BMCR 2008.01.13

The Cambridge Companion to Archaic Greece

, The Cambridge companion to archaic Greece. Cambridge companion to the ancient world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiii, 303 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780521822008. $28.99 (pb).

Table of Contents

The ‘age of experiment,’ as the Archaic period of Greek history is often labelled, has been discovered again during the last years and decades. Due to increasing archaeological insights and new concepts of the Archaic Greek society, former interpretations have been queried, and many aspects have been investigated for the first time. Nowadays, nobody would deny that Archaic Greece is more than merely a period of preparation in comparison to Classical Greece as the highlight of Greek history and the epoch studies should focus on. “Why a companion to Archaic Greece?” This is the question the editor H. A. Shapiro exposes in his introduction (p. 3), and this is the main question according to which the specific contribution of this volume should be judged within the current flow of publications.

In accordance with the Cambridge Companion series (p. xi), Shapiro states the main purpose of the book: “to encourage more serious study of Archaic Greece by undergraduate students in the English-speaking world” (p. 3). Apart from a synthesis of latest results in research, each chapter shall offer a “fresh approach to long-studied questions” (p. 6). In contrast to a usual handbook, the companion does not aim to give an overview to all relevant aspects of Archaic Greece (p. 9). The volume subdivides into three parts: “History of Archaic Greece,” “Literature and Philosophy” and “History and Material Culture”, and unites contributions of well-known scholars from the English-speaking world. However, whether the companion is more than a mere collection of single essays must be judged by the rest of the volume. In order to assess the companion by its own criteria, this review concentrates on two related questions: What does an undergraduate learn about Archaic Greece by studying the book? In which way does it introduce a student to central questions and methods? To get a better insight into the value of the volume as a whole, the first essay shall be treated more intensely than the others.

Viktor Parker begins his chapter on “Tyrants and Lawgivers” with an “Introduction and Attempts at Definition”: By deconstructing the standard meanings of the usually opposed categories of ‘tyrants’ and ‘lawgivers,’ he demonstrates how difficult this differentiation is and how much later conceptions have influenced our own perception of these leading figures of the period. He shows convincingly that both of them are rulers with unlimited power, at least for a certain period of time, and that the distinction between lawfully ruling kings and lawlessly ruling tyrants seems artificial. In short, the tyrants and lawgivers of the Archaic epoch are “an amorphous and highly varied group that resists easy definition” (p. 17). This understanding leads him to case studies of individual lawgivers and tyrants: the Cypselids of Corinth, the Orthagorids of Sicyon, Solon, the Peisistratids of Athens and Pittacus of Mytilene and his predecessors. Then he comes to the following conclusions: The common phenomenon of tyranny in Archaic Greece is rooted in the economic and political crisis that many communities had to experience. But why did many of them turn to absolute rulers? Parker’s main argument, which hardly represents the common scholarly opinion, as Parker stresses himself, relies upon the self-representation of the rulers as legitimate kings and promoters of an ancient model of government (p. 33). What is more, usually the tyrant’s rule was limited. The tyrants often were office-holders themselves and their coming to power was the response to a specific situation in their home polis. Also, the tyrants tended to be benefactors of their communities, which strengthened their power and status, as did the supportive ‘international’ network of prominent elite members. Finally, the “age of tyrants” passed, according to Parker who cautiously speaks of “speculations” (p. 36), because the one-man rule became obsolete within the general political development and because the tyrants themselves undermined their rule by becoming more and more repressive, in contrast with the lawgivers who did not struggle for power once they had accomplished their deeds.

If that is indeed the main and only difference between tyrants and lawgivers, should you not come back to the standard notion of ‘good lawgivers’ and ‘bad tyrants’ at the end? For the standard perception could well have originated in this very difference. But maybe Parker intended to write an open-ended article. That would correspond with the benefits of his contribution as a whole. To pose the question again, What does an undergraduate learn about Archaic Greece by reading the first chapter? In Parker’s chapter he not only becomes familiar with important questions concerning the topic, but he also gets into the struggles of methodological approaches. Parker explicitly refers to established principles of historical arguments (p. 18) and challenges them at the same time. By deconstructing common views and creating arguments out of the evidence, by performing a classic way of investigation (criticism of models, case study, general conclusion), he demonstrates how research methods work. Whether you agree with his opinion or not, due to the outline of Parker’s arguments, the reader has no difficulty in distinguishing between evidence and interpretation, and he is required to continue questioning the exposed data by himself.

