Monday, August 31, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
John Buckler, Hans Beck, Central Greece and the Politics of Power in the Fourth Century BC. Cambridge, UK/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xviii, 309. ISBN 9780521837057. $99.00.
Reviewed by Jeremy McInerney,

[Chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

For close to forty years John Buckler has been the most conscientious researcher of all matters related to the political history of central Greece in the 4th century BC, having produced two monographs of fundamental importance for our understanding of Greek politics in the period immediately prior to the advent of the Hellenistic age: The Theban Hegemony, which appeared in 1980, and 2003's Aegean Greece in the Fourth Century BC. The volume reviewed here is of a somewhat different type. Hans Beck, another important scholar of the 4th century with a keen interest in affairs beyond the polis of Athens, has collected eighteen of Buckler's essays, most of which have appeared in print but often in out of the way places. In addition to grouping the essays in three categories--Alliance, Hegemony and Domination--Beck also provides an excellent prologue entitled "Power politics in fourth-century Greece" and is the coauthor, along with Buckler, of the epilogue. Since this volume was not written as a narrative or a diachronic history it would be wrong to judge it in those terms. Rather, this review treats the chapters as separate articles seriatim and attempts to evaluate the broader contribution to our understanding of the 4th century that emerges from Buckler's collected essays.

In the first two essays, on Theban-Athenian relations between 403 and 371 BC, and on an episode of sheep rustling on Mt Parnassos in 395 BC, precipitating the Corinthian War, Buckler's strengths and weaknesses are on display. The second essay in particular demonstrates Buckler's great ability to compare literary accounts (in this case Xenophon and the Oxyrhynchus Historian) and to reach judicious and reliable conclusions. He uses eye-witness familiarity with the topography to situate the discussion in an actual landscape; he exhibits a subtle awareness of contemporary legal practice, neatly distinguishing between arbitration and trial, to establish criteria for choosing between ancient and modern accounts; and he displays a sound grasp of the principles of textual editing, jettisoning unnecessary emendations and forcing the reader to attend to what the sources say rather than what we would like them to say. At the same time, however, there are aspects of this style of history writing that demonstrate the limitations of positivistic historiography. States are presented as actors with emotions that can be inferred ("At the real heart of the matter, however, is that Athens and Sparta had come to fear Thebes more than they did each other.") Pace Thucydides, the historian's task is to do more than infer the State's state of mind. Further, there is in Buckler's approach a temptation to mistake historical explanation for apportioning blame ("The blame for this shortsighted view can reasonably be laid to Athens, for a conflict with Thebes was anything but inevitable.") Despite the care with which Buckler's analysis proceeds, some readers may wonder whether an analysis that locates the key to a quarter century of convoluted political and military manoeuvring in "the myopia of Athenian politicians" has actually explained terribly much at all, especially in a society where the very relationship between politicians and the people they led was so intimate and complex. Would, for example, a catalogue of Neville Chamberlain's miscalculations suffice as an explanation for World War II?

Chapter 3, a reevaluation of the Battle of Coronea suffers from the same strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand Buckler has an authentic familiarity with the battlefield, allowing him to correct such luminaries as Kendrick Pritchett, although proving the axis of the battlefield was northwest by east-southeast rather than east-west seems a modest advance in our knowledge, at best. Buckler's scrupulous attention to Polyainos' testimony presents the reader with another sound discussion of palaeography, but once again the results seem mighty modest. Buckler contends that a correct understanding of the history and historiography of this battle early in the Corinthian War is important because "a small matter may lead to larger results." So far so good. But following some casual analogies to Vietnam and Gettysburg all that the reader gets is the fairly anodyne conclusion that Xenophon was covering for Agesilaus, and presented what was a tactical defeat for Sparta as though it were really a victory. Buckler's unwillingness to push beyond the very limited constraints imposed by his habitual caution is signalled by a prose style that would make a Jesuit proud: "Although modern historians of Classical antiquity should not pretend to be prophets and thus say that Agesilaus' defeat was the single most important factor in Sparta's inability to win the Corinthian War unaided, no one can reasonably deny that at Coronea Agesilaus threw away the best opportunity for the Spartans to win the war at the outset." Litotes aside, is the conclusion much different from the caveat that precedes it?

