Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Kurt A. Raaflaub, Hans van Wees (ed.), A Companion to Archaic Greece. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xxii, 750. ISBN 9780631230458. $199.95.

Reviewed by Lynette Mitchell, University of Exeter (l.g.mitchell@exeter.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer apologises for the late review.]

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Twenty years ago, the study of archaic Greece reached a critical point. Because of the new and more sophisticated ways of reading and interpreting texts, especially Herodotus, Thucydides and fourth-century works such as the Athenaion Politeia, old certainties were now shown to be built on shifting sand and grave doubts were expressed about the ability of students of the ancient world to reconstruct archaic Greek history. Nevertheless, during those twenty years, scholars have responded vigorously to these challenges with new methodologies and approaches, and there has been a boom-period in the study of the archaic world. As well as two important new monographs on archaic Greece,1 there have also been a swathe of collected essays dedicated to the archaic period.2 To this burgeoning industry of archaic studies, this new collection of essays represents an important and exciting contribution.

The essays are divided into four sections: Introduction; Histories; Regions; and Themes. The two introductory essays deal with the historiography of archaic studies, and the place of Greece in the Mediterranean (with a focus on seaborne connectivities). The essays in Part II present surveys of the early Iron Age, the eighth-century renaissance, the 'world' described by Homer and Hesiod, tyranny (although it is not entirely clear why this is a 'history'), case studies on Athens and Sparta and an assessment of the relations between Greeks and Persians at the end of the sixth century/beginning of the fifth century. Part III looks at the archaic world from the perspective of regions: Attica, the Aegean (including Asia Minor), Laconia and Messenia, the (rest of the) Peloponnese, Crete (but not Cyprus), northern Greece (but not northwestern Greece), the western Mediterranean, the Black Sea (but not Egypt or Cyrenaica). Part IV on themes offers chapters on cities, foundations, states, charismatic leadership, sanctuaries, the economy, class, gender, the symposium, competition, literacy, intellectual developments, war and ethnicity.

Some of these essays present surveys of the current state of the evidence or summaries of current interpretations. The best of the essays (more on which below) argue something new and drive forward the debate on particular topics. One of the most striking things about the volume is the way that similar themes reappear in a number of essays and are tackled from fresh angles: for example, the public and the private, luxury, law-making, elites, the sea and 'Mediterraneanisation', cult, egalitarianism and leadership, both good and bad. This has the effect that some essays disagree with others in the collection. For example, Crielaard, on the one hand, and Nielsen and Roy, on the other, argue for the importance of walls for defining the city, while Singor argues that outside Ionia and Sicily city-walls were almost unknown before the fifth century. Nafissi doubts the historicity of the Messenian Wars, whereas most other contributors accept the conquest of Messenia without question. Nielsen and Roy show the significance of the law-giver Demonax of Mantineia (who sorted out constitutional problems in Cyrene) for the political sophistication of his Arcadian city and its international reputation. Wallace, however, only views law-givers as alternatives to tyrants, and does not notice such 'professional' and international constitutionalists.

In fact, the major problem with the volume is that there is no sense of engagement with these disagreements between essays. That chapters present different points of view may not be problematic, except that there is also no general introduction to point them out to the reader or guide her through them. As a result, apart from the readers who have the stamina to read their way through this extensive and weighty volume, the richness of the implicit argument of the volume, which taken as a whole demonstrates so clearly the richness of the subject and the variety of methodologies and interpretations, never really becomes explicit and must inevitably be lost.

Another general weakness of the volume (though Rose in his essay notes the danger) is the tendency to see democracy as the obvious end point of political development in the archaic period (this point is made most explicitly by Whitley, pp. 291-2, but in a number other chapters as well). Although the principle of equality in the archaic world was undoubtedly strong (a point made in a number of essays), not only did the culture of political competition provide an important counterpoint (which was not always controlled – even at Athens, though probably more effectively here than elsewhere – see Stein-Hölkeskamp, p. 113 pace Fisher, pp. 538-40 – though in this connection note also Whitley, esp. p. 291), but also egalitarism could produce the homoioi, the 'peers', at Sparta, as Nafissi (p. 130) notes. It is important for this 'debate' – because there is a debate – to have been highlighted, and elucidated.

