Tuesday, February 19, 2019


Graeme Bourke, Elis. Internal Politics and External Policy in Ancient Greece. Cities of the Ancient World. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. xii, 247. ISBN 9780415749572. $140.00.

Reviewed by Ben Brown, University of Sydney (benjamin.brown@sydney.edu.au)

Version at BMCR home site


The aim of the Routledge series "Cities of the Ancient World" is "to explore the life of a significant place, charting its development from its earliest history" and to "offer… comprehensive and scholarly accounts of the life of each city" (ii). The 'Ancient World' is interpreted broadly and the series looks beyond the Graeco-Roman context in its definition of 'city'.1 This particular volume, however, does not include a series introduction outlining its aims or proposed method. It seems a matter for each author to decide how to represent the 'life' of a city and to explain why the place was 'significant'.

In this volume Bourke tackles the ancient Greek city of Elis in the north-west Peloponnese. Interest in Elis, even before Pausanias, has typically followed interest in the Olympic sanctuary. Nevertheless, as Greek cities go, Elis has quite an independent historical footprint. So, it is in fact remarkable that the history of Elis has never been the subject of a monograph like this one in any language.2 Elis is indeed a 'significant place', not least as a laboratory of ancient Greek state formation and regional identity that is neither Athens nor Sparta. While this city and its region were the subject of lively interest for 19th-century scholars—especially as the Olympia excavations produced inter alia epigraphic evidence of Elis' sophisticated political institutions—the comparative neglect of Elis in the 20th century is a curious part of its modern historiography.

Bourke, however, chooses not to expand on the 'significance' of Elis or to position his own work in relation to that historiography, preferring instead to get straight down to business collecting a dense though lacunose body of evidence, literary and archaeological, and organizing it chronologically across twelve chapters, from the early Iron Age to the sack of Corinth. Chapter 1 reviews Eleian preliminaries (geography and economy) and 'prehistory' (dialect, name, Homeric attestations, origins). Chapter 2 considers the role of the Olympic sanctuary in archaic regional state formation, while chapter 3 tackles the enigma of Pisa and the Pisatans, the local rivals to Elis for control of the Olympic sanctuary. The character of the Eleian polis before and after its synoikism in 471 BCE is concisely well summarized in chapters 4 and 5, while her late archaic and classical transformation of the Olympic sanctuary and Elis' role in the Persian conflict is the subject of chapter 6. The three chapters which follow (chapters 7-9) explore Elis' estrangement from, and subsequent war with, Sparta in the late 5th and early 4th centuries BCE. Chapter 10 examines the consequences for Elis of the dramatic shift in the centre of political gravity after Leuctra and the Eleian-Arcadian war of the 360s. From the mid-4th century Elis' gaze sharply shifts northward in response to Philip of Macedon and eventually the Achaean League (chapter 11); Philip's focus on Olympia is well known. The final chapter (12) surveys what we know of Elis' history as Macedon's star waned and Rome's waxed (221-146 BCE). The study is bookended by a terse introduction and a conclusion and general index; an index locorum is lacking. Strangely, each chapter has its own bibliography, unnecessarily duplicating entries while depriving the whole of a complete list of references in the usual location.

In tackling a very specific species (a Greek polis) of the genus 'city of the ancient world', Bourke has opted to 'explore its life' quite traditionally via an epichoric history structured by a diachronic political narrative. The overall theme of Bourke's narrative is that Elis' history was defined by the relationship between its internal politics and its institutional participation in a regional community of poleis. While Elis' geopolitical position was locally hegemonic (cf. Hdt 4.148) and institutionally idiosyncratic (blending Olympic, ethnic and civic identities, e.g. the Hellanodikas: Pindar Ol. 3.14, Inschriften von Olympia 2, and so on), Bourke sees Elis' internal and regional political history as dictated by the supra-regional politics of the Peloponnese and beyond, perhaps to a greater degree than other cities in similar situations, pressed by the demands of Spartan hegemony, challenges to Eleian control of the Olympic sanctuary, and the later re-orientations forced by the emergence of Macedon, the Achaean League and Rome. Throughout, the book surveys scholarly views and offers sensible discussion of historical cruxes (such as the question of 'Pisa' in chapter 3), which puzzled earlier generations of scholars. The book fulfills the stated aim of the series and provides a solid base on which those unfamiliar with the complex contours of Elis' peculiar history can confidently pursue future investigations. The unfamiliar should, however, be aware that this is not a book in which one will find any general meditation on the value or legitimacy of epichoric history or the application of contemporary theoretical approaches to complex epichoric data, such as myth or the presence of ethnics in the Homeric poems. The decision to interpret the 'life of a significant place' entirely as the arrangement of facts into a narrative political history these days needs some justification. Instead, the book offers a sourcebook-style synthetic survey narrowly focused on reconstructing a 'real' (i.e. political) history with analysis prioritizing only evidence that can usefully be made to serve a diachronic narrative. Thus, one finds excluded discussion of complex institutions such as the 'Sixteen Women' who managed the Heraia (Paus. 5.16) and the cult of Dionysos and sang dirges for Achilles (Paus. 6.23.3). They are noted briefly in passing by Bourke (58, 81, no index entry) yet were hardly insignificant even to the political life of the Eleian city. Approaches to complex evidence suggested by comparatively recent regional histories are notably eschewed. 3

Bourke's Elis is therefore a variation on a theme: a recognizable form (a Greek city) to be tackled straightforwardly through empirical epichoric history. This means facts will be treated with 'common sense': "None of us 'knows' what happened with regard to ancient Eleia, we simply make what seems to us the most well-informed and plausible interpretation possible of the limited available evidence" (3-4, why 'knows' is ambiguated is unclear). Having swept aside a half-century of historiographic complexity, Bourke proceeds methodologically in much the same way Heinrich Swoboda did in 1905, confining extended discussion to the updates required by historical revisionism in the interpretation of sources and chronology, or by new archaeological material. The organizing principle ("the interplay between internal politics and external policy in ancient Greece", 2) is treated as self-explanatory and not given a theoretical scaffold. Should one expect, for example, that Elis' history will be interpreted as unfolding within an interdependent network of Peloponnesian states whose politics and identity were formed in a shared institutional and cultural ecosystem wherein Eleian control of Olympia was a key stake? The introduction does not say.

