Online Review: Book

Athens-Sparta

A.A. Donohue

112.1

Edited by Nikolaos Kaltsas. Pp. 319, b&w figs. 3, color figs. 258. Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), New York 2006. ISBN 0-9776598-1-X (paper).

The handsome catalogue under review accompanied an exhibition held in New York in 2006–2007, organized by the Onassis Foundation in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, other museums in Greece, and institutions in France, Italy, and the United States. The exhibition was intended expressly for a general audience (11), and its stark title effectively suggests the degree to which the two cities represent a polarity within the classical tradition nearly as profound and consequential as the fundamental divide between Greece and Rome, and scarcely less familiar. Indeed, as Gombrich observed in 1961, “To learn to hate the Spartans with their beastly ideals was an education in itself” (“The Tradition of General Knowledge,” reprinted in E.H. Gombrich, ed., Ideals and Idols [Oxford 1970] 8–23).

In structure and content, the catalogue carries out the theme of the contrast between the two city-states within the overall frame of Hellenic history and achievement, examining their distinctive cultures and tracing their actions and interactions, with emphasis on the period from the eighth century through the end of the Peloponnesian War. Four essays on the history and topography of each, and one on the Geometric period in both, precede the catalogue proper. The sculpture, pottery, and metalwork of each city are presented separately, the entries in the individual sections introduced by general surveys. Two essays treating the Persian Wars and the “Spartan tradition” introduce sections of artifacts chosen thematically. Essays on Athenian and Spartan coinage take the story through Roman times, and a discussion of the rivalry between the city-states precedes a final section of inscriptions, pottery, and sculpture from the late decades of the fifth century B.C.E.

Projects that aim to place specialized knowledge before a nonspecialist audience always face problems of balance, and not every aspect of this catalogue will satisfy every reader. There are too few maps, for example, so that not all the sites and findspots mentioned even in connection with the exhibited material are shown, which is especially regrettable in the case of Laconian topography. A certain repetitiveness among the catalogue entries reflects the decision to explain Greek and technical terms within discussions rather than in a glossary. Some inconsistencies among the various texts—for example, about the nature and role of the figure of Lycurgus—might puzzle nonacademics who expect scholarly unanimity. On balance, however, the well-illustrated essays and entries, while obviously designed for the general audience and geared for consensus rather than controversy, do offer basic information and up-to-date bibliography and will be useful for research and teaching. As the wiki principle gains ground even in “legitimate” academic resources, exhibition catalogues like this one are increasingly important as vehicles for reliable current scholarship.

The 283 objects range from architectural fragments to pots, figurines, and coins. There are several famous and intriguing pieces in all categories, such as the Arkesilas (cat. no. 45) and Prometheus (cat. no. 46) cups; masks and lead votives from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia (cat. nos. 53, 54, 81); missles from Thermopylae (cat. no. 118); “Leonidas” (cat. no. 117); Persian spoils dedicated at Olympia by the Athenians (cat. no. 101); and offerings and inscriptions from the Athenian Acropolis (cat. nos. 27, 55–61, 158, 159), including a fragment of the Lenormant trireme relief (cat. no. 176). Interesting unpublished material includes a group of Archaic vases found at a tomb in Sparta (cat. no. 52) and fragments of Laconian red-figure from the Tomb of the Lacedaemonians in the Athenian Kerameikos (cat. no. 171).

Most of the objects in Athens-Sparta are not standouts but rather the kind of material from which we try to draw a basic understanding of culture, society, and history, and which often shows the limitations of our interpetive frameworks most sharply. The programmatic intention of the exhibition and its catalogue is explicit: to present the two city-states and their relationship within the history of a unified Hellenic achievement. Although the premises of this program have been frequently challenged over the past generation, the idea of ancient Greece as a kind of universal beacon for humanity has managed to survive not only skepticism about progress, essentialism, and nationalism but also its stalwart championing in more or less reactionary circles. Equally obvious are the practical challenges occasioned by the extraordinary qualities of Spartan society that, helped along by accidents of preservation, have yielded a record notably deficient in the kinds of textual and material productions that render peoples visible to history. We are able to deal reasonably well with the one-sidedness of the textual tradition, and few today would accept without question either what Herodotus tells of Lacedaemonian accounts of Lycurgus and the establishment of eunomia (1.65) or Plutarch’s edifying collections of put-downs by laconic Spartan kings, hard-hearted Spartan mothers, and snotty Spartan princesses (Mor. 172A–194E, 208B–236E, 240C–242D). We are aware that we are seeing largely myths, mirages, and reflections, and the task of historiography proceeds with due caution. The interpretation of monuments is equally hampered by lacunae, and methodological pitfalls are exacerbated by unrealistic expectations. What is often called the “physiognomic fallacy” encourages us to look for evidence of cultural character in material culture; the notion of the “masterpiece” fosters wishful judgments. The consequences of our limitations are seen here in attempts to elevate Spartan artistic achievement to the level of Athenian, to find visible repercussions of the Peloponnesian War in the material record, and to identify regional styles in the resistant corpus of bronze figurines and thereby ascertain precise influences and interconnections.

Sparta remains enigmatic. Despite great advances in fields like Archaic Laconian iconography, one may be forgiven for sharing Moses Finley’s sense in 1965 that he was “frankly unable to visualize these people” (“Sparta,” in The Use and Abuse of History [London 1970, 1975] 171). Athens continues to surprise us. The Onassis exhibition and its catalogue, carried out in full awareness that “the two city-states continue to be relevant to perennial questions” (13), offer a valuable opportunity to reconsider both and, especially, the nature and legacy of their fraught relationship. It shaped Cold War ideologies (distilled in John LeCarré’s spy-vs.-spy scenarios: “Twin cities, we used to say you were, you and Karla”) and can still be detected in the apocalyptic conjuring of matched fundamentalisms. Whether there are lessons in the ancient situation, and what those lessons might be, remains unclear.

A.A. Donohue
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 19010-2899
adonohue@brynmawr.edu

Book Review of Athens-Sparta, edited by Nikolaos Kaltsas
Reviewed by A.A. Donohue
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 112, Number 1 (January 2008), published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/540
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1121.Donohue

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