BMCR 2023.03.14

From Homer to Solon: continuity and change in archaic Greece

, , From Homer to Solon: continuity and change in Archaic Greece. Mnemosyne supplements, 454. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. x, 502. ISBN 9789004513624.


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


How can we approach the archaic period as an object of study in and of itself rather than as a poorly attested prequel to classical Greece? This is the challenge undertaken in the volume under review. Bernhardt and Canevaro highlight two goals in their Introduction. First, while scholars have often mined the archaic period for abrupt changes that transformed the world of Homer into the world of classical Greece, the archaic period is equally characterized by a continuity with attitudes and behaviors seen in Homer. The collected papers look forward from Homer rather than backwards from classical Greece, and in the process, interrupt some of the most teleological tendencies of previous views of archaic history. Second, by collecting contributions from across multiple national traditions, the editors display how the international community of ancient historians are responding to new insights into the archaic period, including the recent emphasis on elite status as continuously performed.[1]

The 14 papers include contributions to a 2014 panel at the Celtic Conference in Classics alongside additional, solicited chapters. They are sorted into three sections: “Approaching Early Archaic Greece,” “Citizens and City-States,” and “Leaders and Reformers.” The first section begins with John Bintliff’s chapter highlighting current intersections between the archaeological and historical material, and showing the expanding interest in material from the northeast and northwest, discusses population movements and demography, Greece’s ties with the eastern Aegean. He is followed by Peter Zeller, who compares Homeric basileis with the elites of the Icelandic Free State period (930-1262/64 CE). This paper offers a fascinating introduction to medieval Iceland and highlights the importance of institutional controls in archaic Greece.

The remaining three papers in this section address slavery. David M. Lewis argues that an archaic model of slavery, attested in hexameter poetry, developed along different regional paths over the course of the archaic period. His argument is substantiated through a case study of helotage in Sparta. This essay complements Lewis’ 2018 monograph (Greek Slave Systems in Their Eastern Mediterranean Context, c.800-146 BC, Oxford) without duplicating material and provides an appropriate introduction for the two subsequent papers. Sara Zanovello addresses the neglected problem of manumission in hexameter. Among other findings, Zanovello explores the gendered dynamics of manumission (e.g., marriage as a means of manumitting enslaved women). Jan B. Meister interprets Works and Days 405-406, in which the poet advocates buying a female slave rather than marrying a wife, in the social context of archaic Greece: a slave could be acquired more flexibly than a wife and her role in the household could be adjusted as needed. These three papers offer particularly rich cross-pollination across questions of free and unfree status as well as gender and slavery.

The second section begins with Alain Duplouy’s study of hippotrophia. Duplouy argues that archaic citizenship consisted of performing different kinds of activities rather than enjoying a preordained set of rights. Hippotrophia was sometimes one of these activities, suggesting that elite-coded behaviors could also be civic-oriented: elites were citizens first rather than aristocrats arrayed against the polis. Like Duplouy, Gunnar Seelentag defines citizenship as “participation in circles of integration” (166). He analyzes four Cretan inscriptions that reveal contrasting expectations around participation in institutions like the andreion and the gymnasium, especially for individuals with liminal or complex statuses. One might quibble with some details of his treatment,[2] and for the question of the andreion in particular, it is unfortunate that the paper does not consider literature post-dating 2014 (162 n.2). For instance, recent studies of the faunal material from Praisos highlight the prevalence of wild animals and raise additional questions about the shared activities entailed in procuring these resources.[3] Tanja Itgenshorst analyzes the development of political thinking through a holistic survey of archaic authors, and concludes that one sees in their writings not only a concern for the community but often a disassociation from it. In this sense, archaic thinkers were “super aristocrats” who claimed superiority over “even the highest members of the social elite” (221). Solon offers an important exception, and Itgenshorst begins a conversation about his role that continues in subsequent chapters.

