BMCR 2007.01.41

A History of the Archaic Greek World ca. 1200-479 BCE

, A history of the archaic Greek world, ca. 1200-479 BCE. Blackwell history of the ancient world. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2007. xviii, 321 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9780631226673. $34.95 (pb).

Jonathan Hall has written a stimulating new history of Archaic Greece. Hall states that ‘I had not intended to write a revisionist history of the Archaic Greek world…rather, my intention was always to introduce the reader to some of the excitement that accompanies the practice of history’ (xvi). In this respect, this is a very successful book. It aims to introduce the student or the interested outsider to the evidence for archaic Greece and to display the ways a historian can use this evidence with its problematic nature, in order to reach historical conclusions. This is achieved in an exemplary manner; the book is very well-written, with a very helpful glossary of literary sources and a useful index; it does not pre-suppose any knowledge of the evidence or methods, it makes very sound use of the evidence, and offers convincing arguments. Given that most students of ancient history seldom have the chance to take a course on historical methodology, Hall’s book fills an important gap and will be much appreciated. In addition to that, Hall makes a number of important new claims about archaic Greece; but there are also a number of disappointing features to be dealt with. I provide a summary of the contents of the book, before moving to commentary and criticism. Chapter 1 (1-16) examines the nature of history and history-writing. Using the example of the Lelantine War, it argues that the nature of our sources for the archaic period does not allow us to write a narrative of events, and creates a problem for those who believe that history is simply a narrative of ‘what happened’. Hall explores the general problems that a historian faces in practising history, providing an excellent introduction to the issues.

Chapter 2 (17-40) is a very useful introduction to the specific sources and problems of the archaic period. Hall explains how we can make sense of sources which are significantly later than the events they describe, how it is possible to date ancient texts, inscriptions or objects, and how we can use different forms of evidence in combination.

Chapter 3 (41-66) deals with the end of the Mycenaean world and its aftermath. It examines the Dorian invasion and the subsequent migrations, questioning their historicity by arguing that the stories relating these migrations show traits of amalgamation between different traditions; instead, there are alternative explanations of why certain areas share similar linguistic, institutional and cultural features (e.g. contact and adoption). It examines various theories for the collapse of Mycenaean communities (military, environmental, economic, and social), arguing in favour of multi- rather than uni-causal theories. It explores the re-emergence of literacy; and finally it assesses to what extent we can describe this period as a Dark Age, by looking at sites that seem to defy this label (Lefkandi), or at alternative chronologies which deny the existence of the Dark Ages altogether. Hall’s conclusion is, however, that we have to retain the Dark Ages as a meaningful category and a distinct period of Greek history.

Chapter 4 (67-92) is entitled ‘Communities of place’. In recent work it has become a commonplace to view the eighth century as the breaking-point of the emergence of the polis and the creation of a new stage of Greek history, while the sixth and seventh centuries merely elaborate what had already started. Hall argues that we need to take a longer perspective, given that many processes and developments have a longer span that reaches back to the end of the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages, and the eighth-century shift is less drastic than usually thought; at the same time, he emphasises that the sixth century is a much more important period than often thought. He argues that the linguistic history of the word polis places the emphasis on polis as a place; the concept of community seems rather to be a secondary meaning attached to the term. Hall stresses that while ethnos and polis were not mutually exclusive, ethnos puts the emphasis on a community of people, while polis stresses place. And he makes a stimulating argument that the earlier emergence of poleis in certain areas rather than others can be connected to their Mycenaean background.

Hall shows that the evidence for population increase and the emergence of urban centres is difficult to assess and claims that it shows far less drastic changes in the eighth century than usually posited. There was a variety of settlement forms, from the less to the more nucleated, and the process of nucleation started already after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces and was still not complete in the classical period. The same picture seems to emerge when one looks at evidence for specialised political and economic functions: buildings with specialised political functions seem only to emerge in the sixth century, while economic functions seem to take place in a variety of different settings (e.g. sanctuaries) and the evidence for permanent market-places is very limited. The explosion of dedications and the first monumental temples have been taken as evidence for the emergence of a new form of polis community. Hall rightly stresses that many of the earliest temples are found in areas where poleis developed late; that the construction of temples can equally easily be attributed to powerful individuals rather than be evidence of community formation; and that the interpretation of extra-urban sanctuaries as territorial markers is difficult to justify in many cases.

