Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Matthew A. Sears, Athens, Thrace, and the Shaping of Athenian Leadership. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 328. ISBN 9781107030534. $95.00.

Reviewed by Kostas Vlassopoulos, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site


For far too long the study of Athenian history has been dominated by internalist approaches; for these approaches, what matters for Athenian political, social and cultural history is solely what happened within the boundaries of Attica. This obviously marginalises the significance of the wider Athenian world of cleruchies and colonies, as shown so clearly in the grain-tax law of Skyros, Imbros and Lemnos.1 Worse, this attitude is coupled with the continuing predominance of structuralist approaches to the interaction between Greeks and non-Greeks, which merely see in them polarity and a search for identity through defining the Other. Fortunately, things are gradually changing. Margaret Miller's exposition of the significance of the Persian Empire as a model for various aspects of Athenian life was an early sign of change;2 more recently, Alfonso Moreno has offered us a stimulating exploration of how the networks of grain supply created a wider world of systemic interconnections between Athens and areas and societies from Euboea to the Black Sea.3

The present work is a welcome expansion of this approach to Thrace, an area that was crucial for Athenian history from the archaic period till the end of Athenian hegemonic ambitions in the later fourth century. Sears focuses on the Thrakophoitai, 'haunters of Thrace', Athenians who habitually visited and resided in Thrace, cultivated strong links with the area, and were fond of things Thracian. Sears's wider case rests on two major arguments: first, that the nature of the egalitarian and democratic Athenian polis created severe limits for members of the Athenian elite who wished to follow an unbridled aristocratic lifestyle, and who, consequently, found in Thrace an alternative social space that allowed them to pursue such a lifestyle; and second, that the experiences of these Thrakophoitai had a significant impact on Athenian history, affecting aspects from military practice and theory to artistic production and religious devotion. Athenian history needs to incorporate Thrace as an important factor in the shaping of Athenian practices and values.

Chapter 1 (1-45) provides an introduction to the study by presenting the ways in which the egalitarian ethos of Athenian democracy circumscribed the opportunities to pursue an aristocratic lifestyle and made ambitious Athenians inclined to seek those opportunities elsewhere; it then offers a short tour of the region of Thrace and of the nature of our sources for the interconnection between Athens and Thrace. Particularly stimulating is a case-study examining the interactions between Greeks and Thracians in the local emporion of Pistiros; equally important is the exploration of the particularity of Thrace as an arena of opportunities for Greek adventurers through a comparison with the Persian Empire. The co-existence of multiple polities and rulers in Thrace, the absence of strong bureaucratic control, and the relative proximity of Thrace provided Greek opportunists in Thrace with a much stronger hand to play and a wider range of options compared with the Persian Empire.

Chapters 2 (46-89) and 3 (90-139) constitute the central plank of the book by exploring Thrace as resource and refuge for a series of Athenian politicians and generals, from Peisistratos and the Philaids in the sixth century, through Kimon, Hagnon and Thucydides in the fifth, to Alkibiades, Thrasyboulos, Xenophon and Iphikrates in the fourth. The chapters explore how Thrace provided a refuge in periods of exile, the ways in which these elite Athenians cultivated relationships with Thracian rulers and communities and Greek colonies in the area, the means through which they exploited the rich resources of the area (timber, metals, manpower) and consolidated bases of support and territories to rule, and finally the extent to which Thrace provided these Athenians with a choice: settle there and exploit its resources and advantages, or use Thracian resources and connections in order to facilitate their return to Athens or strengthen their position in their home city.

Chapter 4 (140-73) examines Athenian ambivalence towards Thracians and Thracophiles. On the one hand it discusses the negative attitudes and stereotypes employed by Athenian authors to characterise Thracians as warlike, brutal and uncivilised barbarians; on the other hand, it explores the interesting case of the Thracians living in Athens, from the multitude of slaves to mercenaries and exiled aristocrats, paying particular attention to the fascinating case of the adoption and maintenance of the cult of the Thracian goddess Bendis by the Athenian polis. Finally, it examines the guarded, if not hostile, attitude with which Athenians approached those of their compatriots who had strong links to Thrace.

Chapter 5 (174-233) aims to document the case for the peculiar appeal that Thrace had for a certain section of the Athenian elite. Sears argues that Thracian culture and society enabled the Athenian Thracophiles to live the aristocratic lifestyle familiar from Homer, which had come to be frowned upon in democratic Athens and was no longer possible there; it therefore provided Athenian elites with a countercultural utopia which also re-enacted the Homeric past in the present. Sears examines a series of such practices: the use of golden funerary masks; the importance of chariot racing in Thrace, an area famous for its horses and riders; the significance of Homeric-style individual combat and of lavish gift-giving; the aristocratic connotations of elements of Thracian attire; and, finally, the privileges of hero-cult worship for oikistai, a practice that he interprets as a conflation of Thracian rituals and Greek adaptations.

