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Ancient Greece: Social Structure and Evolution

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

Ancient Greece: Social Structure and Evolution

By David B. Small (Case Studies in Early Societies). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2019. Pp. xvi + 270. $34.99. ISBN 978-0-521-71926-1 (paper).

Reviewed by

This book treats the long-term history and social structure of ancient Greece from the Neolithic period to the second century CE using complexity theory as an explanatory framework. It is published as part of a Cambridge University Press series (Case Studies in Early Societies), the stated aim of which is to introduce early societies with a long history of archaeological research to students and scholars in adjacent fields, certainly an admirable objective. Accordingly, I assess the value of the book as an introduction to the archaeology of Greece for a reader without much preexisting knowledge of the field. 

The author’s overall approach is to use complexity theory to elucidate what he reconstructs as a recurring cycle in which periods of long-term stability are punctuated by abrupt moments of dynamism over the considerable span of time (6800 BCE to 200 CE) that the book covers. This pattern is explained with recourse to complexity theory’s contention that “society mov[es] through periods of identified structure, then a chaotic rapid transition to an identified new social structure” (3). The moments of change are called “phase transitions” and are distinct from normal social change because they are totalizing, occurring throughout systems at once due to the complexity of connections that bind social systems together. I am skeptical that such phase transitions ever occurred in an Aegean context where regional idiosyncrasies are nearly always apparent, and in which totalizing phenomena are usually illusions emerging from discursive tendencies toward generalization. However, generalization is always necessary when attempting to summarize information for such a long chronological span, and complexity theory offers a compelling logic through which to distill the archaeological record into an overarching narrative of social change. The framework is coherently articulated, and Small follows through by pursuing the implications of this chosen theoretical lens from beginning to end. The organization of the book is clear and consistent, so that readers can easily read horizontally, comparing aspects of society in many periods by toggling between clearly labeled sections that are consistent across the book’s chapter structure.

Small uses feasting as a proxy to trace the structures and implications of phase transitions, because the practice had a transformational character that served the ideological interests of nascent elites. That assertion is not unassailable in itself, but more problematic are the great liberties taken in identifying feasting, as opposed to just eating and drinking, in the archaeological record. Feasting is frequently invoked as an important force in propelling society through phase changes, but it is not always clear that such an interpretation is warranted. For example, the presence of drinking vessels in some burials in the shaft graves at Mycenae is used as the sole basis for an argument that “elaborate funeral feasting played an important role in the creation of position and power at Mycenae” (81); this assertion then becomes the linchpin for reconstructing a process by which a single household landed at the head of a complex bureaucratic institution. This kind of interpretative overreach is apparent throughout, as the fact that people ate and drank in ancient Aegean societies is repeatedly used to argue that feasting structured political discourse in ways that are typically underdeveloped.

The quality of the research in regard to both accuracy and thoroughness is concerning in a book intended as an introduction for an audience not familiar with the ancient Greek world. Many of the ideas presented are not representative of current scholarly consensus and may mislead the uninitiated about the state of the field. Discussing hoplite warfare (151–52), for example, Small presents an outdated model of the yeoman farmer-soldier developed during the 1990s by Josiah Ober and Victor Davis Hanson without any reference to the major modifications and revisions that have been made to this subsequently by Peter Krentz (“Fighting by the Rules: The Invention of the Hoplite Agôn,” Hesperia 71.1, 2002, 23–39) and others. Students would not be well served to think that every community in the Aegean “develop[ed] the same institutions” during the Archaic period, as the author claims (134–35), since this statement does not take into account the immense variation in even the basic structure of early polis and ethnos institutions that is abundantly evident for the seventh and sixth centuries. Small cites Peter Schultz’s work (“Divine Images and Royal Ideology in the Philippeion at Olympia,” in J. Jensen et al., eds., Aspects of Ancient Greek Cult: Context, Ritual, Iconography, Aarhus University Press 2009, 125–93) on the sculptural program and meaning of the Philippeion at Olympia (180–81) yet misrepresents the implications of this scholarship. Based on careful autopsy, Schultz has argued (151–54) that the statues could not have been chryselephantine (as Small asserts that they were). Misunderstanding Schultz’s technical argument about the material of the statues is a forgivable mistake, but it is not the only aspect of the argument that is fumbled. Schultz argues that Philip intended the monument to remind Greek elites that they were inferior to him, rather than, as Small asserts, to help him “connect with the intercommunity web of Greek elites” (181). These are but a few examples that serve to illustrate the general quality of the research.

While it is understandable that the author of such a wide-ranging treatment of the ancient Aegean might struggle to integrate all the details of current scholarship, more troubling is the author’s advancement of the idea that the “Greek peoples” (15) were unique and inventive, but that these characteristics emerged only after the collapse of static Bronze Age states (12, 15, 100, 133, 160, 183) and disappeared in the derivative centuries of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, which are “more of an addendum” (183). In structuring the argument along these lines, the author reiterates tired narratives that uncritically laud classical Greek civilization and reify stark distinctions between Bronze Age, historical, and post-Classical Greece, which at this point generations of scholars have sought to break down. The author’s statements come across as a bit odd in the context of a book whose scope is large and comparative—parameters that often serve to weaken rather than reinforce a Western-focused master narrative.

Factual errors of all kinds undermine the objective of the book. The reader will learn that the period from 1050–800 BCE is called the “Greek Iron Age” (100), that the earliest so-called “warrior burials” from the prehistoric Aegean come from Early Iron Age Lefkandi rather than a variety of sites dated to the Late Bronze Age (118), and that Agamemnon was married to Helen in the Iliad (120). The writing itself needed much more editing and polish. At times, I struggled to understand what the author meant as a result of the quality of the English expression, as in the discussion of Neolithic houses (35) or warfare in the Homeric poems (119–20). 

The figures are inadequate as presented. Many are badly pixelated (e.g., figs. 8.1, 8.5, 8.6, 8.10, 10.3), suggesting that the author did not obtain suitably high-resolution files and that the press did not insist upon this. Many figures lack a scale where one would be expected (figs. 3.2, 3.3, 7.5, 8.8), and the captions are poorly edited (for fig. 6.1 the Santorini volcano “erupted” rather than “exploded”; for fig. 6.3 the phrase “kylix cup” is awkward and unorthodox; and for fig. 6.4 a poor-quality reproduction of the Linear B syllabary is strangely described as “examples of Linear B”). 

It is a shame that a respected press like Cambridge would publish a text in such a state. I would strongly caution against assigning this book in any introductory class, and I would not recommend it to colleagues in other areas of archaeology seeking an introduction to the material culture and society of the ancient Aegean.

Sarah C. Murray
Department of Classics
University of Toronto

Book Review of Ancient Greece: Social Structure and Evolution, by David B. Small
Reviewed by Sarah C. Murray
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.Murray

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