Less than Olympian Greeks
The Greek World - Time, Tradition and Society in Greek Archaeology - The Greeks
What do these three books have in common, apart from their publisher and a concern with the ancient Greeks and their world? Not all that much. Nigel Spencer's short but sparky collection is the outcome of a Tag (Theoretical Archaeology Group) conference held at Southampton in 1992, and is a showcase for the (pardon my French) Young Turks of the "new" classical archaeology. Anton Powell's innovative and ambitious collection of 27 articles is printed on the kind of paper that one associates more with the coffee table than the library shelf, although this is a book - or tome, rather - emphatically designed for use, not ostentation (as Edward Gibbon might have put it). Robin Sowerby's slender solo volume, written by a classically educated member of Stirling University's English department, is clearly aimed at a much wider audience than the other two. Which makes it all the more regrettable that simultaneous publication in paperback should have foreclosed or postponed the chance to eliminate some of the more egregious factual errors in a cheaper revised reprint.
Powell, cofounder of the University of Wales Institute of Classics, is a skilled editor and high vulgariser, noted especially for his scholarly volumes on Sparta as well as his admirable books for schoolchildren. He firmly nails his history-from-the-bottom-up colours to the mast by devoting the first and longest of his volume's four Parts to "the Greek majority" - including women, nonaristocratic men, slaves, and bastards (legally speaking, that is, not in a John Major sense). There are some gems here, Alan Griffiths's survey of nonaristocratic elements in archaic poetry, Helen King's presentation of medical texts as a source for women's history, and the editor's gender-centred analysis of the contemporary debate over the value of the Parthenon prominently among them. But there are also one or two curiosities - a chapter on the bronze age society of the Linear B tablets, another on the reception of the ancient novel in the Hellenistic and Roman periods - which do not seem quite to fit their allotted thematic or chronological context. That somewhat quirky mixture characterises the weighty (but not ponderous) volume as a whole.
Part two is unified by its non-Greek focus, with Egypt, Macedon, Magna Graecia and Rome swimming successively into view. Alan Lloyd's continued probing of Herodotus's reliability as our reporter (probably) on the spot in Memphis and elsewhere in Egypt surely merits a detour, and Andrew Erskine's fascinating account of the changing significance of Rome's name (it could also be the Greek for "strength") is especially worth the trip. The complex processes of Hellenisation are normally studied in Seleucid Asia and elsewhere in the Hellenistic middle east, but here Kathryn Lomas details the emergence by the first century of our era of a homogeneous Graeco-Roman elite culture in southern Italy ("Magna Graecia" or "Great Greece").
Part three, however, is perhaps the most disappointing in that "physical environment" conjures expectations that are left seriously unfulfilled by a (good) essay on diet, and another, equally rewarding in its no-nonsense quantitative way, on the engineering of the 6th-century bc water tunnel built to the design of Eupalinus, one of Herodotus's three Samian "marvels".
By contrast, Part four is the most satisfyingly self-contained and coherent, even though one might want to question the traditional but surely antiquated collocation of "religion and philosophy", not to mention the inclusion here of a paper on law and society in Thucydides, which, as framed, seems to partake significantly of neither. Edward Hussey's comparativist account of the Pre-Socratic beginnings of science manages to say a great deal about modern as well as ancient Greek "science" (our word, significantly, comes from Latin not Greek), while Emily Kearns's cross-cultural perspective on some ways of viewing Greek religion effectually offers a most valuable complement to John Gould's "On making sense of Greek religion", a pathbreaking essay published a decade earlier in a volume of essays edited by Pat Easterling and John Muir that yoked Greek religion rather more appropriately to Greek society. But perhaps the pick of the whole bunch is Angus Bowie's detailed and remarkably comprehensive discussion of the multifarious forms and functions of that most central and fundamental of Greek religious rituals, sacrifice.
