Wednesday, February 13, 2019


Gary Forsythe, Primary Sources for Ancient History. Volume I: The Ancient Near East and Greece. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, 2018. Pp. x, 407. ISBN 9781480954250. $25.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Eliza Gettel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (

Version at BMCR home site


This new sourcebook brings together English translations of texts pertaining to the Near Eastern and Greek worlds from circa 2500 BCE until the death of Alexander the Great. The book under review here is Volume 1 of 2. The second volume, which Forsythe also compiled, is a similarly structured sourcebook for Roman history (BMCR 2018.12.24). Volume 1 includes five groupings of texts arranged firstly by society and secondly by the chronological period discussed (see abbreviated table of contents below), plus a list of suggested secondary readings.

This review is based on my experience teaching an introductory ancient Greek history course with the sourcebook in fall 2018. I chose to assign this sourcebook for three predominant reasons: (1) it includes relatively lengthy excerpts of texts versus other available sourcebooks; (2) it includes short, one-paragraph introductions to the texts, which indicate the source and its basic context; and (3) the paperback book is very portable and affordable for students to buy (cost: $25 in November 2018). Moreover, as someone who specializes in the Greek and Roman worlds, I found the first three sections of the sourcebook to be particularly helpful for integrating learning about neighboring societies into the course without having to devote class periods to surveying contemporary civilizations. Parts 1 to 3 of the sourcebook, which include readings pertaining to Babylonian, Hittite, Egyptian, and Persian societies among others, helped to broaden the students' perspective and to question narratives of ancient Greek exceptionalism within a course otherwise predominantly focused on ancient Greek history.

Parts 4 and 5 include Greek texts frequently read in introductory ancient Greek history courses, such as excerpts of Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch's biographies. Overall, the sourcebook focuses on these sorts of narrative prose texts, although it also includes translations of Homeric epics, lyric poetry, and important inscriptions (e.g., Foundation Decree of Cyrene; Athenian Coinage/Standards Decree). It excerpts relatively lengthy and representative portions of these texts: Reading 31 includes 22 pages of Herodotus and Reading 35 includes 45 pages of Thucydides. In focusing on larger selections of famous texts, the book approaches more closely the model of a course pack or reader, versus a sourcebook that brings together several shorter texts from different types of sources pertaining to a particular aspect or period of ancient society [e.g., Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander, BMCR 2012.10.07; Readings in Greek History, BMCR 2008.02.13 (now in 2nd ed.); Ancient Greece: Social and Historical Documents from Archaic Times to the Death of Alexander the Great, BMCR 2001.03.18 (under previous title, now in 3rd ed.)]. Although the range of sources included is not as varied, each work is presented as a continuous passage and not broken up under different subheadings. Therefore, students can cultivate an understanding of particular texts and authors, instead of losing track of which author they are reading because they are jumping between sources. In the end, we read 27 of the 39 readings, including all in Parts 4 and 5—a reflection of the helpful selection of texts.

This sourcebook is explicitly intended to accompany a narrative textbook rather than supplant one (p. ix). In our course, we read the sourcebook alongside OUP's A Brief History of Ancient Greece (3rd ed., 2014; review of 1st ed.: BMCR 2005.02.06). Students reported that the readings in the sourcebook complemented well this popular textbook series. They found the introductions to the texts, which tend to be about a paragraph long, helpful for situating the readings in relation to what they were reading in the textbook. Since we were using this sourcebook alongside a narrative textbook, as intended, I appreciated that these introductions were kept short and confined themselves to the basics of the texts' chronological and historical context. Instructors may or may not appreciate that the introductions are relatively conservative in their presentation of the texts. For instance, the introduction to selections of the Old Oligarch/pseudo-Xenophon's Constitution of the Athenians (Reading 34) avoids giving a date for the text, and it takes the text's anti-democratic arguments at face-value versus engaging with debates about the text's viewpoint. Yet, these basic introductions left the students more room for interpretation and debate in classroom discussions. Overall, students reported that the sourcebook readings enabled them to assess more knowledgeably the foundations of the textbook's perspective. In this regard, I found that the sourcebook successfully achieved its intended pedagogical objective within the context of our course.

