I sat on the patio writing in a crisp new notebook, taking notes on Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities. The $1.30 coffee was bitter, served in an eco-incorrect styrofoam cup. Why am I reading history and why am I drinking such cheap coffee, you may ask? Well, this particular coffeehouse is usually deserted, because the coffee is “diner” quality, so I decided to take advantage of the emptiness and “study” on the patio.
Study isn’t exactly the right word. I take only desultory notes, the idea being that I’ll reacquaint myself with the Greeks through a few simple histories. Cartledge’s book is basic, a bit rambling, and only 250 pages, with plentiful maps, charts, and name lists. And just a few notes should jog my memory.
I’ve spent a lot of time with the Romans as an adult ed Latin teacher this year, but the Greeks and I have grown more distant. I’m perfectly happy to read Greek poetry on my own, but the actual history is by now a bit muddled. If I’m going to teach Greek next year, and it’s a big if, I have to take a crash course in everything I’ve forgotten. And, honestly, history–just a word for “story,” after all–was never my interest. I was enthralled with literature and history of literature, and took other history as it came, in snippets. I remember almost falling asleep in the library over assigned chapters in H. D. F. Kitto’s The Greeks for a class for which I graded exams. It was a rather sweet, well-written, romanticized, slightly dated classic: not appropriate for my brisk, direct methods of teaching. Romance ain’t my thing.
Cartledge focuses on eleven city states. He says that he understands “Greek history and civilization in very broad ethnic and chronological senses, from the first documented use of the Greek language in about 1400 BCE at Cnossos down to the foundation of the…Byzantine empire…in about C.E. 330.”
Cartledge begins by defining the polis (“city state”–well, I still remembered that, of course), and adds fascinating statistics: although 90% of the Greeks lived in the country, the urban center was the seat of collective self-government. In Chapter One, he writes about Cnossos, a palatial civilization in Crete dubbed “Minoan” by nineteenth century excavators who believed King Minos was a historical character. Herodotus, however, thought Minos was a character in myth. I’m fascinated by myth and it would never have occurred to me that Minos WAS a real person, since I spent many Baby Boomer years dismissing similar bizarre biographical literary criticism.
Cartledge writes of Minos:
“The true interest of Minos is that he is a character from one of the ancient Greeks’ most enduring intellectual and performative inventions, namely myth. It is true that some myths–’tales’ is what the Greek word muthoi generically means, traditional ones in this particular case–may contain historical matter based deep down in their origins….(but) we would do far better to stick with the skepticism, noted above of Herodotus, and regard Minos…as no more historical and no less mythical than the Minotaur…”
He writes about trade, the city’s triad of staples (grain, wine, and olive oil: the palace storage supplied 14,000-18,000 people), the astonishing lack of city walls around Cnossos (though this didn’t necessarily mean no war), ritual bull leaping…and I’m afraid I’ve only started.
This is a very small beginners’ book, so alas it won’t suffice! But it’s an introduction. I’ll have to hunt up something longer and more thorough. If only my friends had gone into history, I’d know what to read, but we were all clueless literature persons. (Actually less clueless than some of the history majors, who would believe anything in print. They weren’t accustomed to unreliable narrators.) 🙂