Nevertheless, the volume produces some glorious high points. It is not possible to summarise and review all the essays, but there are a number which do need to be given special mention. John Davies, for example, in his 'introductory' essay places the study of archaic Greece in its scholarly context and shows both how many of the methodologies and most of questions that have traditionally been asked of the period emerged, and how more recently the convergence of what had become discrete fields of enquiry (narrative history, cultural studies and archaeology) has revitalised the study of archaic Greece. In this way, he suggests a blue-print for reading the volume – encouraging the reader (even where individual contributors may not always live up to the principle) to read evidence and interpretations against each other.

In Part II, Catherine Morgan's essay on the Early Iron Age is astonishing for its breadth and depth in terms of regions comprehended and topics covered. This panoramic view, remarkable for its detail, allows her to gently unpick many old interpretative schemata, such as the alleged depopulation of EIA Greece, which, as Morgan points out, is 'largely an artifact of archaeological research' (p. 46). Also in Part II, Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp distances herself from the assessments of archaic tyranny found in classical sources, and argues that it was other aristocrats who were the victims of tyrannical oppression. So far from being innovators archaic tyrants represent 'the culmination of aristocratic rule' (p. 114).

While this point in itself is not entirely new,3 Stein-Hölkeskamp's argument is based on carefully delineated case-studies from Corinth, Sicyon, Megara and Samos, which sift the evidence for archaic tyrants and analyse what the evidence can tell us and what it cannot. Also striking in this section is Massimo Nafissi's fascinating account of the 'history' of Sparta as the development of a Heraclid identity and hoplite ideal centring on the basileis. Although he does not deny the importance of Spartan martial superiority, rather than oppressors, he presents the Spartans as leaders who valued themselves highly and whom others wanted to follow.

Part III (Regions) is equally rich. Sanne Houby-Nielsen recentres notions of Attica, firstly by blurring its boundaries, then by developing its 'coastal' aspect (which was less interested in the Attic countryside until the sixth century), and finally by presenting Athens itself as a city on rivers for which water-based sanctuaries played an important role. If water and the sea were important for Attica, Thomas Heine Nielsen and James Roy connect the varied but vaguely defined regions of the Peloponnese with roads, and argue that for the most part the Peloponnesian communities were not only fully integrated in the mainstream of Greek developments, but also were even leaders (Demonax, for example, or the development of proxenia, first known from Elis), and that Sparta was not always decisive in the Peloponnese. Crete, on the other hand, according to James Whitley, must be noted for standing outside the mainstream. In Crete, he argues, its very difference highlights developments elsewhere, especially the willingness to suppress the individual in relation to the polis. In Crete, on the other hand, there is a lack of interest in 'Greek' things, such as the symposium, a lack of vitality in visual culture, and a restricted interest in literacy, which meant (according to Whitley) that Crete did not take a democratic turn.

In Part IV, two chapters in particular stand out above all others (and I think these are the two shining gems of the collection): Chapter 22 François de Polignac, 'Sanctuaries and Festivals', and Chapter 23 Hans van Wees, 'The Economy'. In the first de Polignac argues for different ways of approaching sanctuaries, and almost presents the counter-argument to his own seminal work on extra-urban sanctuaries, arguing for the centrality and centralising force of sanctuaries in the conceptualisation and creation of space. Van Wees, on the other hand, overturns conceptions of an economy of poverty in the archaic world, and presents us instead, if not with an affluent world, at least an aspiring one, in which hard work was valued as long as it also brought wealth.

These, however, are only, in this reviewer's view, the brightest of highlights. This volume is full of insight – Malkin finds a way to have both oikistēs and a non-systematic approach to 'colonisation', Tstetskhladze argues that the colonisation of the Black Sea was an Ionian reaction to Persian policies in Asia minor, Ian Morris emphasises the 'regeneration' that occurred in the eighth century after 'collapse' and a rejuvenation which created a notion of the ideal society based upon egalitarianism.

