Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Paul Cartledge, Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xv, 261; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9780199233380. $19.95.
Reviewed by Emily K. Varto, Dalhousie University


Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities adds to Paul Cartledge's already substantial contribution to the genre of popular history. As its title suggests, the book tells the history of ancient Greece through portraits of eleven Greek cities. The stated aim of the book is to provide a short introduction to Greek history that is neither 'simplistic nor bland' (p. 1); it is, therefore, primarily meant for a non-expert or beginner audience.

The main body consists of eleven chapters each profiling the history of a different selected Greek city. These chapters are organized into five chronological parts: Prehistory (Cnossos, Mycenae); Early History (to 500 BCE): Dark Age and Archaic (Argos, Miletus, Massalia, Sparta); Classical (500-330 BCE) (Athens, Syracuse, Thebes); Hellenistic (Alexandria); and Retrospect and Prospect (Byzantion). The chapter on Byzantion is followed by the closed connected epilogue, which addresses the later history of Byzantion and contains some interesting concluding remarks on the study of Greek history. This approach and structure are not entirely new; Cartledge gives a nod to Freeman's Greek City-States1 and to the important work of the Copenhagen Polis Centre, especially its inventory of Greek poleis.2 Thomas and Conant's Citadel to City-State similarly covers the 'Dark Age' of Greece in six sites.3

For a book structured along this sort of selective principle, objections can always be made to the author's choice of cities. Cartledge explains his selection in the introduction, and each selection serves the structure and intent of the book well – the cities are selected here to tell Greek history broadly. Similarly, one might also quibble with the identification of all of the selections as 'cities'. Cartledge justifies this in a suitably short and non-pedantic discussion of the concepts of city, city-state, and polis in Greek history. In a work intended for an academic audience, there would be more room for debate on this point; here, however, the use of the term 'city' appears to be simply a structuring device allowing multiple forms of urbanism in Greek history to be included.

In terms of content, the chapters on better known cities, such as Mycenae, Athens, and Sparta, offer nothing particularly new, but are solid overviews based on well-accepted and recent scholarship. The unconventional selections of Massalia and Byzantion are very welcome and will probably be the most interesting sections of the book to an expert reader for their coverage of less studied locales. With this city-centred approach and by singling out cities not conventionally covered, Cartledge is also able to treat the Greeks outside of the Aegean and mainland Greece as part of Greek history proper. The Western Greek poleis, for example, are often treated as peripheral not only geographically but also historically, i.e. as peripheral to the great narratives of mainland Greek history. Here, by giving cities like Syracuse and Massalia their own portraits, we see the Western Greeks as truly crucial players in the highly interconnected Greek world. I wish, however, that the opening map (Map 1) reflected this broad understanding of the Greek world as spread around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Instead, Map 1 opens the book with the depiction of a Greek world confined to modern Greece and the Eastern coast of Turkey, which is clearly not the Greek world conceived of and presented to the reader in the text. It is an unfortunately misleading visual cue.

One of the real benefits of Cartledge's approach in this book, therefore, is its ability to take the reader around the Greek world as well as through time. The chapter on Byzantion and the adjacent epilogue take the reader to the shore of the Bosporus (not Bosphorus, as we are told on p. 167), a vital access point from the Mediterranean, throughout history, to the resources of the Black Sea regions. These combined chapters provide an enjoyable journey through the history of this important site, taking the reader from the founding of Byzantion in the 7th C BCE through its continuing importance as late Roman Constantinople, the centre of the Byzantine world, the capital of the Ottoman Turks, and finally modern Turkish Istanbul. This is a story that will be of interest to the intellectually curious traveller to this region.

Another benefit of this structure is the ability to convey an understanding of the Greek world as a collection of separate and frequently, but not always, autonomous polities. But herein also lies the trick in working within such a structure, the interaction of these usually independent polities may become lost through singling out cities. The Greek poleis belonged to a wider Mediterranean and Near Eastern context of interconnecting networks of city-states (not just Greek, but also Etruscan, Latin, and Phoenician), territorial states, ethnē, and indigenous populations. The history of a Greek city-state cannot be told in isolation from its peer and non-peer polities and its contemporary non-polis entities. In this volume, Cartledge makes his cities interact largely through their conflicts with one another, and so the propensity of Greek poleis to form ever-changing military alliances and continually battle one another, is well illustrated. The indigenous populations in Sicily come up in the portrait of Syracuse, although their relationship with the Greek settlers is not a major feature of the chapter. Cartledge also weaves non-polis entities (Persia, Macedon, the Roman Empire) into the narratives of individual cities through their major conflicts with various Greeks. Less successfully embedded, however, are the Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries, which are included apart from the main text in an appendix. The engagement between Greek poleis (and others) at the Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries and festivals provides important correlation and counterpoint to the seemingly incessant warfare between Greek poleis highlighted so well in the chapters. The necessity of such an appendix does make one wonder if the history of ancient Greece can truly be told in cities alone.

