbooks, the authors quote Plutarch frequently, but without discussing his life and the purpose of his writings, since coverage never reaches his time. The achievements of Greek inventors and thinkers under the later Roman Empire exert a fascination in our modern technological age. The Byzantine world preserved and extended Hellenic culture in ways as profound and widespread as the earlier Roman world, sparking literacy in the Slavic world, fostering an artistic style both sophisticated and hauntingly reminiscent of primitive folk art, and standing as the buffer between Europe and the spread of the Ottoman Empire. The history of the battleground, both physical and cultural, between the Western and Islamic worlds is as relevant and important today for students and readers as it has ever been. The Ottoman occupation of Greece was also the time of European looting and the gradual development of the science of archaeology, and it was in this troubled environment that the romantic Byron somehow still managed to see the glory that was Greece. One hundred eighty years after Byron’s death, an independent, democratic Greece hosted the Olympic games and stunned the world with the artistry of their opening ceremony. This ceremony included a parade of images chronicling Greek artistic and cultural accomplishments, yet nearly half of these images would be meaningless to someone who has read this entire book. As Classicists we frequently assert the value of the classical world for understanding the foundation of modern society and for seeing the reverberations of antiquity in the world today. As ambassadors of Classical culture, we can and should, at least in the barest outlines, communicate the entire length of the roads and bridges which link us to the “small, far-off land” that was, and is, home to the Greeks.


1. Other books in this vein include Sarah Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), ISBN: 0195097432, which is currently undergoing revision for a new edition. It is also available in a condensed version as A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), ISBN: 0195156811. Thomas R. Martin, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Updated ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), ISBN: 0300084935. Nancy Demand, History of Ancient Greece in Its Mediterranean Context, 2nd ed. (Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan, 2006), ISBN: 1597380032. Robert Kebric, Greek People, 4th ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004) ISBN: 0072869038. I have used several different books to teach an introductory course on Ancient Greece and included Morris and Powell this past semester, Fall of 2005, before writing this review.

2. I did not make a systematic search for errors, but I have noted the following: p.78 line 17, map 5.2 does not show Pithekoussai, nor would it even appear on this map; p. 80, for the sake of consistency with the other headings, “THE” should be added before “EIGHTH-CENTURY RENAISSANCE”; p.130, “italicize” should be italicized; p. 149 line 9 of the quote from Hesiod, for “kronus” read “Cronus”; p.167 line 6 from the bottom, for “Figure 22.13,” read “Figure 22.12”; p.193, the bold instance of “helots” should be delayed to the next page, where they are discussed; p.217 line 7, something has gone wrong with this sentence (perhaps for “no” read “an”?); p.225, only the “L” in the heading “Lydia” should be upper case; p.263 end of paragraph, for “Figure 12.1,” read “Figure 12.4”; p.264 line 8 from bottom, for “Map 12.4” read “Map 12.3”; p.293 second full paragraph, a saying of Gorgias is attributed to Hippias; p.344 line 5, for “Cydadic” read “Cycladic”; p.351 line 4 in middle paragraph, for “Map 16.3” read “Map 16.2”; pp. 353 bottom, the passage from Diodorus has already been quote (cf. p.272); p.393 lines 5-6, something has gone wrong with this sentence (perhaps delete “realize” at the beginning of line 6?); p.409 line 6 refers to “Figure 2.6,” but there is no figure with this number. The index is quite unreliable and does not even include all the Key Terms from the chapters.

3. In order to provide some coverage of later periods, I have been using Robert Browning, ed., Greek World: Classical, Byzantine and Modern (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), ISBN: 0500281629. The articles in it do not cohere very well, however, and so there is still need and demand for a textbook that includes at least a brief survey of later periods.