Chapter 6 (234-89) turns to another important area in which the interaction with Thrace had a significant impact on Athenian history, that of military history. Sears examines how the experiences of fighting in Thrace made the Thrakophoitai introduce innovations in Athenian military theory and practice. Miltiades the Elder was the first one to build a wall across the Thracian Chersonese to keep the Thracian marauders out, a strategy that was repeated many times in the history of the Chersonese. Sears speculates that it was this experience that provided the inspiration for a number of other long fortification walls aiming to keep out marauders that appear later in Greek history. He then moves on to examine the frequent employment of Thracian mercenaries by Athens and its consequences for the use of light infantry in Athenian warfare, before turning his attention to the innovations introduced by Iphikrates, an Athenian with long experience of living and fighting in Thrace.

The short epilogue (290-7) documents the closing of Thrace as an arena of opportunities for Athenian Thrakophoitai in the aftermath of the conquest of the area by Philip II by examining the circumscribed careers of Chares and Charidemos, two Athenian commanders in the area who ultimately had to seek careers elsewhere.

As the above summary should make clear, this is a very stimulating book which makes an eloquent case for the need to move beyond internalist perspectives and to place the interaction between cultures and the networks of mobility of goods, people, ideas and technologies at the centre of writing Greek history. Nevertheless, there are aspects of the book and its arguments that require some critical discussion. The major problem concerns Sears's rather uncritical reliance on the controversial image of a deeply egalitarian Athens that severely hampered the opportunities of its elite, an image that has been presented in Ian Morris's description of the middling ideology and the strong principle of equality as well as Josiah Ober's depiction of an Athenian elite limited by the masses through control of public rhetoric. There are various serious problems with both theses, which cannot be explored here in detail,4 but Sears's assumption that there is a transhistorical impulse of elites to pursue a particular kind of lavish lifestyle, and the conflation between the rhetorical representation of society and the complex world of 'reality' both need to be argued, rather than asserted. James Davidson demonstrated some time ago that Athenian elites of the classical period tended to spend large amounts of money in ways that focused on the temporary and evanescent (e.g., the consumption of expensive foodstuff in precious silverware in a symposium) rather than leaving permanent traces (as, e.g., in the deposition of large amounts of golden jewellery and silverware in Thracian tombs).5 That the Athenian elites felt constrained by this cultural choice demands argumentation.

Furthermore, the argument that frustrated Athenian elites sought opportunities elsewhere is in the end unconvincing: with the possible but debatable exception of the elder Miltiades, none of the individuals examined in chapters 2-3 sought living in Thrace as a result of a free choice; they normally lived and pursued careers there as a result of exile or inopportune conjunctures at Athens and they largely chose to return to Athens whenever the opportunity arose again. This does not invalidate the significance of Thrace in the careers of so many elite Athenians, which Sears has painstakingly described, but the explanation of this phenomenon as an aristocratic alternative to the constraints of living in democratic Athens is too simplistic and ultimately will not do. We need to move beyond the misleading sociology of polarised contrasts between the aristocracy and the polis and find ways of exploring the complex social, political and economic worlds of the Greek poleis, their systems of interaction with other poleis and non-Greek societies, and the networks of goods and people that created and maintained these interactions.

A second criticism concerns execution. Many of the arguments are rather fragile and the use of evidence can sometimes be problematic. There is no evidence linking the various derogatory comments in Athenian sources about Dieitrephes to his command of a group of Thracian mercenaries (157-61) nor in fact is this the case for most other criticised Thrakophoitai, a fact that creates significant problems for Sears's argument; some discussion of the methodological principles on which such links could be posited is required. Equally, much of the discussion of Athenian appreciation of aristocratic Thracian culture is problematic: there are no golden masks in Greek funerary rituals of the first millennium BCE, and to posit the Mycenaean masks of LHI as evidence that Thracian masks were introduced by Greek colonists and that Greek aristocrats of the classical period would have been fond of Thracian golden masks is unconvincing (183-91). While Sears is undoubtedly right that Thracian practices could be compatible with certain Greek practices, we need a clearer methodological and theoretical discussion of how we can study such intercultural encounters and interactions given the nature of our sources; mere speculation does not do justice to the evidence and will not convince those unwilling to be convinced.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, this is undoubtedly a very stimulating book, which needs to find a wide readership. Even more, its historical approach to exploring the interconnected consequences of Greek-Barbarian encounters should find many imitators and further developers.


1.   R. S. Stroud, The Athenian Grain-Tax Law of 374/3 B.C., Hesperia Supplement 29, Princeton NJ, 1998.
2.   M. C. Miller, Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century B.C.: A Study in Cultural Receptivity, Cambridge, 1997.
3.   A. Moreno, Feeding the Democracy: The Athenian Grain Supply in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, Oxford, 2007.
4.   See, e.g., D. Hammer, "Ideology, the symposium and archaic politics", AJP 125, 2004, 479-512; E. Kistler, "'Kampf der Mentalit├Ąten': I. Morris, 'Elitist-' versus 'Middling-Ideology'" in R. Rollinger and C. Ulf, eds., Griechische Archaik: interne Entwicklungen - externe Impulse, Berlin, 2004, 145-75; for a critique of the exaggerated claims concerning Athenian egalitarianism, see, e.g., L. Foxhall, "Access to resources in classical Greece: the egalitarianism of the polis in practice" in P. Cartledge et al., eds., Money, Labour and Land: Approaches to the Economies of Ancient Greece, London and New York, 2002, 209-20; Moreno, ibid. (n. 3), 211-308.
5.   Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, London, 1997.

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