BMCR 2008.02.13

Readings in Greek History: Sources and Interpretations

, , Readings in Greek history : sources and interpretations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. xix, 314 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0195178254 $42.95 (pb).

During the last few years interest in ancient history, at least at the Universiteit van Amsterdam and — as I am told — also at other universities in the Netherlands, has shown a significant increase. Whether we like it or not, this increase may, at least partly, be related to the spectacular (some irony present) film productions like “Alexander”, “Troy”, and “300” and/or popular-scientific television productions on Discovery Channel and its several counterparts. A direct consequence of the increased interest is the influx of students who have not or have only rudimentarily mastered the classical languages, which hampers their ability to access the primary sources (and which forces university teachers to find alternatives other than banning those people from the courses).

Nagle and Burstein (henceforth N/B) have now published a collection of more than 180 sources or fragments thereof in translation, in eight chapters, covering aspects of Greek civilization from the Late Bronze Age to roughly 146 BC. The first chapter, “The Origin and Spread of the Polis System” (p. 1-42), consists of the following sections: A. Greece in the Second Millennium BC; B. Greek Definitions of the Polis; C. Greek Life in the Eighth Century BC; D. Colonization and the Expansion of the Polis System: The Case of Cyrene; E. Greeks and Non-Greeks in the Greek Colonies: the Foundation of Lampsacus; F. Greeks and Scythians in the Black Sea: Coexistence and Interaction; G. The Aristocratic Warrior; H. The Hoplite Revolution and the Citizen Soldier; I. The Hoplite Polis : Sparta; J. The Role of Athletics. Each section is focused on one or more, up to three, themes. Throughout the book each theme describes an aspect of the issue involved, mostly brought forward by (part of) a single source, occasionally more sources.

In the second chapter, “The Rise and Fall of the Greek Aristocracy in the Archaic Period” (p. 43-66) N/B present the sections: A. Aristocratic Privilege; B. Aspects of Aristocratic Life at its Peak; C. Heroic Athletics: the Chariot Race at Patroclus’ Funeral Games; D. The Aristocracy and its International Connections; E. The Crisis of the Aristocracy. Again each section represents one or several, here up to five, themes.

The third chapter (p. 67-97) discusses “The Persian Wars” in three sections: A. The Persian Empire; B. The Persian Wars; C. The Second Persian Invasion of 480 BC, consisting of respectively two, four, and nine themes. In the fourth chapter the focus is on “Life in the Polis” (p. 98-144). N/B divide this subject into the following sections: A. The Household: Family Relations (seven themes); B. Household Management (six themes); C. Slaves and Slavery (four themes); D. The Polis and the Household (two themes); E. Religion in the Classical Polis (five themes); F. War and Warfare in the Polis (two themes); G. The Place of Warfare in the Polis : Some Philosophical Reflections (two themes).

Chapter five treats “The Peloponnesian War and the Military Revolution” (p. 145-188). The following sections are included: A. The Rise of Athens (three themes); B. The Delian League (three themes); C. The Athenian Empire (five themes); D. Opposition to the Peloponnesian War at Athens (two themes); E. Defeat and Hard Times: Athens after the Peloponnesian War (single subject); F. The Military Revolution (six themes). In chapter six (p. 189-208) the “Intellectual Developments in the Classical Age: the Physis/Nomos Debate” are discussed. N/B do so in the following sections: A. The Conventionalist Argument (three themes); B. The Naturalist Argument (four themes); C. The Threat of Socrates (two themes); D. Socrates’ Defense: “I Shall Obey God Rather than You” and E. Diogenes the Cynic (both single themes).

In chapter seven it is “The Fourth Century”‘s turn (p. 209-266). The topics are: A. The Decline and Fall of Sparta; B. The Crisis of the Polis in Fourth-Century BC Greece; C. The Periphery of the Greek World; D. Philip II and the Emergence of Macedon; E. The Reign of Alexander the Great: Alexander and the Greeks; F. Alexander and Egypt; G. Alexander and the Non-Greeks; H. The Challenges of Alexander; and I. What was Alexander? Saint or Demon? Those topics are treated in respectively five, four, seven, seven, two, five, three, three, and two themes.

