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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 5 Mar 2010 15:38:05 -0600
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Unthinking the Greek Polis: Ancient Greek History Beyond Eurocentrism. By 
KOSTAS VLASSOPOULOS. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv + 
288. Cloth, $112.00. ISBN 978–0–521–87744–2.

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Vlassopoulos (V.) has written an ambitious and challenging book that seeks 
to “examine and make explicit forms of silence” (p. 5) caused by a 
Greek historiography that has focused on the polis to support Western, 
European, and Occidentalist [sic] ideologies since at least the 19th 
century. The author makes clear in the Introduction that his work is meant 
to be polemical, both challenging the assumptions behind the current study 
of Greek history and beginning the work of outlining alternative approaches 
by drawing on other fields of history. V. thus seeks to make it possible 
for Greek historiography “to move beyond teleological and Eurocentric 
Grand Narratives into an understanding of the multiple, yet co-existing, 
and co-dependent courses of history” (p. 10).
V. provides a well-structured review (by way of extensive critique) of the 
origins and structure of Greek historiography’s relationship with the 
concept of the polis. The book should accordingly be required reading for 
anyone interested in the subject, particularly since it encourages readers 
to confront the question of whether our desire to create alternative 
historiographic approaches should necessarily supplant those centered on, 
or at least admitting of a specifically Greek polis. V. makes a sustained 
attempt to answer this question in the affirmative; whether he is 
persuasive will depend on the perspective of the individual reader.

The chapters and contents follow a logical pattern, in which Part 1 seeks 
to show that, once the study of the Greek polis is placed within—and is 
seen to have been at the mercy of—the wider currents of Greek 
historiography (Ch. 1), it becomes clear that ancient discourses, 
especially Aristotle’s (Ch. 3), on the polis should be taken more 
seriously (Ch. 2). In particular, V. notes (p. 80) that the examples, 
definitions, and levels of analysis found in Aristotle highlight the 
problem that, since Greek texts provide no evidence for the idea of the 
Greek polis [italics V.’s], the concept should be dismissed from the 
field of Greek history as misleading at best, oppressive at worst. Part 2 
continues to push for the deconstruction of the concept of the polis, 
particularly with regard to two teleologically-charged dichotomies in which 
it often figures. Here, V. undertakes to decouple the study of the Greek 
polis’ notion of citizenship from the political teleology of Western 
democracy (Ch. 4), and its economy from that of modern capitalism (Ch. 5). 
He is concerned to show the insufficiency and, indeed, historical 
inaccuracy of analyzing nucleated urban communities with their hinterlands, 
participatory citizenries with excluded demographic groups, and the 
economic relations established by these entities as characteristics 
uniquely and specifically definitive of the Greek polis. Part 3 attempts to 
outline some avenues along which a historiography of the un-thought Greek 
polis, once revealed as an historiographic illusion (Ch. 6), might proceed. 
V. posits that, since the polis disguises a multiform of historical 
polities ranging from the politically decentered ethnos to the 
quasi-imperialist hegemonic city-state (Ch. 8), we would do better to 
investigate a variety of spatial (Ch. 7) and temporal (Ch. 9) alternatives 
both below and above the polis-level of analysis. A call to revive 
alternative narrative approaches, such as the ancient travelogue and 
embedded speech kata ta deonta, rounds out the volume (Ch. 10).

V.’s avoidance of cultural and religious history makes him focus on the 
political narrative, and this leaves unclear whether some of the goals he 
seeks have been already achieved by modern research into 
Mediterraneanization or Punicization, the Delian League, various 
Amphictyonies, the Panhellenic sanctuaries, the Greek ethnos, class, 
status, gender, age, sex, slavery and other forms of dependant labor, 
burial, religion, performance, the colonial poleis, etc. One might 
therefore ask whether V.’s un-thought polis is the necessary or only tool 
to fill the silences he rightly identifies as needing to be recovered. What 
goals that could not be met by emphasizing the extent and the limits of 
both the historical relevance of the polis and the contemporary relevance 
of our study of it can only be met by unthinking the polis and reasserting 
the diversity and plurality of its historical forms, networks, and 
discourses? As the world enters a new era of globalized, postnationalist 
political forms, from silent hegemonies to non-state actors, will an 
entirely new historiographical perspective be more useful than an ongoing 
critical revision of the current one? And which approach can best justify 
the study of the Greek political past in the first place, especially in a 
time of economic crisis?

V. would seem to advocate the type of historiographical awareness raised 
by, e.g., Hayden White (pp. 229–33, or even Croce’s dictum that “all 
of history is contemporary history” quoted in the book’s first 
sentence), that the practice of Greek historiography depends a great deal 
on what you start out trying to do with it. For V., as a Greek historian, 
Greek history should be no different from any other history, and history 
should be divorced from teleology. Classicists, perhaps, or anyone who 
would argue implicitly or explicitly that Greek and Roman history can be 
different, special, perhaps even unique in illuminating contemporary 
concerns, will therefore find much that is stimulating in V.’s 
perspective. Will narratives recapturing the complexity of historical 
diversity in order to liberate the silenced voices of the past coexist with 
those that, e.g., utilize the rise and fall of the Greek polis as a tool to 
conceptualize and critique how a free autonomous enfranchised citizenry 
might articulate issues such as domestic social problems or overseas 
involvement with both dependent allies and ideologically opposed foreign 
powers? V. demonstrates that an alternative way of proceeding is possible; 
the extent to which the scholarly community will take up his suggestions is 
less certain. But a recognition of the plurality of approaches V. advocates 
and practices is certainly a minimal desideratum for future discourse.

San Francisco State University
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