Wednesday, February 7, 2018


Johannes Siapkas, Från Laokoon till Troja. Antikvetenskapens teoretiska landskap. Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2017. Pp. 240. ISBN 9789188168986. 229 SEK.

Reviewed by Troels Myrup Kristensen, Aarhus University (

Version at BMCR home site

Från Laokoon till Troja [From Laokoon to Troy] is the first in an ambitious, six-volume series planned by the author. The aim of the series, Antikvepenskapens teoretiska landskap [The Theoretical Landscapes of Classical Studies], is to map, discuss and provide a critique of theoretical perspectives within Classical Studies (p. 16).1 This first volume sets the stage for the series and covers (briefly) Medieval and Renaissance Antiquarianism before turning to its main focus, the development of modern Classical Studies during the 'long' 19th century – from the emergence of Altertumswissenschaft in the early 1800s to the rise and fall of evolutionary approaches in the first decades of the 20th century.2 The origins of the book go back to Siapkas' 2003 Uppsala dissertation (Heterological Ethnicity: Conceptualizing identities in ancient Greece), his teaching experiences in Uppsala and Stockholm, and his earlier work with Lena Sjögren on the display of Classical antiquities in modern museums.3 Since the contents of this Swedish-language volume may not be readily accessible to non-Scandinavian readers of BMCR (alas, it does not come with an English summary), I will here briefly summarize its contents before offering some final remarks on its merits as well as its weaknesses.

The book's first part ('Introduction', pp. 13-46, divided into three chapters) lays out its aims as well as those of the series to which it belongs. In Chapter 1 ('Introductory reflections'), Siapkas suggests that Classical Studies, due to the discipline's traditional empirical focus, has failed to establish a theoretical framework of its own, and as a consequence must rely on theories adapted from other disciplines.4 He refers to Anthony Snodgrass' already influential model definitions of Classical Archaeology (respectively as part of Archaeology, Classical Studies, Art History, or as completely autonomous). 5 Siapkas' series seeks to develop and modify these model definitions. Chapter 2 ('Why theory?') aims to develop an eclectic epistemology for the series and Classical Studies as a whole. An important element is a critical historiographical perspective that situates scholarship within the particular context in which it was produced. Chapter 3 ('How does science change?') discusses different approaches to answering that question by turning first to Thomas Kuhn's notion of the paradigm, a model that Siapkas notes is not compatible within the Humanities in which several paradigms may co-exist, then Michel Foucault's episteme and, finally, Hayden White's metanarratives.6

Part II ('Antiquarian Classical Studies', pp. 49-84, divided into two meaty chapters) turns to antiquarianism, a massive topic that is outlined here primarily as background to later developments in the discipline. Chapter 4 ('Medieval and Renaissance') covers the discovery of the Laokoon in 1506 as well as the massive success of the application of Trojan genealogies in European history – from the Roman case of the Aeneid to the Franks and Habsburgs – in the latter case mixed with Biblical genealogies. The chapter also discusses the rise of collecting. Through both objects and texts, antiquity served as a metanarrative that legitimized the present through the past. Chapter 5 ('The classical episteme') begins with Foucault's identification of an epistemic shift around 1650 and introduces many discourses that still have resonance in the modern study of Classical antiquity, such as Hellenism and empiricism, the latter reflected in the excavations that began around Naples in the 18th century, as well as Winckelmann's chronology of ancient art. Siapkas notes the introduction of 'hyper-real' methods of representation in archaeological publications, effectively illustrated on p. 76 in the book's two sole figures that juxtapose a Romantic etching of the Erechtheion with architectural drawings of the same monument, both taken from Stuart and Revett. Which of the two, we are asked, most effectively captures the monument at hand?

