BMCR 2020.11.12

Rethinking Athens before the Persian wars

, , , Rethinking Athens before the Persian wars : proceedings of the international workshop at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (Munich, 23rd-24th February 2017). Münchner Studien zur Alten Welt ; Band 17. München: Utzverlag, 2019. Pp. 367. ISBN 9783831648139 €67,00.

This edited volume presents the proceedings of a workshop held in Munich in 2017 on Athens in the (Early) Archaic period. It bundles together the work of European scholars (primarily French, German, Greek, and Italian), offering an interesting selection of archival studies, preliminary excavation reports, and interpretive essays. The volume gives a useful glimpse into the state-of-the-field of the history and archaeology of Athens before the Persian Wars.

The introduction by the editors quickly dives into some of the controversies of Early Iron Age Athens (e.g., Kylon and his impact) to illustrate the need for further discussion in the light of new data and recent interpretations. They warn against using evidence from the 6th century to draw conclusions about the rest of the long Archaic period, and they defend the chronological and geographical parameters of the volume. Embracing a plurality of methods and approaches, the editors briefly summarize the subsequent chapters, which are organized into three groups: “Dealing with Death,” “Shaping Spaces,” and “Establishing Communities.”

Anna Maria d’Onofrio (“Some Thoughts on the [sic] Pre-Classical Athenian Society”) offers a wide-ranging discussion of the interrelationship of (pseudo-)kin burials with elite competition. She presents a compelling case for a more prominent role for non-exclusive kinship groups in early Athens, and she raises several important questions about how to assess the mortuary evidence.

Marilena Kontopanagou (“The Submycenaean and Protogeometric Cemetery on 2, Odos Irodou Attikou, Athens, Greece: Remarks on the Spatial Distribution of the Athenian Cemeteries and Burial Customs on [sic] the Transition from Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age”) provides a short but well-illustrated report of a 1982-1983 excavation along an ancient road. Most interesting were five “double” trench-and-hole burials, each consisting of a single trench containing two separate cremations placed at two different times.

Simona Dalsoglio (“From Amphorae to Cauldrons: Urns at Athens in the Early Iron Age and in the Orientalizing Period”) looks in detail at 11 Middle Geometric II–Late Geometric II graves with cauldrons, used primarily as cremation urns at a time when inhumation was becoming more common. Based on the prestige of metal and the biographies of the objects, she sees this burial type as an exceptionally elite form of display that made associations with feasting and that possibly drew on beliefs about regeneration. She draws an interesting contrast with amphoras, which she imagines provided the dead with a type of “second body.”

Jennifer Wilde (“Ladies Returned: On Cypriot-Inspired Shapes in the Early Iron Age Pottery of Attica”) discusses Submycenaean–Early Protogeometric bird vases, lentoid flasks, ring vases, and cylindrical bottles. Examining morphology and contexts, she argues that they were associated primarily with elite women (although defining the gender of the deceased on the basis of grave goods is open to debate) and that they were part of a “ritual package common to Cyprus and the Levant” connected to fertility and regeneration. Wilde suggests that the Cypriot links stemmed from a post-12th and 11th-century re-migration movement homeward to Attica.

Annarita Doronzio (“A Fresh Look at the Kerameikos Necropolis: Social Complexity and Funerary Variability in the 7thCentury B.C.”) offers important insights on this cemetery on the basis of an exhaustive compilation of Athenian 7th-century mortuary evidence, countering conventional views of the period.[1] She shows that studies maintaining 7th-century Attic decline and isolation have focused too much on the funeral trenches in the Kerameikos (“Opferrinnen”). Examining several graves in detail, she draws attention to the variety of burial practices, the connectivity with the Mediterranean (Phrygia, Cyprus, and Italy), and the presence of women in the mortuary record.

Stella Chryssoulaki (“The Excavations at Phaleron Cemetery 2012-2017: An Introduction”) provides an invaluable overview of the stunning excavations prompted by construction of the Stavros Niarchos Cultural Foundation Center.[2]The cemetery has yielded nearly 2000 burials dating from the 8th to the 4th century B.C. Chryssoulaki describes a few important burials, such as the 7th-century interment of a boy with a model granary; the inhumation of two bodies that were holding hands; and the burial of a woman who died in labor. Most useful is her description of the mass burial dating to the 7th century of 78 bound “captives,” found in three trenches, who suffered violence antemortem or perimortem. All are men, most of them 20-34 years old, and the author hypothesizes that they were members of the upper class.

