Wednesday, October 3, 2012


Joseph Roisman, Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander: the Evidence (translations by J. C. Yardley). Blackwell sourcebooks in ancient history. Chichester; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Pp. xlv, 642. ISBN 9781405127769. $54.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Panagiotis Paraskevas, University of Crete (

Version at BMCR home site


The book under review is a welcome contribution to introductory studies on Greek history, and aims at presenting not just the historical narration but also the primary sources on which history is based. Roisman's lengthy book consists of thirty-nine chapters or rather two large sections which cover the years 800-323 BC, i.e. the archaic and the classical era.

Roisman starts off with an instructive introduction as regards the whole period supplemented with references to the sources and the secondary literature, which is detailed and includes items through 2011. This is in line with the main goal of this study, i.e. to make the reader familiar both with the evidence and the modern historical narrative. This objective is well facilitated by the translation of all Greek into English (by J.C.Yardley).

Every section of the book comprises a distinctive body of sources, an account of the historical facts and finally references to the secondary literature. An innovative addition is the inclusion of online references to certain key- words that lead to a whole range of data and important contributions coming from conferences, articles, or other studies. Here Roisman seems to have in mind both students and scholars of Greek history who are interested in searching the web for the latest developments on the field.

Given the length of the book, I will provide only a brief overview of the material covering its main subjects.

Section one (Chapters 1-14) deals with the world of Homer (Ch. 1) and Hesiod (Ch. 2), the early city-state (Ch. 3), the period of colonisation (Ch. 4), the aristocratic society and the tyrants (Ch. 5-6). In an extended digression Roisman discusses archaic and classical Sparta and emphasises that this city-state was the one extreme in the cultural and political development of Greece, the other being Athens (Ch. 7). He also examines the hoplitic phalanx (Ch. 8), and then the history of Athens up to the Cleisthenic reforms (Ch. 9-11). Finally, there is a presentation of archaic society in its entirety along with a discussion about its laws and religion (Ch. 12-14).

Section two (Chapters 15-39) covers the period from the Ionian revolt to the death of Alexander. Following the mainstream view Roisman marks the Persian wars as the limit that divides the pre-classical and classical periods. The same holds for the death of Alexander as a landmark for the transition to Hellenistic times. Roisman examines thoroughly the so-called Median affair in chapters 15, 16, and 17. Next, he deals (Ch. 18-23) with the first Athenian empire, the growth of democracy, and the conflicts up to eve of the Peloponnesian war. For the classification of this period he follows the standard year-marks of 404 BC, 388/7 BC, and 371 BC. There is no discussion about chronology or other matters, but instead he refers the reader to the web for further research.

Roisman's narration mainly revolves around Athenian history in the 4th century BC, though he also discusses briefly Jason of Pherae (Ch. 33). Also his interest covers the whole spectrum of Greek history, i.e. military events and diplomacy, along with the social and economical history of a period (Ch. 34-37) that is marked by political power and economic instability, especially after the War of the Allies. The next two chapters (38-39) narrate Macedonian history. Here Roisman discusses Philip and his activities in Macedonia and Greece, and then Alexander and his conquests up to 323 BC.

In general, Roisman's work is systematically written. It seems that it is intended for students of Greek history, and also for those interested in this period. Whatever their background, all readers will benefit from this study, since Roisman manages to cover thoroughly the main aspects of each period. In addition to the historical narrative the book is supplemented with the basic secondary literature, the primary sources and, clearly one of its strengths, e- sources on the web. Thus, the reader gets a good idea both of the valid scholarly views and of what material exists on the internet to support these views. This work is surely a first step for everyone who wishes to explore Greek history. Finally, what is most helpful and educative is that Roisman's study lets the facts speak for themselves so that readers can form their own opinion about them. It seems that this kind of self-learning is the organising principle of the book. To my knowledge this is the first study of this kind, and I would strongly recommend its translation into other languages so that more students and the general public can benefit from it.

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