The Rise of the Greeks

The pre-classical Greek city-states, most fiercely independent, numbered perhaps seven hundred. Prolific British historian Michael Grant, in presenting the stories of some fifty city-states, takes a geographical approach: eight chapters and three appendices range over the Peloponnese, Central and Northern Greece, the Eastern and Central Aegean, and trace the establishment of Greek colonies on the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the southern coast of France. Pre-classical Athens, despite its later importance in the classical world, is accorded only about a ninth of the text.

Though an introductory chapter attempts to show commonalities in Greek culture (an emphasis on artistic, not technological, progress; a growing male-dominated society; classes within each city-state, or polis; the heritage of Homeric epic), what emerges from THE RISE OF THE GREEKS is a picture of heterogeneous cultural development, constant warfare between city-states, the rise and fall of centers of democracy, oligarchy, or dictatorship, and the thrust of many of the city-states to establish trading posts (emporia) throughout the Mediterranean world. Grant’s careful scholarship illuminates the reciprocal cultural influences of the Greeks upon their neighbors.

At times Grant is reduced merely to listing sculpture types or government officials, but for the most part the narrative is engaging, though dismayingly compact. Since the history of each polis is designed to read independently, there is some necessary repetition. Numerous cross-references, maps, time lines, a helpful index, and a picture section add to the work’s lasting value. Grant makes many historical judgments but rarely has space to expand on academic controversies. Homer, in Grant’s estimation, was a real person living on the Ionian island of Chios, and the single author of both the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY.

A comprehensive survey of the precursors of the classical--and, thus, the modern--world, THE RISE OF THE GREEKS is a reliable introduction to an often-neglected era.