Histoires Grecques

Snapshots from Antiquity

by Maurice Sartre

Translated by Catherine Porter

Belknap Press of Harvard, 448 pp., $35

For those on nodding terms with ancient history, the life trajectory of the Greek polis (city-state) looks a lot like that of a rock star on the old VH1 series Behind the Music. The polis explodes inexplicably from dark-age obscurity, burns brilliantly for a time at Athens, then flames out in shameful and foolish excesses like the disastrous invasion of Sicily during the Peloponnesian War. A few generations later, the once incandescent city-state is just a backup singer in Alexander the Great's band, lucky to be working at all.

There's some truth to that narrative if political independence is considered the city-state's sine qua non. The Greeks themselves certainly thought it was important when they waved it like a bloody flag while fighting invading Persians and each other during the fifth and fourth centuries. Looked at this way, the polis was a short-lived and unsuccessful political experiment. But Greek-speaking peoples were living in cities and towns that they called poleis for a long time before the rise of classical Athens, and they kept living in them in much the same way for centuries afterwards all across Alexander's former empire.

It is this Greek way of living in cities and towns that is Maurice Sartre's theme.

"Snapshots from Antiquity" is an entirely apt subtitle. Sartre's method is to present for our contemplation some fragment of Greek life or literature, then to contextualize it and draw out its meaning, as though he were giving a running commentary on his Polaroids of a grand tour of the Greek-influenced Mediterranean world. He assumes that you've already taken the two-week Glory That Was Greece package tour, and so mostly skirts the well-known destinations. Sartre is the canny and seasoned guide who shows you the backstreet sights that, if they are less spectacular than the Acropolis, nevertheless fascinate with their grittier glimpses into the lives of the natives.

Many of the people and places he visits will be unfamiliar to those outside the small world of classical scholarship, and perhaps even to many of those in it. But that is all to the good. We don't really need another book about the Peloponnesian War right now.

Sartre proceeds more or less chronologically, but the subjects he chooses to explore at first seem random--for example, some Lydian coins, or a graffito on the leg of an Egyptian statue, or a fragmentary inscription from a jerkwater Macedonian town, regulating who can and can't use the local gymnasium. The suspicion arises that Sartre is just taking us on an idiosyncratic tour of minor antiquities.

By his own confession, he follows his own interests instead of developing a grand thesis. But an overarching aim becomes clear soon enough: He wants to give us a detailed picture of life as it was lived in the polis by its many and varied inhabitants. Each chapter fills in a few more brush strokes.

Sartre is particularly interested in the way that the polis at the periphery of the Greek world adapted itself to varying cultural pressures. So the Lydian coins provide an opportunity to explore the accidental invention of money by King Alyattes in Asia Minor and its adoption by various city-states around the Mediterranean. What accounts for the fact that some city-states, like Athens, took to the use of coined money quickly, whereas the Phoenicians adopted it slowly, and the Spartans rejected it outright? The answer is: no single thing, but money's varying reception allows for a close interrogation of the varying cultural, religious, and economic attitudes in the several city-states.

That, in the end, is Sartre's point. "History" for Sartre still holds its etymological meaning--"inquiry"--as it did for his ancient predecessor Herodotus.

Like Herodotus, Sartre frequently adopts a stance of moral neutrality, even when discussing such fraught topics as the brutal Spartan krypteia, a custom in which outstanding Spartan youth were selected to undergo an ordeal of living off the land in the wilderness while secretly killing as many Helot slaves as they could before being integrated into adult society. But he usefully compares the krypteia to male rites of passage on Crete and in Athens (which left out the slave-killing), noting that all of them conform to the familiar pattern of exclusion, inversion, and integration, common to such rituals around the world, including among the Indians of North America.

His parting comment, however, is strangely clueless: "The maintenance of such 'primitive' rites in developed societies such as those of the Greek city-states may seem surprising." Really? I suppose Sartre has never heard of initiation trials like those of the Order of the Arrow in the Boy Scouts, or the Ranger School ordeals in the U.S. Army. Histoires Grecques extends the range of what most would consider "Greek history" geographically, chronologically, and culturally, with many essays on the interaction of Hellenized populations with Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Jews, and Christians. Thus he devotes a short chapter to an interpretation of the events in the second book of Maccabees in the Bible as an opening skirmish of a long internecine struggle within Judaism to adapt itself to the Hellenized world of the Near East. He takes up the theme again in a close study of local Jewish political intrigues in Egyptian Alexandria under the Roman emperors Caligula and Claudius.

Is this really "Greek" history? It is if you think that imperial Rome was an essentially Hellenized civilization, and that "Greek" refers not only to geographically and linguistically defined peoples, but to habits, customs, institutions, and modes of thought.

Sartre's series of vignettes concludes with the dramatic figure of Hypatia, the Neoplatonic philosopher of Alexandria who was clubbed to death, quartered, and burned during the episcopate of St. Cyril, some say at his instigation or with his approval. For obvious reasons, the Church has always strenuously denied this. Sartre interprets Hypatia's death as collateral damage in a struggle for temporal power between competing groups of Hellenized and cosmopolitan Christians rather than as the secular martyrdom of a pagan saint, as freethinkers have argued since the Enlightenment. Thus Sartre leaves off by tweaking fixed ideas on both sides of a controversy, a practice he relishes throughout the book.

Sartre's investigations intimate that Greek civilization never really quite dies; it just keeps metamorphosing itself in changing circumstances, and Greek institutions and cultural configurations still crop up in unexpected places.

On a recent afternoon at West Point, watching the cadets come out of their academic buildings for physical training, I found it impossible not to see traced there the faint outlines of the ancient gymnasium, where young men were trained in mind and body to be future leaders. Or in towns across America, ordinary citizens serve on elected and appointed boards and commissions, dutifully and voluntarily looking after their town's welfare, much as their civic-minded counterparts did in city-states across the Hellenized world millennia earlier.

Of course the lines of causation for these similarities are impossible to trace, but throughout our local governments, institutions, schools, entertainments, and architecture, innumerable threads of the ancient life of the polis are still woven into the fabric of our quotidian experience.

David Wharton teaches classics and linguistics at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

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