The fourth and fifth chapters confirm the suspicion that there is less in these essays than meets the eye. The first of these is a reasonably succinct treatment of the Phoibidas affair in 382 BC. This event, possibly the most flagrant abuse by Sparta of the autonomy clause in the King's Peace, was the subject of speculation even in antiquity. Was Phoibidas acting opportunistically and on his own initiative when he seized the Kadmeia while leading an army north to confront the growing power of Olynthos, or was he guided and later protected by his mentor, Agesilaus? Buckler has no doubt that the moving force was the Spartan king, but it is odd that an article littered with citations from the 1990's should fail to mention George Cawkwell's CQ article from 1976 (cited in the volume's bibliography, but not in this chapter), when Cawkwell addressed many of the same questions, such as Xenophon's silence, but actually provided a somewhat fuller discussion of the episode by including an examination of Plutarch's version, which drew on Theopompos. Similarly, reading Buckler on the raid of Sphodrias, another curious episode that took place around the time Athens had begun to forge a series of bilateral alliances which would eventually serve as the basis for the 2nd Athenian Confederacy, one is puzzled to find an essay that employs a close reading of the relevant inscriptions to underpin quite unremarkable inferences about Sphodrias (acting under orders from Kleombrotos, according to Buckler). Anne Pippin Burnett performed a similar analysis of these inscriptions and reconstructed the time-line from December 379 to June 378 in an article published as early as 1962. (Buckler's chapter has bibliography up to 2000. Burnett is not cited.) It is not clear to this reader that Buckler's contribution forty years later adds substantially to our understanding of these events.

More promising results occur in chapter 6, when Buckler argues for the reintroduction of the federal magistracy, the Boiotarchia, in 378, following the liberation of the Kadmeia. This information, given in Plutarch, has been doubted, and the prevailing view in recent years has been that the individuals named by Plutarch were, in fact, only local Theban officials, polemarchoi. A detailed comparison of battle narratives (and topography) in Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus and Polyainos permits Buckler to conclude that Plutarch's version of the critical events in 378 is to be preferred. What emerges is a vigorous and early renaissance of Theban federal aspirations. Whether the federal koinon was quite as progressive as Buckler would have it is perhaps less clear. Buckler refers to Boiotian coins that "[stand] as a public declaration of Theban intentions to defy Sparta" (p. 90 n. 18.), but many of the coins in this series have been defaced. Some non-Theban Boiotians may have objected to using coins minted in Thebes. The seventh and eighth chapters read like a matched pair. Both are concerned with important battles in the 370's, Tegyra and Leuktra that together saw the balance of power shift between Thebes and Sparta. In his treatment of the topography of Tegyra Buckler draws on the expertise of J. Knauss, whose studies in the 1980's of the Kopaic basin have shed a great deal of light on an area whose landscape in the Classical period was dramatically different from today. Yet the result of Buckler's painstaking study is modest: Lauffer's view, first expressed in 1971, was correct, and Tegyra was located at the location known as Polygyra. Plutarch's battle narrative, when read with this identification in mind, is vindicated. A more compelling argument underlies the Leuktra essay. Here, although Buckler's conclusions again seem to concern the reliability of Plutarch's account, the real issue that has emerged since Anderson's 1970 monograph on military tactics has been whether or not Epaminondas' tactics were revolutionary: an oblique attack to the left, a refused right wing and the critical use of cavalry to force the Spartan cavalry back onto, thus fouling, their own lines. Buckler's essay on Leuktra first appeared in 1980 and it is regrettable that Buckler has chosen not to revise it, as he does in the case of the Tegyra piece (first published in 1995 but here with bibliography updated to 2004), in the light of subsequent work by scholars such as Victor Davis Hanson, whose 1988 essay explains explicitly where he agrees and disagrees with Buckler. A revision might have brought a fresh perspective to this well-studied battle.