Chapter 5 (93-118) examines Greek expansion in the wider Mediterranean during the archaic period. Recent scholarship has been very sceptical about the credibility of colonial foundation stories; many scholars argue nowadays that archaic colonies were not so much planned and created by official metropoleis in the mainland, but were the result of widespread mobility and had mixed origins; in addition, they had originally a much more hybrid form, before becoming organised political communities of the polis form. Hall adopts this recent trend; as regards the motives behind this mobility, he accepts both agricultural and commercial considerations.

Chapter 6 (119-54) examines the changing nature of authority. Hall argues that the Homeric epics portray a stage of Greek society in which deep rank divisions are relatively limited. Rather, society is divided between leaders and followers. The leaders are not highly ranked between themselves, since Homeric basileis are not so much kings, but approximate more to ‘big men’, figures that base their position on achievement rather than inherited status. At the same time it seems that Homeric society knows no well-defined aristocracy; Hall argues that while a class terminology ( kaloi vs. kakoi) is evident in archaic poetry, it is absent or ambivalent in the epics, and he interprets this as evidence that a well-defined aristocracy emerged only during the seventh and sixth centuries.1 During this period the Homeric basileis joined together in larger communities, distinguished themselves more clearly from the lower classes, and created institutions and practices for sharing power.2 Finally, following recent work, Hall shows the unreliability of traditional stories on archaic tyrants and argues that most of them came from an aristocratic background and were just the most successful in applying standard aristocratic techniques for gaining power; the old image of the tyrant as the precursor of the democratic breakthrough is largely discarded. Excursus I (145-54) examines the reliability of traditions about Pheidon as a case study.

Chapter 7 (155-77) is entitled ‘Fighting for the fatherland’. Hall argues that the old image of the ‘hoplite revolution’ is very problematic and that mass warfare is already attested in the Homeric epics; but he is sceptical about the claim that mass participation in warfare is tantamount to an egalitarian spirit inherent in the polis, which ultimately leads to democracy. Hall shows that there existed significant distinctions within the phalanx: the promachoi played a more prominent role than the other ranks, only a minority of the hoplites was fully armed, while the ‘hoplite class’ was recruited not from an agrarian middle class, but from a small upper segment of the population: ‘far from being an expression of egalitarianism, the hoplite phalanx visibly enshrined and perpetuated the status distinctions of archaic Greek society’ (170). Finally, the evidence of archaic warfare shows that while most of it concerned raiding and border disputes, in some cases expansion and conquest were important motives; but the aim seems to be not so much the acquisition of territory, as the creation of dependent populations providing tribute and services.

Chapter 8 (178-202) examines archaic attempts at defining the political community. In contrast to modern attempts to trace an egalitarian trend in the archaic period that ultimately leads to classical democracy, Hall stresses the extent to which archaic communities were still dominated by their elites. He explores the boundaries between the elite and the masses, showing in particular how the distinction between city-dweller and country resident had a much stronger social and political importance than usually thought. He also claims that the archaic legislation of Athens or Sparta redefined the elite and defined its privileges, while at the same time recognising a limited role for the demos. Excursus II (203-9) evaluates the evidence for Archaic Sparta and its problems.

Chapter 9 (210-34) is limited to the discussion of Cleisthenes’ tribal reforms and the unification of Attica, in the light of the recent theories of Greg Anderson, which Hall finds fairly convincing, while adding his own arguments in favour and stressing the continuity with Pisistratid rule.

Chapter 10 (235-54) explores the economies of archaic Greece. Hall constructs a picture of a peasant economy aimed primarily at risk-avoidance, but with growing intensification towards the end of the archaic period; at the same time he puts emphasis on the importance of maritime commerce and the ways in which the elite sponsored it. Finally, he rightly stresses the importance of the introduction of coinage for the development of exchanges: the recent realisation that there were many small denominations at an early stage suggests that coinage could indeed further even retail trade, and that the polis had a certain form of economic policy.

