BMCR 2006.07.63

Finding People in Early Greece

, Finding people in early Greece. 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.. Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xi, 154 pages) : illustrations, maps.. ISBN0826264662 $34.95.

1 Responses

Table of Contents

This book by Professor C.G. Thomas is definitively innovative. One might think that literary texts can teach us little on the history of early Greece (the pre-classical periods): see for instance M. I. Finley’s brilliant book on Early Greece 1 and the traditional syntheses by L.H. Jeffery 2 and C. G. Starr.3 The field has been taken up by archaeologists, and most of our new data comes from excavations and material studies.4 Professor Thomas (hereafter T.) tries to prove this wrong. She has taken up the challenge of combining archaeology and literary sources into an historical discourse in order to ‘re-humanise’ ancient history, a field which, she claims, has been ‘de-humanised’ by structuralism and statistical analysis. According to T., we can attempt to reconstruct the biography of individuals living in archaic Greece and to ‘comprehend the workings of the mind’ of these people (p. 40). We see in her attempt a strong influence of, or even nostalgia for, what history used to be fifty years ago.

This is particularly evident in her Chapter I (‘History at the Crossroads’). T. provides an interesting overview of the methodological debate in ancient history for the past fifty years, analysing the importance and effects of different interpretative paradigms (e. g., Braudel’s). In the course of this rich epistemological reflection, T. says much about herself (she advocates a kind of ‘ ego history’) and her mistrust of scientific reductionism (‘everything is in DNA’) in humanities. She criticises the ‘Linguistic Turn’5 that gave philology a new dynamism in the 1970s and opposes recent trends in archaeology (modelling and systemic analysis). This account is admittedly very personal, and is written in a lively style. And, even if we agree with her on some extreme applications of the approaches she criticises, it is difficult to concede to her that these approaches must be discarded completely. T. argues that ancient historians are wrong to mistrust the textual material they have. This is after all the base of all historical discourses. Even if one does not agree with T.’s approach, a methodological reflection is a necessary preliminary step to any historical reconstruction. In this chapter, T. asks the question that is central to her book: ‘can we go back to individuals’? Can we ‘re-humanise’ early Greece? Can we ‘find people’?

For T., the answer is clearly yes. She tries to prove it with two cases studies: Jason and Hesiod. Her method seems simple: she tries to ‘establish correspondence among places (geographical location), peoples (individuals, not group or community), and technological skills’ (p. 52). Did archaic technology allow people do what they are said to have done? As we will see, most of the book stands or falls on this particular point, which is mainly a point of method. Therefore, the following remarks will mostly address methodological questions rather than points of detail.

In ‘Launching the Argo’ (Chapter 2), T. rightly points out that the narratives about Jason and his journey must have originated in the distant past, even if most of the texts we have are post-archaic accounts (Pindar gives us the first detailed narrative). T. examines scrupulously the content of these stories and the material conditions that are needed to make them real. She then compares them to what we know about the material culture of the Mycenaean age and concludes that nothing stops us from seeing the traditions about the Argonauts as a distorted memory of a real journey that took place in the thirteenth or twelfth century BC. T. concludes that Jason’s tale must be seen as a sign of the Mycenaean expansion in the Black Sea region at the end of the Bronze Age.

The conclusion is provocative and will surely spur debate among scholars working on Mycenaean maritime commerce and on the history of the Black Sea: T. challenges the Aegean-centred view of the Mycenaean world. Whatever one thinks of this suggestion, the question is one of method: how do we connect archaeology and historical research? Does a find of Mycenaean pottery necessarily imply close or direct contacts with the Mycenaean world? When scholars integrate archaeological data into an historical frame, they need to do so with proper contextualization to avoid the risk of overinterpretation. Another Achilles’ heel of T.’s argument is the assumption that the saga of Jason and the ship Argo (as other epic and lyric traditions) must be based on historical events. This is probably the most conservative part of her argument. And even if this is true, we cannot know that the tale did not change for over five centuries, at least in the meaning people can find in it. It is, I think, better to adopt a more cautious approach and to interpret a myth as reflecting the time when the myth itself is told. It is true that traditional tales may correctly transmit ancient traditions, but the surviving texts that relate Jason’s quest are not from Mycenaean times, nor do they give a clear reference to Mycenaean civilization. T.’s point is very questionable: the fact that Jason’s travels were technologically possible does not mean that they actually happened. T. refuses ‘surely not’ and asks: ‘why not’? But the further step, the one of accepting the story as a historical event, is a difficult one.

