Book Review: Polis Histories, Collective Memories and the Greek World


by Rosalind Thomas

Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xii, 494. Appends., notes, biblio., index. $135.00. ISBN: 1107193583

Using Local History to Better Understand the Ancient Greeks

“Polis histories”, that is studies of the history and culture of a particular city-state or other political entity were apparently a very common genre in the ancient world – mostly Greek, but also Phoenician, Roman, and others – with about 500 titles known, though only a few survive intact, with many more existing only in fragments, usually a few lines cited in surviving ancient works, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Plutarch, and many others.

Like modern histories of cities, states, or provinces, these works generally touted the greatness of their polis. But the surviving books and fragments enable Prof. Thomas (Oxford) to argue that such works – albeit often quite “patriotic” – not only offered serious histories of individual poleis, but also showed how their institutions evolved over centuries, reflecting changing experience and concerns, even offering looks a “global” patterns, and they are often the original sources for much of what we know about the wider Greek world, conveyed through the pages of the ancient works that have survived.

Thomas devotes several chapters to examining the origins and purposes of the genre and its role in helping define what it was to be “Greek”, and then looks at some case studies – Miletus and Lesbos, Athens, Samos – to illustrate what these works had to offer, and how they affected later historiography and political writing, and their influence in the rise of Hellenism.

Albeit that a map or two might have been useful, Polis Histories is an important read for those studying Classical Antiquity, and may also be of use to students of the American Civil War or conflicts, which are often touched upon in similar modern works, usually thought of as unreliable.


Note: Polis Histories is also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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