This is an immense volume. It sometimes overwhelms with detail. Archaic Greece was a turbulent place, and the archaic period a time of change and excitement. However, it was also clearly a difficult time in which to live (even if we must now read Hesiod's grumblings in more sophisticated ways). This sense of turbulence is also reflected in the historiography of the period. John Davies, in the opening chapter, remarks (p. 14) on the scholarly processes which have opened up the archaic period and made it accessible (even if sometimes also more foreign): 'It is not a comfortable process, for convergence always creates turbulence.' This is a volume full of turbulence, both in the period it discusses and the scholarly discussions it elucidates. There are some technical problems – some bibliography cited is missing from the bibliographical compendium, the maps are sometimes unclear, and there are some typographical infelicities – however this is a varied, wide-ranging, stimulating and exciting volume which should open the way to even further investigations of archaic Greece.


List of Illustrations

Notes on Contributors


List of Abbreviations


Part I: Introduction

1. The Historiography of Archaic Greece: John K. Davies (University of Liverpool)

2. The Mediterranean World in the Early Iron Age: Carol G. Thomas (University of Washington, Seattle)

Part II: Histories

3. The Early Iron Age: Catherine Morgan (King's College London)

4. The Eighth-century Revolution: Ian Morris (Stanford University)

5. The World of Homer and Hesiod: Christoph Ulf (University of Innsbruck)

6. The Tyrants: Elke Stein-Hölkeskamp (University of Münster)

7. Sparta: Massimo Nafissi (University of Perugia)

8. Athens: Michael Stahl and Uwe Walter (Technical University of Darmstadt and University of Bielefeld)

9. Greeks and Persians: Josef Wiesehöfer (University of Kiel)

Part III: Regions

10. Attica: A View from the Sea: Sanne Houby-Nielsen (Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm)

11. The Aegean: Alexander Mazarakis Ainian and Iphigenia Leventi (Both University of Thessaly)

12. Laconia and Messenia: Nigel Kennell and Nino Luraghi (American School of Classical Studies and Princeton University)

13. The Peloponnese: Thomas Heine Nielsen and James Roy (University of Copenhagen and University of Nottingham)

14. Crete: James Whitley (Cardiff University)

15. Northern Greece: Zosia Halina Archibald (University of Liverpool)

16. The Western Mediterranean: Carla M. Antonaccio (Duke University)

17. The Black Sea: Gocha R. Tsetskhladze (University of Melbourne)

Part IV: Themes

18. Cities: Jan Paul Crielaard (Free University Amsterdam)

19. Foundations: Irad Malkin (Tel Aviv University)

20. States: Hans-Joachim Gehrke (German Archaeological Institute, Berlin)

21. Charismatic Leaders: Robert W. Wallace (Northwestern University)

22. Sanctuaries and Festivals: François de Polignac (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris)

23. The Economy: Hans van Wees (University College London)

24. Class: Peter W. Rose (Miami University of Ohio)

25. Gender: Lin Foxhall (University of Leicester) 26. The Culture of the Symposion: Oswyn Murray (Bailliol College, Oxford)

27. The Culture of Competition: Nick Fisher (Cardiff University)

28. Literacy: John-Paul Wilson (University of Worcester)

29. Intellectual Achievements: Kurt A. Raaflaub (Brown University)

30. War and International Relations: Henk Singor (University of Leiden)

31. Ethnicity and Cultural Exchange: Jonathan M. Hall (University of Chicago)




1.   Robin Osborne, Greece in the Making, 1200-479 BC, 2nd ed., Abingdon and New York, Routledge, 2009; Jonathan M. Hall, A History of the Archaic Greek World, Malden MA, Oxford, Carlton, 2007.
2.   E.g., L.G. Mitchell and P.J. Rhodes (edd), The Development of the Polis in Archaic Greece, London, Routledge, 1997; Nick Fisher and Hans van Wees (edd.), Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence, Swansea, Classical Press of Wales, 1998; H.A. Shapiro (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Archaic Greece, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2007; and (with a slightly different periodisation) Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy and Irene S. Lemos (edd.), Ancient Greece: From the Mycenean Palaces to the Age of Homer (Edinburgh Leventis Studies 3), Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
3.   The point that tyrannical politics was the epitome of archaic politics has been well made by G. Anderson, 'Before Turannoi were Tyrants: Rethinking a Chapter of Early Greek History', ClAnt 24 (2005), 173-222.

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