Chapter 11 (255-75) is entitled ‘Imagining Greece’. Hall shows the fluidity and fluctuation of Greek identity in the archaic period, when mixing with non-Greeks, learning foreign languages, adopting foreign linguistic traits, or wishing things foreign was quite normal; while it was possible to observe differences between Greeks and others, it is not certain that these differences constituted meaningful identity distinctions. In his view, it is the experience of the Persian Wars which creates a confrontation between Greek and barbarian identity. This is orthodoxy by now, but Hall adds the interesting twist that the invention of the barbarian has its class aspect: ‘the proscription of “barbarian” customs and products was as much an attempt to “tame” the behaviour of the elite as it was the outcome of ethnic chauvinism’ (270). This is a point well taken, but I think Hall underestimates the importance of the experience of the wider Greek world in creating Greek identity (see 267). The experience of being in a foreign environment can stimulate the creation of an identity that tends to emphasise precisely the features that create difference and romanticise one’s own cultural features and background.3 By underplaying the importance of the Greek presence in the West, with its initial co-existence and final confrontation with Carthaginians, Etruscans and native Sicilians, Hall creates in my view a distorted image.

The final chapter 12 (276-90) recapitulates the initial arguments by showing the unreliability of the traditions about the First Sacred War and tries to explain what is specific about archaic Greek history.

The summary should have made it clear that this is a stimulating book; but when one comes to discuss the book’s subject matter and its selection of issues and approaches, there appear a number of disappointing features. Hall gives a very good introduction stressing the active role of the historian in interpreting the evidence of the past; he also accepts both the objectivity of the past and the subjectivity of our way of knowing it, while also stressing the limits to the historian’s subjectivity imposed by both the nature of the evidence and historical methodology. This is all great; but when it comes to the body of the text, the result rather disappoints the high expectations of the introduction. The main methodological target of Hall is the view that history is mainly a historical narrative and the historian has to use the evidence to reconstruct ‘what happened’; he stresses the problematic nature of the evidence, the fact that most literary references to archaic events come from later authors who have a contemporary axe to grind, and argues in favour of a different form of history that stresses long-term processes instead of a positivist histoire événementielle (1-16, 145-54, 276-89). This is all fine, but it is certainly old hat. Hall’s line was the one already adopted by Finley in 1970, Murray in 1980 and 1993 and Osborne in 1996, to mention only the most important Anglophone works on the archaic period. One has to go all the way back to the 70’s to find somebody adopting the view that Hall is attacking. So one is left wondering what is the purpose of placing so much emphasis on something that the vast majority of historians would nowadays take for granted.4

Hall might of course have in mind students coming to the subject with assumptions from modern history; but on the other hand, several more important challenges raised by the research of the last decades are unfortunately evaded. Rather sadly for a book that emphasises the inherent problems of the literary record and the importance of utilising archaeological evidence, the use of archaeology is distinctly old-fashioned. Given the book’s emphasis on methodology, this would have been an excellent chance to explore the problems of combining different forms of evidence. Hall of course knows the archaeological evidence very well; but he uses it only in order to explore text-based problems, and in order to supplement the evidence of the texts. The development of material culture as such does not figure in the book: parts of the archaeological record are utilised to answer certain text-based questions and this is done in a very efficient and convincing way. But the history of material culture is not treated in its own terms: we hear nothing of the changes in funerary customs, the abandonment of lavish funerary offerings, and the creation of standing monuments cemeteries; of the emergence of monumental sculpture and the changes in style, form and use; of the changes in iconographic programmes, like the emergence of Protocorinthian miniature vases and their iconography, the emergence of narrative on the vases, the changing nature of iconographic programmes on temple architecture.5

