I recently had the opportunity to begin reading Christian Meier’s “A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece & the Origins of Europe” (Oxford University Press 2011), a translation of the first two parts of his seven-part history of Europe. Several reviews of the book have already come out in academic journals (CJ, CP) and in the popular press (THES, WSJ). The book seeks to answer “how the Greeks came about… how they developed into a culture that was so different from all the other magnificent high cultures that emerged before and beside them in world history.” (286) The answer, not surprising given the title, is freedom: “With the Greeks, the motor [of culture] was freedom, specifically, a broad circle of free men in many cities, who saw themselves challenged to secure and expand their free way of life against all encroachments.” (286)
I have to say that so far I find the book deeply problematic. For the moment, I’ll leave aside the politics, which I would characterize as triumphant Occidentalism. Meier is writing to a broad audience, and he is covering a massive topic, so a certain amount of oversimplification is probably inevitable. But when an author talks over and over again about “the Greeks,” it’s hard not to think about bad undergraduate essays in introductory classes. For instance (14):
The Greeks’ defining characteristics were that they were first and foremost human beings, and not emperors, consuls, or senators; that they refused to be constrained by the rules of a class-segmented society…
I really don’t understand this. Was Augustus an emperor first and a human being second, whereas Perikles was a human being first and a general second? How could we know? Similar problems occur when Meier tries to explain the big events in Greek history. Thus, when discussing the 8th century “renaissance” and the rise of the polis, he writes (65):
In fact, it was probably only their intense contact with the Orient that allowed Greeks to jump immediately, almost without any transition, up to the next rung of the ladder of civilization without drastically changing their original nature.
What can this possibly mean? The “rung of the ladder of civilization” seems to appeal to some notion of unlineal evolution, a theory jettisoned already by the beginning of the 20th century. And how can Meier know what the “original nature” of the Greeks was, given that all of our literary evidence begins precisely during this early period?
The result of this extremely broad and diffuse level of discourse is that Meier is forced to manipulate the evidence so that it fits his schema. I doubt that this is intentional; he is simply not a master of all the material he discusses. But when this material is the end of the Greek Late Bronze Age, I think it is legitimate to take him to task. Here I want to focus on Meier’s discussion of geography and politics.
In his chapter on the “new beginning” in Greece after the destruction of Mycenaean palatial culture, Meier points out that the early city-states of the 8th century were typically small, and he points out that “landscape and climate encouraged the formation of small communities” (53). He then goes on to say that (53-54)
But geography alone cannot explain why Boeotia contained ten independent, only loosely associated poleis, or Rhodes three. Already in the Mycenaean period, topography had not proved a serious obstacle to the formation of larger political units. In that era, however, neighbouring territorial powers — Minoan Crete as well as the Hittite Empire in Asia Minor — seem to have provided the impetus for the formation of larger centrally ruled kingdoms. This may be part of the solution to the puzzle: in this sort of landscape, external impulses were necessary to stimulate the development of larger political units. In the centuries after 1200 BC and the collapse of the Hittite Empire, however, no Oriental power took an interest in the Aegean region.
It seems odd to characterize Mycenaean kingdoms are large political units. Were they really so anomalously large? Pyos, the kingdom whose political geography we know best, occupied about 2000 sq km, comparable to the territory of the polis of Athens. And in fact, the Classical polis that later occupied the same land was in fact larger than its Mycenaean predecessor — by over three times. As Meier himself points out, after the conquest of Messenia, Sparta controlled a territory of 7400 sq km.
We understand the political geography of other Mycenaean kingdoms less well, but they are not gargantuan in size. Knossos maximally controlled a territory of some 6400 sq km — which is still smaller than Classical Sparta. But Jan Driessen (2001) has argued that in fact the evidence from the Linear B texts suggests that Knossos “was not so much a territorial state as an economic enterprise” (99) that focused on particular types of activities in particular places. He suggests that the Knossian kingdom “monitored only one-third or one-fourth of the island” — that is, 2100-2800 sq km, about the same amount of territory at Pylos. The political geography of the Argolid is difficult to assess, but it is worth noting that there are a large number of Mycenaean centres in and around the Argive plain. The modern municipality of Argos covers only some 1000 sq km, although it does seem likely that the kingdom of Mycenae extended north and east into the Corinthia and the Epidauria. Thebes may have controlled a very large territory, although a note of caution has been sounded by Tom Palaima (2011) and Dakouri-Hild, who imagine a Theban polity in the 1000 sq km range, with influence extending to Amarynthos and Karystos. And I’d add, as a coda, that neither were the Neopalatial (“Minoan”) predecessors of the Mycenaean states very large: John Bennet (1990) has estimated that their territories were about 1000 sq km, with the largest being 1500 sq km.
In sum, then, Minoan and Mycenaean polities were not particularly large. They were probably larger on average that Classical poleis: for instance, according to Bennet, Classical and Hellenistic poleis on Crete had on average territories ca. 500 sq km, compared to the Minoan polities with territories twice as large on average. But it is also the case that there may have been many independent Mycenaean polities — say, for example, Aidonia — that skews our data towards the larger, better-known, and better-studied, Mycenaean polities.
So why does Meier insist on the large size of Mycenaean polities? Why doesn’t he cite Colin Renfrew’s (1975) Early State Module, which suggested that in many early civilizations, we find many small (ca 1500 sq km) polities? Perhaps its simple ignorance, but if so it is willful. Meier needs to differentiate Mycenaean culture from Greek culture (49):
As far as we can tell from the numerous and often grandiose remains, Mycenaean culture was monarchic in both organization and character. It was a palace culture, and Mycenaean kings seem to have ruled over large territories. These are two of the major differences between Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean Greek culture.
There is no road that leads from Mycenaean to polis-based culture. All the fundamentally new aspects of this latter culture, which turned world history on its head, could not have arisen easily, had the foundations, forms (and limitations) of the preceding epoch not been destroyed, and, notwithstanding a small and on the whole insignificant number of continuities, had the post-Mycenaean Greeks not had the chance to begin again from scratch.
So, Mycenaean polities are large because that makes them fundamentally different from Greek poleis, and it makes them fundamentally similar to other contemporary eastern kingdoms. Hence Meier mentions the large size of the Minoan palaces (which actually aren’t very large) and the Hittite Empire. But to compare the fairly small Aegean polities to the Hittites is absurd. For some reason, I can’t find any estimates of the size of the Hittite empire, but even if it was on quarter the size of modern Turkey, it covered 196,000 sq km. Meier seems to imagine that the Hittites influenced the Mycenaeans and stimulated the development of larger kingdoms, but how would this have actually worked? It’s entirely unclear.
I think it’s more likely that Meier sees the Mycenaeans are fundamentally non-Greek. After all, they did not create a culture “for freedom’s sake” (14), a phrase that recurs throughout the work. So the Mycenaeans weren’t really Greek, not in their politics (monarchy, not oligarchy or democracy), not in their political geography (big territorial states, not small independent poleis). So Meier needs to assert that Mycenaean polities were big territorial states, even when they’re not. By cutting the Mycenaeans out of Greek history, Meier can begin his history of Europe with the emergence of the polis. This is Europe’s elusive “zero hour.”
Maybe some people won’t mind that Meier stretches the truth a bit to capture a complex reality. To me, however, this is less history than European myth-making.