One of those forms, touched on only briefly by Bowie, provides the content of one of the eight essays in Spencer's uncompromisingly focused collection: to wit, human sacrifice. But the context is markedly different. Like several of her fellow-contributors, Louise Steel aims to deconstruct and thereby somewhat diminish the glory that was Greece, in her case by pointing out that the barbarous Orient was not always all that barbaric, and the supposedly humane Greeks not always as filled to overflowing with the milk of human kindness as they ought ideally to have been. Another of the collection's agendas, which it shares with a recent volume edited by Ian Morris in the Cambridge University Press's New Directions in Archaeology series, is to rebut the not entirely unfounded calumny that classical archaeology wilfully and parochially ignores the self-conscious turn to theory that has characterised some other areas of archaeology during the last generation. It is no accident that, like Morris, three of the contributors to the Tag volume are former graduate students of Anthony Snodgrass (one of the two main practitioners and advocates, along with Michael Jameson in the United States, of a not just theory-laden but explicitly theory-based approach to the field), while Lin Foxhall, who rounds it off with a powerfully reflexive meditation on time and monumentality, is a former pupil of Jameson.
Colin Renfrew's wary foreword at once establishes the strongly Cambridge flavour of the volume as a whole, and I hope it is not just Cambridge ethnocentrism that inclines me to award the palm of valour to Jonathan Hall's account of possible approaches to ethnicity in the Greek early iron age. This masterly distillation of an excellent doctoral thesis, soon to be a considerably revamped book, properly carries important implications not only for our more distanced study of the ancient past but also for our engagement with uncomfortably present ethnic predicaments in Los Angeles, Sarajevo - or Tottenham. But all the essays here are of a high standard, and besides human sacrifice, memorialisation and ethnicity, the contributors purposefully address the topics of group definition, tomb- and hero-cult, intra-settlement change, the gendering of funerary sculpture and (too often neglected) the organisation of domestic space.
After this relatively Olympian passage we are brought back down to a perceptibly more earthly plane of reality by Sowerby's The Greeks, which is not to be confused with the at least four other books currently in print bearing the deceptively identical title. The lively introductory chapter starts sensibly enough with Homer as the educator of the Greeks, whose otherwise universally acknowledged and acclaimed pedagogy was lambasted so notoriously by Plato in Book 10 of the Republic. Thereafter Sowerby subdivides his material artificially but serviceably between history, literature, philosophy and art. The sort of inexperienced classical studies/ civilisation undergraduates at which the book seems chiefly to be aimed will presumably derive some benefit from some of this, especially perhaps the literature and philosophy chapters. But it would take a lot to redeem a book that conflates Thespiae (place in Boeotia, whence hailed the early didactic poet Hesiod) with Thespis (supposed founding father of Athenian and so all tragic drama); that advertises Athene Parthenos as the presiding goddess of the city of Athens; and that can overlook Ptolemaic Egypt - and thus a certain Queen Cleopatra VII - by asserting that by 133bc all the old Hellenistic kingdoms had become part of the Roman empire.
To conclude: it is very meet, right and proper constantly to subject our ancient Greek cultural ancestors to new and ideally innovative scrutiny. But before we sacrifice yet more trees on the altar of Greek studies we should be scrupulous to observe a few basic rules. Let the scrutiny at least be always accurately grounded in the contemporary written and visual sources, let theory be our guide rather than our taskmaster, and above all let us not ignore, in our quest for the shock of the new, the old and perhaps unpalatable but none the less palpable realities. Take Aristotle as a test case. He was of course a giant thinker whose prodigious output was a kind of summa of classical wisdom and learning, and whose positive intellectual influence is felt to this day. But he was also a prophet of things as they were, being a vigorous defender of natural slavery and of the natural inferiority of women, and as such an all too faithfully representative spokesman for the moral majority of adult male citizen Greeks. It is of the essence in any rounded comprehension and reception of these quite extraordinary people that we take into account their contradictory attributes and qualities.
Paul Cartledge is reader in Greek history, University of Cambridge.
The Greek World
Editor - Anton Powell
ISBN - 0 415 06031 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £100.00
Pages - 622