This would have been a great opportunity to discuss cases in which the archaeological record presents its own distinct problems of interpretation: the archaeological gap in seventh century Attica,6 or the contrasting picture of sixth-century Crete, where the abundance of inscriptions contrasts with a Dark Age in the archaeological record,7 raises the issue of how to join different forms of evidence when they present a divergent picture (Hall’s passing comment at 231). One possibility would be to study literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence separately, look at them in their longue durée, and examine their own specific features and gaps, and only subsequently to try to join the different pictures together. It was a great development of the 90’s that historians started to make use of archaeological evidence and archaeologists started to ask historical questions in a more systematic way. But historians have been rather selective in their use of archaeological evidence, while archaeologists have often used very problematic models of interpretation (often criticised by Hall in the book). The challenge ahead is to find a way that will treat the different forms of evidence in their own terms, while also being able to join together the different images.8

The other main problem of the book is its understanding of the subject of Greek history: what is Archaic Greece? There was no political, economic, social or cultural unification, while Greek communities were scattered all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Historians have been well equipped to study national states and individual communities; but how can they study the history of such a complex entity? Unfortunately, Hall’s answers, usually implicit rather than explicit, are rather disappointing. The standard answer has been the polis. Greek communities were so many replicas of the common Greek form of state, society, economy and culture; the history of the rise, acme and decline of the polis can help creating a unified and linear account, accommodating the bewildering diversity, and allowing the historian to insert the bits and pieces of our evidence into a meaningful general pattern. Hall criticises certain parts of this approach, to which I shall come back; but he offers no alternative, and still accepts too much of a problematic perspective.

Regional diversity has been one of the recent answers to the unifying discourse of the rise of the polis; yet Hall adopts precisely such a unitary perspective. He seems to accept an original homogeneity, as reflected in the Homeric poems, which is only diversified during the seventh and sixth centuries. Yet, as James Whitley argued a long time ago, there is no reason to assume that the society of the Homeric epics reflects a unitary contemporary Greek society. The material record of the Dark Ages, the archaic, and the classical period is consistent in showing a picture of widespread regional diversity; Whitley has argued that Homeric society is a construction based on a number of shared practices between the different Greek elites and does not reflect a single society or stage of Greek history.9 Ian Morris has argued that the Dark Ages witness the creation of four different regional groups (Western Greece, Central Greece and the Aegean, Northern Greece, Crete) with their own practices as regards the funerary, domestic, and religious contexts, which continue in existence through the archaic period and even later.10 Which are the factors that create homogeneity within a region and diversity between the different regions? How do local and regional features fit together? Why do some of the most innovative and enterprising communities of the early archaic period (e.g. Crete, Euboia) fade into insignificance later on?11 These are questions which are not explored.

A similar problem concerns his view of the polis. While Hall does a good job in introducing and commenting on the work of the Copenhagen Polis Centre and its definition and analysis of the polis, he fails again to take into account the most fascinating part of this work: the concept of city-state culture. Hansen has argued that poleis were not self-sufficient entities, but formed part of an interdependent city-state culture; and he has also organised a comparative study of city-state cultures;12 unfortunately, this is not taken into account.

Furthermore, Hall’s is a distinctly Hellenocentric perspective, and even more a Klein-Griechenland one. Sicily and the West find their place in the customary chapter on colonisation; but otherwise they are completely missing from Hall’s account. His discussion of archaic tyranny e.g. (pp. 137-43) manages to avoid any reference to Sicilian tyrants, despite fascinating recent work on the subject.13 It is difficult to understand how it is possible to write an account of archaic history without mention of the Orientalising phenomenon, which changed Greek society, culture and art in such profound ways.14 Hall’s argument that Hellenocentrism is forced on us by the nature of our sources (288-9) is not entirely convincing; others have done much better, precisely by putting at the forefront the common ground of archaeological evidence.15

