on 26 November 2009
The signature of a good history book is to be both scholarly and readable. I think this hits the spot. Here is a man clearly at home with his material and writes with clarity and authority as well as a little dose of fun from time to time. He also de mystifies some terminology for the beginner. This is probably not a book for the expert but as an intoduction to Ancient Greece it is a very good start. I also like to read a story covering a wide expanse of time with a theme. The theme here is cities. Themes help to bind a story together and it works in this case. I quickly compared other books covering similar periods and it stands up very well. It is, however, disapointingly short, disapointing becaue he writes well, something not every historian is good at. Very readable.
on 13 June 2013
I have to admit my reason for buying was trying to get a very quick overview in a very short time, which, I've come to realise, was not why this book was written...It seems, as other have said, that academics are allowed to create/design a short introduction on their own expert topic, and do with it what they will...which is fine, but not what I thought was being advertised here.
Cartledge I've heard speak before, and he was very interesting which, along with his reputation, is one of the reasons I bought the book. However, his prose is - well, I think some have been kind and called it erudite and convoluted. It's certainly not easy to read, and at times seems written more for himself than an audience: it's that kind of personal style that shows you how the author's thoughts connect together, which, of course, some might find interesting. I didn't.
As others have already said, the division into city-states rather than a broad narrative interwoven with foci on individual city states threw me: really didn't find it helpful at all.
So, for me, interesting, but not 'essential' reading: there are better titles in the series (I'd recommend The Roman Republic) and I hope to try one of Cartledge's 'proper' books and see if there's a difference. Hard to believe such an interesting speaker writes like that and, moreover, that an editor has passed it!
on 26 October 2012
A Very Short Introduction to Ancient Greece is just what it says it is: a very short introduction. I bought this book completely in the dark about who the ancient Greeks were or what they did, and this does shed some light and begin painting a picture, but due to word limits and other things, I found myself having to do external research many times just to figure out what on earth the author was referring to.
Very short introductions for topics as vast as Ancient Greece are generally a bad idea. If you can only find time to read on the bus/train and need a pocket sized book, go for this one. If you have more time to kick back and really learn, I would suggest you go and find a more detailed book. I want to be clear: I have no solid complaint; I knew what I was getting in for when I bought the book. I only have a surface interest in Greek history, but for others who want to learn more in-depth, then this short introduction is just a little too short!
The way the author approaches the history is by having a chapter on several major settlements. This is a unique method and the author should be applauded for his intuition, but it gets confusing as one chapter can talk about events that happened much later, and vice versa. Luckily there is a time line at the back for clarity.
Ancient Greece is one of the most fascinating and intriguing historical polities. The very notion of Greece as a single political and cultural entity is a relatively modern designation. The ancient Greeks had organized their life within a polis, a self-containing "city state," of which there had been hundreds throughout the ancient history, spanning almost all of northern Mediterranean. So when we talk about ancient Greece what we really have in mind is the history of these poleis - their origin, development, and eventual decline and disappearance in the late antiquity. A book that would cover all of the poleis would be a gargantuan project, and would surpass in length all the volumes in the very short introduction series. Instead, Paul Cartledge, the author of this short introduction, focuses on just eleven poleis, picking some that are the most representative of the ancient Greek history as a whole.
Overall, this book is a good introduction to ancient Greece, and all hellenophiles will find a lot of interesting information in it. Through the general introduction and the individual chapters for each polis, we learn about the development of ancient Greek society, through its golden years and the epic wars that it engaged in, to the later not-too-illustrious years. The choice of topics is fairly representative, and Cartledge exhibits an impressive range of knowledge and understanding of this subject.
One big issue that I have with this book concerns its structure and organization. The choice of presenting the history of ancient Greece in a "parallel" fashion, by focusing on each polis in its own right, leads to a very disjoined overall narrative. It can be had to follow various developments as they recur in different chapters, with all the variations that this entails. Furthermore, the style of writing also leaves a lot to be desired. Sentences are often highly convoluted, with frequent allusions, digressions, parenthetical asides, parentheses proper, and even parentheses within parentheses! Cartledge is never the one to use a simple statement when a more complex one would suffice. He also strives a bit too hard to exhibit his own wit and erudition whenever possible. The result is a bit contorted narrative that doesn't flow very smoothly. Overall, however, this is a pretty good book and I feel I got a lot of interesting insights from it.
on 18 January 2013
For its size - what does one expect from a book of this length - it's reasonably informative. Don't buy it if you favour narrative history. Why do I feel misled? Because shortly after purchasing the book, I also bought 'Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)', imagining it was a different read. It is the same book, under a different title. Readers, don't make the same mistake. Amazon, please led shoppers know that the two books are the same. No chance of getting my six quid back, eh?
on 23 August 2010
I picked this book after reading Robin Lane Fox's "Classical World" thinking that, as it's short and compact, it would allow me to keep my knowledge of Greek civilisation somewhat fresh without having to re-read Lane Fox's quarter of a million word tome. I was sorely disappointed though. The book is far too short to even attempt to achieve the scope of Cartledge's ambition for it. There are 208 pages of main text in my copy, but this is reduced to about 190 pages of narrative when maps and other illustrations are taken in. Also, the individual lines are extremely short and generously spaced, further reducing the space available for expostion. I know people will argue that the book is supposed to be short and compact, that as Cartledge himself notes, it's a breviarum rather than an epitome, but I don't think that's a good enough reason for the paucity of material. If it was impossible to relate the minimum that needed to be related, then either the project should have been abandoned, or expanded. As it is, it gives only the most vague, unsatisfactory sense of Greek civilisation.