An essay that will prove to have longer staying power is chapter nine, in which Buckler provides a very thorough analysis of Theban hegemony from Leuktra to Mantineia. The study offers a clear context for the understanding of hegemony in authors such as Xenophon and Isokrates, and does a very nice job of showing that the institutions of the Theban state were poorly adapted to establishing a permanent, or even long-lasting, control of Greek affairs. That said, the essay once again exemplifies Buckler's tendency to meld historical explanation with apportioning blame. The fact that the Theban hegemony did not produce a "corporate body capable of setting new goals for its members" is presented as a flaw and a "defect ... directly attributable to the Thebans." Perhaps the Thebans were defective--certainly one can think of a number of Athenians who would have agreed--but the historian's urge to find fault is not exactly the same as the drive to understand, and, to the extent that fault-finding leads the investigator away from such amoral issues as the tension between centripetality and centrifugality, the twin poles of Greek federalism, the business of identifying the flaws of the Thebans is distracting and finally unilluminating. As a result, when Buckler offers a conclusion, one feels that it too needs an explanation. "In short, the Thebans did not attempt to convert their authority and their many ties with other states into something permanent, something that could change with the times and meet new situations without coming apart." Why not?

In a lengthy chapter on speeches in the Hellenica one is again assailed by the sense of an opportunity lost. A thorough review of the speeches breaks them down according to speaker, ethnic affiliation, purpose and category, but in the section on composition Buckler's conclusion makes a molehill out of a mountain: "If Xenophon fully comprehended Thucydides' conception of the function of speeches he clearly chose not to espouse it himself." Given that the Hellenica is the major composition of the most prolific prose author of the 4th century, Buckler's conclusion is hardly breath taking. We are left with a Xenophon who picks up where Thucydides breaks off, but who chooses to compose speeches differently, a fair but also fairly unremarkable conclusion. When Buckler then turns to the historical setting of the speeches to test their veracity he finds Xenophon somewhat inconsistent. Roughly Thucydidean in outlook, Xenophon nevertheless, "never reduced his attitudes toward speeches to an all-encompassing theory or approach which he consistently applied to all cases." Conclusions couched as negatives should always give the reader pause, not because they claim too much but because they claim too little. In Buckler's analysis Xenophontian composition becomes no more than another stop along the via negative of the 4th century. Did Xenophon reject Thucydides' tortured explanation, at 1.22, of the truth-value of speeches in historiography? Did his avoidance of the typically Thucydidean political aperçu represent a rejection of his predecessor's style of historiography? Do Xenophon's more jejune speeches stand in relation to Thucydides' in the same way as the Socrates of his Memorabilia is but a pale shadow of Plato's? On all these questions Buckler's study is silent. All we get in the end is a Xenophon who wasn't Thucydides, which is pretty much what we had at the start.

If Buckler's strengths do not lie in the area of literary analysis, they produce more tangible results when he returns to the nitty-gritty of political and constitutional affairs. In chapter eleven, for example, he turns his attention to the important question of the federal synedrion of the Boiotian League. This is a fundamental issue, because, as Buckler makes clear, our understanding of how the Boiotian Confederacy functioned depends upon how we reconstruct the most basic institution of federalism: the collective meeting of representatives from the allied states. Many scholars, relying on the Athenian and Spartan examples, have assumed that the Thebans similarly arranged for their allies to meet formally, even though the evidence for this is confusing and contradictory. Buckler's stance, that there was no formally constituted allied synedrion, rests upon a minute sifting of the evidence in Xenophon's account of the trial of the assassins of the Sikyonian tyrant Euphron and epigraphic evidence from the Sacred War. It is hard to resist his conclusion that the Thebans preferred a looser, more ad hoc arrangement. Buckler leaves largely unexplored the broader issues of how and why Theban hegemony played out so differently from the Athenian and Spartan models that preceded it, being content simply to observe that the Thebans had experience of the problems that recalcitrant allies could cause, since they themselves had been in this position in relation to Athens not long earlier, but as the volume's preface makes clear, citing a slightly inapposite line from Blake that concerns doing good, Buckler would rather deal with "minute particulars" than grand theories. So much the better, will say many.

There are, of course, times when teasing out the solution to a single problem produces unexpectedly rich results. In chapter twelve Buckler tackles a question of no great intrinsic importance, the location and identity of the harbour used to house the fleet of one hundred triremes built by the Thebans in 366 BC. Yet in the process of reviewing the scant literary and archaeological evidence he manages not only to create a vivid picture of the coastal conditions in northern and southern Boiotia, but also to reconstruct very convincingly the strategic thinking that lay behind the locating of Greek naval bases. The essay demonstrates a powerful command of evidence relating both to Boiotia but also to many of the major naval campaigns of the 5th century. Military historians will find it rewarding.