Hall adopts unquestioningly the standard account of the pre-classical periods: original uniformity of Homeric society, archaic divergence, and focus on Athens and Sparta, as one approaches the classical period. He justifies the dedication of a whole chapter to Athens because she was ‘one of the most powerful poleis’ in the classical period (203). This creates a number of problems concerning what the Archaic period is about — is it merely the long preparation for the Classical golden age? But surely what is difficult to justify is why there is no chapter devoted to probably the most important area of Archaic Greece, which is of course Sicily and the West. Its wealth and luxury, the monumental and numerous temples, the emergence of tyrants who became the most powerful political actors of the period (Hieron, Theron, Gelon), the patronage of arts and letters (Stesichorus, Arion, Simonides etc), the emergence of new ideas and ideologies (Eleatic school, Pythagoreanism), the monumental dedications in Olympia and Delphi would surely deserve a separate chapter; and as for the methodological problems of interpretation that this book focuses on, there are more than enough. But, for some deeply-held, but unexamined, conviction, an account of archaic Greek history has to close with Athens and the Persian Wars.

This raises a very important issue. Surely the most important finding of the postmodernist critique of history is that there is not a single, objective, perspective from which one can see history; history has a very different taste, whether seen from the perspective of the elite or the subaltern, the male or the female, the central or the peripheral point of view. Archaic history gets a very different meaning when seen from Athens, Syracuse, Miletos or Thasos. The problem is to find a way in which one can include the many different points of view, while also accepting that in the real world the different points of view have a different gravity, because of inequalities of power and wealth. Unfortunately, Hall does not give us yet an answer showing how to do it.

Another disappointing aspect of the book is the absence of cultural history. The study of cultural practices was one of the most important developments since the 90’s; unfortunately the book is almost completely silent about them.16 There is no discussion, apart from a few casual remarks, of commensality and the symposium, one of the most important features of the archaic age. For a book that puts such a heavy stress on politics, there would have been a great chance to take seriously the thesis of Pauline Schmitt-Pantel that the archaic polis is characterised by the absence of the political as a separate field; instead, there were a number of collective activities (commensality, hunting, singing and dancing) which define membership in the polis.17 The creation of a separate political field, in which only certain collective activities define political identity and membership in the community, is a late archaic – early classical invention. It would then have been of paramount importance to explore these collective activities, their ritualisation during the archaic period, and the problems of combining literary and archaeological evidence in their study. Other issues like the body, athletics, gender, or attitudes to death and religion receive only cursory treatment, if any.18

The same surprising silence holds regarding another very important development of the archaic age: the emergence of a literate culture. Hall is of course right to stress that ‘Greece was still an essentially oral society until well into the classical period’ (59). But there has been an enormous amount of work on the complex interplay between oral and written speech, the complex uses of literacy (e.g. the François vase or ‘talking’ funerary inscriptions), and the emergence of new literary genres based on literacy (e.g. prose genres);19 amazingly enough, the book has not a single reference to the emergence of Greek philosophy.

Notwithstanding the above criticisms, Hall makes two very important novel claims, which are well presented and in my view very convincing. The first is a plea for a new conceptualisation of the archaic period. Instead of the eighth-century breakpoint, Hall argues that the process was much more gradual, which necessitates a longer perspective incorporating the Late Bronze Age; but it was also much more abrupt as one approaches the sixth century. On the other hand, in contrast to a view of progressive egalitarianism from the Homeric kingdoms through the archaic polis to classical democracy, Hall argues that the archaic period shows a shift to more stratified and ranked societies than before. From this point of view, classical society and classical politics appear more as a radical break, rather than a gradual extension of archaic trends. I believe that Hall is right, and that we should turn our attention to the period between 550 and 450 BC, as a period in which in certain areas of the Greek world there was both a radical extension of previous trends and concurrently a fundamental break with earlier developments. This would span the usual distinction between archaic and classical; but it would also emphasise that certain Greek communities moved in a radically new direction from earlier centuries. These developments should not be restricted to the emergence of democracy, and did not concern only Athens, but many other Greek communities as well. But even the areas or communities that did not move in the new direction had to deal with the new conditions in a reciprocal manner: they forcefully rejected some of these changes, while carefully domesticating others; we are dealing with a very complex case of historical causation and change.20

Furthermore, these comments point out the uselessness of the concept of the polis in explaining Greek history. The concept of the polis fitted ideally the old scheme of a radical break in the eighth century, followed by gradual change all the way to the end of the classical period. The much more complicated story presented by Hall shows that we need to move from a polis-approach to a different key concept for Greek history. Fundamentally, Hall’s book stresses the need to rethink the concept of historical change.


