Against Athens
January 6, 2017 3:16 AM   Subscribe

We tend to see much of the pre-Roman ancient world through Athenian eyes, because Athens produced so much literature, history, philosophy and sculpture. But there was a big world beyond Attica that gets misrepresented as a result. I'm looking for books or articles that correct this distorted view.

Historians tend to be pretty sceptical of the motivations of their sources, so it has often struck me as strange the way the Athenian perspective on early classical culture is accepted so uncritically.

To judge by the tone of popular histories, the most important thing that ever happened to the Persian/Achaemenid empire was a minor skirmish with some city-states on the western fringes of its territory -- the Greco-Persian wars on which the 300 comic and film is based.

I realise one reason for this is that there's such a wealth of source material from Greek literature that's come down to us, and such a dearth of comparable sources from other cultures of the ancient near east and Asia.

But I'd really like to discover histories of the period that lean against this and try to use archaeological, numismatic etc evidence to correct for our Athens-centric view of the period.

The one obvious example is Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Discourse on the Arts and Sciences -- but I'm looking for something a bit more up-to-date than that! Can anyone suggest good articles or books on this theme?

NB while I'm generally interested in world history I really want to find alternative accounts of the classical period for this, not all of history. So, how did the Hellenistic and pre-Hellenistic world look from the perspective of Sparta, or the Achaimenids, or Lydia, or Macedon, or the Etruscans, or the Mauryan empire?
posted by 8k to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You're really asking for a reading list for non-Western history. Avoid "popular histories" in that pursuit. Popular histories are intended to sell.

Arguably, the most important thing to happen to the Persians was their defeat and conquest by Alexander, an event made possible by their earlier failed efforts to expand west of the Aegean. (Of course, Alexander was Macedonian royalty, not Athenian, and made a point of militarily securing the Greek cities, already in Macedonian control, before turning to Persia.)

Centuries of Hellenism, not the isolated influence of one small city called Athens, largely accounts for the influence of Greek thought and culture in the West. In varying degrees, Hellenism shaped culture from the Mauryan borders to the Atlantic. Its voluntary adoption by Rome, of course, carried that influence beyond the life of the Empire.

This isn't "Athens-centric" anymore than it is Thebes-centric or Sparta-centric. Hellenism was simply fundamental to the shaping of the ancient West.

Remember that much Greek literature, etc., survives because much was written in the first place.
posted by justcorbly at 4:59 AM on January 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War records the view from the anti-Athenian side of that conflict, maybe most interestingly from from the unaligned states as they debated choosing sides in the lead op to open hostilities. Thucydides was Athenian, but got himself exiled early and spent the remainder of war travelling around both sides compiling his chronicle. The speeches are totally made up but he claims to try to represent the actual sentiments of the places and people he had encountered.
posted by rodlymight at 5:00 AM on January 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

To judge by the tone of popular histories, the most important thing that ever happened to the Persian/Achaemenid empire was a minor skirmish with some city-states on the western fringes of its territory

I think, here, that you're misreading the popular histories-- first, remember that the 300 lost. The actual crucial battle was the Battle of Salamis. This is by far one of the most important things in western civilization in that ancient Greece is now remembered as an independent civilization, not a satrapy of Persia.

It's worth reading Herodotus, because he is both extremely interested in the foreign civilizations surrounding Greece and because he takes a skeptical eye towards both the Greeks' "folk narratives" about their history as well as the rise of Athenian power. Also, he wrote in a Ionic dialect, rather than Attic, so he had some cultural separation from the Athenians. Obviously he takes a pro-Greek perspective on the Greek-Persian wars, but his priority is understanding "what really happened."

The Biblical books of Ezra and Esther are not at all concerned with Xerxes' and Artaxerxes' wars in Greece and are rather about Persia's relationship with the Jews and gives insight into how a multiethnic empire manages to hold together.

As was already stated, you're looking for a non-western popular history. The story of the Achaemenid empire is how for the first time, a worldwide multiethnic empire hangs together and putting down revolts of even more ancient civilizations in places like Egypt. The problem is that most of our information about the empire comes from accounts written by their enemies, but there are plenty of histories that attempt to look at this from the Persian perspective, piecing together what is available.
posted by deanc at 6:45 AM on January 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding Herodotus. Obviously Greek-centric, but he goes into great detail (sometimes too much, IMO) about other Near Eastern Civilizations.

