[Paleopsych] TLS: Victor Davis Hanson: Countryside character

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Wed Apr 6 22:35:23 UTC 2005

The Times Literary Supplement, 4.6.25

    RURAL ATHENS UNDER THE DEMOCRACY. Nicholas F. Jones. 330pp.
    Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. $59.95; distributed in
    the UK by Plymbridge. £42. - 0 8122 3774 9.

    A fellow graduate student in 1979 once warned me that it seemed silly
    to have something as mundane as "agriculture" in the title of a
    doctoral dissertation connected with a field as elevated as Ancient
    Greek history.

    Intrigued by this observation, I almost immediately discovered that,
    indeed, at that time there was not a single book in English with a
    title having anything to do with Ancient Greek agriculture - at least
    not since the appearance sixty years earlier, in 1921, of W. E.
    Heitland's fascinating Agricola: A study of agriculture and rustic
    life in the Graeco-Roman world from the point of view of labour.

    That neglect is hardly the case now. Since 1980, dozens of books in
    Classics have appeared on Ancient Greek rural life, agricultural
    productivity, the sociology of peasants, farmers and rustics, and the
    technology and science of grain, olive and vine production. The novel
    archaeological surveys of the Greek countryside - inaugurated and
    promoted by William MacDonald, Michael Jameson, Anthony Snodgrass,
    Robin Osborne and others - have helped to swell this interest. From
    published examinations of the chora of ancient Messenia, the Argolid,
    Boeotia and many of the Aegean Islands, rural carrying capacity,
    demography and ecology began to receive the attention and resources
    once reserved for temple construction, fifth-century Athenian
    inscriptions and red-figure vase painting.

    Comparative anthropology, the widespread use of the Thesaurus Linguae
    Graecae, which allowed complete and almost instantaneous word
    retrieval of rare Greek vocabulary, and the interest of comparative
    agriculturalists and sociologists perhaps also explained this
    renaissance in rural studies.

    There was also something to the voguish idea of "otherness" in the
    1990s made popular by literary theory and the new social history.

    Perhaps rural people - just as slaves, women, foreigners and the poor
    - had not received ample attention from philologically rooted old
    fogies who had privileged the rich culture of the elite citizen male
    over the less prominent people in the shadows of polis life. But
    mostly the belated attention to the countryside was based on
    long-overdue common sense: if around 80-90 per cent of the Ancient
    Greek population were either rural dwellers, or at least directly
    engaged in the production of food, then to grasp the essence of the
    classical city-state it was logical to learn who they were and what
    they actually did.

    In any case, Nicholas F. Jones's welcome new study of rural life in
    classical Athens, Rural Athens under the Democracy, draws heavily on
    such scholarship to advance what he says is a mostly new thesis, "the
    distinctiveness of rural Athens". By that rather vague phrase, Jones
    means the "detection and analysis of the marginalized Other or, more
    abstractly put, alterity". And he elaborates further: "Differences of
    status or order, class, gender, occupation, and so on may all give
    rise to the perception of Otherness by the dominant center, but not
    until very recently has the study of alterity approached what I will
    argue was still another major divide (and one all the more
    consequential because it will have sundered the citizen body) - that
    between town and country". Accordingly, our Ancient Greek rustics have
    been neither given proper attention nor appreciated on their own
    merits - a striking scholarly omission.

    Most of Jones's literary evidence about rural folk is not new, but
    rather a collation of earlier scholars' citations from less well-known
    Greek authors the fourth-century orators, the natural histories of
    Theophrastus, fragments from the comic poets, and later compilers of
    the Roman era writing in Greek. But to that corpus of now often sifted
    quotations, Jones, to his credit, adds a number of neglected
    contemporary Attic inscriptions - critical documents on stone dealing
    with honorific decrees, sacred calendars, inventories and sacrificial
    rites to emphasize how much Athenian life was shaped by rural people
    and how little we have heretofore noticed. In a nutshell, Jones
    attempts to confirm that the majority of Athenian citizens lived out
    in the countryside and participated in the civic life of rural
    satellite communities rather than travelling much to Athens itself.
    For example, the most popular Athenian religious festival, the
    Dionysia consisting of animal sacrifices, processions, announcements,
    dramatic productions, games, judgements and awards - not only
    originated as a rural fertility celebration, but remained so in most
    demes, despite our own sense that by the fifth century it was largely
    an urban showcase for the genius of Sophocles, Euripides and

    Whereas most of Greek society elsewhere is usually characterized as
    conservative, by the fifth century Athens had developed into such a
    large urban community that its emerging dominant culture was beginning
    to seem antithetical both to its rural roots and to the contemporary
    world of Attic farmers, the now near-mythical georgoi of Athenian
    comedy. The latter's values grew increasingly at odds with the new
    sophistication and urbanity inside the walls. Indeed, the agrarian way
    of life was often romanticized by conservatives ("The farmers do all
    the work, no one else", we learn in Aristophanes' Peace), and thus
    used in a reactionary way by those who actually knew very little of
    Attica to critique the current direction of imperial Athens.

    The utopian philosophers - a Hippodamos, Plato, or Aristotle -
    embraced the idealism of traditional life and saw its morality now at
    odds with urban reality.