We did end up supplementing the sourcebook with additional primary texts. On the whole, the selection of texts, at least Greek texts, is stronger with regard to political and military history than to social and cultural history. It does not include many readings pertaining to cultural phenomena and to groups formally excluded from state politics. Therefore, supplementation was necessary for discussions about Greek tragedy, philosophy, and science, as well as lectures pertaining to women in Greek societies. The more limited selection of the reader had its benefits, however. Students reported that they appreciated being able to carry one physical book with them, and I was able to require them to bring the book to class due to its portable size (1.2 pounds; cf. Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander, BMCR 2012.10.07 at 3.2 pounds). We could therefore engage in discussions and active-learning activities with the relevant primary sources in front of us. Overall, I preferred supplementing the book for these particular meetings to having a sourcebook that attempted to be comprehensive but then would be more cumbersome to bring to class.

The one area for which I would have appreciated one or two additional texts was for the period after 323 BCE. The last text included in Volume 1 relates to the death of Alexander the Great. Therefore, depending on how an instructor or institution chooses to bound its introductory ancient history courses, the division that Forsythe chose between Volumes 1 and 2 may or may not map onto course content. A small selection of Polybius or the like would have been especially helpful for those instructors who progress into the Hellenistic period and who touch on the arrival of Rome in the eastern Mediterranean within a one-semester course. Otherwise, one needs to obtain the second volume to cover such topics as Pyrrhus' campaigns and the aftermath of Pydna.

Regarding the translations, I can offer reflections on the Greek ones, although not the Near Eastern ones. The English translations of ancient Greek texts are largely widely available, out-of-copyright translations that Forsythe has collated and periodically emended. Therefore, most translations are not the most contemporary in style, although they are usually well-known and relatively digestible translations of the late 19th century. In a few cases, Forsythe obtained permission from the publisher to reprint more recent translations (e.g., for the decree concerning Erythrae in Reading 33A), or he has included fairly literal personal translations (e.g., Reading 38A and D, Diodorus Siculus on Philip II). Regarding choice of translations, I personally would have preferred poetic translations of selections of Homeric epics (versus Butler's prose translations) and of lyric poetry in order to help students distinguish between the different types of sources included in the volume. However, I understand that copyright issues may have played a part in this choice. Significantly, the use of out-of-copyright translations has helped to keep the cost of the sourcebook down (p. x) and made it available at approximately a half to a third of the price of other available sourcebooks.

Given the publisher, it seems that Forsythe has essentially self-published this series, which is available in both print and e-book format. For the most part, one does not notice a marked difference in quality from books published with more established academic presses. The e-book is straightforward to use, at least on Google Books, although it could benefit from the Table of Contents being hyperlinked. In both the print and e-book versions, sometimes the formatting is inconsistent or does not reflect the type of source included. Occasionally, the division between the introductory paragraph and primary text is unclear. Particularly, the transition is less clear when inscriptions are presented (e.g., Reading 33). Moreover, depending on the source, the numbering of sections is not always readily understandable to students picking up ancient texts for the first time nor sufficient for citing the exact section of a source properly. In general, titles of works are not italicized, which led to confusion in student essays. However, providing a citation guide helped to clarify how students should properly cite these primary texts in their essays, and such easy fixes did not detract from the book's overall utility. On the whole, the students found the format clear and easy to use, likely due to the attention of Forsythe throughout the publishing process.

Instructors thinking about assigning this volume as a coursebook may also be curious about the publisher and where the sale proceeds that students generate will go for these volumes. Dorrance describes itself as a "publishing services company" (now apparently the oldest in the US), which usually entails a fee to publish.1 It is unclear what percentage of the royalties goes to Forsythe versus Dorrance: perhaps 20 to 80% go to Forsythe depending on the method of purchase. The following review of Dorrance was the best (although outdated) information that I could find on its royalties' policy, which the company otherwise does not post on its website.2 Notably, Forsythe has retained the copyright, which may allow for flexibility and increased retention of royalties in the future. The biggest logistical issue is that the physical books seem to be printed on demand, so students who ordered on Amazon experienced delays in receiving their books at the beginning of the semester. Instructors may need to take this delay into account when assigning the book.

Overall, on the basis of experience using this sourcebook—perhaps more appropriately, this reader—my students and I found that it offers an approachable, affordable, and pedagogically effective option for learning about ancient Greek history. Instructors will be very grateful to Forsythe for making available his painstakingly collected teaching materials and for sharing his experience teaching ancient history with a wider audience.


1.   See Dorrance's website, particularly its FAQs.
2.   Rooney, Mick. "Dorrance Publishing—Reviewed." The Independent Publishing Magazine, 11 November 2014. Accessed 10 December 2018.

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