Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, Literary Review December 2009-January 2010

Talk about ‘the Greeks’ and it is almost certain that you mean ‘the Athenians’. Not that Homer, c. 700 BC, composer of the Western world’s first literature, was Athenian (he came from Asia Minor, i.e. the west coast of modern Turkey); nor Aristotle 384-322 BC, inventor of the disciplines of logic and biology and author of works covering in masterly detail almost anything you care to mention (he came from Stageira, a town way up in northern Greece); nor Herodotus, the father of history, nor Hippocrates, the father of rational medicine (both from Asia Minor too). But Cleisthenes (inventor of democracy), Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides (inventors of tragedy), Thucydides, Pericles, Aristophanes (inventor of comedy), the artist Pheidias, Socrates, Plato, Leucippus and Democritus (inventors of atomism), Demosthenes and so on (and on)—they are all true blue Athenians to a man.

Which raises the question implied by the first A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge in the title of his book—what do we mean by ‘ancient Greece’? For of the eleven cities Cartledge discusses, five are not in what we know as Greece at all: Miletus and Byzantium (Istanbul) are in Turkey, Massalia (Marseilles) in France, Syracuse in Sicily and Alexandria in Egypt. It is a strange history of ancient *Greece* that examines individual cities spanning almost the whole of the Mediterranean. Further, why is it that Athens—the ‘classical’ Athens of the 5^th -4^th C BC—should seem so decisively to rule the roost?

Cartledge’s answer means that those who are expecting a coherent picture of ‘ancient Greece’ will be disappointed. The point is that not even the Greek mainland, let alone the Greek ‘colonies’ scattered all over the Mediterranean from the Black Sea to Spain (*apoikiai*, literally ‘homes from home’), could be seen as politically ‘coherent’. The reason is quite simple. While Greeks were proud of their shared ‘Greekness’, especially of their common language, they had no concept of a unified, centrally controlled ‘nation’. Athens, Sparta, Argos, Thebes (four more of the book’s subjects) and all their *apoikiai* were *poleis*/ /(s.*polis*, cf. ‘political’), i.e. ‘city states’. These were autonomous communities, with their own political systems, coinage, laws, customs, dialect, rituals (and so on), fiercely independent and determined to maintain that independence against other *poleis* and (for those outside the Greek mainland) other peoples. In all, there were about 1300 such Greek-speaking *poleis* across the Mediterranean. It was a civilisation of cities.

Again, the reason why Athens appears to be top dog is a consequence of the ancient acknowledgement of their supreme political, literary, intellectual and artistic achievements, far outweighing that of any other place at that time (and, arguably, of any time since). As a result, Athens also acted as a magnet for non-Athenians (like Aristotle) to settle and work there, increasing the city’s prestige yet further. It was indeed ‘an education for Greece’, as Pericles said of it—the only show in town. The consequence of this understandable prejudice of our sources is (frankly) that no other *polis* offers a fraction of the appeal that Athens does, though Sparta comes close in one respect: its quasi-communistic, top-down control, beloved of intellectuals from Plato onwards.

That is not to deny that every *polis* Cartledge discusses has its specific interest, especially if you like constructing political and economic historical accounts by grappling with archaeological finds, evidence of trading patterns and often rather inadequate historical sources­. There is also the romantic appeal of early, myth-rich places like two other of his subjects, the palaces of Cnossus (King Minos, the Minotaur, the labyrinth, Daedalus, Theseus and Ariadne) and Mycenae (the Trojan War, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and all that); and the fascination of their Linear B tablets, the phenomenally detailed written records of their palace-centred economic and administrative activity to make any bureaucrat’s heart beat a little faster (they inform us of e.g. the wheat and fig rations for thirty seven female bath attendants, and a pair of stored chariot wheels labelled ‘useless’). No sign of *that* in myth. (‘So, Ariadne, you want to indent for string, ball of, one, do you? What for, exactly? Streuth. Not sure about that...’).

Cartledge is master of his subject, and summarises our present understanding of all these places with great skill and judgement, always keeping us alert to the problem of interpreting often rather ambiguous or incomplete evidence—though the account which he says he will give us of ‘gender’ and ‘philosophy’ is barely discernible (e.g. not a word on the inventors of atomic theory).

As I say, the picture that emerges is rather incoherent, and one perhaps regrets that Cartledge did not deal in detail with e.g. Olympia and its games, or Delphi and its oracle, both unifying cultural phenomena. The exception is when he deals with events that shook the whole Greek world, like the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, when there is a greater sense of widespread interaction. But that, actually, is the whole point. Those two wars created special circumstances to which many *poleis* had to respond. In normal circumstances, the ancient Greek world was a shifting kaleidoscope of local conflicting interests. To present it otherwise would be to distort the picture.

In other words, Cartledge’s rather paradoxical title for the book does, in fact, go to the heart of the matter—at least until the Romans come along when, even more paradoxically, the inhabitants of the eventually Christianised Greek east end up calling themselves ‘Romans’, while the term ‘Hellenes’ tends to be applied to ‘pagans’! But that world was a very different one indeed, and one of which any classical Greek would have thoroughly disapproved.

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