The final chapter in the section entitled Hegemony concerns a proxeny inscription from Knidos honouring Epaminondas and conferring upon the Theban commander the right to sail in and out of Knidos. Those who customarily dismiss the honorific language of such inscriptions as little more than diplomatic bloviation should read Buckler's precise analysis of this and other 4th century examples to see how, for a time at least, such negotiations actually meant something. In this case, the Knidians acknowledged the presence of a new power in the region without jeopardizing their independence. One quibble: there has been a good deal of discussion of Diodorus Siculus' description, at 15.79.1, of Epaminondas' voyage around the eastern Aegean, in particular the meaning of idias in the phrase idias tas poleis Thebaiois epoiesen. After a lengthy discussion Buckler concludes, "Epaminondas won the favorable opinion of some states that Diodorus considered to be inclined towards Thebes." Yet his actual translation goes considerably further: "and he made the cities Thebes' own," a choice of words that creates the (incorrect) impression that Buckler thinks Thebes took possession of the cities in question. The confusion here, stemming from the difference between his translation and his interpretation, is only exacerbated by his treatment of other scholar's approaches. Buckler cites Bresson's translation "il gagne (sic) ces cités à la cause de Thèbes", which is very close to the interpretation Buckler himself offers, but then criticizes Bresson and remarks that ""independent" in this context renders idias most closely", a conclusion utterly at odds with his own translation.

Chapter fourteen, an essay on the outbreak of the Sacred War, opens the section entitled Domination. Buckler offers a close reading of our principal source, Diodorus Siculus and exonerates the Thebans of responsibility for having manipulated the Amphiktyony into imposing punishing fines on Phokis, thereby provoking the Phokians into reasserting their claim to Delphi and resulting in the Phokian occupation of the site. Buckler suggests, though no ancient source says it, that it was the Delphians who brought charges against the Phokians. The argument rests on probabilities, which are not the most secure foundations. When Buckler asserts that "[t]hey (sc. the Delphians) stood to gain the most from denouncing the Phocians", one is tempted to ask, what, exactly, did they stand to gain? Antagonizing an already hostile neighbour? Isolating the Phocians? But this is a slippery slope. One can then speculate that Delphi, vulnerable, would only contemplate such provocation if the Delphians could rely on a powerful protector. And so the path of speculation leads once more back to Thebes, awarded promanteia by Delphi in 360/59. Speculation is not necessarily bad, in fact, it may be the very quality most lacking from Buckler's approach. Indeed, one is struck by the fact that in his final paragraph Buckler yet again reaches a negative conclusion: "In conclusion, despite the existence of Boeotian enmity towards the Phocians, nothing immediately connects it with the pressing events at Delphi."

In chapter fifteen Buckler continues his treatment of the Sacred War from the perspective of the Boiotians. A strength of the essay is its ability to weave a narrative of events on the mainland with Theban actions in the western satrapies of the Persian Empire, thereby providing a broader perspective on events in the 350s than one commonly encounters. The focus of Buckler's attention is Pammenes, the Boiotarch who came to prominence with his defeat of the Phokian Philomelos, instigator of the seizure of Delphi, in 355 BC. Trying to find a consistent policy among any of the leaders of the Greek states during this tumultuous period is a fraught endeavour, and Buckler is not the first to toy with the idea that the polis was an evolutionary deadend. Towards the end of this article he takes to ruminating on the difference between the Greeks, addicted to their particularism, and the Romans, with their broader notion of "a community of shared laws, literature, and culture." The observation is an interesting one, but characteristically it leads Buckler back to his preferred mode of historical explanation: failure of character. Thus, in the final paragraph, we read that "[t]he Thebans... proved incapable of maintaining their ascendancy in Greece. The reason for it lay in the nature of Theban leadership with its inability to remedy a fatal flaw in Greek political thinking." Myopia, flaws, and shortcomings of character are certainly part of the tapestry of human experience that is history, but they are rarely the full or even partial explanation for historical change. It may well be that the Theban leadership deserves to be castigated, but it would be interesting if Buckler were to contrast the narrowness of vision exhibited by the Thebans, newly come to power, with the glimmerings of a broader, more expansive definition of Greekness exhibited by Isokrates, who at this very time could proclaim, "We call Greek all who share our paideia." Was it in the shadow of an empire's passing that the Athenians began to grope towards a more inclusive understanding of what it was to be Greek, precisely as the Thebans, parochial ever, were revelling in their one moment centre-stage. Less myopia and more dazzled by the footlights, perhaps?

