Search This Blog

Sunday, August 5, 2012


1200-479 BCE

- Jonathan M. Hall; Blackwell Publishing 2007

Chair of Classical Studies, Prof of History – U. of Chicago

               As with Osborn's book, Greece in the Making, this book is a scholar's work, in this case an American, setting out to frame the same period as Osborn, and doing a much better job of it. Hall even begins with discussing the nature of history itself as Osborn does, but taking more time in explaining himself.


               Prof. Hall says the English word "history" is a word whose ancient root meaning was revived in lectures and a resulting book by Edward Hallett Carr in 1961.

               AUTODIDACT: Here's the interesting bit: Carr was a premier Marxist historian of the history of the Soviet Union who lived in the West.

               HALL: In a series of lectures which turned into a book entitled What is History? Carr returned to the Greek root word: "historia" whose original meaning is "inquiry," and proceeded from there to take on the purpose of history as a discipline: Is History the relation of past events, Or the relation of evidence as a result of inquiry? Why is the distinction important?

               AUTODIDACT: For one, people like the Autodidact can only read secondary sources, such as this one, because the Autodidact cannot read ancient Greek. Any secondary source which compiles the evidence and presents it is a story nonetheless. (One loves a good story.) So does that make it "history" commonly understood as "what happened," or does that make it a novel woven from evidence commonly understood, as an interpretation from a particular point of view?         

               A Marxist would present it as evidence supporting a theoretical historical premise that the story of humanity is that of a set of tribes/ classes in perpetual conflict. A "Queer Theory" historian would present it based upon sexual orientation/ gender. A "Structuralist" would present it in the context of deconstructing its parts to discern the fundamental attitudes, beliefs and perceptions. And the list goes on. The discussion is delightful and enlightening, with "light" being the central theme here, easily understood by both objectivists and relativists as meaning two completely different things.

               (One can, like the Autodidact, dissolve into laughter, then keep reading, or close the book at least to violently empty the contents of one's stomach.)

               HALL: mentions an historian who was a relativist, generally or relatively speaking at least, who studied modern history and grieved that ancient and medieval historians could be more certain of their subject, but then consoled himself with the thought that their certainty springs from irreparable ignorance of their subject. See?! Why is there not an acknowledged Humor School of History?! Call it the "Posthum(or)ous School."

               Because we can't reconstruct the dim past with anything like a complete understanding of what it was really like, so guesswork is all there is to fill in the gaps, and that guesswork has to be subject not only to consistency with the evidence, but one's existential circumstances (never mind one's conscious philosophical bent) that underlie all of one's thinking about the subject; which means there has been an explosion of ways to interpret, which means certainty is out the door.

               But this is not a futile exercise, unless one confuses certainty with dogma, or can't tell the difference between evidence and theory. And then one must ask, historian or not, do we HAVE to understand it exactly like it was?

               Or do we want to use as much of it as we can find out, to find out as much as we can about ourselves??


               Understanding Archaic Greece, the world that was precursor to the Spartans at Thermopylae; the Parthenon; Themistocles and the Battle of Salamis; the Delian League, Thucydides and Herodotus, Socrates and Aristarchus and Plato and Anaximander and Zenon; the decisive Battle of Plataea, the Athenian expedition to Syracuse; Aristotle; Alexander the Great; the Hellenic Age; the explosion of discoveries and theories that lay dormant (relative to Europe) for a thousand years until the European Renaissance; the American Revolution produced by men who could read Greek and Latin and produced what we call the oldest existing democracy; and the expansion of Western Civilization that has spread to every corner of the globe and dominated it to cause even the other, much older, civilization centered on China, to kowtow to it or, at least, to assimilate it in order to survive.

               These are the cumulative reasons to read as much as one can about a time we cannot fully know. The overarching interesting thing about the Greek Dark Age: there is evidence:

               It runs consistently enough to trace general developments across centuries in a panorama that can both be corroborated and which, the more one looks, the more it looks familiar, very familiar. This is in other words, a reflection not only on human nature, but a study of what happened when it first happened. That is to say, it was the Iron Age begat of the Bronze Age born of the Neolithic; in scale beggaring the modern use of the term to distinguish the Enlightenment from the Industrial from the Modern from the post-Modern which are simply, at best, really just epochs which doesn't grab the attention publishers would prefer, nor provide the self importance to which writers aspire, and so the silly dilution of the term.

