BMCR 2021.05.14

How to do things with history: new approaches to ancient Greece

, , , How to do things with history: new approaches to ancient Greece. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xiii, 406. ISBN 9780190649890 $85.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This remarkable collection of essays is both inspired by the work of, and dedicated to, Paul Cartledge, A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek History Emeritus at Cambridge University. World expert on the history of Sparta and Lakonia (which secured him an honorary citizenship from the Greek city and the nickname ‘Sparta’ among Cantabrigian colleagues), Cartledge has investigated topics in Greek history as well as the methodological foundations of the historian’s work; in addition, he has written on ancient philosophy and political thought from the original perspective of the ancient historian; and, most recently, he has produced a history of democracy that will remain a landmark work in the scholarship on democracy and its reception in the history of Western political thought (Democracy. A Life, 2016). If the quality of the teacher may be evaluated by the quality of these essays, they leave no doubt about Cartledge’s standing and seminal influence.

The three editors’ choice of title is a hint to the intellectual debt the so-called Cambridge school of contextualism has to the Oxford philosopher John L. Austin and to his exploration of the performative role of language in How to Do Things with Words (1962). The influence of this seminal work, and of its reception in Quentin Skinner’s work, is evident in the methodology and in the intellectual perspective adopted by all the contributors to this volume. In addition, they emphasize the active role of the historian (with his/her background of beliefs and problems of the age) in writing history, thus problematizing the received notion of historiography: “the object of an ancient historian’s inquiry is a living thing” (p. 1). It is influenced by the theories and methodologies of the day, a consideration which places historiography itself in context. A bird’s eye view of these essays immediately reveals their methodological awareness and their application of a sophisticated methodology to a specific context or issue.

Kurt Raaflaub’s essay opens the collection with an investigation of what we might call ‘Greek exceptionalism’, namely, the sudden divergence in the 7th century BCE of Greek political thought from a traditional pattern of thought. Raaflaub compares a Babylonian Advice to a Prince dating from the first millennium BCE, the early Hebrew prophets, and Hesiod’s Works and Days to show that they share some common traits. Similarly, the political structures and practices in the East and in Greece show similarities, for instance, in the role played by councils and assemblies. Then, in the 7thcentury BCE, three major changes occurred rather suddenly in Greece: the appearance of communal enactment of laws, the contemporary appearance of communal decision-making processes, and the emergence of political thinking (meaning pragmatic thought on political matters as contrasted to the more abstract political theory). Raaflaub finds the possible explanation for the occurrence only in Greece of this ‘great leap’ towards the attribution of significant political importance to the people, eventually leading to democracy, in some peculiarities of the archaic Greek world: “the lack of centralized territorial states or hierarchical structures sanctioned by a strong connection with the divine” (p. 42) and the absence of large communal projects, in addition to the egalitarian foundations of the Greek poleis.

Emily Greenwood proposes “a curious thought experiment” (p. 55) contrasting Pericles’ view of Athens in Thucydides and the portrait of Pericles we find in Plato. Greenwood finds that Pericles in Thucydides is depicted not only as an effective, nay charming, orator but also as a pragmatic philosopher who, in the Funeral Speech, offers a theoretical constitution in his depiction of an ideal Athens. Plato’s negative judgment on Pericles, on the other hand, reflects his total disagreement with the Thucydidean Pericles’ depiction of an Athens in which every citizen can ‘philosophize’: for Plato’s standards, that image of ‘philosophy’ is a travesty.

Melissa Lane offers a reading of Plato’s Republic that focuses on book 8 and its depiction of the decline of Kallipolis, the perfect city. Lane convincingly argues that we should start by taking this depiction as a possible future scenario: since Plato’s Kallipolis never existed,[1] the sequence of constitutional changes must be in the future; it is not located in the past and it does not depict an historical occurrence (hence Aristotle’s criticism in the Politics is misplaced). Her second point is that it is crucial to realize the importance of political office (and those who hold it) to understand correctly the decline depicted there. Lane argues that Socrates’ statement that the nature of a given constitution is characterized by the preponderance of a type (e.g. oligarchy by the oligarchic man) should not be interpreted purely in psychological terms: it is also important to look at how offices are allocated. She finds especially illuminating the depiction of timocracy, where holding a political office represents a key form of honor for the timocratic man and the definition of democracy as a constitution in which there is no one in office (anarchos: Rep. 558c2); in democracy there is no “meaningful exercise of or obedience to office” (p. 103).