The final chapter is devoted to “The Hellenistic Age” (p. 267-303). This period is treated in eight sections (A New World; Alexandria and the Colonial World of Hellenistic Egypt; Cultural Contact: Ptolemaic Egypt; Cultural Contact: Bactria and India; Culture Clash: Jewish Resistance to Hellenism; Jewish Life in the Diaspora; Opportunities and Social Roles in the Hellenistic Period; and The Coming of Rome), totaling thirty-three themes (two, four, three, six, four, two, nine, and three, respectively). A “Glossary” (p. 304-314), in which different lemmas are briefly explained, concludes the book.

Each chapter starts with an introduction, outlining the main problems and/or events relating to the subject of that particular chapter. One may, at times, disagree with the wording N/B use, like that of section I of chapter seven. Both of the terms “saint” and “devil” have a religious connotation and seem inappropriate in this context. Such wording provokes a value-judgment, a tendency that should be avoided (though both sources used in the themes connected with this section were obviously selected for an audience to choose sides). Also, many sections and themes are preceded by a short outline of their particular significance for the general discussion; the sources are properly introduced and their provenances wherever necessary are duly indicated.

Eighteen figures serve to illustrate particular aspects of the sources: twelve maps clarify the problems discussed in the various chapters. To be honest, I was more charmed by the maps than by the figures, of which the choice appears to have been made rather randomly. The figures may be appreciated differently by other users of this book. The relevance of a figure like figure 7.2, the Macedonian phalanx (p. 241), would, in my opinion, be increased considerably by a caption or note explaining what we are seeing and why it is sufficiently remarkable (or necessary) to be depicted. The same might be said regarding figure 3.5, the Lenormant relief (p. 83), where more background information and especially context would have been helpful. There are other figures that do not always relate clearly to a particular subject, but the cases mentioned above are the most striking.

As it is, the sources may serve as a handy tool for students unfamiliar with the classical sources. In order to become a really useful tool they would require the presence of a companion book presenting the student with broader information than this “reader” does, in short, a new handbook of Greek history. Such a new handbook should start from the texts assembled in the book under scrutiny (and likely some more). At present it appears to me that the huge potential of this work cannot, as yet, be exploited to its fullest extent by all potential users.

The nature of many of the written sources ensures, almost naturally, that the emphasis in the better part of this book is Athenocentric. Generally this is not too distressing, but in chapter five it causes a definite and — in my view regrettable — imbalance, which is not explained in the chapter’s introduction. The nature of the sources used by N/B is very varied: they include tablets written in Linear B, a Hittite letter, Persian texts, texts on papyrus, inscriptions, and literary texts of various sorts and/or origins. In part the translations of these texts have been taken from already published translations, while N/B have translated some themselves. The translations are, as far as I checked them, accurate and reflect the content of the originals well. However, to suggest “Interpretations” of the sources, as the title claims, appears to me rather far-fetched: the connecting texts and the introductory remarks are just that and little, if anything, more. For this reason the handbook suggested in the above paragraph would be a real asset.

Regarding the sources N/B chose to include in this volume, debate is, obviously, possible. Nevertheless I believe they have made an intelligent selection considering the complex material available to us. Other aspects of this book (apart from the criticism already expressed) I found less pleasing: indexes (an index locorum and/or a rudimentary general index) are absent (the “Glossary” is absolutely insufficient to replace even an elementary general index), as is a basic guide for further reading. Referring to a number of translated works in the footnotes will not sufficiently succeed in guiding undergraduates or the interested general reader further into the treasure rooms the classical world has to offer. Such a guide for further reading appears to me even more important if one of the goals of this book is “[to motivate] students to explore essential historical topics from a variety of perspectives”, as the blurb suggests.

In spite of the critical remarks above, this book fulfils nevertheless much of the promise of its blurb in that it is “An ideal reader for courses in Greek history, Greek civilization, and Western civilization, …”. The remark certainly goes for undergraduate students (or a more general audience) unfamiliar with the original sources. Moreover, the use of the word “course” rightly underlines that a teacher is needed when using this book. The book itself is well produced, it opens pleasantly, and the number of typos is very limited. My only suggestion for people intending to use it during an introductory course is to go for a hardback copy of this book: after some weeks of use my paperback edition started to show clear signs of wear and tear, though the binding held up well. In short, the book is a promising and helpful tool for those who, though unfamiliar with the classical languages, want to deepen their knowledge of the Greek world. Nonetheless, it lacks (a) companion volume(s) aimed at putting these sources in a more extensive, coherent, and proper historical perspective (such a volume would be particularly useful for those students who attempt to use this book without a teacher’s guidance). I sincerely hope N/B will find the time and energy to perform such a task in the same appealing and challenging manner as they have used in assembling this volume.