1. It would be interesting to compare Hall’s understanding of the epics with A. Dalby’s attack on the thesis that the epics present an aristocratic point of view; see “The Iliad, the Odyssey and their audiences”, CQ, 45, 1995, 269-79. It is also a pity that Hall does not take into account the important work of Dean Hammer: The Iliad as politics. The performance of political thought, Norman, 2002; “Ideology, the symposium and archaic politics”, AJP, 125, 2004, 479-512.

2. The instability of elite power is also stressed in A. Duplouy, Le Prestige des Élites: Recherches sur les modes de reconnaissance sociale en Grèce entre les Xe et Ve siècles avant J.-C., Paris, 2006, which clearly came too late to be consulted.

3. See e.g. I. Malkin, “Networks and the emergence of Greek identity”, MHR, 18:2, 2003, 56-74.

4. The traditional view is restated in C. G. Thomas, Finding people in early Greece, Columbia, MO, 2005, but Hall does not mention this book.

5. M. Shanks, Art and the early Greek state. An interpretative archaeology, Cambridge, 1999.

6. R. Osborne, “A crisis in archaeological history? The seventh century in Attica”, BSA, 84, 1989, 297-322.

7. M. Prent, “The sixth century BC in Crete: the best candidate for being a dark age?” in Debating Dark Ages, Groningen, 1996/7, 35-46.

8. See D. B. Small, ed., Methods in the Mediterranean. Historical and archaeological views on texts and archaeology, Leiden, 1994.

9. J. Whitley, “Social diversity in Dark Age Greece”, BSA, 86, 1991, 341-4.

10. I. Morris, “Archaeology and archaic Greek history” in N. Fisher – H. van Wees, eds, Archaic Greece: new approaches and new evidence, London, 1998, 1-91.

11. For Crete, see now B. Ericson, “Archaeology of empire: Athens and Crete in the fifth century BC”, AJA, 109, 2005, 619-63.

12. M. H. Hansen, ed., A comparative study of thirty city-state cultures, Copenhagen, 2000; M. H. Hansen, ed., A comparative study of six city-state cultures, Copenhagen, 2002.

13. N. Luraghi, Tirannidi arcaiche in Sicilia e Magna Grecia. Da Panezio di Leontini alla caduta dei Dinomenidi, Florence, 1994; M. Hofer, Tyrannen, Aristokraten, Demokraten: Untersuchungen zu Staat und Herrschaft im griechischen Sizilien von Phalaris bis zum Aufstieg von Dionysios I, Frankfurt am Main, 2000.

14. See e.g. W. Burkert, The Orientalising revolution. Near Eastern influence on Greek culture in the early Archaic age, Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

15. M. Gras, La Méditerranée archaïque, Paris, 1995.

16. Characteristically, the volume that inaugurated this shift is missing from the bibliography: C. Dougherty – L. Kurke, eds, Cultural poetics in Archaic Greece: Cult, performance, politics, Cambridge, 1993.

17. P. Schmitt-Pantel, “Collective activities and the political in the Greek city” in O. Murray – S. Price, eds, The Greek city-state from Homer to Alexander, Oxford, 1990, 199-213.

18. See e.g. C. Sourvinou-Inwood, Reading Greek death: to the end of the classical period, Oxford, 1995.

19. See e.g. J. Svenbro, Phrasikleia: an anthropology of reading in ancient Greece, Ithaca, N.Y.; M. Detienne, ed., Les savoirs de l’écriture en Grèce ancienne, Lille, 1988.

20. In this respect, see the fascinating concept of ‘complementary schismogenesis’, as applied to Athens and Sparta by M. Sahlins, Apologies to Thucydides. Understanding history as culture and vice versa, Chicago, 2004, 69-82.