My advisor in college was a specialist in Persia's relationship with Greece. His books are academic, and quite difficult to find unless you have access to a pretty well-stocked academic library. Dr. Jack M. Balcer, great guy.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:32 AM on January 6, 2017

> Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War records the view from the anti-Athenian side of that conflict

This is not really true; Thucydides was an Athenian commander, after all. It's true he apparently talked to non-Athenians to get their perspectives after he was cashiered, but that's a subtle layering on a thoroughly Athenian view.

To the original point, the obvious reason modern histories are Athenocentric is that the ancient histories were. The Athenians wrote obsessively and a decent amount is preserved (though not as much as one would prefer, obviously); other city-states didn't produce much writing, and the Spartans (the most important rivals to Athens) produced essentially none at all (since adult male life was focused entirely on military matters). Some books on Sparta:

Cartledge, P. A. 2001. Spartan Reflections. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Caliornia Press. "Thirteen provocative essays dealing with various aspect of the political, social, artistic, and religious history of ancient Sparta and the 'Spartan mirage.'"
Kennell, Nigel M. 2010. Spartans: A New History. "Kennell offers a complex picture of the fragmentary Spartan military and political history that shows contradictions in the traditional view. He also presents Greek history from the Spartan rather than from (as is usual) the Athenian perspective."
Pomeroy, Sarah B. 2002. Spartan Women. New York: Oxford University Press. "The first full-length historical study of these distinctive women, covering the Archaic through the Roman periods, presenting and analyzing both the sources and ancient and modern assessments of these women."
Rawson, Elizabeth. 1969. The Spartan Tradition in European Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Reprinted 1991.) "The classic study of the idea of Sparta from Classical Greece through the Renaissance, Whig England, and Nazi Germany, with a short note on the United States."

A book I found useful for breaking out of my Athenocentric perspective was Kathleen Freeman's Greek City-States, which I see is available very cheaply; it's pretty old by now, but I doubt much of it has dated too badly. The standard work used to be Raphael Sealey's A History of the Greek City States, 700-338 B.C. (University of California Press, 1976), which I haven't read.
posted by languagehat at 8:16 AM on January 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Funny you should mention this; I just finished the section of A Brief History of Misogyny that covers the Classical period. Once again, I feel betrayed by my education. I grew up thinking that Athens was this enlightened, democratic, peace-loving society. This was mostly true for men, but Athenian women were treated women brutally. Sparta (always framed by my teachers as a violent, repressive, warmongering society) granted women much more freedom, including the right to own property and divorce their husbands.
posted by workerant at 9:38 AM on January 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

If I'm understanding your question correctly: I'd go looking online for academic researchers working on the cultures you've mentioned, and looking at their publications, the citations in those publications, and any course syllabi they might be offering. You might also try going to a university library and asking the librarians for help. You might do better framing your interest as concerning the nature of non-Athenian or non-Greek archival or archaeological evidence remaining from that period, rather than bringing in specific issues like Thermopylae.

This might get you more academic resources than you're looking for, as well as work concerned more with a specific culture than with comparing that culture's outlook to Athenian accounts. But you'll probably also find material that's accessible enough and that gives you a good sense of what sources do exist from those cultures at that time.
posted by trig at 3:52 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love Herodotus but feel that's still a bit too close to the Greek version of history, however broad-minded he is! Similarly, I always read Aeschylus as being sympathetic to Xerxes, but The Persians is still post-war propaganda.

I will check out languagehat's Sparta suggestions and try to dig into some other histories of adjacent empires. I guess my real question is more "What the hell was going on in Baktria? and wouldn't it be awesome if we had as vivid a picture of Babylon as we have of Athens?"

Deans, thanks for the suggestion on the Jewish/biblical accounts, I love Esther but have never dipped into Ezra.
posted by 8k at 4:30 AM on January 7, 2017

A Persia-centric account that puts Greek history in a different perspective:
Stephen Ruzicka, Trouble in the West: Egypt and the Persian Empire 525–332 BCE (Oxford University Press, 2012). "Lucid account of Persian affairs in the eastern Mediterranean in the fifth and fourth centuries BC."
posted by languagehat at 7:19 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

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