Carol Atack observes that Xenophon in his works presents a range of binary divisions, such as male and female, king and tyrant. She specifically examines Xenophon’s contrast between two forms of kingship, one based on display and hierarchy (Cyrus), the other characterized by simplicity and accessibility (Agesilaus). Atack remarks that Xenophon eschews theory and focusses on the performative aspect of kingship:   Xenophon’s Agesilaus, for instance, shows that “the virtue of the king is transmitted to his subjects thorough their imitation of his example”, an idea we find also in Isocrates’ Nicocles (p. 117). Another interesting feature in Xenophon is his use of gender as an analogy for status, for the defeated kings are likened to women.

Alastair Blanshard explores the condition of the Athenian juror, who had to deliberate in isolation when he sat in court, in contrast to the Assembly where citizens made their decisions surrounded by their peers. More generally, Athenian citizens were almost never alone when they were deliberating in the Assembly, whereas Athenian jurors had to make their decisions, concerning large and complex issues, without consulting with anyone.

Josh Ober and Barry Weingast assess the stability of Sparta’s social order by first looking at the demographic distribution of the population: in the 5th century BCE there were in the city around 35,000 Spartiates, 55,000 perioikoi and 160,000 helots—15%, 20% and 65% of the total population respectively. The Spartiates, being such a minority, could dominate the vast oppressed population only by violence, and the stability of the system depended on austerity and equality in public consumption. However, the system paradoxically collapsed because the members of the ruling class “played the game”; abiding by the rule of having a rigid wealth standard, they consistently expelled from the elite the poorest members, causing demographic paucity.

Wilfried Nippel explores Marx’s interest in classical antiquity, which he shows was actually marginal: this calls for a differentiation between Marx and Marxism, which started with Engels. Through a painstaking examination of Marx’s works, Nippell shows that Marx’s real interest was for the modes of production in India because he thought that despotism in India depended on irrigation organized by a central authority and that his remarks on ancient slavery were the byproduct of his interest in slavery in the United States.

On the other hand, Kostas Vlassopoulos examines the trend and works of Marxist historians from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union persuaded many scholars that Marxism “was intellectually moribund, if not dead” (p. 210). Vlassopoulos’s main argument is that Marxism was improved by the study of ancient history, which enabled it to overcome the ahistorical premises of Hegelian philosophy; at the same time, Marxism contributed a lot to ancient history by bringing into view the role of women, slaves, and other subaltern people.

Walter Scheidel examines in a comparative way the strategies of labor procurement necessary for the state to build monuments and infrastructure at different times in different civilizations around the world. He notices a “trend from corvée to contract labor and from coercion to labor markets” (p. 255) and concludes that Greek and Roman strategies were quite unusual in that they only used contracting in a free labor market instead of imposing civilian corvée or exploiting penal servitude.

Jeremy Tanner examines the representation of tyrannicide, and its underlying ethics, in classical Athens (480-323 BCE) and in early imperial China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). By studying the statue group of Harmodius and Aristogeiton and a carved frieze illustrating the attempt of Jing Ke to assassinate the king of Qin, he shows that, notwithstanding the fact that the attempts were heroic failures, these representations enjoyed an enormous success and were replicated many times. This is because the two events have a foundational role in their respective societies, depicting the ethical basis for resistance to arbitrary power and for its overthrow. Tanner concludes by showing the interesting similarity between the representation of Theseus’ deeds, the tyrannicides, and the heroes of Marathon.

In a very witty essay Robin Osborne examines Greek pederasty and the history of its representation in vases. Osborne debunks the invention of “intercrural intercourse” and persuasively argues that the scenes in vases were fantasies of homoerotic desire and not a narrative history of pederasty.