While Parker’s contribution confronts the reader with the categorization of powerful individuals, Jonathan Hall’s essay, “Polis, Community, and Ethnic Identity”, concentrates on the community level and the corresponding categories that had formative force in Greek history. Via the juxtaposition of ‘polis’ and ‘ethnos,’ traditional perceptions are confused again. Departing from the standard definition of the polis, Hall emphasizes how important questions of continuity and change are and how important it is to look more closely at omnipresent terms like ‘polis’, which changed its meaning over the centuries: At the beginning a stronghold, the polis “extended to signify first an urban settlement around the acropolis and then a broader territorial state before coming to designate also the political participants of that state.” (p. 41) Against ancient prejudices and modern evolutionist models, the ethnos is not to be considered a primitive form of settlement out of which the polis emerged, but as an organizational level entirely different from the polis. Ethnic identity is not primordial, but constructed by references to common founding fathers and primordial homelands. Once it has been shown how new phenomena emerge out of older ones, it is only one more step to question the traditional date of 700 BCE for the start of the Archaic period. Should it be maintained? That is how the essay ends — with a question.

Peter Krentz, in “Warfare and Hoplites”, begins with a previously established model, the story of the “hoplite revolution,” in order to deconstruct it. By reporting on research history, he shows how almost every detail of this construction has been challenged during the last thirty years. There were hoplites, but there was no hoplite revolution. Mass fighting is attested from the Early Iron Age onwards, but the appearance of specialist forces does not occur before the 5th century BCE. Though the political role of the fighters became more formalized at the end of the Archaic period, this was not due to their status as hoplites. The ‘revolution,’ if there was one, has to have another source of origin.

Deborah Kamen, in “The Life Cycle in Archaic Greece”, discusses the evidence of what we know concerning stages of life: birth, initiation, marriage and death. She demonstrates that this kind of social history should not be restricted to Classical Greece. But as the sources are rare, it might be better to avoid characterizing certain gamos practices as the “norm” (p. 100).

Jonathan L. Ready, in “Homer, Hesiod, and the Epic Tradition”, opens the “Literature and Philosophy” section. He manages to give a general introduction to the contents of the epics and to the Homeric questions by leading the reader through the jungle of performance and reception, formation and (re)interpretation of the famous texts. Was there a poet called Homer? Ready not only outlines the central debates but also exposes underlying convictions. For instance, western scholars often assume that “great art springs from individual genius” (p. 120). Does a poem actually have a lower level of quality if it lacks an individual creator or redactor, if it is a group product that has evolved out of oral traditions and contains generic elements? Is there an authorial “I” in Hesiod (p. 130)? The relationship of the individual and the community, which is the central question of Ready’s essay, is also one of the main questions of Archaic Greek societies, not only with respect to literature.

With her discussion of “Archaic Greek Poetry”, Leslie V. Kurke directly picks up the thread of Parker: again, the relationship of individual and community is the focus of attention. “Archaic Greek poetry confronts the reader with a sudden explosion of distinctive, individual voices from all over the Greek world,” and these poets insistently say “I” (p. 141). For Kurke, this phenomenon does not have to do with our Romantic conception of the lyric I, but is a poetic answer to a changing world in political and social turmoil. Archaic Greek poetry was tightly bound to its performance, e.g. at symposia where the poems offered the occasion to identify with the “elitist” position (valorising aristocratic birth, etc.) or the “middling” position (valorising the citizen status, etc.). The speaking “I” does not express individual subjectivity but ideological contributions to the question of how to live best.

