Two Ancient History Books from 2014/13

Being alive today means that one usually has little spare time because the small things (like Twitter!) seep into every available crack. Being a graduate student means having less, and being at the dissertation stage means that there is a constant pressure to write–besides, having passed through the comprehensive exams scarred, but in one piece, means that one should be able to focus the reading toward that eventual product. As much as it was exhausting and is designed to traumatize students into building their personal library of previous scholarship, there is something nostalgic about the process where your primary responsibility for months on end is to read history books and think about them. I’ve been carving out time to read fiction since passing through my comprehensive exams and I am trying to clear enough time to read one or two recent history books in my field or related fields every month. While I would like to get to a point where I do one a week, alternating between my own and other fields, I am right now trying to use this minimal time to read books not directly related to my dissertation, but within the field of Greek History (loosely constructed) that are a) recently published and b) connected to my dissertation either thematically or because they fall just outside the chronological parameters of my study.

So far I have only had minimal success in holding myself to these goals, but between this and my dissertation research, I want to endorse two recent ancient history books.

1) Naoíse Mac Sweeney, Foundation Myths and Politics in Ancient Ionia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The most commonly known account for the foundation of the Ionian cities (on which I am doing my dissertation) is that of the Ionian Migration, where a group of plucky Greeks under the leadership of Athenian princes sail to what is now Turkey and steal that land from the inhabitants. One might say that this is a myth in line with Western Civilization. The problem is that each of the cities had its own foundation myth and the region had another set of foundation myths, namely the war against Melie, that bound them together. In this book, Mac Sweeney evaluates these “native” Ionian myths by way of an exploration of Ionian identity. She also makes the argument that the Ionian Migration is a comparatively late myth, sponsored as part of Athenian hegemony over the region because it justified Athenian control.

There is a fairly large historical backdrop against which Mac Sweeney writes, but I think that the stories themselves, which are the subject, are understandable without needing to know it and she brings in relevant information when discussing, for instance, the Ionian League. I particularly appreciated the way in which Mac Sweeney was able to reorient the discussion about Ionian toward appreciating the region on its own merits through these aspects of Ionian identity.

2) Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

Mairs offers a reevaluation of the archeological evidence for the Graeco-Bactrian and Graeco-Indian kingdoms of the Hellenistic Period through a post-colonial lens. These kingdoms, which are in what is now Afghanistan and the surrounding regions, have long been known about, but difficult to understand because there are only intermittent archeological digs and coins and inscriptions as evidence. No literary histories exist and it has long been assumed that the kingdoms consisted of Greeks in exile in Central Asia, with discussions of whether the inhabitants were Hellenizing natives, Greeks going native, or Greeks. In part, these ideas emerged because it was thought that Bactria was wild and untamed, even by the standards of the rest of Persia, which those same scholars often considered “barbarian.” Mairs quite reasonably argues that this is an inappropriate way to evaluate this region, and suggests both that Bactria operated as any other Persian satrapy and that hybridization and/or creolization, with the creation of a distinct Helleno-Bactrian identity, is a much more likely scenario than a stark binary between Greeks and non-Greeks.

There is a lot of archeological evidence in this book, but Mairs does a nice job of explaining trends in research and past historical debates in an approachable way. I often found myself nodding when she discussed the problems of locating identity in a region where there were official languages of inscriptions (often Greek or Aramaic), because it is probable that Ionia contained relatively large populations of people who were considered non-Greek, but who likely spoke Greek and who probably would have conducted official business–the sort of business that could be recorded on an inscription–in Greek. The problems of this sort are starker in Hellenistic Bactria, both because the site is further from a place where the majority of the inhabitants spoke some sort of Greek and because there is less in the way of surviving materials, but they are familiar nonetheless.

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