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Saturday, March 24, 2012


Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their root in Greece."

Percy Bysshe Shelley

            GREECE IN THE MAKING  1200-479 BC – Robin Osborne (2nd edition 2009)

         If you pick up this book and you're NOT matriculating at some higher institution where actual learning is offered, you will instantly have to assess just exactly how interested you are. If you ARE matriculating, this is NOT the sort of thing you can read the night before the final. This is the Autodidact's idea of an historical survey that doesn't invite you in and doesn't give a damn if you stay.

            It is a political history that, like a legal argument, lays a basis of facts. Unlike a legal argument, it lacks the passion of a contentious attorney trying to get the defendant (reader) "off," at least it didn't get the Autodidact off, but hey i did get a little excited here and there, which was clearly not the author's intention, kind of like a very mediocre blind date: reader and author polite to the door and relieved when it finally closes and the excruciating anticipation has turned into exhausted relief. So, enough with the confusing sarcasmic(?) intendres.

" a very few moves one finds oneself back with the political writings of Aristotle and the practice of democracy at Athens."

            It was written to take the traditional and archaeological evidence and fit those into a contextual theme that is never really set forth clearly, but the journey to the last page is fascinating nevertheless. And it really has little to do with anything before the 9th Century BC, despite the title. It's hard to teach the politics of a time that has virtually no written record, and going bak as faras the 9th BC is a stretch which is why so much archaeology is thrown in. It's all a preface, really to the 7th BC and what happened after that because, despite the lack of real contemporary records even then, it is less difficult to extrapolate events of that time which were nevertheless only recounted in later centuries.

            Professor Osborne teaches at Cambridge in the UK. He has written a number of other books on ancient Greece and Rome. Other professors had apparently been consigned, but failed to fulfill, the task of a broad, detailed analysis of what can be known politically about Archaic Greece. Either the Department elite thought he did a good job, or everybody was relieved that someone finally did it, for the Autodidact's edition is the book's 7th reprinting,

            Some rather spare charts and tables of information are so distilled as to be completely arid, but there are others which are thorough and impressive. There are maps with dots all over which are particularly helpful if you like counting dots; maps on a scale that presupposes the reader already knows exactly where the author is talking about; and some maps which are actually very useful. Osborne doesn't spell most Greek names the way the Autodidact is used to and that gets annoying (Puts me in mind of Churchill's statement of Americans and British being two peoples separated by a common language, except here it's two languages). He names a lot of places which presupposes one has another book that does contain maps this book should have contained. There are also dozens of photographic illustrations of pottery and statuary that are helpful along the way, unfortunately none of them in color. For all these perhaps publisher, editor, and the market for this sort of thing may be at least equally at fault.

            So, then, this book is an historian's attack upon pre-history; a wrestling match of intellect against myth, an extrapolation based on thin facts about long vanished hands; a cold, deadening dissection of ancient poetry, and an exhaustive reflection on what one really cannot know.

            And that is why the Autodidact couldn't put it down. It was like having a ringside seat at the fights. Who would win? The Indefatigable Scholar, or the Ineluctable Mysteries?

             What strikes about Osborne's book is his refusal to accept anything at face value, and his refusal to say that his analysis is final. History, he says, is not dogma, nor fossilized, but fluid and the Greeks seem to have understood that. Before they invented history, they had mythology and legend to explain the past, and oracles to predict the future. But Osborne points out that mythology was used politically to justify political agenda, and oracles were bribed to produce the results the political powers wanted.

            Wow! Being an oracle was tricky business; kind of like being a Rating Agency on Wall Street after the Crash of 2008. The concept is pretty much the same: you're predicting things for the people who are paying you to predict what they want to hear. Perhaps Moody's, Fitch and Standard & Poor could have shown a bit more intelligence by hiring a delirious woman and some poets??

            For the Autodidact the fascination part comes from this historian's appreciation of the importance of his subject, i.e., why Ancient Greece?

