Sunday, September 7, 2014


Victor Parker, A History of Greece: 1300 to 30 BC. Blackwell history of the ancient world. Malden, MA; Oxford; Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014. Pp. xxxii, 471. ISBN 9781405190336. $44.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Robin Osborne, University of Cambridge (

Version at BMCR home site


Victor Parker lays his cards on the table immediately. The Preface of this History of Greece opens: ‘This book attempts to present in a readable format the basic political history of the Greeks’ (p.xxii). That, despite the Preface going on to say: ‘It is primarily addressed to university students in a course on Greek History or in an historically structured course on Greek Civilization’. History, it appears, is necessarily, and only, political history. Comparison with rival ‘textbooks’ reveals how very remarkable this is. It is not just young Turks, such as Jonathan Hall (whose History of the Archaic Greek World 2nd ed. 2013 is also published by Wiley Blackwell) who writes a Greek history with chapters on ‘Making a living’ and ‘Imagining Greece’; P.J. Rhodes, in contributing A History of the Classical Greek World (2nd ed. 2010) to the Wiley Blackwell series includes chapters on ‘Life in the Classical Greek World’ and ‘Culture in the Classical Greek World’. But then, Parker makes no reference to Hall in the bibliography of any chapter of his section on Archaic Greece, or to Rhodes in any chapter of his section on Classical Greece.1 Parker’s own book has a chapter on the geography of Greece (with a very narrow sense of what geography covers) followed by 24 chapters divided into four sections – ‘Bronze and “Dark Age”’, ‘The Archaic Period’, ‘The Classical Period’, and ‘The Hellenistic Period’.

This is not just a conservative book, it is a reactionary book. It is not only that in choosing to index only proper names (preventing any student discovering whether the symposium, or women, are anywhere discussed, though revealing that there is just one reference to Sophocles and two to Socrates), and not subdividing those entries (so that we have 51 separate pages or page ranges referred to for ‘Athens’, and 42 for Corinth, with no indication of what is discussed in any of them) Parker must have been aware of better practice elsewhere. There are signs hidden in the ‘Questions for further study’ that Parker is aware of scholarship that he does not reference. When, for example, at the end of a chapter entitled ‘Colonisation’ Parker writes (p.91): ‘The terms “colony” and “colonization” are conventional; one might speak of “overseas establishments”, it is hard to think that this is not in response to the debate, foreshadowed by Finley but ignited in the 1990s, over the inappropriateness of the word ‘colony’.

Parker signals in his Preface (p. xxiii) that he will refer to controversial theses in these ‘Questions for further study’. Normally when he does so the controversies are long past, or at least the instantiations of the controversy are. So ‘Some scholars have denied the existence of a “Homeric” society’ (p.70) is illustrated with reference to Snodgrass’s paper in the Journal of Hellenic Studies of 1974 (and without reference to Ian Morris’s Classical Antiquity paper of 1986); ‘Another explanation of the phenomenon of tyranny (more usual than the one advanced in the text) views it as an outgrowth of the phenomenon of aristocracy’ (p.120) is illustrated with reference to Cawkwell’s Classical Quarterly paper of 1995.

Parker’s bibliographies are strongly weighted to works written before 1990, and when works since 1990 are cited they are generally by scholars whose floruit fell much earlier, relate to debates established long before, or are by Parker himself (in English or in German). Parker has little sense of what it makes sense to refer a student to, and he happily scatters his ‘Further Reading’ with highly technical discussions and works in German. The Further Reading on ‘The Athenian Empire’ cites 7 works: ‘On the Delian League/Athenian empire in general’ we have Meiggs’ Athenian Empire of 1972 and Meritt et al. Athenian Tribute Lists (1939–53)… We then have Gomme and Hornblower’s commentaries on Thucydides, Badian’s From Plataea to Potidaea (1993), Rainey’s paper ‘Thucydides, I.98–118 and Diodorus, 11.60–12.28, and their common source’ in Athenaeum 92: 217–36, and Parker’s own paper on the chronology of the Pentekontaetia from Athenaeum 81. This is far from an extreme example (the Bronze Age ‘Further Reading’ is much worse).