Alexandra Alexandridou and Maria Chountasi (“Memoryscapes in Early Iron Age Athens: The ‘Sacred House’ at the Site of the Academy”) revisit the 1955-1964 excavations of Ph. Stavropoullos by reviewing excavation notebooks, studying ceramics, surveying the site, and undertaking a small excavation. While the architectural evidence is difficult to interpret due to the earlier excavation methods and the poor state of preservation, the authors argue for multiple phases (Middle Geometric–Late Geometric IIa) to the building. They contend that the structure had domestic rather than cultic uses on the basis of a review of the pyres and of the ceramic and faunal evidence, and by drawing comparisons to interposed ash and clay layers at Oropos. In place of a “sacred house” revering the distant past, the authors advocate for a “memoryscape,” which situates the lived experience of using the house in the context of nearby Protogeometric–Early Geometric feasting deposits and Middle Geometric graves.

Myrto Litsa (“Thucydides 2.15 on Primitive Athens: A New Interpretation”) documents the archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age through the Geometric period south of the Acropolis, in order to elucidate Thucydides’ comment about early Athenian settlement patterns. She argues for cult activity south of the Olympieion starting in the mid-8th century B.C., and posits that Thucydides transmits memories from both the Bronze Age and the Geometric pasts.

Elisavet P. Sioumpara (“Constructing Monumentality at [sic] the Athenian Acropolis in the Early 6th Century B.C.”) provides a reconstruction of the disputed “H” temple, a monumental temple on the Acropolis. She dates it 580-570 B.C. (p. 155) (disassociating it from Pisistratus) and places it under the current Parthenon, making it the Periclean Parthenon’s grandmother. She presents the case for a grand monumentalization of the Acropolis through this temple, the appropriation of the past, the transformation of landscape by terracing and pathways, and the erection of inscriptions and statues. She associates these monumental moves with a new, post-Solonian polis.

Vincenzo Capozzoli (“Coming Back to the polis trochoeides: Dealing with the Topography of Pre-Classical Athens”) looks at cemeteries, roads, and walls, and finds the chronological and topographical evidence often to be tenuous, but argues that these features can be thought about productively in terms of their interrelations. He suggests the term “trochoeides” applied by Herodotus to Athens referred to “an organism based on a system of close relationships just like the spokes of a wheel.”

Ioulia Kaoura (“Between Tradition and Innovation: The Late Archaic Telesterion at Eleusis Reconsidered”) examines in detail the Telesterion’s interior organization, architectural orders, use of steps, and frontality to argue for a close connection of the building to Cycladic traditions, all the while underscoring Attic experimentation.

In place of an institutional history of the polis and any search for origins, Alain Duplouy (“The Making of the Greek City: An Athenian Case Study”) posits the city as a citizen community. Membership was discernible through collective and individual behavior and lifestyles—belonging was performed. Duplouy discusses luxurious dress codes, the maintenance of horses, and participation in athletics as ways of making oneself recognizable as an Athenian in the Archaic period.

Miriam Valdés Guía (“Diakrioi and/or Hyperakrioi? A View of Archaic stasis in Athens: Between Aristocratic Conflict, the Intervention of the demos and the Use of the Sacred”) describes social conflict in the 7th and 6th centuries in terms of both a “horizontal stasis” among the elite and a “vertical stasis” between rich and poor. The collision of these conflicts resulted in Pisistratus’ broad geographical support by several elite groups and by a demos growing in self-awareness and confidence.

Alexandra Bartzoka (“Being a Heliast During the 6th Century B.C.? Remarks on the Existence of the People’s Court in Archaic Athens”) provides an informed, balanced, and coherent scrutiny of literary and archaeological sources, disassociating the heliaia as a lawcourt from Solon.

Claudia Horst (“The Greek agora in the Context of Sites of Political Assembly in the Ancient Near East”) offers an interesting but problematic discussion of public places in Greece and the Near East to argue that assembly places were present in Mesopotamia and, consequently, that the beginnings of democracy can be found there. Imprecise conceptualizations of democracy, polis, and agora create some confusion.

Valentina Mussa (“The College of Treasurers of Athena on the Acropolis during the Archaic Period”) examines the early history of the tamiai. Looking at inscriptions, dedications, and the Athenaion Politeia in detail, she argues that they were distinct from the naukraroi, and she describes their functions and social impact. In the Classical period, their responsibilities did not considerably change, but they became the financial operatives in an increasingly large and complex civic religious life. This chapter could have been placed more explicitly in dialogue with Sioumpara’s chapter, which is only referred to in a footnote (p. 263, n. 63).

Marcello Valente (“Archaic Athens and Tyranny: The Origins of the Athenian Public Finances”) explores the evidence for Pisistratus’ use of direct taxation, and maintains that Hippias devised a sophisticated financial scheme. He argues that vestiges of these taxation systems endured through the Classical period.

Constanze Graml (“Worshipping Women, Worshipping War: (How) Did the Persian Wars Change the Cultic Veneration of Artemis in Athens?”) describes the evidence from the Attic sanctuaries for Artemis that might relate to warfare. She concludes that the connection of Artemis with the Persian Wars usually occurred at least a generation after the events. Clear, innovative diagrams present the data, but there are of course limitations to such a study due to the uneven publication record. It is also not obvious that the worship of Artemis in connection with her assistance in the Persian Wars would leave substantial material traces.

