Over the years I have read many books on the ancient world, but always came away dissatisfied, feeling as if I could not quite grasp what these ancient Greeks were all about. Sure, these books all covered the various battles and the struggle with Persia. They all dealt with Athenian democracy, Spartan militarism, and the various philosophical schools. We all know how the Macedonians eventually put an end to "Greek freedom." But just what was it that made these Greeks so different? How and why did they emerge with a polis culture that gave us so much of our Western heritage? Why were these Greeks so different than the orientals and the Romans? Finally, we have a book that goes a long way in explaining what it was that made the ancient Greeks so unique. At last we have a work that provides some answers as to "what these Greeks were all about."
I would agree with Donald Kagan who wrote, "The Other Greeks, is the most original and important contribution to an understanding of the ancient Greeks I have ever read." Here Victor Hanson explains how the rise of intensive agriculture and the independent farmer put an end to the Greek Dark Ages and he explains why this was an entirely new phenomenon in history. The rise of the polis, this egalitarian community of farmers now producing its own food, fighting its own wars, and making its own laws was something entirely novel in history. This Greek agrarianism became an ideology that infused Greek life with new energy and creativity.
Hanson details how the shift to private ownership and intensive cultivation by individual farmers gave birth to Western values and created the hoplite army. Relying heavily on ancient sources, as well as his personal knowledge of agriculture, he explains how and why the Greek yeoman created the hoplite army and how it functioned. During the polis period there was almost no miltary parasitism in most Greek city-states.
But Hanson does not view the polis through rose- colored lenses. He understands that the polis developed during a period when Greece was left alone by other powers around the Mediterranean world. He is aware of its innate conservatism and the fact that it was not "truly" democratic. The rise of Greek agrarianism, after all, did lead to an increase in slavery in the countryside. And lastly, Hanson deals with the decline of the polis in a world where the Greeks were forced to more and more deal with an opened society and international involvement. The Athenians made the most dramatic and remarkable attempt to adapt the polis culture to the needs of the new age, but, ultimately, the agrarian based polis culture was unfit to the requirements of the new world. The problems of new and wider citizenship and international economics found the polis system wanting. The Hellenistic Age and the conquests of Rome were based on the foundations of Greek culture, but in no way did they recreate the city-state life of ancient Greece. Power, wealth and excess were the hallmarks of the succeeding ages.
If there is any criticism of the book, and I almost hate to offer it considering the great achievement of Hanson, it is that the writing is often repetitious. The reader should be prepared for this. But, I cannot see how anyone can consider themselves well read in the history and culture of ancient Greek without reading this book and considering the points that Victor Hanson has made. A proper understanding of ancient Greece is impossible without a comprehension of what Hanson has given us. We all owe him much for these insights. This book belongs on the shelf of everyone with an interest in the ancient world and its insights will give you a yardstick by which to evaluate other times and cultures. After all, how people make their living is critical to understanding their time and culture.