No doubt we all at times consign to oblivion views that we happen to disagree with, but Parker’s version of this ranges from the unhelpful to the irresponsible. For all that it is an advertised virtue of this book (‘a major goal in the writing of this book has been to keep students in touch with the chief narrative sources for Greek history’, p. xxiii) to cite the sources, Parker consigns ‘source books’ to oblivion. Rather than encourage students to assess for themselves what he describes as ‘a series of cultic reforms’ from Cyrene by sending them to the translation and commentary that Peter Rhodes and I provided in Greek Historical Inscriptions 404–323 B.C. (Oxford, 2003) – or indeed to the translation provided by Robert Parker in Miasma (Oxford, 1983) – they are instead (p.85) directed to Sokolowski for Greek text only with out-of-date commentary in French. Similarly they are directed to Tod’s volume, without translation, rather than to Rhodes and Osborne, or to Harding’s Translated Documents of Greece and Rome volume, for the Oath of Plataia (p. 281) and to SEG for the agreement between Mantineia and Helisson (p.244).

More irresponsible is Parker’s treatment of the evidence for population growth in the eighth century. Parker reproduces the famous graph from Snodgrass’s Archaic Greece of 1980 showing the dramatic increase in the number of burials in Athens, Attica and the Argolid in the late eighth century. He then remarks that ‘other considerations confirm Snodgrass’ overall interpretation, notwithstanding occasional suggestions for refinement (e.g. Morris 1987: 57sqq.)’. But what Morris did in Burial and Ancient Society was not ‘refine’ Snodgrass’s figures but show that by conflating adult and child burials, and by stopping at the end of the eighth century, Snodgrass had made it seem plausible that it was population rise that caused burial numbers to rise, whereas when child burials were separated and the drop in grave numbers in the seventh century was included population rise ceased to be a plausible, or even a possible, explanation of these figures. Students deserve better than to be misled in this way – just as they also deserve better than to have Snodgrass’s tables for numbers of dedications at sanctuaries reproduced with the original typographic error uncorrected and figures from Pherai still attributed to Philia.

Books one disagrees with can be good to teach with (or teach against) – but only if they do something to signal their disagreements and foreground their arguments. Parker’s disposition is to do exactly the opposite. A Thucydides rather than a Herodotos, he makes up his mind what is true and then tells that story, with no reference to sources that disagree and no indication of where the disagreements might lie. Parker complains that ‘Textbooks far too often assert as incontestable fact what has merely been accepted as probable after argument, combination, and conjecture’ (p.xxiv). Instead here we have presented as incontestable fact matters for which there has been no argument or evidence – such as the remarkable claim that after the Cleisthenic reforms ‘all 500 Councillors never met at one time’. Or we have arguments or extraordinary fragility: the claim that cities established fixed-term tyrants (p.118) is based on accepting what Diogenes Laertios (‘granted, a late source’) says about Pittakos, and claiming Solon as a tyrant on the basis that ‘distinguishing credibly between Pittacus’ position in Mytilene and Solon’s in Athens presents insuperable difficulties’! When Herodotos (5.73) records that the Athenians recalled Kleisthenes and furthermore sent envoys to Persia, and that when asked for earth and water the envoys consulted together and then agreed because they were anxious to form the alliance, their agreement becomes for Parker evidence that ‘Presumably Cleisthenes has instructed the ambassadors to avoid this step if possible, but to carry it out if necessary. Given Athens’ predicament, one can understand such instructions all too well: Cleisthenes, like everyone else, assumed that Athens would lose against the Lacedaemonians’ (p.139). No teacher could conceivably have time to unpick the tissue of assumptions that gets from ancient sources to conclusions in passages like these.

No reader is likely to be surprised that this reviewer would not have written a Greek History like this. There is plenty of room for Greek Histories of all sorts. But the virtues of this one are hard to find. I wondered whether they might lie in military history. But an account of the battle of Chaironeia (pp 288–9) that has Alexander ‘commanding on Philip’s left’ break through ‘the Boeotian line opposite’ enabling him to attack ‘the Athenians (on the Greek right) from behind’ without raising any of the questions that have been so debated about whether or not Alexander was commanding the cavalry, does not suggest that military historians will rally to Parker’s defence. Nor too does a whole section headed ‘Philip’s military reforms’ (pp. 289–91) which discusses only the introduction of the sarissa.

There are considerable virtues in narrative history. Considerable virtues too in keeping students ever alert to the sources from which that narrative is derived. But to be good to teach with such a narrative history needs to be decently up-to-date with approaches and details, and prepared to signal what is controversial and why. There simply isn’t enough awareness of what a student needs here to make this a useful book. The picture on p.156 says it all – a fine picture of a modern fence all but completely concealing the funeral mound at Marathon that it is supposed to show.


1.   Parker justifies (p. xxiv) his decision to exclude social, economic and cultural history by his decision to give pride of place to the ‘Greek historiographical tradition’ and claims to have made efforts to include social history by a box on why the Spartans reacted so strongly to the capture of 120 Spartiates on Sphacteria and economic history by a box about the Seleucid budget crisis based on texts from II Maccabees 3.6–27.

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