               Between the two, recognized from all evidence as so fundamental as to call them "Ages," not epochs or fads or any sort of change less than starkly different; as affecting all of us and everywhere, and, hence, a beginning of history (Iron Age) however dimly seen enough to define the new Age as a place where things we recognize happened "for the first time"; an evolution that both narrowed the possibilities of humanity forever and widened its chances. And it is at the approximate juncture of the Bronze and Iron ages that the Great Collapse of the Archaic Greece occurs.

               Moreover, one must ask, are we now the way we are because they first set the path as they emerged from catastrophe, or is it something in our very nature that makes us now like they were then?

               HALL: The World that collapsed in Greece around the year 1200 BC, MYCENAE, has no written record except for those found and only deciphered lately (ca. 1950) and that language tells us only about transactions of the royal houses and little else. It was a language of records, with 60 ideograms and 89 signs; cumbersome and, given the royal houses were the only source of demand for it, of limited need of people who could read & write it, and absolutely of no use to the rest of the people. Nevertheless they tell us things not only of what happened before, but during the Great Collapse.

               It didn't happen all at once. Those on the Greek mainland suffered devastations before Mycenae itself collapsed. There are records of putting up a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth to stop whoever it was that had set Thebes and other cities to the north of it aflame in a maelstrom of destruction the Mycenean center of power itself managed to withstand for a few more decades.

               During these years the walls of the city itself were strengthened – evidence from arch digs, not from literary sources – and the writings themselves become fewer – meaning fewer transactions with other cities. Where Mycenae in former times had traded and thereby communicated with the other civilizations of the Levant, including Egypt – by the 13th BC such trade has stopped. Mycenae is fighting for its life. Then the wall is breached and someone pours into the Peloponnese and wipes out what had once been your basic standard kingdom; in design more feudal than centralized.

               So, if archaeology can't tell us, what are we left with?

               Fortunately, we're studying History here, so there are other paths, for instance following the DNA of language; dialects and spellings along with archaeological evidence.

               AUTODIDACT: History is great, ain't it? Nothing stops it. You look at what one line of evidence suggests, but when it is stopped by a lack thereof, you aren't necessarily. Because you can look elsewhere. That is why Historical research will never be outmoded. For all its faults, it is the only discipline that is looking at the whole table where pieces – albeit those not already fallen from the table for the rest of Time, as well as those which we do not yet recognize as pieces  - are scattered. Even in the scattering History is compelled to find the pattern and the pattern is the thing.

               HALL: There is no consensus on who it was that did all this. The Dorian Invasion used to be the standard explanation but archaeological finds have challenged this, too. And it didn't happen all at once, but it seems to have happened in waves that went on for about a century and a half to ca. 1050.

               There is the theory of the "Sea Peoples. " Remember, the destruction was not confined to Greece, but the entire Levant. Even Egypt. Two successive Pharaohs claimed victory over them in what the evidence suggests was apocalyptically desperate. Other civilizations, including the Bronze Age Greeks, were not victorious and so they were overwhelmed. So in Greece an entire way of life collapsed so completely as to create a Black Hole in the history of a civilization that Homer and his legatees described as so well organized that it had once launched "a thousand ships" for the sake of a broken marriage and of course, pillage, murder and power.

               So, in the absence of archaeological evidence, what? You take a look at the DNA. In this case the DNA is still indeterminate biologically, possibly forever, because DNA deals with things on the scale of Carbon 14 dating – by centuries if you're lucky, millennia if you're not. But there is another DNA, the DNA of Language.

               Dialects and colloquialisms. The way people talk and inscribe.

               The evidence indicates a movement of people, who were not settled, into areas where people had been. There is some evidence that these Sea Peoples were not a single people but many, extending from central and northern Greece to Italy to Sicily. Admittedly that seems a stretch. What was it – some sea mafia of which we have no evidence no artifacts, nothing but a couple of inscriptions in Egypt?! Hey, stranger things have happened, and we have only the barest of evidence on the whole eastern Mediterranean for that period anyway. We know that there were seafaring people in the Late Neolithic Age; guys in animal skin canoes crossing from island to island trading and mingling; and the idea of a sea-based culture raiding, killing, raping, plundering and occupying isn't so farfetched when we have much more recent documented examples such as the Vikings.