The relationship between elite and demos is also a focal point of the paper by Edward M. Harris and David M. Lewis, which succinctly surveys over 100 inscribed archaic laws[4] to argue that archaic law focused on substance rather than procedure (the latter narrowly defined as regulations about how a dispute should be adjudicated). The authors explicitly extend the conclusions of Harris’ argument for the priority of substantive law in classical Athens (228).[5] They conclude that the span of topics addressed, particularly regarding limits on individual power, reflects the active role of the demos in archaic public life. The two lines of thought in this paper are individually important but not entirely cohesive: while many would agree that archaic laws regulated prominent individuals, it is unclear why we should infer that substantive law attests to a politically active demos, while procedural law primarily concerns the regulation of intra-elite disputes. Given that different scholars utilizing the same definition of procedural law can reach opposite conclusions about particular laws, it may be that the etic distinction between procedure and substance has limited utility for the archaic period.[6]

Section 3 begins with Sebastian Scharff’s chapter on colonization, which he characterizes as marked by experimental behavior rather than by fixed rules. While strife between elites may have been one among many motives behind colonizing ventures, ties between elite families were essential in shaping the colonies themselves, as explored through the phenomenon of plural oikists. James Taylor argues that archaic tyrants were less a new phenomenon than newly unacceptable. Peisistratos behaved much like Homeric basileis, but the rise of the rule of law c. 750-650 condemned his behaviors. One might question the strict division between “before” and “after” the rule of law, a concept that could be defined more thoroughly. Lars Hübner combines several of the volume’s themes by considering how hexameter poetry was received in different archaic communities. Tyrants may have unintentionally popularized Homer, a process that later sources anachronistically portrayed as early, wide-spread engagement.

The editors are responsible for two final chapters devoted to Solon. Mirko Canevaro argues that Solon’s concerns with koros and hybris are archetypically archaic and correspond to recent assessments of radical mobility in the archaic period: the constant pressure to accumulate wealth and perform elite status led to ruinous behaviors by wealthy Athenians. Solon reforms the fixed status not only of free Athenians but also of free and slave, and thus arrests societal freefall. Canevaro’s reading makes admirable sense of poetic context while embracing new directions in archaic history. Johannes C. Bernhardt argues that Solon was in fact a tyrant who was only retroactively interpreted as the father of democracy. Bernhardt foregrounds Solon’s poetry as a masterpiece of self-presentation through which Solon justified his own “nomocratic tyrannis” while refusing the label of tyrant itself.

In a brief concluding chapter, Bernhardt emphasizes continuous change and the development of community consciousness as key phenomena that will characterize future studies of archaic history. The volume ends with an index locorum divided into literary and documentary sources, and an index of names and places.

This is a particularly cohesive volume in the sense that most of the contributions discuss the same sorts of evidence. The title From Homer to Solon is apt: eight of the 14 contributions are devoted to hexameter or Athenian material. A further four papers survey the archaic world as a whole from different thematic standpoints (hippotrophia, political thinking, archaic law, and colonization). This distribution need not be particularly welcome or unwelcome in and of itself, but it goes hand in hand with a lack of methodological balance: archaeological material is all but absent, aside from the short chapter by Bintliff (six pages excluding bibliography in a volume where some papers run to nearly forty pages) and occasional references to archaeological studies. Homer and Athens certainly offer enough to discuss in and of themselves, but the volume does leave the reader with a sense of a fairly undifferentiated landscape and shows s that historians often still do not integrate archaeological evidence into their analyses.

The editors succeed in their goal of combining disparate national conversations about the archaic world. Several of these papers offer accessible introductions to recent studies that an Anglophone audience, in particular, may not have had the pleasure of reading. The editors also do an admirable job of involving scholars of different career stages and trajectories. In other respects, balance is lacking. Out of the 14 authors, only two in the “Notes on Contributors” (viii-ix) use female pronouns. Particularly as the editors solicited contributions in addition to their initial panel, it is a bit surprising that they did not cultivate more gender equilibrium.

Overall, this volume offers an interesting showcase of recent work on the archaic period. Those interested in long-running problems in archaic history will find some new ideas to explore, while those delving into these topics for the first time will find a rich introduction to important debates. The prose is clear and easy to understand throughout the contributions. There are some typos and unfinished citations, but they are minor and not unduly distracting.[7]


Authors and Titles

Introduction / Johannes C. Bernhardt and Mirko Canevaro

Part 1 Approaching Early Archaic Greece
1 Archaeological Approaches to the Archaic Era / John Bintliff
2 A Comparative Approach: Early Archaic Greece and Medieval Iceland / Peter Zeller
3 The Homeric Roots of Helotage / David M. Lewis
4 Homer and the Vocabulary of Manumission / Sara Zanovello
5 ‘Bought, Not Wed!’ Hesiod and the Aristocratic ‘Peasants’ / Jan B. Meister

