Thursday, August 28, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
Robin Osborne (ed.), Debating the Athenian Cultural Revolution: Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Politics, 430-380 BC. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 341. ISBN 9780521879163. $99.00.
Reviewed by Yun Lee Too

Robin Osborne's Debating the Athenian Cultural Revolution: Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Politics 430-380 BC is the second book resulting from an Arts and Humanities Research Council project based in the University of Cambridge; the first book considered how change is constructed as revolutionary and was published as Rethinking Revolutions through Classical Greece (Cambridge, 2006). As Osborne states in his preface, this volume deals with the description and analysis of changes described as revolutionary over the fifty-year period from 430 to 380 BC.

The book consists of twelve chapters by scholars from a variety of disciplines within classics mostly based in the UK. It begins with four essays (Osborne, Akrigg, Eidinow, Taylor) on politics and other cultural phenomena, then offers three on art history (Shear, Lorenz, Schultz) and five essays on various literary forms, including historiography, philosophy, and drama (Irwin, Long, Tordoff, Hall, D'Angour). It commences with Osborne's chapter, 'Tracing cultural revolution in classical Athens', which looks at the idea of revolution at the end of the fifth century. The chapter insists on the period as one of notable change and skillfully summarizes the arguments of the contributions which follow. Osborne himself concludes his introduction by summing up the book as one which opposes the Athens of the fifth century as one of community to an Athens of the fourth century in which the individual is always in question (p. 26).

In 'The nature and implications of Athens' changed social structure and economy' Ben Akrigg thinks about how the Peloponnesian War affected the society and economy of Athens. He is particularly interested in the impact of the plague on the population of Athens, with one third to half lost to the disease (p. 32). Akrigg takes issue with William Loomis' 'monocausal explanatory' model in looking at wages alone in this period and goes on to consider the increasing commercialization of the Athenian economy. In sum, he concludes that the early fourth century provided fewer people, more land and resources and fewer slaves who could emerge in the banking sector.

Esther Eidinow's 'Why the Athenians began to curse' looks at binding curses in the fifth century. She argues that Athenian men and women used curses to control risks, drawing on Mary Douglas' theory of the social construction of risk (p. 65). Loss of self-confidence and bitterness among citizens explains the increase of cursing in the late fifth century, she argues. Her chapter ends with a sampling of curse texts.

Claire Taylor writes 'A new political world' to draw attention to changes in the Athenian political world in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. She observes that political activity becomes more widespread, shifting from a city-based wealthy elite to a wider selection of Attic demes. Taylor also notes that wealthy families from the fifth century either died off or declined in the fourth and were no longer politically active as emphasis on spending for the good of the city grew. In fact, more citizens became liable for liturgies in the fourth century (p. 82). The author also considers the role of quietism as an explanation for why fewer wealthy citizens participated in political life. Politics in the fourth century now involved more non-wealthy citizens so that we see a changing sociology of the demos.

'Cultural change, space, and the politics of commemoration in Athens' by Julia Shear considers how the agora becomes the focus for the city in the fourth century whereas in fifth it had been the acropolis. She notes that the mint and courts come to be located in the agora after 390 BC and inscriptions came to be set up there rather than on the acropolis. Shear goes on to examine changes in the memorialisation of the war dead. Inscriptions for individuals such as Chabrias, Iphicrates and Timotheus were erected to celebrate their individual military victories, which were conceived as bringing freedom to the people. The agoras, thus, became a democratic space that celebrated the importance of doing one's civic duty.

Continuing the discussion of material culture is Katharina Lorenz's 'The anatomy of metalepsis: visuality turns around on late fifth-century pots'. This chapter takes from literary criticism the notion of metalepsis, which involves the crossing of narrative boundaries, and applies it to the viewing of pots. In particular, narrative and descriptive elements engage in an interplay. Metalepsis, Lorenz writes, demonstrates 'a period of heightened awareness for issues of the visual and of how to guide the recipients' for the late fifth century (p. 143).

Next is Peter Schultz's 'Style and agency in an age of transition'. This essay looks at changes in sculpture from 430 to 380 BC, arguing that while ruthmos and symmetry are important to earlier sculpture, later work demonstrates a great openness and multifaceted quality. He goes on to consider the change in view of what a sculptor was in his society as a way of investigating the social structures responsible for the transformation of styles. Schultz argues that such artists were to be seen within a hierarchy of value, one established by competition and boasting resting somewhere between 'virtuosi' and 'anonymous labourers'.

Elizabeth Irwin's 'The politics of precedence: first 'historians' on first 'thalassocrats' considers how Herodotus and Thucydides each differently write about Minos as a ruler of the sea. For Herodotus, Minos is largely disregarded in favour of Polycrates as thalassocrat, while for Thucydides, he is an important figure in the annals of naval power. She gathers that Thucydides is interested in tracing evolutionary progress while Herodotus prefers to view cultures as separate but parallel. She argues in conclusion that intertextuality between the historians reflects upon each of them, their relationship to one another, and their respective audiences.

In 'The form of Plato's Republic' Alex Long begins by summarizing the dialogue, focusing in particular upon the figure of Socrates. He turns to the question of the importance of dialogue with others and shows that dialogue furthers intellectual inquiry. Thinking is nothing other than internal dialogue. But for Long it is important to engage with dialogue in a single text, like the Republic, to understand how a work gains from being a dialogue. This holds true for both philosopher and historicist.

'Aristophanes' Assembly Women and Plato, Republic book 5' by Robert Tordoff has a self-descriptive title. Tordoff looks at the relationship between the comic poet and the philosopher, arguing that Plato was actually indebted to comedy but that the philosopher had issues with rival intellectual discourses such as drama and comedy, and especially with Aristophanes' intellectualizing comedy. Plato recognizes the comedian as a serious thinker in his conclusion.

Edith Hall writes a very important contribution for this volume, 'Greek tragedy 430-380BC'. She is the only author to confront directly the theme of the book for the period under scrutiny in this project for her specific discipline and observes the difficulties of dating specific plays at the outset of her piece. Hall observes that music for the theatre indeed changed by 380 with the inclusion of astrophic songs. Satyr plays were no longer placed at the end of a group of three tragedies but at the opening of competitions. Comedy became dependent upon tragedy and theatrical burlesque was produced. But Hall asks whether these and other changes constitute a 'revolution' (p. 284) since after all the form and content of tragedy 'had altered only in small degrees' (p. 287).

'The sound of mousike: reflections on aural change in ancient Greece' by Armand D'Angour looks at the development of music, which results in the so-called 'New Music', in the period under question. He notes a shift in emphasis from the audience to the singers and a freer presentation of the dithyramb. Music became a more specialized and professional concern (p. 300) as innovations became more instrumentally complex, melodic and rhythmic.

I come back to Edith Hall's paper which observes change in the field of drama but remarks that the change is not so significant and to Robin Osborne's introductory comment that in cultural history 'cultural products do not remain unchanged over long periods of time' (p. 2). Does change, in certain fields more pronounced and distinct than in others, and considered in such discrete fields as politics, art, history, philosophy, drama and music, together constitute a significant social transformation? And is this change, if it is granted, intentional or not, unified or not? And is the revolution a singular or a multiple event--so is it the Athenian cultural revolution or Athenian cultural revolutions? Change is inevitable no matter the period of time we choose to examine but does 430-380 BC show greater changes that together might constitute a revolution? Together and individually, the contributors seem to affirm something of a transformation in their individual essays, but I think I am left debating the existence of an Athenian cultural revolution, as the title of the volume proposes. Altogether, I find this is a worthwhile and interesting book for the questions that it raises.

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