With Part III ('Modern Classical Studies', pp. 87-178, divided into eight concise chapters), we get to the core of the book that chronologically covers the period from the French Revolution to World War I. Chapter 6 ('Premises for Modern Classical Studies') looks at how the discipline developed within the discourses, practices and institutions of modernity. Prominent space is given to the establishment of the archaeological institutes primarily in Rome and Athens from the second half of the 19th century onwards. These 'schools' contribute significantly to the discipline's continued empirical focus. Chapter 7 ('Altertumswissenschaft') focuses on German 19th-century debates on the role of Greek and Latin, the relationship between Greek and 'Oriental' cultures, as well as contemporary advances in French and British ancient history leading up to 1870 when the institutional and discursive landscape of Classical Studies (that Siapkas refers to as the 'normal paradigm') began to look like today's. Chapter 8 ('Historical philosophies') tracks the impact of Vico's Scienza nuova, published in 1720, and later developments in the study of history in the 1800s, from Leopold von Ranke to Johann Gustav Droysen. Chapter 9 ('The archaeological research field') turns to archaeology, in particular in the sense of the large-scale excavations that began in the 1870s and which adapted methods developed in Scandinavia. Yet Classical archaeology remained close to philology and art history, and the adoption of new field methods was slow. Siapkas shows how the 'Big Digs' are tied epistemologically to naïve realism and politically to cultural imperialism. Chapter 10 ('Anti-establishment critique') covers developments on the 'fringes' of Classical Studies, such as Aegean prehistory, focusing on the contributions of Heinrich Schliemann that are presented here in a rather rosy light, as well as the forceful debates that arose after the 1872 publication of Friedrich Nietzsche's Die Geburt der Tragödie. Chapter 11 ('Evolutionism in Classical Studies') traces the influence of anthropological models in the study of the ancient world in the period between 1870 and 1920, including the influential, so-called Cambridge ritualists and other comparative work on ancient religion, such as the significant contributions by the Swede Martin P. Nilsson. Chapter 12 ('A Swedish detour') turns squarely to the Swedish context and offers an interesting national perspective on scientific developments elsewhere in Europe. While the study of Latin and Greek in Sweden goes back to the 17th century, the first professorship in Classical Studies ('AKS') was not introduced until 1909. In 1970, AKS became fully detached from philology. Swedish Classical studies are thus conducted in an internationally unique interdisciplinary field somewhere between archaeology and ancient history. While Hellenism did not take as strong a hold as it did in Germany, Sweden has developed strong national traditions in both the study of Greek religion and Etruscan archaeology. Siapkas does not offer a conclusion proper. In its place, a brief epilogue notes that there have been no significant paradigm shifts in the field of Classical Studies (p. 179) and that positivism since the 19th century has been and continues to be the discipline's dominant perspective (p. 181).

As is clear from this summary, Siapkas covers a lot of ground. This is both a strength and weakness of the volume as a whole. He is thus to be applauded for having placed the development of Classical Studies against the broader context of the history and philosophy of science in the long 19th century, and for offering a balanced and useful overview of scholarship in this important phase in the history of the discipline. His coverage of the diverging traditions in France, Germany, United Kingdom and Sweden is particularly valuable. It is not difficult to identify omissions within this large canvas. This particular reviewer, for instance, would have liked to see more discussion of developments in Classical art history in this period, such as the work of Alois Riegl that is not discussed at all. More problematic is the fact that the volume refrains from carving out a theoretical framework for future work in Classical Studies. There are thus many allusions to inherent theoretical weaknesses but the reader is only indirectly shown a new path forward. In consequence, Siapkas' book remains more appetizer than main course.7 A final moot point is that it is unfortunately quite unclear what the intended audience for Siapkas' book is. While it would work in Scandinavian graduate seminars, the format (six volumes!) and the choice of language make it less accessible beyond that relatively small circle. In spite of these reservations, I look forward to reading future volumes in the series.


1.   The Swedish term Antikvetenskap (literally 'ancient science' or 'science of antiquity') does not readily translate into English. Siapkas uses the term here to refer mainly to those fields of Classical scholarship that are studied as part of the Swedish discipline Antikens kultur och samhällsliv or AKS that covers Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, as well as Greek and Italic prehistory, but excludes Classical Philology. The discipline is currently taught and has chairs at the universities of Gothenburg, Lund, Uppsala and Stockholm. In an international context, this combination of subjects is interesting in light of ongoing discussions about the relationship between Ancient History and Classical Archaeology, see e.g. Eberhard W. Sauer (ed.) Archaeology and Ancient History. Breaking Down the Boundaries (London; New York: Routledge, 2004) and "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Breaking Down the Boundaries between Archaeology and Ancient History in the Twenty-First Century" in Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja (eds.) The Diversity of Classical Archaeology, 89-100 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017).
2.   This first volume contains numerous cross-references to the five forthcoming volumes in the series, all to be authored by Siapkas. These will focus on cultural history up to the 1970s (vols. 2 and 3), the 'social turn' from the 1960s to the 1980s (vol. 4), the study of cultural change from 1980s to the 2000s (vol. 5), and relational perspectives from 2000 onwards (vol. 6). Siapkas notes that there will be chronological overlap between individual contributions to the series.
3.   Johannes Siapkas and Lena Sjögren, Displaying the Ideals of Antiquity. The Petrified Gaze (New York; London: Routledge, 2014).
4.   His statement that no previous book has looked at theory in Classical Studies is not strictly true, see Louise A. Hitchcock, Theory for Classics. A Student's Guide (New York; London: Routledge, 2008).
5.   Anthony Snodgrass, "What is Classical Archaeology? Greek Archaeology", in Susan E. Alcock and Robin Osborne (eds.), Classical Archaeology, 2nd edition, 13-29 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2012).
6.   Although Siapkas does not engage with Michael Shanks' iconoclastic Classical Archaeology of Greece. Experiences of the Discipline (London; New York: Routledge, 1996), in which metanarratives constituted a major analytical prism.
7.   It is thus interesting to compare it with the recent book by Elizabeth Prettejohn that covers roughly the same period in the discipline (albeit with a specifically art historical slant) and offers an interesting take on critical historiography. See The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture. Greek Sculpture and Modern Art from Winckelmann to Picasso (London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.