In Chapter 3 (‘The Birth of the Author’), T. discusses a more familiar figure for historians of early Greece, Hesiod. The text of the Works and Days itself gives us details about the life of its author: his work as a farmer, the origin of his father, Hesiod’s quarrel with his brother Perses, the legal contest in front of the “gift-eating” kings, etc. It is easy to reconstruct a linear narrative,6 even if some scholars have argued that the biographical elements are in fact a literary convention that is not to be taken literally.7 T. wants to ‘verify the possible existence of Hesiod’ (p. 91). She applies the same method that she used for Jason: the analysis of the text is matched with the archaeological evidence. She claims that Hesiod certainly describes the world of his time and that this means that Hesiod must have existed. The argument is almost circular, as T. reconstructs the world of Hesiod’s time from Hesiod’s poems. Hesiod lived in a ‘small farming village’ (p. 99); the economy was based on agriculture and occasional sea commerce (p. 104); the minimal economic and demographic growth caused social tension (pp. 105-109). This happened in many places and many historical periods, not just in the Boeotia of the seventh century BC. Furthermore, T.’s method disregard the fact that there is a huge difference between Jason, who wrote nothing that we can read, and Hesiod, whose masterworks have been carefully transmitted to us with probably the minimum alteration we can expect for a 2600 year old text. The main question raised by this book is this: does the simple possibility of a historical fact prove its truth? Although T. successfully shows that Hesiod ‘possibly existed’ (p. 91), she does not convince me that he actually existed. But in the end, do we need that certainty to use Hesiod’s work to understand the archaic Greek world?

T. is definitely ‘shaking the tree’ of our knowledge of early Greece. She does this with great intellectual probity, leaving space for disagreement. The question is not which approach is more correct but which one better explains our data. Given the nature of pre-classical sources, T. shows that biography can be a way, but it is a tricky one.8 And I do not think it will supersede the other approaches, including statistical and modelling analysis. These approaches differ in their goals and methods and will remain essential for studying early Iron Age Greece.

[For a response to this review by E. F. Beall, please see BMCR 2006.09.13.]


1. M.I. Finley, Early Greece. The Bronze and Archaic Ages, London, 1970.

2. L.H. Jeffery, Archaic Greece. The City-States c.700-500 B.C., London, 1976.

3. Ch. G. Starr, Individual and Community. The Rise of the Polis, 800-500 B.C., Oxford, 1986.

4. In the past twenty years, the most innovative books about pre-classical Greece have come from archaeologists, or from historians using archaeological evidence as a guideline. See for instance I. Morris, Burial and Ancient Society. The Rise of the Greek City-State, Cambridge, 1987; F. de Polignac, La naissance de la cité grecque. Cultes, espaces et société, VIII e -VII e siècles, Paris, 1984, 1995 2 [Engl. trans. Cults, Territory and the Origins of the Greek City-States, Chicago, 1995]; C. Morgan, Early Greek States beyond the Polis, London, 2003.

5. T. is referring to deconstruction.

6. See for example Anthony T. Edwards, Hesiod’s Ascra, Berkeley 2004.

7. T., surprisingly, does not refer to the work of G. Nagy, and his ideas about the ‘poetic personas’ of archaic poets. See G. Nagy, Greek Mythology and Poetics, Ithaca, 1990 and Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past, Baltimore and London, 1990.

8. For a use of biography in a different approach, see P. Brun’s L’orateur Démade: essai d’histoire et d’historiographie, Bordeaux, 2000 and the review by J. Roy in BMCR 2002.09.22.