Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction

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OUP Oxford, Oct 27, 2011 - History - 184 pages
The contribution of the Ancient Greeks to modern western culture is incalculable. In the worlds of art, architecture, myth, literature, and philosophy, the world we live in would be unrecognizably different without the formative influence of Ancient Greek models. Ancient Greek civilization was defined by the city - in Greek, the polis, from which we derive 'politics'. It is above all this feature of Greek civilization that has formed its most enduring legacy, spawning such key terms as aristocracy, oligarchy, tyranny and - last but by no means least - democracy. This stimulating Very Short Introduction to Ancient Greece takes the polis as its starting point. Paul Cartledge uses the history of eleven major Greek cities to illuminate the most important and informative themes in Ancient Greek history, from the first documented use of the Greek language around 1400 BCE, through the glories of the Classical and Hellenistic periods, to the foundation of the Byzantine empire in around CE 330. Covering everything from politics, trade, and travel to slavery, gender, religion, and philosophy, it provides the ideal concise introduction to the history and culture of this remarkable civilization that helped give birth to the world as we know it. ABOUT THE SERIES: The Very Short Introductions series from Oxford University Press contains hundreds of titles in almost every subject area. These pocket-sized books are the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly. Our expert authors combine facts, analysis, perspective, new ideas, and enthusiasm to make interesting and challenging topics highly readable.

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Ancient Greece is one of the most fascinating and intriguing historical polities. The very notion of Greece as a single political and cultural entity is a relatively modern designation. The ancient Greeks had organized their life within a polis, a self-containing “city state,” of which there had been hundreds throughout the ancient history, spanning almost all of northern Mediterranean. So when we talk about ancient Greece what we really have in mind is the history of these poleis – their origin, development, and eventual decline and disappearance in the late antiquity. A book that would cover all of the poleis would be a gargantuan project, and would surpass in length all the volumes in the very short introduction series. Instead, Paul Cartledge, the author of this short introduction, focuses on just eleven poleis, picking some that are the most representative of the ancient Greek history as a whole.
Overall, this book is a good introduction to ancient Greece, and all hellenophiles will find a lot of interesting information in it. Through the general introduction and the individual chapters for each polis, we learn about the development of ancient Greek society, through its golden years and the epic wars that it engaged in, to the later not-too-illustrious years. The choice of topics is fairly representative, and Cartledge exhibits an impressive range of knowledge and understanding of this subject.
One big issue that I have with this book concerns its structure and organization. The choice of presenting the history of ancient Greece in a “parallel” fashion, by focusing on each polis in its own right, leads to a very disjoined overall narrative. It can be had to follow various developments as they recur in different chapters, with all the variations that this entails. Furthermore, the style of writing also leaves a lot to be desired. Sentences are often highly convoluted, with frequent allusions, digressions, parenthetical asides, parentheses proper, and even parentheses within parentheses! Cartledge is never the one to use a simple statement when a more complex one would suffice. He also strives a bit too hard to exhibit his own wit and erudition whenever possible. The result is a bit contorted narrative that doesn’t flow very smoothly. Overall, however, this is a pretty good book and I feel I got a lot of interesting insights from it.

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About the author (2011)

Paul Cartledge is the inaugural A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of classics, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Clare College.

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