The longest essay in the collection is typically detailed reading of Philip's relations with the Greeks and the Great King between 346 and 336 BC. Here Buckler is exploring at least two distinct questions: in what ways did the concept of common peace undergo transformation as Philip's power increased and to what degree can one infer a masterplan behind the record of Philip's actions in the years before and after Chaeroneia. The two issues are not entirely brought into alignment, in part because the former is a question of institutional changes while the second concerns personal motivations. In pulling the two threads together Buckler adopts a by-now familiar position: the negative formulation, with an emphasis on what is not in evidence, and what cannot be demonstrated: "Nothing of the extant evidence suggests that he (sc. Philip) had had any ambitions in Asia until the King interfered with his Thracian operations..." Buckler's Philip is an opportunist, "pursuing a traditional Greek policy, one limited to the Aegean basin." But, not for the first time, conclusions couched as cautious negatives actually contain a kind of assertion. "There is absolutely no reason to think that he seriously looked beyond the Ionian coast... There is nothing to suggest that he, like his son, ever seriously planned to conquer the entire Persian Empire." In other words, the lengthy and detailed analysis of Philip's actions in the last decade of his life is really employed to draw conclusions about his future intentions, as if Buckler is answering the question, what would Philip have done had he lived. That Philip had no clearly formulated plan of world domination is a fair guess, yet it took only a single victory, at the Granikos River, to deliver all of Asia Minor into Alexander's hands. Had Philip enjoyed the same success, who knows what ideas might have taken shape in the head of a man whose statue was carried alongside those of the gods that fateful day in 334 BC.

A much more modest essay is chapter seventeen, in which Buckler argues against the confusing and myth-laden reconstructions of Chaironeia that have Philip performing a flanking manoeuvre while Alexander led a mounted attack on the Sacred Band. Instead, after a careful consideration of the sources and the terrain, Buckler concludes, "Philip introduced no new strategy at Chaeronea." Striking, then, that Buckler should find two earlier occasions when Philip did employ novel tactics. Buckler' Chaeronea, however, was a traditional confrontation of infantry forces, nothing more.

The careful business of threading a path through negative space continues in the final essay, on Philip's designs on Greece. Referring to Philip's ambitions in relation to both Greece and Persia, Buckler offers an observation that sums up his approach in general: "The very silence surrounding these matters is significant for it makes an incontestable explanation of them impossible." Quite true, but are there any matters in Ancient History for which an incontestable explanation is possible? And doesn't silence outweigh 99.99% of the data from antiquity? The chapter develops a theme running through Buckler's work, that Philip did not have a masterplan, and that his career unfolded essentially as a result of his opportunistic exploitation of the weaknesses of his enemies, especially the Athenians. If the only alternative is a Macchiavellian Philip, scheming from the moment of his accession in 359 BC, most people will have no difficulty in accepting this version of Philip. Still, in pursuit of proof for this less dastardly Philip, Buckler often places a good deal more weight on some testimonia than they probably warrant. For example, Buckler maintains that Ps.-Dem 12. 23 is conclusive proof that Philip declared war against the Athenians after Diopeithes, the Athenian commander, raided the Thracian territories of Philip. In other words, he was responding justifiably to an Athenian provocation. Others have generally put the declaration of war later, after Philip had seized Perinthos, Byzantion, and an Athenian grain fleet. In other words, Philip shares the blame for the war and was himself a provocateur. Buckler's case turns on a phrase in Ps.-Dem 12. 23: "kai martyras tous theous poiesamenos dialepsomai peri ton kath' hymas", which he glosses as follows: "the author of the letter plainly says that he (sc. Philip) has already made the gods his witnesses and that he will deal with the Athenians later at his pleasure." But, despite Buckler's dismissal of other translations by Griffith and Errington, his own reading is seriously flawed. The aorist participle poiesamenos cannot carry the weight Buckler assigns it since a participle's tense is not relative to any situation external to the sentence but only to the main verb, in this case the future tense dialeipsomai. Hence, it cannot be taken to mean that Philip is claiming to have already invoked the gods, which Buckler takes as a signifying a declaration of war. Rather, when at some unstated future time Philip addresses the Athenians' actions he will do so after calling on the gods. The entire line is a general threat, not a specific declaration. It may seem that the point is a minor one, but Buckler himself maintains that the timing of formal hostilities between Philip and the Athenians is important, and so one is entitled to ask whether the evidence is sufficient to support this view of Phillip. Buckler's tendency to concentrate on these minor points ultimately hides a more serious weakness, and that is that his vision of Philip is neither fish nor fowl. He is neither a megalomaniac bent on conquering the Greeks, nor a defender of Macedonian independence, locked in a cat and mouse game with the perfidious Athenians, either of which would be preferable to the rather bloodless figure of Buckler's interpretation, whose genius resided in the realization that "he could turn Greek, especially Athenian, factiousness to his own ends," a remark that surely fits Artaxerxes Memnon at least as well.

