The Mediterranean Context of Early Greek History

THE ISOLATIONIST MODEL of looking at ancient civilizations, from Pharaonic Egypt to Kassite Babylonia to Classical Greece, has increasingly fallen out of fashion in recent years as more and more scholars have begun to realize, and to study, the deep interconnections between ancient civilizations, particularly from the Late Bronze Age onward. In The Mediterranean Context of Early Greek History, Nancy H. Demand, professor emerita of history at Indiana University, encapsulates this new way of looking at the ancient world, presenting the development of the Greek polis as the result of a “fantastic cauldron” (pp. xiii, 55, 162, 189, 235, 249, etc.) made up of millennia of maritime interaction and cooperative stages of development in the islands and around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

From the earliest Mediterranean seafarers – attested in the 10th–9th millennium B.C. by evidence from Franchthi Cave in the Greek Peloponnese (Chapter 1) – the author follows the ancient seafaring peoples of the Mediterranean world on their initial voyages for obsidian, which took them to previously uninhabited islands and brought them into contact with other Mesolithic cultures. From here, she briefly tracks the rise of the Neolithic around the Mediterranean, the exporting of “the Neolithic way of life” (p. 33) – crop cultivation, animal husbandry, and relatively settled living – to offshore sites like Cyprus (Chapter 2), and the “troubled transition [from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, or PPNB] to the Pottery Neolithic” (p. 35) ca. 6000 B.C. (Chapter 3). These “troubled transitions” between periods are a recurring theme throughout both the history of the Mediterranean and, consequently, this book.

From the Neolithic, through the third millennium B.C., the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, and the Early Iron Age (the Submycenaean, Proto– and Early Geometric periods in Greece), the millennia of history traced in The Mediterranean Context are presented as a continuous cycle of expansions and contractions, with each collapse resulting in an initial disintegration and denucleation of the previous phase of civilization, followed by recovery, renewal, and expansion once again. Though the collapses (or, perhaps more correctly, shifts and denucleations) that marked the end of the Pre–Pottery Neolithic B, the Third Millennium (Chapter 5), and to some degree the Middle Bronze (particularly on Crete, as the MBA was largely a time of recovery in the Near East [Chapter 6]) are all addressed, and archaeological evidence provided for them, only the “Neolithic diaspora” (see above) and the “crisis years” that marked the end of the Late Bronze Age ca. 1200 B.C. (Chapter 8) merit their own chapters. This is fitting both because of the nature of the LBA collapse, which ended the most complex and interconnected age the world had known to date, and because the “recovery and expansion” (Chapter 9) that followed this final collapse is what ushered in the first millennium B.C.’s new age of exploration, interaction, and societal development. This process was spearheaded in part by Cypriots and Euboeans, but the author rightly assigns the lion’s share of credit for the first millennium recovery, from site selection and colonial foundation to the eventual development of the Greek polis, the Phoenicians (pp. 246–249).

THE AUTHOR BROACHES some topics in controversial fashion, though both sides of unclear issues are often presented. For example, the author invokes both the migratory and more recent mercantile explanations for the appearance of the Mycenaean IIIC:1 pottery commonly associated with Philistine arrival in the southern coastal plain of Canaan (p. 210), eventually siding with the more traditional former (p. 215). However, in some rarer cases, “facts” are stated or conclusions drawn with little discussion of the supporting evidence (or lack thereof). For example, though she follows a great many archaeologists in placing the Sherden, one of the Sea Peoples, at the northern Israeli port site of Akko in the wake of the Late Bronze–Early Iron transition (pp. 194, 212), the author does not acknowledge that this geographic association is based on almost no evidence whatsoever – in fact, it results entirely from a cross-reading of the 11th c. Tale of Wen-Amon, a document the author finds to be of questionable historicity (pp. 220-221), and the contemporaneous Onomasticon of Amenope, a list of toponyms and ethnika that contains no clear geographical orientation, as well as the discovery of a small number of Aegean-style pottery sherds at the site.1 Additionally, the author dates the destruction of Ugarit to 1160 B.C. (some thirty years after the generally accepted date; p. 199), and the Sea Peoples invasions of Ramesses III’s eighth year to 1190 B.C. (some fifteen years earlier than its accepted date; p. 201), effectively flip-flopping the chronological order of two events whose sequence is significant to the flow of events (and our understanding of them) at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Additionally, the author accepts the highly controversial Low Chronology for the Iron II in the Levant, thus putting herself into the severe minority among Near Eastern scholars while noting that this reckoning, better than the far more accepted High Chronology, “provid[es] for the first time a basis for the absolute chronology of the Dark Age in Greece” (p. 231).

