Suzanne SAID and Monique TREDE, A short history of Greek Literature. London: Routledge 1999. Pp. 232. ISBN 0-415-12271-6.
Review by Niall McKeown
University of Birmingham
This little guide aims to offers a concise and up-to-date overview of all of Greek literature from Homer to the end of the Roman empire, particularly aiming to give Hellenistic literature its proper place. It deals with all types of writing, including scientific. The chronological and thematic range is impressive for a work of under 200 pages of text. It succeeds admirably in giving the reader a good idea of the range of authors and works available to be read. I was glad to see the Hippocratic medical texts (41-42) and the Attic orators (83 ff.) being given their proper place in this story. There are a number of entertaining summaries of the work of authors such as Homer (9-10, 12-13) and Aristophanes (57-58). As an historian I particularly enjoyed the placing of authors into the context of their genre and predecessors (something which historians can neglect to their cost when they attempt to ‘mine’ texts for information). For example, Said and Trede illustrate how epic differs from drama (45-46), how Sophocles altered the story of Orestes to suit his dramatic purposes (49), and the relationship between Euripides and Menander (98, part of a good short introduction to Menander). I also appreciated the attempt to show just why the poetry of Pindar was so famous (28-30). The Hellenistic section offers a fine quick survey of poetry, history and philosophy (see, for example, the thumb-nail sketch of Epicureanism on 113). In the latter part of the book Said and Trede help also to underline a vital point about some of the authors we sometimes use as primary sources for the history of Classical Greece, even though they wrote 500 years later and with very different agendas. For example (125): “The past of Plutarch, is a past rewritten in the present tense.” The comparison between Lucian and Plutarch (123-27) also worked particularly well. The bibliography is full of useful modern material.
There are some areas where, however, I find myself approaching the ancient texts from a slightly different perspective from that offered in this introduction. For an historian it is a little odd at times to read their stylistic judgements. Examples include (31):
Bacchylides’ likeable talent, his smooth and pleasant art, seems superficial in comparison with the gravity and intensity of Pindar’s genius.
Compare their comment on Aristophanes’ later comedies when (60):
the humour starts to grate, and the creative vitality and the talent for bringing metaphors to life seems diminished.
They comment on the ‘decline’ of fourth-century history writing (67), but they do not investigate possible differences between the aims of Thucydides and Xenophon (for example). This may be a little unfair. Literary scholars might feel that not only can we make such judgements, but that we should. It leads on, however, to a second point. While the social and political background of these texts are laid out at times (e.g. 24, 58-59 98 ff.), and I enjoyed this aspect of the discussion of Hellenistic literature, I would have liked to have seen more of the same. Admittedly, this is meant as a short introduction, but some of the ancient authors seemed just a little bloodless outside of their fullest context. Why was Homer writing? What made pre-Socratic scientific debate possible? How was Aeschylus engaging with his audience and their world in texts like the Persians or the Eumenides? These are issues that have attracted a lot of attention. While there might not be space for a full debate, many more scholarly references would be useful and welcome.
This leads to a rather peculiar point. In the introduction (presumably from the 1990 French edition) the authors state that they want to give an up-to-date introduction to the subject. The bibliography does indeed give such up-to-date material, such as Morris’ work on Homer, Hartog’s on Herodotus, or Connor’s on Thucydides, but the ideas of these authors do not appear in the text. Thucydides’ desire for accuracy is mentioned, but what of the possible ‘dramatic’ elements in the work? Or the ‘irrational’ elements in Hippocratic medicine (affecting even famed works such as the Epidemics)? The much-debated issue of the image of sexuality in Tragedy is not mentioned. While the Hellenistic section does what it sets out to do (which is to give Hellenistic literature its proper place in history), I would have enjoyed discussion of works such as Zanker’s Realism in Alexandrian poetry. The social background that is given can sometimes seem a little dated, for example, on the Solonic debt crisis (24) or Hellenisation (95). I was not quite sure, therefore, how far the authors had lived up to all of their aims. Finally, for a guide which perhaps works best at first-year undergraduate level a certain amount of knowledge of terminology is sometimes assumed.
One should not go too far with such criticisms, however. Their aims were very ambitious and this is a work that any Classics student (and readers such as this historian) could read with great profit. I would then like those students to go on and read books by authors like François Hartog, but this kind of work gives necessary preparation in reminding us who wrote what, when, and (to some extent) under what kinds of influence. It fulfils, therefore, at least two of the three objectives it sets itself.