               And there are historians who argue that the Collapse was internal rather than external, an explanation the Autodidact finds less appealing simply because too many other things were happening along the same lines elsewhere; other civilizations were collapsing about the same time, such as the Hittites, as well as just barely holding on, as in Egypt.

               And there are multi-layered arguments involving economics problems and eco-problems which have yet to coalesce. For instance, it appears that the polar ice caps were retreating, according to one set of data, drawing the jet stream north, drawing rains north, causing arid conditions causing crop failures causing economic distress causing displacement of peoples causing collapse of the higher structures of organization precipitating your basic anarchy. But there are also theories that use evidence to argue the ice caps were instead advancing, causing a mini-Ice Age causing crop failures, etc.

               AUTODIDACT: Either of these explains mass displacement among peoples somewhere sufficient to cause them to invade the Levant in waves. One hopes more evidentiary research will be published on the subject, but the results are pretty clear, whatever it was, and the inquiry here for the Autodidact is not only what happened, but more importantly, to understand why what happened "next" –Classical Greece - happened next. And eco-explanations, the "Guns, Germs and Steel" approach, can be more specifically explained with actual events.

               The Autodidact can, for instance, provide another for instance in a later episode, the Roman Empire. It can be argued that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire through the pressures of "barbarian invasions" beginning in the 6th Century AD actually were caused by the Han Empire in China sending armies against the Hsiung-Nu barbarians in Mongolia and driving them west in the 1st Century A.D, causing a long knock-on effect that displaced tribes from there clear to the English Channel on the other side of the planet 400 years later.

               HALL: uses language more precisely as well, though he does not forego the evidentiary burial sites and pottery comparisons that Osborn dwells on, and which are discussed in the meditation on Osborn's book. Rather, let us look here at what Hall does differently, which is to trace words not only to trace the tribes of Archaic Greece through and after the Collapse: the Ionians, the Achaeans, the Laconia's, and others, but he examines the use of words as they are used from Homer forward in order to get at what someone meant when he said something about someone, for instance, the word Basileis.

               Basileis has heretofore been used generally to mean King, but since World War II that meaning has been examined further. Being on the other side of the European Dark Age from the Greek Dark Age, the term "king" we generally recognize has an entirely different and inappropriate application as regards the structure of power that emerged into the Classical period of Greece. (Should one call it the Classical Age? There is certainly reason to do so, given the explosion of new human precedents it set for the next 2,000 years). Balsileis refers to a type of power that emerged from the Collapse, when the Greeks had to start over and figure almost everything out for themselves on their isolated hilltops. Elsewhere ( see From Citadel to City State et al here),  we've discussed the idea of the "Big Man", a chief recognized for his acknowledged influence, luck, bravery, and/or cunning, and HALL discusses this as a possible precursor to the more developed leadership paradigms in myriad forms that developed as a result of isolated communities becoming less isolated, but each adhering to their organizational inventions from the desperate, shadowy past of the Dark Age nevertheless. From this word, and from how others as well are used in the texts, HALL pursues a path of inductive analysis of the emerging society into the 7th century BC where things have by now become more stable. The Greeks are seafaring again in noticeable numbers, and populations grow, expand, move about and of course try to organize themselves in a competition of commerce, survival, etc. but they are tribally guided by the way they think about themselves – which in Greece is by no means uniform because there is no actual "Greece" beyond comparison with outsiders, "barbarians." They are instead a collection of "poleis" with their own distinct theories of organization which are disseminated across the Mediterranean with the establishment of new cities. They are seafaring just as the Phoenicians – today's Palestinians, formerly Jacob's Canaanites and David's Philistines – but with a single vast difference. The Greeks didn't just settle communities for trade – they came to stay and they saw themselves as distinct from the poor sods they settled among.