            1: it is the beginning of history: In the Classical age Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and others wrote down versions of what happened not based on "God Done Tole Me to Do It" – as with the Old Testament - but actually asked questions, wrote not long after events, and presented different versions to compare them and see which ones might be the most accurate; and

            2: it is the beginning of Western Civilization: institutions, philosophy, technology, i mean, c'mon, People! It's Ancient Greece, forgodsakes!

            Osborne proceeds into the 7th BC where the political forms of government in Greece take recognizable shape: the totalitarian, oppressive warrior state of Sparta that was unopen to change but very effective in pursuing its group interests; as against the Athenian tyrranies based upon oligarchic family affiliations, which proceed into the 6 BC in a dustcloud of constant political competitions that evolve into Athenian Democracy. The other city states, among them Thebes, Corinth, Argos, Megara, are all working through their own political realities, too.

            He maps the expansion of Greek settlement around the Mediterranean basin from the Black Sea coast to North Africa to Italy and Sicily by comparative analysis of pottery and statuary, and Osborne indicates which Greek city states may have been the origin of which settlements.

            He examines the uses of religion and mythology and tradition as something no less malleable to political purposes among the ancient Greeks than it is today. The point here is that Greek mythos was fluid, used to suit a purpose, to provide an interpretation that would lend itself to political agenda. One has to ask were the Archaic Greeks actually religious, or was it a matter of cynical lip service for the rich and powerful, and the ones who wanted to be rich and powerful, to manipulate religion to their own purposes? The answer is a resounding YES.

            Autodidact: Not so different from the Big Churches in America, their television stations, and their control of political donations and voting blocks.

            And when written Greek is newly synthesized from borrowed forms, it is the first of what would become an explosion of literature; that is to say, stories. In later Archaic Greece you also don't have digs turning up carved prayers to the gods, but announcements for the people, e.g., laws, lists of group members, little shards of pottery that were used to mark which way one was voting!

            Osborne: He analyzes the traditions of political stories of what actually happened in Greece before 479 BC in the fragments that are left – references found in stone carvings, pieces of pottery referencing (at the time) well known stories, names, events.

            And he approaches the writers who were the legatees of this period – Herodotus, Thucydides and others in succeeding centuries, pointing out the revolutionary beginning and persistent continuation thereafter of critical thought, in however imperfect form, without which objective history might not now even be known or practiced.

            In the end Osborne summarizes again what he has set out to do, to explain the overwhelming importance of Ancient Greece to the West and, hence to the planet.

            His Epilogue unexpectedly turns to George Orwell's 1984 and the job of the main character Winston Smith, which is to comb through prior newspaper articles for claims and predictions that no longer square with current facts and political agenda, to destroy and rewrite them. What?? OK, so there is a lot of evidence that Greeks made claims, some of them in stone, to proclaim their glorious whatever, or justify why they didn't do something glorious (blaming the gods was the custom), or rewriting traditional stories to suit them in making alliances with others, etc.

            Osborne's point: history cannot be set in stone, but must be revisited constantly, with careful objectivity, to avoid wholesale propaganda holding sway. That is to say, history needs tenure, dammit!

            Well, if you're reading this book, you already are aware of the stupidity, cupidity, and cynicism that runs throughout political processes in history. And you're reading an academic just trying to finish the damn book the publisher asked him to do, the one your colleagues promised and then failed to write, and then get on with the ancient history that is really more your turf, old man.

            Nevertheless, Jolly good, jolly well done!

            It was a great time and you were cheap, but you weren't easy, and you've left me a lot to think about and compare with the next books which the Autodidact hopes will cover the course material he was supposed to have read before he even opened this one.

            That still leaves the question of what made the Greeks our intellectual ancestors, and that should have been the final unhesitating thrust of Osborne's book and it really is, he just doesn't pound the table about it as he should.

