Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece (1996)

     I would like to pretend that I am a better scholar of the history of Ancient Greece so as to not need a refresher before taking up a new book.  Such is probably not the case, however, and it is undoubtedly better to be safe than sorry.  So, before I sat down with Peter Greene's The Hellenistic Age: A History (2007), I thought it would be a good idea to remind myself of just what the Hellenisitc Age was and what came before it.  Hence, the trip through the many maps and decent accounting of the era in The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Greece (1996).
     There are some problems when getting history from a book that needs to put a map on – on average – every other page.  The chronology gets a little confusing as proceeds forward in each section in terms of what the subject is and what the map is about, but the next sub-chapter can jump forward or back in time by as much as a century.  Likewise, where in the Ancient world the map is depicting can cause an odd revisit of information with maybe a new morsel that does or doesn't offer any new insight.
     What I did get from Robert Morkot's book was a good refresher of the Greeks presence in Italy and southern France.  I completely forgot that the Greeks had a colony/city (Massalia) where present day Marsaille is.  I did not know that one of the reasons why one former city's temple of Hera remained intact was because it was located near a swamp renowned for malaria (that is information that goes right into fantasy novel notes files).  While I did know that the Grecian city-states were no strangers to conflict,
     There are many other things I didn't know.  The Greeks were trading for tin from the British Isles in the 6th Century BC.  The Phoenecians (whatever happened to those guys?) and maybe the Greeks circumnavigated Africa by the 4th Century BC.  What has been known as the Dark Ages of Ancient Greece may have been much shorter than previously believed (I prefer the older understanding, but if it isn't true then I need to reevaluate my understanding of subsequent events).  Where I tend to think of Macedon and coastal Thrace as effectively Grecian (and certainly Hellenistic), the Ancient Greeks tended to view their northern neighbors as decidedly un-Greek, even when they spoke a dialect of Greek.
     I think everyone knows that the Ancient Greeks were no strangers to war, but there is a period of time where all of the major players do not go more than three years without getting themselves involved in some military conflict, usually in foreign lands (for the Athenians, this was either to secure trading contracts for grain or to force other cities to give them money).  It becomes easy to understand how the Greeks – while spreading their culture far and wide – never managed to conquer and hold a great empire (for my purpose, I am going with the interpretation that Alexander the Great's empire was mostly a maintenance of the Persian Empire until it fell apart).  The endless fighting against each other was damaging enough, but they invited all of the the peoples who would seek to conquer them into Grecian affairs; in short, they brought it on themselves.
     I still find the history of Ancient Greece to be one of the most interesting to study (let's use that term loosely for me).  Perhaps it is because there has been such a fascination with the literature – be it the myths and legends or the plays of Ancient Athens – from the Victorian era forward and I am just another who was caught up in that.  Maybe it is because of my interest in the Ancient philosophy (still not enough to learn to read Ancient Greek and go to the source material, which is what my professors had to do when they were getting their undergrad degrees).  Maybe it is just the maps – lots of sea, lots of famous battles, and places that can still be visited.  I personally think that there is something very American in identifying with Ancient Athens (especially in the Periclean era), a cultural and military power that shaped and influenced their world – and one that had a mighty, often seen as cruel adversary Persia and a rival (or occasional ally) in Sparta that did not understand the power of the legacy Athens was building.
     This was a worthwhile – though not quick (for me) – way of making sure that I would not go into the real history book unprepared.  I would imagine most people would not make such an effort.  My interest in becoming more informed on the subject won out, however.  I expect to have the post about the Green book next week (where we will find out if this truly helped).

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