The opportunity to think more broadly about what epichoric history could or should be is not taken up, nor is there any position offered about where this kind of history now stands in relation to contemporary scholarship for which the polis is no longer a stable point for historiography.4 Interpretive method echoes Thucydides' approach to evidence:

It is unsound of course to assume that mythological reports contain a historical core. A single body of evidence, nevertheless, can often contain both mythological and historical elements. In such cases, I have worked patiently to disentangle the two. When aetiological myths appear in ancient texts, while rejecting clear mythological explanations, I have not simultaneously disregarded the phenomena they seek to explain. (3)

Shaking the box till the history falls out: no doubt the founders of the Cambridge Ancient History would approve, but are there not nowadays a few more sophisticated pathways into the discursive construction of the time, space, myth and history of a Greek polis?

So, for example, chapter 1 "The Land and its people" does contain a discussion of Eleian ethnic identity, its name and dialect, including a brief consideration of the Homeric evidence, prefaced by an overview of physical geography and its productive capacity. Here Eleian myths are boiled down to yield concealed historical data, essentially clues to Eleian ethnic origins. For Bourke, ethnic data is either historical (disclosing real origins) or part of a tendentious narrative ('ethnogenesis', i.e. myth) to be regarded with caution and properly rejected in favour of more objective scientific material: linguistics and archaeology. The argument that Greek cities constructed mythic architectures—irreducible to the binary 'real' or 'imaginary'—to house their past, claim territory and define the symbolic contours and relationships of their regions finds no takers here. Tellingly, however, though myth may be sidelined at this level, it often creeps back in at another: "Archaeological finds at the sites of both Elis and Olympia are also in keeping with the view that one or more Aitolian chieftains led new settlers into Eleia…" (my italics, 20). 'Chieftains and settlers': whatever uninterrogated anthropological assumptions these terms may conceal, they are nevertheless the predictable but equally mythical population of our imaginary of the 'pre-state', which are then casually projected onto the Iron Age via our 'common-sense' (but no less impressionistic) readings of 'Homeric society'. This lack of critical self-reflexivity toward the double construction of a Greek city—theirs but also ours—is a prevailing trait of this book.

That said, and accepting its narrow scheme, the study has much to recommend it. There is always a need for the kind of solid literary and archaeological synthesis each of Bourke's chapters does indeed offer; but the meta-thematic relationship of each chapter to the whole is assumed as self-evident. Only a reader familiar with Peloponnesian history can grasp that the order imposed by the table of contents conceals the way Elis' history is held hostage to clusters of evidence bunching around institutions or events. Thus, as Bourke attempts to untangle these clusters, each chapter becomes an essay on a thorny crux located somewhere in Elis' history, sometimes with chronological precision (e.g. Elis' synoikism: 471 BCE), sometimes not (e.g. Pheidon of Argos and the Pisan 'anolympiad'). This splintering is indeed an unavoidable part of epichoric history, and yet it raises the problem of the aim of such syntheses: is total narrative unity desirable or possible, or should we embrace and preserve the underlying messy logic of the evidence we have, seeing in it perhaps a reflex of an Eleian self-representation which prioritized narrative arcs of a very different kind (i.e., not 'political' narrowly defined)?

Within the limits of this kind of reconstructionist historiography, Bourke's study usefully surveys the landmarks of Eleian history. Those readers who lamented the absence of a monograph on Elis in an earlier tradition of epichoric synthesis will find this treatment repairs the gap. From the perspective of more sophisticated contemporary interpretations of the Greek polis, however, some may find the result little more than a commentary on the evidence using an increasingly dated and constraining formula. Whatever one's taste, the book perhaps misses the opportunity offered by such a series to rethink epichoric history, if only to stake a claim to being distinct from those earlier models by recognizing and incorporating the historiographic approaches to epichoricity that have emerged over the last generation.


1.   Routledge's 'Cities of the Ancient World' so far include Elis, Palmyra, Siena, Carlisle, Gyeongju, Damascus, Aleppo, Thebes, Miletos, Cádiz, Ebla, Paphos, Carthage, Antioch, Salamis, Memphis, Babylon and Cairo. Series website.
2.   There have been two encyclopedic surveys, a century apart: H. Swoboda, 'Elis' RE V (1905), 2368-2432 and J. Roy in M. H. Hansen and T.H. Nielsen, eds., An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (Oxford, 2004) 485-504.
3.   For example, across two decades on Laconia and Messenia: e.g. C. Calame "Spartan Genealogies: The Mythological Representation of a Spatial Organisation" in L. Edmonds, ed., Interpretations of Greek Mythology (London 1987), 153-186; I. Malkin, Myth and Territory in the Spartan Mediterranean (Cambridge 1994); Nino Luraghi, The Ancient Messenians. Constructions of Ethnicity and Memory (Cambridge, 2008).
4.   In the wake of challenges such as e.g. K. Vlassopoulos, Unthinking the Greek Polis. Ancient Greek History beyond Eurocentrism (Cambridge, 2007).

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