The book is clearly aimed at the non-expert reader, and it succeeds in appealing to such an audience, unlike so many volumes that claim accessibility and yet are clearly pitched in tone, content, and format for a scholarly or educational setting. Its layout and formatting are quite attractive and non-intimidating without looking simple; the book looks classy and intelligent. There are twenty-four black and white plates featuring pictures standard to Greek history books. Some are quite nicely cued to the text, for example, the Sicilian Greek coins featured on plates 13 and 14 are referenced directly to illustrate the iconographic self-advertisement of Greek poleis (p. 121-22).

The tone adopted by Cartledge is that of an engaging and experienced lecturer, and so the book has an enjoyable oral quality to it. There is no stiff academic prose here. At times, the tone does tend toward the overly florid (e.g. when discussing the cultural achievements of Periclean Athens, he concludes with, 'Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive' (p. 105)), but sometimes people like that sort of thing. The author dots his history with enough of the familiar (e.g. popular myths like the Trojan War or monuments like the Parthenon) to capture his readers with something they probably know a little about, and then he provides a deeper understanding. Cartledge also adds little snippets on the origins of words or expressions that give the audience small insights into their own world and the way Greek antiquity weaves its way into it (e.g., the origins of the words 'politics' and 'school' (p. 188 and 189)). Another part of this lecture-like tone is the light humour (the author seems fond of puns) and nice turns of phrase Cartledge employs. His description of 5th-century Athenian imperial promises of democratic liberation from oppressive oligarchies as a 'charm offensive', is evocative of modern foreign policy concepts like 'hearts and minds' and is a phrase I might just adopt in my own lectures. Sometimes, however, the clever vocabulary might overreach its audience. For example, I wonder just what kind of confusion would ensue if I used a phrase like 'intestine strife' (p. 133) in a room of undergraduates. Similarly, some Latin phrases (e.g. odium academicum (p. 188)) could be misconstrued, even in context, by intelligent readers without any Latin.

In accordance with its purpose, the book has no notes and no bibliography, only a list of suggested readings. Cartledge is wisely restrained in these, although one might always quibble with a suggestion or two. It is, for example, surprising not to see Hall's work on Greek identity suggested, given that, in his chapter on Argos, Cartledge clearly makes use of its arguments and lingers significantly on issues of identity.4 It would be natural for a reader to wish to follow up on that thought-provoking discussion, rather than consult a history of Argos and the Argolid, as suggested (p. 212).

Given one of the stated aims of the book (in the preface) to be suitable for travel, I chose to read it partly in transit. Its larger print, small size, and light weight (despite being in hard-cover), as well as its short chapters and the easy engaging tone of the writing do make it quite well suited to the middle seat on an airplane.

For the expert reader, the chapters on unconventionally chosen cities and the epilogue will probably prove the most stimulating reading in the book. Because of its introductory purpose and the quality of the underlying scholarship, the book could be useful for beginner undergraduates; it lacks, however, the important mechanics of evidence and citation (e.g. footnotes, source citations, a full bibliography), which are important models and tools for students. It is impossible for the reader who is unfamiliar with the scholarship to locate the author's sources.

I would have no misgivings, however, about recommending this book to the interested, non-professional reader. It makes use of current, well-accepted scholarship – nothing here falls into the wing-nut or conspiracy theory category of popular history. The material is not overly simplistic. Moreover, although the language sometimes becomes florid, Cartledge does not play overly much to trite, old-fashioned sentiments about the glory that was Greece, nor does he tend to reinforce the idealizations of Classical antiquity that often lead the general public to study the Classics. Quite pleasingly and impressively for popular history, Cartledge draws the Western interest in the study of Classical civilizations into question in the epilogue. This part is very interesting, in that it reveals the thoughts of a prolific and seasoned scholar on just what his discipline is about. This really is the strength of the book; it presents a broad vision of the Greek world through the insights of an experienced researcher, made accessible and yet never compromised. Overall, the volume is a clever, engaging, and enjoyable addition to Cartledge's offerings in the genre of popular history.

I have only two edits. In the first full sentence on p. 152, the word 'were' appears to be extraneous. The death of Ptolemy is said to have occurred in 283 BCE, not 285 BCE as reported on p. 153.


1.   Kathleen Freeman, Greek City-States (London: MacDonald, 1950).
2.   Mogens Herman Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen, eds., An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004).
3.   Carol Thomas and Craig Conant, Citadel to City-State: The Transformation of Greece, 1200-700 BCE (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1999).
4.   Jonathan Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997); Jonathan Hall, Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002).

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