Throughout the volume the reader looks for a more systematic interpretive statement, some attempt to bring the 4th century into focus, and this is provided in the epilogue, jointly written by Buckler and his collaborator, Hans Beck. Here at last one encounters a broader reading of the power politics of the 4th century, but the chapter's tone is somewhat confused. On the one hand the authors see the century as a period maligned by historians who have failed to recognize it as a time of experiment. "It must be observed that during this period the Greek city-state staunchly confronted the challenges before it in various original and productive ways," they assert. But what follows is a litany of failures: federalism offered a way out of the impasse of Athenian or Spartan hegemony, only to fail because the Thebans were wedded to the same old mechanisms of "symmachial hegemony." Common Peace treaties offered another way of structuring interstate relations, but ironically ensconced autonomy as a key concept of the age, thereby allowing powerful states to expand under the guise of upholding the treaties signed by the Greek states. The Amphiktyony was another example of a potential alternative to unregulated interstate rivalry, but Delphi lacked the authority to regulate interstate relations and after the Sacred War was content to serve as the haven of Apollo. This somewhat schizophrenic view of the age--novel, vibrant, experimental, yet at every turn a failure--is best summed up by the opening sentences of the volume's final paragraph: "Greek history of the fourth century bears no traces of decadence, decrepitude, or decline. Rather, the Greek world went through a deep power-transformation crisis that was triggered by its inability to adapt changing circumstances. The Greeks were unable to replace a multipolar state system with anything more embracing." The first sentence is a rejection of the decline and fall view of history. The second and third sentences are a confirmation of it.

In conclusion, one cannot say this is a bad book, or that its arguments are unsound, but whether it is a necessary book is an altogether different question.

Contents: Prologue: power politics in fourth-century Greece; Part I. Alliance: 1. A survey of Theban and Athenian relations between 403 and 371 BC; 2. The incident at Mt. Parnassus, 395 BC; 3. The Battle of Coronea and its historiographical legacy; 4. The King's Peace, alliance, and Phoebidas' strike (382 BC); 5. Sphodrias' raid and the evolution of the Athenian League; Part II. Hegemony: 6. The re-establishment of the boeotarchia (378 BC); 7. The Battle of Tegyra, 375 BC; 8. Plutarch on Leuctra; 9. Alliance and hegemony in fourth-century Greece: the case of the Theban hegemony; 10. Xenophon's speeches and the Theban hegemony; 11. The phantom synedrion of the Boeotian Confederacy, 378-335 BC; 12. Boeotian Aulis and Greek naval bases; 13. Epaminondas and the new Inscription from Cnidus; Part III. Domination: 14. Thebes, Delphi, and the outbreak of the Sacred War; 15. Pammenes, the Persians, and the Sacred War; 16. Philip II, the Greeks, and the King, 346-336 BC; 17. A note on the Battle of Chaeronea; 18. Philip's designs on Greece; 19. Epilogue.

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