Wolfgang Filser (“A Question of Object: Class Semantics in Athenian Vase Painting [530-430 B.C.]”) considers several vase-paintings with elite or non-elite activity and examines them from the standpoint of leisurely viewers and of the vase-painters, who allegedly “open up a discourse about the extreme poles of society.”

The book ends with an index of names and an index of places.

Considering the number of authors, it is no surprise that multiple approaches characterize the chapters in this volume. This ability to accommodate diverse views is a sign of the strength and vitality of the field. But it is a little concerning that no consensus emerges across the pages on how to use literary sources. Bartzoka’s careful weighing of texts in their literary and social contexts and from multiple perspectives contrasts with other readings that are more piecemeal (Capozzoli, Guía, Horst, Valente). How archaeologists should use literary sources is a related issue. Some authors no longer feel beholden to texts, and are able to construct compelling interpretations of material culture without recourse to sources like Homer or the Athenian Constitution (Dalsoglio, Wilde, Doronzio, Alexandridou), while others put archaeology and literary sources into a dialogue that may be fated to remain unintelligible (Litsa, Capozzoli).

Several chapters point to specific, critical moments of cultural change, and conceive of individuals as catalysts: Solon (Sioumpara, Mussa) or Pisistratus (Guía, Valente). In contrast, Kaoura, working on the Telesterion, prefers not to place stress on any particular person or period. And Wilde, working on early mortuary patterns, emphasizes continuity in the Early Iron Age. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, Capozzoli sees a sharp break in urban structure following the Persian Wars, while other authors instead trace continuity in material culture (Filser) or in political practices (Mussa) across the Archaic/Classical period divide. These different viewpoints on when and how change occurs stem in part from the evidence each author treats—cemeteries, buildings, vase-painting, or institutions—and indicates that developments and changes were interrelated rather than synchronous.

In the ebb and flow of change and continuity, there were multiple vestiges of the past and different ways for remembering (and forgetting), which several papers touch on explicitly or tangentially. Alexandridou and Chountasi, debunking the “Sacred House” of the Academy, integrate the structure into an embodied encounter with the material traces of the past. Graml, working on the veneration of Artemis in connection with the Persian Wars, offers a related perspective, showing how the memories of events took on different valence in succeeding generations. Memories also could be outright fabrications, as occurs with some laws and institutions attributed to Solon (Bartzoka).

The polis and its origins or evolution do not loom over this volume, and many authors are able to address social dynamics and political institutions without resorting to a polis-framework at once essentialist and exceptional. This seems to be a productive turn in the field. In looking for multiple communities rather than a single political structure, many of the papers examine kinship and families. For example, several authors argue for some form of kinship in cemeteries (D’Onofrio, Kontopanagou, Wilde, Doronzio).[3] Outside of cemeteries, Mussa (working on tamiai) provides inscriptional evidence from the Acropolis in support of strong family ties. In all of these chapters, the authors do not place the family prior to or in opposition to the polis, although how to integrate familial with civic communities is not always clear; in other words, how kinship co-existed with a social structure that led to a monumental Acropolis (Sioumpara) and an impressive Telesterion (Kaoura). Two different possibilities are offered by Duplouy and Guía, the first advocating a model of personal performance of civic belonging, where there is a circumscribed role for families, the second using the (now highly contested) term “nobles” to posit a social class based on descent that provided political leadership.

The Persian Wars mark the end of this book’s period of study, and it is interesting that there is barely a trace of this conflict in the pages (with the obvious exception of Graml, and also see Capozzoli). While some of the earlier chapters focusing on archaeology draw attention to Mediterranean connections (Wilde mentioning a Mediterranean elite and Kaoura seeing Cycladic links in the Telesterion), this “global” perspective diminishes as authors move into the 6th century and into institutional and political history, treating Athens implicitly as exceptional without explaining why. This is not a criticism of a book that by necessity makes no aim to be comprehensive; it is an observation: when we write studies of Athens isolated from Attica, the rest of Greece, and the Mediterranean, inevitably there are some significant lacunae.

Together the contributions in this book offer excellent and valuable scholarship on Athens from the Submycenaean through Archaic periods, with a range of perspectives and methods, and many insights. They provide new data, overturn old assumptions, and open up questions for further study, research, and reflection.


[1] See also Annarita Doronzio, Athen Im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr.: Räume Und Funde Der Frühen Polis, Berlin and Boston (2018).

[2] The text in this report is repeated in a more recent publication focused on the analysis of the bones from the mass burials: Anne Ingvarsson and Ylva Bäckström, “Bioarchaeological Field Analysis of Human Remains from the Mass Graves at Phaleron, Greece,” Opuscala 12 (2019), pp. 7-158.

[3] Osteological studies of burials, such as the ongoing work on the Phaleron cemetery by Jane Buikstra and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, may well revolutionize our understanding of kinship and community.