CJ Online Review: Meier, A Culture of Freedom

posted with permission:

A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe. By Christian Meier. Translated by Jefferson Chase. With a Foreword by Kurt Raaflaub. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii + 315. Hardcover, £18.99/$29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-958803-9.

Reviewed by Paul Cartledge, Clare College, Cambridge (pac1001 AT cam.ac.uk)

There was, we are assured by the highly distinguished author, an unbridgeable divide between antiquity and the middle ages and so by extension modernity—and yet Greece was the “origin” of “Europe.” Is this a paradox? Or a contradiction? Meier too likes posing questions, as a matter of principled method. Indeed, it’s his constant self-reflexive alertness to problems of method, and of theory—most unusual in an ancient historian—that makes all his work such a challenge and at the same time a delight to read.

The present book, though, is a head minus the body, being the first two parts of a seven-part German series on the history of Europe. It was originally published in 2009, under the characteristically “winged formulation” title of Kultur, um der Freiheit willen: Griechische Anfänge—Anfang Europas?, and has been on the whole very well rendered into English by Jefferson Chase and brilliantly introduced by Meier’s former student Kurt Raaflaub (to whom is owed the phrase “winged formulation”). Professor Meier’s treatment of the somewhat forced origins-of-Europe problematic is also often brilliant, being both highly stimulating (even to a somewhat jaded reviewer) and surprisingly original in its empathetic penetration. Which makes the shortcomings on the technical production side only all the more regrettable—and hopefully corrigible in a swiftly to be issued paperback version. Examples of inadequacy or error are rather frequent—I mention only “Acharnians” for “Acarnanians” (Map 1), “Mars” for “Ares” (37), and most amusingly “Caledonian” for “Calydonian” (86).

The author’s freely chosen emphasis on freedom, which is highlighted in the title both of the German original and of the English translation, could hardly be an original leitmotif. Orlando Patterson, for example, another great comparativist historian, sees it as key to understanding ancient Greek culture and its world-historical contribution. But though it is regularly flagged up throughout (e.g. 58, it was “truly from a foundation of freedom” that “Greek culture was to arise”), it is not always flagged up as it might or surely should have been. For instance, it is seriously underplayed in connection with Solon’s abolition of debt-slavery at Athens in c. 600 bce and his outlawing for the future of the securing of loans on the person, thereby drawing the sharpest possible line between slavery (highly developed by the Athenians in the ultimate form of chattel slavery) and citizen freedom. This was in the city which was, not coincidentally, to go on to invent the world’s earliest version of direct citizen democracy, and about which Meier has himself written tellingly for a wide public. That freedom for some was bought at the heavy price of unfreedom for many others is not perhaps as inspiring a message as could ideally be wished.

On the other hand, the emphasis on culture is properly strong throughout. This is above all an admirable cultural history of early Greece, from the pre-polis world of the Mycenaean Bronze Age through the early or proto-polis world of Homer and Hesiod down to the early 5th century bce, although it is also a discontinuous history since “There is no road that leads from Mycenaean to polis-based culture” (49, unnumbered). Hence the major emphasis is placed on trying to understand and to assess the world-historical significance of the emergence of precisely that uniquely innovative and influential social-political formation. Given the available sources of evidence, the exercise of reconstruction necessitates a very great deal of informed empathetic speculation—but fortunately this is something at which Professor Meier excels.

So too does he address the dominant “Greece and its debt to the Orient” problematic with great adroitness. On the one hand, “The Greeks obviously pored over the narrative treasures of the Orient, appropriating elements at will”; on the other hand, “no matter what individuals may have dreamt of, or even tried to achieve, very little of it could become reality in the world of the Greek poleis” (both quotations from 71); thus the “influence of the Orient on Greece was less a matter of imitation than inspiration” (73). That seems to me to get the balance just right, and if there is one quality that pervades the book as whole it is precisely balance, what the Greeks might have called, in great praise, harmonia or summetria. I echo that laudation.

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