               So, the Basileis refers to a fundamental dynamic that is based on community recognition of authority rather than Divine Providence, though not necessarily distinct from Divine Provenance. As time went on tribal leaders justified their positions based on lineage back to mythical figures, such as Heracles (Latin – Hercules). But this claim by provenance was not ipso facto accepted for purposes of an established aristocracy. Instead, you still had to earn it one way or another, among your community. What later developed were offshoots with varying degrees of accepted authority running the gamut from the Spartan Kings (and there were always 2 of them) to the Athenian aristocracy who seem always to have been vying for power with nothing settled on one man for a generation or even a family for more than a few.

               This wasn't the case for no reason. Enter the lawgivers. In more than one community, for instance Solon of Athens and Lycurgus of Sparta; we're talking 8th to 7th Centuries BC here, poleis were given virtual constitutions. We know about them because they worked. And you didn't just have constitution-makers, you had men who set down laws, such as Draco of Athens and Philolaos who gave laws to Thebes. And these laws and constitutions themselves seem to have evolved from evidentiary fragments of very specific criteria for very specific events, such as not only a murder, but a type of murder, for instance, involuntary. The old myths include instances of gods descending upon a situation and, rather than passing judgment, imposing a time out on the participants and then tell them to figure it out themselves. Which they did, one by one, polis by polis. And over time perhaps, because of the growing complexity of precedents and resulting ambiguities when a situation arose that was theretofore unanticipated, perhaps the polis' confusion reached critical mass and someone stepped in to reboot the system by setting out a legal course more flexible and therefore longer lasting by its usefulness in more situations.

               Sound familiar?

               The Autodidact found this book and bought it along with Osborn's, and found it gratifylingly re-readable, highly recommends it. The Study of Archaic Greece is necessarily only about the structures of society because the evidence allows only for that at this stage in the record, notwithstanding the inferences of the literature which, though not entirely preserved from the period, is nonetheless perpetuated in form arguably still containing the seeds of its provenance. And Hall takes full advantage of that and the physical evidence to provide us a platform that makes broad sense. And you can tell what is sensible deduction by the amount of surprises to the contrary that analysis admits.

               So HALL proceeds through the centuries to 479 BC, a date less of convenience than of absolute and universal recognition that THINGS CHANGED. He discusses the nature or power and he begins to zero in on Athens because, if there was ever a laboratory for political science, that was it. And it is the structure of power that provides clues not only to what happened, but how what came after managed to come after.

               AUTODIDACT: This study of Archaic Greece thus pauses in favor of other diversions such as  returning to the place we began in college, so to speak, in order to know it for the first time (yes, shameless rip-off of T S Elliot);  that is, into the Main Event of Classical Greece and its offspring, the Hellenic Age; the progenitors, the much  better known history; the thought, and the cumulative results thereof.


               We live in an era where the competition of ideas is more intense than in Classical Greece only because of the speed of transmission and the change in demographics. But the Western heritage of Classical Greece – made possible because it had to think for itself after undergoing a thorough catastrophic collapse, is still spreading. The inundation is less violent only in scale, and no less epochal in its transformative renaissance as the infusion of Western thought – born in Greece – reaches around the World which a Greek first posited as being round.

               In the West we are however still fighting out a problem posed, particularly in the United States.

               I speak of the two perspectives on which our culture rests: Judaism and Greek Humanism; the one an amalgam of ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian theocracy structured to provide a stable societal reference and requiring blind obedience to unquestionable myth; the other its absolute antithesis requiring critical thought, respect for opposing points of view, and an epistemological imperative that is diametrically opposed to the mindless acceptance of fact by authoritarian fiat.

               That battle is being fought by proxy just now in the Islamic World where, unlike Mormons who are American and therefore "ruled by the moral philosophy of the dollar," do not yet have an economy incorporated that will stabilize it in order to perpetuate theocratic plutocracy.

               It is so odd that Christianity, which was after all the invention of a Greek – St Paul – managed to combine elements of both, or subvert the one in favor of the other depending upon one's point of view. But the battle lines are drawn between Theosophy and the offspring of Greek Philosophy – Science – right here in the United States. The one demands unquestioning faith, the other ignores that religious fascism at its own peril. Lessons of the Greeks have been lost no less than those of the Jews in this struggle, and the one seeks actively to destroy the other, while the other proceeds as if politics were beneath it.

               Curiouser and Curiouser.

No comments:

Post a Comment