            It has to do with what happened as a result of all this chaos and maneuvering and being Greek. It has to do less with great piles of stone in Western capitals that mimic Greek architecture, nor with the evolution from pottery to Tupperware, nor with the chaos that is democratic government, nor with Italian Hercules movies and their offspring (gladiator movies). All of these are of course important, especially for Hollywood, politicians and DuPont.          

            And to his credit Osborne does express it toward the end. It has to do with the way the Greeks came to think. Because that is the way Western Civilization now thinks.

            In other words, how we see the world.
            Shelley was right. We are all Greeks.

FROM CITADEL TO CITY STATE; The Transformation of Greece, 1200- 700 BCE – Carol G. Thomas & Craig Conant; Indiana University Press, 1999

"We shall return to the place where we began... and know it for the first time." – T S Eliot

          When it was mostly over, the people who were still alive were huddled on hilltops.

          What had happened? The clues found in one place seem belied by the lack of clues in another, and taken together, what has been dug up, drawn, categorized, photographed, measured, preserved, inspected and reported from that time - after more than a century of digging - only perpetuates argument.

          Archaeologists examine structures and inventories. Historians survey the evidence, peer into the words written centuries later for any vestige of an explanation because there are no words written from that time to settle the quandary. No one wrote anything down. They couldn't.

          There had been those long ago who could read and write, but they were gone. The memory of them, the memory of writing itself, was gone.

          It was not as if all their forebears could read and write. There had been scribes for that who had served the palaces that were now empty or completely destroyed. But it is from that discovered and (in 1952) deciphered writing that we know something of what was lost and what was not. When the palaces disappeared what was left were the traditions and stories, gods and goddesses, some of which survived and some of which did not, but all of which were completely reliant on word of mouth around fires in these lonely places shut off from one another. This was a time when centuries of progress suddenly had halted. Ahead lay centuries of rebuilding. And it was not only this rocky mountainous place that had suffered.

          The clues cluster around the decades before and after 1200 BC with the collapse of Mycenae, the seat of kings; the burning of Thebes and the sudden disappearance of Greek trade across the seas that had been expanding since the Neolithic Age 3,000 years before. By this time the Great Pyramid was already 1,800 years old.

          Around the eastern Mediterranean there are similar signs of collapse. The Hittite Empire, challenger to Egypt itself; the palaces of Minoan Crete; the expanding web of Phoenecian merchants across the waters as far as the Black Sea and North Africa; all of it was simply gone or so stunted as to present a picture based not on evidence but on its sudden disappearance. It seems as if the only kingdom left standing at all was Egypt and Egypt itself was weakened, near mortally wounded.

          The Bronze Age was over and in its place the Iron Age was hardly a shadow of what had once been. But in this place where mountains and the sea confined and divided these last outposts of survivors, the devastation was especially severe.

          This was the beginning of the Dark Age of Greece.

          But it is a focus of so much curiosity because of what happened afterwards. Classical Greece, the Age of Pericles and Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, the Battles of Marathon and Salamis, Thermopylae and Plataea, and the rise of Alexander the Great, all of these did not spring like Athena fully developed from the head of Zeus. So we must begin here.

           If we cannot know yet what happened around 1200 BC, we can begin to piece together what it was about this dark devastated land afterwards that it was able to rise from the ashes and not only that: but to generate a sunburst of civilized light from a time of utter darkness - to transform itself from a backwater edge of the Ancient civilizations to found a New one; to become the father of Western Civilization itself.

This is the implied question for the Autodidacts in his taking up Thomas and Conant's book 


           Which takes us back to the beginning of the Greek Dark Age. Thence, using 6 archaeological sites, both famous and obscure, they take us through what can be known about the 500 years that proceeded through the illiterate darkness to the beginning of the literate which they define as the real end of the Dark Age. Each site illustrates a period from the mysterious collapse of the patient to its waking from coma, and then through slow recovery, as if from near total amnesia, to create a new/old identity.

          These sites are, in order, Mycenae, Nichoria, Athens, Lefkandi, Corinth and Ascra.

