le 21 octobre 2005
"The World of the Ancient Greeks" covers their history from the Paleolithic and Neolithic era, which is actually before the "Greeks" first showed by circa 2000 B.C., to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Greece became part of the Ottoman Empire. With the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of 400 years of Turkish control, Greece was no longer Greece (not until 1821-32 and the Greek War of Independence). When I learned World History the basic idea was that the Greeks created Western Civilization and were then taken over by Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire and then the Roman Empire. But John Camp and Elizabeth Fisher take a different perspective and focus more on how the eastern Mediterranean has always been a point of contact and conflict between the East and West. However, while they point to a series of struggles back and forth the Aegean Sea, from the Greek war against Troy and Greek migration and settlement in Asia Minor to Alexander's conquest of Asia and Greece becoming part of the Roman Empire, the focus of this book ends up being more on the prominent role of the Greeks in making an unparalleled contribution to the rise of Western civilization.
That simply means we end up on familiar ground for most of this book, although certainly the authors pay more attention to other Greek city-states besides Athens in describing the world of the ancient Greeks. The volume is divided into ten chapters: (I) Who Were the Greeks? not only defines them but also lays out the written sources and archaeological discoveries that are the foundation for what we know; (II) The First Greeks focuses mainly on the Early Bronze Age in Greece and the point where the Greeks, or more properly their language, pops up in history; (III) The Heroic Age is where we get to the Mycenaeans, the civilization on Crete, and the historical evidence that exists for all of the myths that spring from the late Bronze Age, such as the sieges of Troy and Thebes, and the quests of Odysseus and Jason.
A key transitional period is detailed in (IV) The Age of Expanding Horizons, which starts with the Dark Ages following the end of the palaces that defined the previous era, and the key elements of colonization, Panhellenism, and the beginnings of Greek literature. (V) Polis: The Early Greek City is concerned with such basics as urban design, political structure, economic life, and regional diversity. The important cities of the mainland (Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth) are contrasted with the Eastern (Samos, Ephesus) and Western (Selinus, Syracuse, Massalia). Then, of course, there is a whole chapter devoted to (VI) Classical Athens, which covers its rise, government and law, commerce and business, religious life, theater, intellectual life, and private life. True, you can devote an entire book like this to Athens, but what we have here is nice and concise, while still providing some key details.
Mythology is covered in (VII) Gods and Heroes, although the focus is more on festivals, cults and shrines, which is fine. There are plenty of books on mythology and Greek drama, and this is more on the culture than the literature. (VIII) Greek Art and Architecture does a nice job of laying out architectural orders, but the attention to sculpture is even better. Too bad that when I visited Greece all of the museums were closed in preparation for the Olympics, so that the only "key" piece I got to see was the Charioteer of Delphi (it is in the outer part of the museum), but this section made up for that somewhat by showing me again what we missed. Pottery and painting are covered as well, and you can just never see too many examples of Greek pottery.
(IX) Alexander and the Hellenistic World tries to establish a sense of continuity between the Greece personified by Athens and the Hellenistic World of Alexander's empire, but once you get to Asia it is just not Greece anymore. Since the Macedonians conquered Greece, that does not seem particularly Panhellenistic to me. So I see what happened with Alexander to be closer to what comes with the (X) Romans and Christians, this last chapter being the shortest of all because there are Greeks but Greece is no longer Greece at that point. I also see what Alexander did to be closer to what the Romans did with Greece, than I see him as the student of Aristotle. At the very least, Alexander's Empire gives us a more reasonable point in history to stop talking about the ancient Greeks, much more so than the rise of the Ottoman Empire (the Romans at least considered Greece to be Greece, but that was definitely not the case when it became part of the Turkish sphere of influence).
"The World of the Ancient Greeks" is illustrated with 376 photographs and drawings, of which 107 are in color, and since I have actually been to Greece it was nice that I instantly recognized places I had been, such as Delphi and Olympia (how can you not at least walk to the end of the original Olympic track if you visit Greece?). The captions for these illustrations are as informative as the main text, and one of the strengths of this volume are the extracts from classical authors and inscriptions that are used to bring to life the events, people and places being covered. I really like things like that, especially when you are doing fragments or inscriptions and not just lines from the classic poets (we do not know who wrote "Oinopion" and "Hekabe" to win in 364/3 B.C., but we know that Arexis won as best actor for those tragedies). So overall I like the both the conciseness of all the topic covered and the attention to key details throughout the book. Plus, I find the illustrations to be excellent. I am always finding things to use from this book in my Classical Mythology course.