In addition to these difficulties and controversial statements, the book contains several typographical errors that it seems a final proofreading would have caught, as well as some simple misstatements. For example, the author incorrectly writes that “Egyptian records” refer to the migrating Sea Peoples as “the people who live on boats” (p. 202) when the only such reference is made by the Hittite king in a letter to the prefect of Ugarit (RS 34.129), as is correctly stated two pages earlier. Likewise, in her discussion of that migration, the author strangely says of the Egyptian representations of the Sea Peoples invasion that “the Medinet Habu inscription does picture some of the refugees arriving in ox carts (though it emphasizes their ships)” (p. 202). However, the land battle between the Philistines et al. and the pharaoh’s army is an entirely separate relief from the representation of the naumachia against the Sea Peoples and their ships, and the accompanying inscriptions (these battles are mentioned five times at Ramesses III’s mortuary temple) do not place any noticeable “emphasis” on the Sea Peoples’ ships relative to their overland movement.2 Additional minor issues include a mistaken reference to the 1100s B.C. date of the Phoenician colony of Gadir’s founding as “second-century” rather than second-millennium (p. 221), and the statement that “Akhenaten,” rather than Akhetaten, was destroyed after Amenhotep IV (=Akhenaten)’s reign (p. 167). Additionally, some phrases are repeated; for example, the author declares twice within a ten-page span (pp. 166 and 174) that the Amarna letters “far outweigh the historical significance [of] the short-lived city build by Ahenaten” – a true statement, but one that could have been said once with sufficient effect.

THE MEDITERRANEAN CONTEXT of Early Greek History is an effective and engaging high–level synopsis of Mediterranean history from the Mesolithic searches for obsidian to the advent of the Greek Geometric period (the Iron Age II in the Near East). Though some points of view presented within it are controversial, and mistakes are present, these details do not take away from the overall impact of the book, which lies in its presentation of the historical Mediterranean interconnections that, in time, gave rise to the great Classical civilizations of Greece and, later, Rome. Additional value comes from the author’s synthesizing portrayal of the Mediterranean world as a product of cyclical expansions and contractions, and of a “fantastic cauldron” of interaction, as well as from the detailed bibliography (including online resources) that is included. As a result, The Mediterranean Context should be an addition to any list of references for students of Greek and Near Eastern history, as well as for professionals who are looking for a resource that will provide the most up-to-date discussions and references of current trends in the field.

The Mediterranean Context of Early Greek History by Nancy H. Demand (ISBN 978-1-4051-5551-9; xvi+353 pages; $134.95) is published by Wiley–Blackwell.

1.^ M. Dothan, “Šardina at Akko?,” pp. 105–115 in Studies in Sardinian Archaeology, Vol. 2: Sardinia and the Mediterranean, ed. M.S. Balmuth (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1986); J. P. Emanuel, “Šrdn of the Strongholds, Šrdn of the Sea: The Sherden in Egyptian Society, Reassessed” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt, Providence, Rhode Island, April 27–29, 2012).

2.^ For the land and sea battle reliefs from Medinet Habu, see the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Epigraphic Survey, Medinet Habu I: Earlier Historical Records of Ramses III, OIP 8 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930), plates 32–34, 37, 39, and 41. For the five Medinet Habu inscriptions referencing Ramesses III’s battles against the Sea Peoples, see W. F. Edgerton & J. A. Wilson, Historical Records of Ramses III: The Texts in Medinet Habu Volumes I & II, SAOC 12 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936), plates 42 and 107; J. A. Wilson, “Egyptian Historical Texts,” pp. 227–263 in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. J. B. Pritchard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 262–263; K. A. Kitchen, Ramesside Inscriptions Translated and Annotated: Translations: Volume V: Setnakht, Ramesses III, & Contemporaries (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 22.


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