    But, as rarefied thinkers, they were also not quite sure how the
    citizenry could retain agrarian virtue as a counterweight to urban
    softness without giving up the often valuable sophistication of the
    city and risking a return to rustic boorishness. Sometimes, as Jones
    emphasizes, their solutions were simplistic, perhaps even nonsensical
    - each citizen should have both a rural and urban residence; cultural
    activities should be concentrated in a single urban centre; and
    special servile classes should take over the drudgery of farm work to
    allow the landowner the ease and time to lend his own pragmatism, one
    rooted to the soil, to the often adrift urban politics of the city.

    Throughout his argument Jones touches on some of the key social and
    economic controversies of the last twenty years of Hellenic rural
    studies. He rightly reaffirms that rural Greeks often resided on their
    farms, or at least in clusters of small homesteads, rather than
    commuting from nucleated centres to distant plots. This is an
    important distinction if one believes in a uniquely rural culture as
    the basis of the city-state. Agrarians probably owned average-size
    plots, lived on them, and acquired a slave or two to help with the
    intensive regimen of homestead agriculture. Thus classical Greeks were
    not exploited peasants, but could be better characterized as a
    chauvinistic and proud middle class that defined much of the original
    military, political and economic thinking of the polis - even as the
    urbanization of the fifth century continued to alter the demography
    and landscape of the Athenian State.

    Most rural Athenians, according to Jones, looked to their deme village
    rather than Athens per se to participate in civic life, suggesting
    that many urbanites may have known very little about their rural
    counterparts until the great evacuations of the Peloponnesian War
    between 431 and 425. Then, for the first time, hostile Spartans in the
    Attic countryside forced agrarians into the midst of city folk - a
    jarring development often reflected in contemporary Athenian wartime

    What Jones has written is sensible, well grounded in both literary and
    epigraphical evidence, and cognizant of a now vast secondary
    literature. Yet there are problems, both structural and thematic, with
    his presentation that will unfortunately deny the book both the
    readership and influence it might otherwise deserve. At the most
    basic, Rural Athens under the Democracy is haphazardly organized. Some
    chapters end with formal conclusions; others cease abruptly in media
    re. There is really no formal summation, but rather a final brief
    chapter, "Paradigms", that ends suddenly by discussing the trend of
    glorification of the country by denigrating the town. At times the
    prose is impenetrable, often as an unfortunate result of attempting to
    tap into the style and jargon of contemporary theory.

    Consider the last sentence of the book, which leaves us not
    invigorated, but exhausted - wanting less, not more, promised
    ancillary studies still to come: "So, in this case only implicitly,
    the rural is subject to a latently negative appraisal but
    rehabilitated by juxtaposing with it an even less acceptable sole
    alternative option". That final expression is unfortunately typical of
    the book as a whole.

    Often Jones conflates Athens with Greece. Thus we get subsections on
    Hesiod's very early Boeotian world on Mount Helicon, or the town
    planning of Hippodamos of Miletos, without enough careful warning
    about the degree to which such Panhellenic evidence reflects, is
    tangential to, or is at odds with, the peculiar situation of classical
    Athens. Indeed, since Athenian singularity is the entire point of the
    book, the problem and theme of Athenian exceptionalism should be
    discussed repeatedly. The result of that omission is that the reader
    does not quite appreciate the implications of Jones's own findings.
    After all, Athens was the most powerful, most democratic, and most
    culturally influential of all the some 1,500-2,000 city-states of
    classical Greece. For 200 years classical scholars have argued over
    why this was so. Was that exceptionalism a result of the historical
    fluke of great leaders like Cleisthenes, Themistocles and Pericles, an
    artefact from the amazing defence of Greece at Salamis, testament to
    the extremely large rural Attic hinterland (about 1,000 square miles),
    the cargo of incremental radicalization of the democracy throughout
    the fifth century that made Athens on the eve of the Peloponnesian War
    the most inclusive of any polis in the Greek world, the dividend of
    the rich silver mines in southern Attica, or a reflection of a vast
    overseas empire that encompassed well over 150 tribute-paying states?

    So we need to know the degree to which Jones's conclusions that Athens
    was a society in turmoil, not quite able to reconcile its urban future
    with its rural past, made it not only unique, but great - or, on the
    other hand, was unstable and headed for an inevitable late
    fourth-century breakdown. Or was its country/city paradox simply
    representative of almost all the other Hellenic fifth-century states,
    which remained mostly agricultural in nature? If what little we know
    about this vast shadow population in Attica was constructed by elite
    urbanites and thus is seen by us now only through the prism of a
    sophisticated and sometimes patronizing literature, can Jones at least
    speculate on the ramifications of his own theories and what they
    entail for our present understanding of both Greece and its most
    magnificent representation in fifth-century Athens? When we speak of
    "rural Athens", are we talking about a high culture's alternating
    romance and hostility to rural Athens as evidenced in literature, or -
    as I believe - a concrete and unique economic, cultural and political
    foundation of private property, consensual government, a sense of open
    markets, and rugged individualism forged by thousands of country folk.

    Many of these larger implications strangely seem to be of little
    interest to Jones. Consequently we are left with a radical, though
    aborted, thesis that many of the standard things we associate with an
    Athens of theatre and marble are somehow not the whole story. Quite
    simply, I wish Nicholas Jones had taught us how beneath the veneer of
    the Parthenon, Sophocles and the intellectual life of the symposium
    was the real hardwood of now invisible farmers and ordinary rural folk
    who in one way or another made possible "the glory that was Greece".

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