Part 2 Citizens and City-States
6 Hippotrophia as Citizen Behaviour in Archaic Greece / Alain Duplouy
7 Putting the Citizen in the Citizen-State: Participating in the Early Cretan polis / Gunnar Seelentag
8 Inside and Outside the Community: The Role of Political Thinking in the ‘Rise of the polis’ / Tanja Itgenshorst
9 What Are Early Greek Laws About? Substance and Procedure in Archaic Statutes, c. 650–450 BC / Edward M. Harris and David M. Lewis

Part 3 Leaders and Reformers
10 Against the Rules: The Plurality of Oikists and New Perspectives on Greek ‘Colonisation’ / Sebastian Scharff
11 Turannoi in Archaic Greece: A New Phenomenon or a New Name for an Old Phenomenon? / James Taylor
12 Tyrannical and Civic Reception of Homer—A Problem of Sources / Lars Hübner
13 Social Mobility vs. Societal Stability: Once Again on the Aims and Meaning of Solon’s Reforms / Mirko Canevaro
14 A Failed Tyrant? Solon’s Place in Athenian History / Johannes C. Bernhardt

Concluding Remarks: Archaic Greece and the Consciousness of Community / Johannes C. Bernhardt



[1] E.g., A. Duplouy, Le Prestige Des Élites: Recherches Sur Les Modes de Reconnaissance Sociale En Grèce Entre Les Xe et Ve Sièclesavant J.-C (Paris, 2006).

[2] The phrase τᾶι πόλι θέμεν in IC IV 78 should mean “deposit with the polis” rather than “inflict it upon the polis,” (187; cf., IC IV 41.iii.16-17, 47.26-31, 79.16), but more importantly, in a volume committed to prioritizing the archaic evidence, Seelentag relies on a composite portrait of the andreion drawn from late and largely Attic sources. The utility of these sources is part of a long-running debate (see the critique by P. Perlman, “One Hundred-Citied Crete and the “Cretan ΠOΛITEIA”,” Classical Philology 87 (1992): 193–205) which Seelentag addresses in detail in his 2015 monograph Das archaische Kreta: Institutionalisierung im frühen Griechenland (Berlin), but this debate passes without comment here.

[3] J. Whitley, “Citizenship and Commensality in Archaic Crete: In Search of the Andreion,” in Defining Citizenship in Archaic Greece, A. Duplouy and R. Brock eds. (Oxford, 2018), 227–48; J. Whitley and R. Madgwick, “Consuming the Wild: More Thoughts on the Andreion,” in Feasting and Polis Institutions, F. van den Ejinde, J. Blok, and R. Strootman eds. (Leiden, 2018), 125–48.

[4] A note of caution is in order: Harris and Lewis use Koerner’s 1993 collection, Inschriftliche Gesetzestexte der frühen griechischen Polis (Cologne), and in the past 30 years new work has been done on many of these inscriptions. For instance, IG IV 554 (miscited as 544) is attributed to Halieis (235), while subsequent work has reassigned it to Argos (e.g., Ch. Kritzas, “Nouvelles Inscriptions d’Argos: Les Archives Des Comptes Du Trésor Sacré (IVe s. Av. J.-C.),” CRAI 150 (2006): 410, 415). In the discussion of IvO 4, theokolos is identified as a name rather than a magistracy (236), although this does not stem from Koerner’s discussion; in the same inscription, the magistrate iaromaos is printed as iaromaros (236). These details do not necessarily detract from the argument of the chapter, although it might be important that IvO 4 protects a magistrate rather than an individual.

[5] E.g., E. M. Harris, The Rule of Law in Action in Democratic Athens (Oxford, 2013), 138-174.

[6] E.g., Harris and Lewis, 246 vs. M. Gagarin, Early Greek Law (Berkeley, 1986), 86 with regard to the Dreros law on kosmos iteration (Koerner no. 90).

[7] E.g., Fox 1009 for Lane Fox 2009 (38 n. 8), marring for marrying (120), Knoepler for Knoepfler (152).