Sunday, April 25, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Andrew Erskine (ed.), A Companion to Ancient History. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xxxiv, 693. ISBN 9781405131506. $199.95.
Reviewed by Sara Saba, Kommission für Alte Geschichte und Epigraphik, Munich


Andrew Erskine is not new to the task of editing a Companion,1 but the aims of the volume under review are somewhat different from those of his earlier achievement. In this preface, he states that this work "aims to provide a series of accessible introductions to key topics in the study of Ancient History ..", which it certainly accomplishes, while its second purpose, namely to "reflect the vitality and the excitement of scholarship at the front line" is only partially fulfilled.

The volume is arranged into eight thematic sections to which 49 authors contributed. These are for the most part well-known scholars who can write comfortably about both the Greek and Roman aspects of specific themes, which is indeed no easy task. Examples are E. Meyer with her introductory but rock solid chapter on law or Lisa Nevett on housing, although her pages read as if they had been too often revised. Other specialists in more technical fields, in particular Walter Scheidel on demography, contribute by sharing their unmatched expertise.

Forewords by five international scholars precede these sections and among them figures that of the late Peter Derow, one of the dedicatees of the volume, together with George Forrest. The editor asked them to offer their personal perspectives on ancient history, in other words to answer the question that we have all been asked at some point: why it matters. They articulate enviably reasonable motives for persisting in the pursuit of such studies. I like to think with McLynn that "ours is a discipline which to an unusual degree serves as a springboard rather than a straitjacket".2 This is, however, a hot topic nowadays, and it does not hurt to remember that together with related themes the question of the significance and value of the study of ancient history was broached more than once at the 2010 American Philological Association meeting in Anaheim, California.

Part I of this volume is concerned with the different natures and with the use of the sources available to historians. Particularly useful are the chapters on historiography by John Marincola, on papyrology by Alan Bowman, and on oratory by Catherine Steel. By choosing representative themes or examples that clarify methodology and possible approaches, in addition to discussing the downsides of the evidence and the skills required to handle it, these authors well illustrate the making of history through a specific type of source. For example, Marincola talks about historiography by discussing a crucial theme, namely how change was perceived and processed by ancient writers of historical narratives, in other words, whether they wrote history as we understand it. This is certainly a more attractive method than the one adopted by Gregory Rowe who packs too much knowledge into too few pages. Although I cannot agree more with Rowe on the richness and possibilities that epigraphy offers, a crash course on regional epigraphies is unlikely to be useful to the reader of a Companion.

If a section of this volume was successful in the pursuit of the second goal listed in the preface, namely to transmit the vitality of the current research, that would be Part II. Here the authors discuss the different faces of and approaches to the discipline. For example, the chapter on myth in and as history by C. Dougherty shows the role mythology could play in historical narratives and what possible theoretical frameworks scholarship has created to make sense of it. The opening chapter by J.A. North deserves a note too. He sharply analyses problems and new directions by pointing out that in spite of the decreasing presence of the classics in the general cultural background, the field still lives and expands its own boundaries. More to the point is Morstein-Marx's piece, which does not allow us to forget that contemporary scholarship and its new approaches are based on and indebted to older ones. We are Mommsen's products, hopefully.

Scholars who contributed to Part III took upon themselves nothing less than the burden of summarizing the history of either peoples or places within a few pages. The approach to the task varies and, to my taste, Bohak's chapter on the Jews appears the most well-rounded, with its brief historical and social outline tuned to the persisting background questions of their remarkable survival skills and of their importance throughout history. Less helpful is Harrison's contribution on the Greeks. This essay moves along the lines of the query on identity that the reader finds already sketched in Herring's pages in Part II. By contrast, Witt on the Celts is puzzling. After reading her words, we definitely know that we do not know who they were, which is not a bad result per se, but we are left with little hope that the question is soluble, which is not as good. The geographic contributions, whether out of choice (Thonemann's contribution on Asia Minor), or necessity (Bruun on Rome), are written so that they leave the reader with a sana curiositas satisfied in the final paragraphs on further readings.

The fourth section deals, but curiously briefly, with religion. On the bright side, both contributions leave their mark by tackling key themes, first, ancient religion as seen through the cultural biases of modern eyes, and second, the emergence of Christianity. Parts V and VI also treat important themes that concern different aspects of ancient social life, death, or economy. I find, however, that these sections could have been incorporated into a single, shorter one. Clearly, economic news is on our minds, but I found myself gasping at the end of Part VI to which, for example, Rihll's chapter has little to add. Useful, by contrast, are Davies' and Witcher's contributions, since they provide a guide for understanding the past and current debate about ancient economies.

The last two sections of this Companion focus, respectively, on politics and power, and on the influence that the ancient world, and more specifically parts of its history, have had on the present. The contributions to Part VII deserve to be described with the adjective solid, since they offer the reader a good background in theoretical approaches (Beck and his definition of structures), and in more practical aspects of the ancient world (warfare by Rawlings). The last three articles of the collection pay their dues to the currently fashionable interdisciplinary approach. R. McKitterick presents a few examples of medieval responses to antiquity as represented by buildings or texts. Erskine reviews and comments intelligently on the self-serving ways in which Greece, Italy and much more recently the Republic of Macedonia have used the past to nationalistic ends. Finally, Llewellyn-Jones proposes an overview of the increasingly more popular subject of the Ancient World on the big screen by tackling the problems that such movies often pose for historians. Among other views, he cites that of Federico Fellini who suggested that historical accuracy should be an issue only if the director claimed it as one of his goals.

No Companion will elicit exclusively positive or negative responses. The nature of such volumes creates the conditions for all possible reactions, and this work is no different. Its attempt to provide introductory information is certainly successful, but I am not sure that this volume as a whole really displays the "vitality and excitement" for the discipline that its editor would have wished. Debates are sketched, references are given: enthusiasm for the subject still emanates from the individual. The quality of the presentation is high; maps, a timeline, and indices are provided and will be of help to new students of the discipline.


1.   A Companion to the Hellenistic World, Blackwell 2003.
2.   McLynn, "Personal Perspective", p. 8.

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