Trying to go beyond the representation of Cleon in the plays of Aristophanes, especially the Knights (424 BCE), Edith Hall reconsiders the Athenian politician. Cleon, in fact, was the first politician to be called a ‘demagogue’ by Aristophanes and Thucydides, although not always in a pejorative sense; these two authors, however, consistently depicted him as a vile person and a violent warmonger. Thucydides’ bias against Cleon is so evident that it gave rise to a tradition that holds the demagogue responsible for the historian’s exile. But the ancient sources also show a more positive attitude toward Cleon: for instance, Demosthenes in Against Boeotus 2 and Plato and Aristotle show no sign of vilification. In the final part Hall reviews the reception of Cleon in 19th-century English and German historiography and in the 20th century concluding that contemporary fears of democracy and universal suffrage played a big role in the negative characterization of Cleon in the 19th century and that the ideological struggle continued in the following century.

Finally, Tim Whitmarsh examines ancient anti-Roman historiography, and more specifically the debate among Greek authors about the role of virtue and fortune in the building of the Roman empire. He focusses on Dionysius of Halicarnassus’s Roman Antiquities and persuasively argues that Dionysius was most likely opposing Metrodorus of Scepsis, who attributed Rome’s success to “chance and the injustice of Fortune” (p. 368).

The volume is completed by an ‘Afterword’ by Paul Cartledge himself. In his typically restrained style, the honoree quickly goes over some points made by the authors of the essays while mentioning in passing the most important influences on his own thought and work: we hear the names of great historians and philosophers such as (in order of appearance) John Boardman. J.L. and Jean Austin, George Cawkwell and Herbert Hart, Geoffrey de Ste. Croix and Freddie Ayer—a tribute to Oxford and Cambridge education. Cartledge concludes with a somber remark about contemporary times. Disclosing his intellectually engagé side, Cartledge avows his dismay at the idea of living in a ‘post-truth’ era and states that “the true test of intellectual courage is still surely, despite the cliché, to speak truth to power” (p. 395).

I hope I have been able to give a glimpse of the richness and variety of the content of the book. All essays are very elegantly written and retain the immediacy of the occasion when they were originally delivered. They entertain the reader by approaching their respective topics from unusual perspectives.

This collection of essays is a must in the library of everyone interested in ancient Greece and, more generally, in classics and in intellectual history.

Table of Contents

Introduction, pp. 1-17.
PART ONE: Theory and Practice
Kurt A. Raaflaub, “The ‘Great Leap’ in Early Greek Politics and Political Thought: A Comparative Perspective”, pp. 21-54.
Emily Greenwood, “Pericles’ Utopia: A Reading of Thucydides and Plato”, pp. 55-80.
Melissa Lane, “How to Turn History into Scenario: Plato’s Republic Book 8 on the Role of Political office in Constitutional Change”, pp. 81-108.
Carol Atack, “’Cyrus appeared both great and good’: Xenophon and the Performativity of Kingship”, pp. 109-136.
Alastair J.L. Blanshard, “Jurors and Serial Killers: Loneliness, Deliberation, and Community in Ancient Athens”, pp. 137- 157.

PART TWO: Economy and Society: Violence, Gender, and Class
Josiah Ober and Barry B. Weingast, “The Sparta Game: Violence, Proportionality, Austerity, Collapse”, pp. 161-184.
Wilfried Nippel, “Marx and Antiquity”, pp. 185-208.
Kostas Vlassopoulos, “Marxism and Ancient History”, pp. 209-236.
Walter Scheidel, “Building for the State: A World-Historical Perspective”, pp. 237-262.

PART THREE: Source Pluralism
Jeremy Tanner, “Picturing History: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Tyrannicide in the Art of Classical Athens and early Imperial China”, pp. 263-312.
Robin Osborne, “Imaginary Intercourse: An Illustrated History of Greek Pederasty”, pp. 313-338.
Edith Hall, “The Boys of Cydathenaeum: Aristophanes versus Cleon Again”, pp. 339-364.
Tim Whitmarsh, “How to Write Anti-Roman History”, pp. 365-390.
Paul Cartledge, “Afterword”, pp. 391-396.
Index, pp. 397-406.


[1] It is worth noting that there were actually a few cities called Kallipolis in Asia Minor, in Caria and in Mysia, as well as in Sicily.