In discussing Cnossos for example, there is absolutely no mention of the eruption of Santorini which lead to the collapse of the "palace" civilisation of the island. The book purports to tell the "history" of 11 cities, yet one would think on that basis that Athens ceased to be after the 4th century BC, and only re-emerged in the 19th century AD. Indeed, for all the cities up to those covered in the Hellenistic section, there is barely a sentence to mention their existence after the 4th century.
Furthermore, the decision to enchew a chronolgoical or thematic narrative for what amounts to a geographical one, bears frustrating fruit. For example, when discussing Sparta, Cartledge makes a subtle hint at the diminuation of their power in the mid 4th century, but one has to wait 50 pages until the chapter on Thebes to read about the decisive battle of Leuctra, in which the Spartans were defeated. It's ironic in light of this, that Cartledge gives so much to the laconicism of the Spartans themselves.
All in all, I couldn't reccommend this book to anyone. For a neophtye, there is nowehere near enough information, and for anyone with even a cursory knowledg, there is nowhere near enough expostion. By attempting to cram an entire history into such a brief few pages, Cartledge falls between two stools. It's a great pity because he writes with great verve and energy, and obviously brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to bear on the subject.
on 27 August 2010
This seemed just the book for me to refresh what I have learnt about Ancient Greece and to fill in interesting (or embarrassing) gaps, from an acknowledged expert. I could hardly wait for it to arrive.
Visually the book appears old-fashioned with a clutch of black and white photos in the centre, small black and white maps with much detail, and uninspiring diagrams. When reading page 91 I was frustrated to be referred to Fig. 4 which I found on page 97 for no good reason that I could fathom.
It is always tricky to know which terms or indeed words need to be clarified but if the reader is interested in the subject and able to cope with (page 92) "But for various reasons, both endogenous and exogenous, Athens has also generated many more times more data, archaeological and art historical as well as written, than any other city." then one would suppose that "trireme" needed no further explanation beyond the text (page 100) "...... Greece's finest, largest and most up-to-date fleet of trireme oared warships (was) based in Piraeus (Fig. 5). Each trireme (see Glossary) was a glorified racing-eight (170 rowers) cum water-borne guided missile." The Glossary entry for Trireme reads "three banked, oared warship, 170 rowers". I found the many long, convoluted sentences irritating.
The target audience did not appear to have been clearly identified. There is a lot of information which in my view is not presented in a way helpful to someone new to the subject and I cannot recall any useful nuggets for myself.
Who am I to disagree with the glowing reviews of this book? Well, this review is written for people who may be like me - for the past 10 years or so I have had what seems like a love affair with the Ancient Greeks. I have read continuously, attended interesting courses at Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education and learnt from The Teaching Company's DVD courses.
on 17 May 2015
Interesting approach to Ancient Greek history through the stories of 11 cities. I found the writer's style rather pedantic and over fussy with lots of asides and unnecessary references in parenthesis. Maps could have been easier to read.
I got this book a while ago. I read it, liked it, adn have turned to it again as a starting point (but not a reference) when wanting to know more about one of the cities that it mentions. This book is however somewhat hard to rate.
I found the concept great and rather original: summarize the history of Greece (about twlve centuties of it) through the presentation and history of 11 cities (not all of which can be termed as "greek"). However, the execution was rather problematic and the author, having been limited to less than 200 pages, was always going to face a major problem when dealing with so much content in so little space.
To some, this book might seem to be too little and sometimes superficial because a whole book (or several, bearing in mind what Cartledge himself has done for Sparta) could probably have been written for each city. For others, this might be too much, not because of the size, but because the author mixes up a high level summary with quite a lot of details and some explanations that you might not expect to find in such a small book. This problem has, to some extent, already been alluded to by another reviewer when mentioning that the target audience seemed to be undefined. I am not quite sure about that because the book, given its size, clearly does not attempt to be comprehensive and, because it is very accessible, well written, easy to read and portable, clearly seems to have been targeted at the general reader.
If I am correct in my assumption, then it is worth four stars. I am, however, among the ones who would have wanted to learn more (much more!) on each of the cities and their specifics so I hesitated and almost rated it three stars. Having said that, the book does include a lot of useful information, despite it small size, such as explaining how Sparta could afford to (and had to, to a large extent) transform itself into a militaristic state permanently geared for war and how this was both its main strength and its main weakness.
A very interesting and easy read which I have been going through, once again, when going to work and during my luchtime. I hope that you will also enjoy it, despite its problems...
on 18 August 2012
Everyone who lives in a tourist town knows the tour buses that take visitors around and show them the sights. They don't get an in-depth history, just an overview and some interesting anecdotes. This is the literary equivalent.
Still, it's always better getting a short tour from a guide who really knows his stuff and is interesting, than a long one from someone who isn't. I'm not an expert, but not a beginner either, so this didn't really tell me anything new about the major cities, but it's a good refresher and reference and a good, entertaining read. It's definitely given me an appetite for his other work.