          At first blush it might seem as though they are somewhat in the wrong order; beginning with Mycenae, of course, but Athens is not at the logical end?

          And what was Nichoria? Today it is a hilltop south of the site of Corinth and west from Mycenae. Ascra? Today it is only a place of farms near a town in Boeotia (north from Athens). Lefkandi, on the island of Euboea (east from Athens), is an ancient site situated between two less ancient cities – themselves now mere dig sites  - who fought a very famous war over the plain between them; the plain where the Lefkandi site was, by then, already abandoned. Well, The Autodidact is game, or at least willing to see what this is all about and so, on to Mycenae:

          The palace at Mycenae must be a magical place and i should like to see it. The Lions Gate; Perseus, Agamemnon and Iphigenia, Menelaus and Helen; the Trojan War, Clytemnestra and Elektra; a horror story of wars, regicide, infanticide and struggles for power, with the great overseas expedition of war against Troy, a war over which even the gods became divided. With all this bad karma, Mycenae itself fell into decline. These stories are what drove men in the 19th Century to seek it out and dig it up and the world was astonished to find that the stories had some basis in reality. Mycenae was real.

          Around 1200 BC - the authors dwell only on what can be known, what can be handled and observed  -  Mycenae went into steep decline, its fortifications were strengthened but ultimately proved insufficient - against whom? And Mycenae was reduced within less than century to just another hilltop enclave of shepherds, hunters and gatherers eking out a living in a place whose archaic stories would, nevertheless, continue to be told even after more than 3,000 years.

          The collapse of Mycenae is evident but it is also here a metaphor of what happened in the rest of Greece. For quite a while it was generally supposed that there had been an invasion called the Dorian Invasion; peoples from what is now the Balkans or even from beyond there, who swept down burning and looting in a maelstrom of havoc and destruction, but the evidence from across Greece does not seem to bear this up completely. If it was an invasion, it took awhile. Not everything was burned to the ground, some places were left standing. But it is still agreed that, whatever it was, it affected all of Greece in a general collapse that left the survivors on their hilltops without organization except what they could build for themselves; with each place left to redevelop its own brand of politics – the word sprung from the Greek polis which connotes a locality unto itself with its own structure and its own way of doing things. And one of these places was Nichoria.

          Nichoria was such a hilltop. The digs there have uncovered a slowly reorganizing community that may have devolved with the fall of Mycenae into just a seasonally occupied place between 1100 and 1000 BC. It was a gathering of a few families or groups of families. The site illustrates that in the early Dark Age community was not necessarily formed from trade or agriculture, but from defensible positions with available water and woods and fields where people could scrounge food during the day and retreat back uphill at night.

          What is interesting is what it tells us about the origins of such Greek poleis after the fall of the great Bronze Age kingdoms. There were huts, then there were some wooden buildings larger than one would need for a single family unless that family was predominant, and there are signs of religious rituals: animal bones and hearths suggesting more than just your basic diningroom. Nichoria is the bridge of survival between Mycenae and the other sites; a place where the nadir of the Dark Age was lived out by wandering groups looking for a safe place after their traditional "digs" had been destroyed. But there were other places that do not show signs of destruction, though they do show signs of severe depopulation.

          Such a place was Athens. The story here picks up in the years around 1000 BC. The archaeological finds show continued settlement right through from before the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms. It isn't hard to see why. One need only look at the Acropolis which predominates the skyline even of the modern sprawl surrounding it. For invaders looking for loot and some vicious fun, there would have been a whole lot of easier places to overrun.

          By the late 11th and into the 10th century BC Athens was in fact attracting population. There is evidence of trade from across the sea in the direction of Phoenecia and Anatolia (present day western Turkey). But Athens was hardly immune notwithstanding its favorable position for defense and its access to the sea. Its 10th Century waxing devolved into its own long waning, though it was never completely abandoned. Why? By the 9th Century it was suffering the rigors of decline, hardly able even to control the countryside around it. Things had changed again.

