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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.

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