The Problem of Exemplarity

One of my biggest academic pet peeves is the extent to which Athens is overrepresented in textbooks, lectures, and scholarship. An example of this phenomenon (and not a particularly egregious example at that) is that in one textbook the entire chapter on Western Greeks before the fifth century comprised six pages, while the chapter on reforms to the Athenian Constitution in the Archaic period was close to thirty.

There are several reasons for this infatuation, including the availability of written sources for Athens, a perceived connection with the “birthplace of democracy,” and (more importantly, I think) the juxtaposition of “Athens” with “Greece” that took place in Greece while under Roman rule. Thus there is a long tradition of promoting Athens as legitimately Greek while other Greek states were judged by the Athenian “norm.”

I dream of teaching a Greek history survey that does not talk about Athens except as an outsider to the other Greek people and places that are focused on in the course. In order to assuage concerns that I will simply erase Athens from Greek history, I would then teach a second course that is a survey of Athenian history as distinct from Greek history.

This structure could work, but I also run the risk of exemplifying Athens too far in the other direction. Simply by making Athens abnormal for Greek history and then turning around and teaching another course on Athens, I make Athens appear unique. The problem is that it doesn’t fit. Athens does not conform to any of the rules and doesn’t fit into the Greek paradigm. It is like trying to teach a course on the history of cities in the United States and then predominantly teaching about New York City, only in this scenario, New York is producing most of the political, cultural, and rhetorical documents, is hailed as the center of learning in America, and people two hundred years from now look back upon it wistfully as the American standard. Athens, like New York, is the city that is so grotesquely magnified beyond all recognition that you can’t ignore it, but also can’t really normalize it with the other examples.

That is my problem. The only way I can see to give Athens a fair shake, but also to keep it from entirely overshadowing the other areas, is to excise it entirely from the course. In turn, this magnifies Athens more while inaccurately representing much of Greek culture. At least I have identified the problem.