          Meanwhile, in other places, there were opportunities. Populations that had shrunk in some places from the 13th Century into the 11th, swelled in others, such as Athens, but this may have been simply through flight from danger. There was no single thread of continued growth in the Dark Age, but fluctuations that, overall, show slow resurgence, however sporadic in the short term and in specific locations. These short term fluctuations are quite evident in the archaeological site at Lefkandi.

          It is a site about midway along the west coast of the long island of Euboea, across the narrow straights from the Greek mainland and Attica where Athens stands. Lefkandi was burned like so many other settlements in the 13th Century down into the 11th BC, and its history after that is spotty. For one thing, there is quite a bit of modern settlement now which makes digging problematic, but digging began in the 1960's and continued into the 1980's to reveal a place that rose and fell and rose and fell many times, and was across the 11th and into the 10th Centuries BC a place where landowning families held sway. When the landowners were in the ascendant, the community seems turned in upon itself. Then things change. Instead of a dull farming settlement, Lefkandi has transformed to a place of seafaring and trade. Its history is beset because of where it is: on a fertile plain where other communities wanted a piece of the action; a place of contention and repeated destruction. But it is not the rises and falls of Lefkandi that make it interesting. There are plenty of examples of that elsewhere and, even by Archaic standards, Lefkandi seems never to have been much more than a hamlet by the sea, but it was from time to time quite a precocious hamlet. Its precociousness lies in what seems to have happened there.

          In the 10th Century there was brief blaze of trading out of proportion to what had been before. Artifacts discovered show an amazing increase in foreign-made wares and, more interestingly, pottery, and bronze and iron wares made in Lefkandi appear elsewhere, from Syria to Italy. But even that is not the most interesting bit.

          For with this trade there was an evident exchange of something else through Lefkandi at which you are staring right now. It came from Phoenecia. It was not a warmed over version of the old "Linear B" language of the Mycenean Bronze Age. That was long gone. It was not original to the Greeks. They learned it from Phoenecian seafaring merchantmen. But it didn't require that the Greeks speak or write Phoenecian, instead it was used to make Greek sounds and then Greek additions were added to that alphabet to help make more Greek sounds. Originally a means of recording transactions and inventories, much as the old "Linear B" had been used, and as the Phoenecians seem to have used it, the Lefkandians and their fellow Euboeans made a different use of it.

          And because of that, it became the beginning of a new way of transmitting not only records of trade, but the old stories and the old mythology in poetic form which, in turn, would transform into something entirely new in times to come. It would be carried across the sea with the men who traded and, as populations in Greece expanded, with emigrants to new places. And as they carried it from place to place, so it carried them across succeeding generations in an expansion of Greekness; Greek ideas, Greek curiosity, Greek influence.

          This expansion could not have happened had things not got better and, with it, recovery of populations which in turn led to pressures upon the old poleis whose agricultural production eventually could not sustain all the people, nor bear the political pressures of the old established order who owned the land against the burgeoning pressures of the new who didn't. Something had to give and it appears that those pressures were first felt and dealt with in Corinth as it grew into the 9th and 8th Centuries BC.

          The site of Corinth occupies an area that was geographically blessed. Where other cities had to contend with a shortage of tillable ground, Corinth occupied a hilltop surrounded by it. The polis is situated on the southeast shore of the Corinthian Gulf which opens into the Adriatic Sea to the west. The Corinthian Gulf is bordered east of Corinth by the Isthmus of Corinth, the land bridge between mainland Greece and the Pelopponese, and east of that lies the Saronic Gulf which opens on the Aegean Sea. In the 8th Century Corinth, like much of the rest of Greece, underwent a population explosion with the improving continuity of life through increased agricultural production and the reduction in disruptive wars. Where Lefkandi's tiny seafaring population may have led the way in the Greeks regaining their sea legs, Corinth took advantage of its geography and growing population to trade abroad to both east and west – to Italy and Sicily, to Anatolia, Syria, the Black Sea, Crete, Cyprus and Phoenecia in the east – and to export its own people.