Andrea Wilson Nightingale in “The Philosophers in Archaic Greek Culture” is as interested in the historical and cultural embedding of early philosophy as Kurke is in the social embedding of Archaic poetry. Against the widespread notion of a Greek miracle, of great thinkers transcending their myth-oriented culture and creating the new discipline of philosophy, Nightingale characterizes the Archaic thinkers as members of different poleis. If you define philosophy in opposition to mythic discourses, the birth of philosophy did not take place in the Archaic period. The new way of thinking directly emerged out of the demands of the sociopolitical context: the articulation of new ideas accompanied the engagement in a variety of practical and political activities of their creators. Analytic philosophy and systematization had to wait for Aristotle. The reason why it is nonetheless justified to call them philosophers is their analytic method of argumentation and their universal way of questioning, as the examples of Anaximander, Heraclitus and Parmenides show.

The third part, “History and Material Culture”, is opened by Carla M. Antonaccio with her “Colonization: Greece on the Move, 900-480”. She starts with a definition of colonization by departing from two opposing approaches to Archaic Greek history, one of which stresses the importance of the community while the other puts the emphasis on the emerging individual. According to her view, colonization is a “protocapitalist enterprise of self-starting, pioneering risk-takers” or a “protoimperialist movement” (p. 201), which realizes the demands of the mother polis far from home. Recent research has made it obvious that the colonies played an important part in the emergence of Greek identity: Antonaccio outlines the colonization movement, characterizes the sources, discusses the relation between Greeks and indigenous peoples, underlines the importance of Panhellenic sanctuaries for Greek identity, mentions tyrants and their patronage, and closes with a view of the end of Archaic colonization and the other forms of colonization that followed.

Like many of the other authors of the volume , Richard T. Neer (“Delphi, Olympia, and the Art of Politics”) begins with an outline of the main discussions in literature before he proceeds to a closer reading of primary sources. Indeed, the importance of the Panhellenic sanctuaries as centres for interchange, aristocratic self-representation and locations where conflicts of rising states could be solved cannot be overestimated. On the one hand, Panhellenic centres were the ideal place for aristocrats to demonstrate their independence from their community. On the other hand, these sanctuaries played an important role in the internal development of the poleis, and not only with respect to the consultation of oracles in case of internal strife. The citizens themselves discovered the politics of dedication, and the sanctuaries became a platform of negotiation between ‘elitist’ and ‘middling’ ideologies. The treasuries in particular transformed “upper-class extravagance into civic pride” (p. 241). When the political situation finally changed, the art of politics had to be played somewhere else, but the reader can dive into the history of Archaic Greek sanctuaries by using Neer’s detailed, well-structured bibliography.

Departing from detailed descriptions, Jeffrey M. Hurwit (“The Human Figure in Early Greek Sculpture and Vase Painting”) takes up one of the central issues of the book: the self-fashioning of the individual. Does a kore or a kouros have an identity? Yes and no: though the figures referred to human individuals, they did not intend to imitate a world of seeming, but a world of truth. They represented the youth at the height of his strength and beauty in order to preserve this ideal for eternity.

Certainly, with all the cross-references between the chapters and the index, this companion is more than a mere collection of papers. You could subscribe to the advertising slogan that it “provides a wide-ranging synthesis of history, society, and culture during the formative period of Ancient Greece” (p. i). It is a good example of how to fulfill its stated goal of “break[ing] down disciplinary boundaries in order to achieve a fuller understanding of the remote past” (p. 7). As Shapiro mentions in the introduction, many of the chapters could be subsumed under the heading of “history,” which tends to embrace lots of approaches (p. 7). Consequently, the division into three parts seems a bit artificial, and one could ask why it is necessary to keep these divisions at all in an interconnected volume like this one. Of course, the essays differ in style and complexity, but they are all well written and clearly structured. Three maps, 42 figures of high quality, mostly photographs of vase paintings, sculptures, reliefs and sites, in addition to site plans and drawings, help to create a vivid impression of the period. The bibliographies tend to concentrate on English secondary literature, which is understandable if you address English-speaking students, but the label of a “fully documented account” (p. i) is misleading. Students should know about the rough outlines of the epoch beforehand to profit from the book’s specific qualities. What is the book’s particular contribution then? Its virtue consists of the specific way it presents the main issues concerning Archaic Greece and the methods used in approaching the time period. With all the questions and debates that this volume presents, it certainly encourages the reader to explore the subjects more deeply.