          Syracuse in Sicily, as well as other cities both in Sicily and on the Italian mainland date from this period. What sorts of people were driven to leave by the population growth? Favorite sons, who might complicate another sibling's inheritance forced to embark for new horizons; small landholders driven off their land by debt; sailors, craftsmen, and adventurers with nothing to lose all set out across the water, each for his own reason, but all driven by the same hand of hope in face of circumstance.

          This was not colonization, however, by any modern standard. These voyages were ventures into marketing, with settlements to be established where food could be grown near to good anchorages. So, not only was Corinth relieving population pressures, it was building its own markets. Goods flowed back and forth. They were also transported from the Levant and Egypt, and Corinth itself developed an export trade, especially pottery that seems to have been all the rage around the Eastern and Central Mediterranean for about a century. It turns up in archaeological digs as far away as northern Italy in Etruscan ruins, in Egypt, Syria, and along the southern Black Sea coast. This business was a successful pattern nor was it uniquely Greek.

          The Phoenecians had been doing the same thing already for a long time. The difference, however, was this: the Greeks were not simply setting up shop here and there. They were carrying their culture with them and expanding, predominating over the locals among whom they settled, having babies and raising families, building Greek temples and Greek cities, holding Greek games, writing and reading poetry in the new Greek language. It wasn't just for contracts anymore. It is not as if Greekness was a nation or in any way thought of as united a the time, but culturally Greekness was congealing. Without the development of written Greek it is arguable there could not have been a Greece to defeat the Persian Empire (and Greece was not even united in that war).

          There had been Greeks sailing the Aegean for centuries. Even in the Dark Age, there were Greeks – Ionians – who had migrated back and forth between Anatolia and the mainland. But now the old lines of travel across the Aegean were full of ships, and Greek ships were sailing further afield both east and west. It was, according to Thomas and Conant, the End of the Greek Dark Age as the 8th Century exploded with commerce and people. So, why do they not stop with the examination of 8th Century Corinth? Why do they go to Ascra?

          Ascra is, like Lefkandi, nothing more than a hamlet, but it is not by the sea. It is well west of Athens and north of the Corinthian Gulf. In the 8th century BC it is just a small farming community, conservative, home to few seafarers, and that profession is frowned upon even in the 8th Century, by the stodgy landholders. It is described as a "hole of a place." Hardly inviting. There is nothing remarkable about it, no great structures, it was not a polis, and likely just another small, dull village within the orbit of a polis:

"a miserable hamlet, bad in winter, sultry in summer, good at no time."

          Its location was only verified recently when someone bothered to go looking for it and there is nothing left except the ruins of a tower that was built centuries later, but the title of the chapter about Ascra is "The End Product of the Dark Age."

          By the description of the place, it could as well have represented the Beginning of the Greek Dark Age, except for someone who lived there, a man named Hesiod.

          Hesiod was a farmer, but he was also a writer. Without him no one would care where Ascra is, nor would this book have mentioned it. Take it into account, however, that is because he lived there, and wrote the Theogony and Works and Days, that it is not only included, but the authors use it as the defining End of the Greek Dark Age.

          Though the authors end here, there is plenty of Pre-Classical Greek time left to 479 BC and the defeat of the Persians, but that is not a criticism of this book. Its point is to cover a period that is difficult by its very nature to explain, but they perform an admirable task in opening doors onto the darkness. They do not overload the reader with minutiae and hopefully the Autodidact has not given too much away to satisfy any reader's ongoing curiosity. It is a good read and of proper length with few words wasted.

          And its virtue is this: if you are curious, they will point you to further questions, but they will not phrase them for you or give you anything more than what others have postulated and what others have found.
          Which is why The Autodidact recommends it as he sets it down and gleefully proceeds into the 6th century BC, hell bent to find out what happens next.