States of Memory. The Polis, Panhellenism, and the Persian War

Yates, David C.
Anzahl Seiten
XX, 337 S.
£ 55.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Eleni Krikona, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

This attractive book constitutes the first monograph of D.C. Yates, based on his dissertation at Brown University, Remembering the Persian War Differently. Historians of classical Greece will find this work particularly interesting, as it approaches the subject of the Persian War from the relatively new scholarly perspective of the “invention of tradition” (Hobsbawm), and “intentional history” (Gehrke)[1], contributing to the study of the ancient Greek collective, social and cultural memory.

After presenting a map of the Greek poleis, the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, according to Bommelaer’s Guide de Delphes[2], and of the Greco-Persian world in about 500 BCE, the author introduces his topic by making some essential remarks concerning the memory theory. As the core of the study is the collective memories in ancient Greece and the notion of Panhellenism, Yates discusses the term collective memory and memorial communities, cites the influence of the power relationships on memory, determines how narratives are associated with the commemorations of a polis, by making a clear distinction between master and counter narratives, and finally examines the theory of tradition in the works of Eric Hobsbawm and Pierre Nora[3], discussing their coined terms invented tradition and lieux de memoire respectively.

Yates aims to provide a study of collective memories of the Persian War, as applied to the ancient world, mainly to the Greek poleis of the classical period, from ca. 480 down to the Lamian War, suggesting an innovative approach on the relationship between the notion of Panhellenism and the Persian-War tradition: the Greeks remembered the war against the Persians not collectively, but as members of their respective city-states. In other words, there was no commemorative cohesion of the war in the classical Greek world. Yates suggests, by discussing only some select but representative examples of the evidence, that the community of “the Greeks” in the classical period, immediately after the Persian War and before Philip, was “a passive backdrop against which the heroics of the individual polis are paraded” (Yates, States, p. 7).[4] The unified memory and collective commemoration of the Persian War by all the Greeks as a whole does not begin until the early Hellenistic period, emerging in the time of Philip of Macedonia and Alexander the Great. The change of the narrative of the war and its afterlife in the late fourth century onward are discussed by the author in the final two chapters of the book.

The introduction of the book ends with the discussion of the evidence in regard to the commemoration of the war: the monuments, the literary texts recalling the war and the commemorations as described in these texts. Yates addresses the problem of the small number of surviving monuments and the fact that the largest number of attested commemorations of the Persian war comes at second hand, highlighting the limitations of the types of evidence the historians of the Persian-war memory have at their disposal.

In the first chapter of the book, the author starts proving that there was not a single dominant/master narrative of the war within Greece throughout the classical period, but its memory was centered on the polis, by examining thoroughly the Serpent Column at Delphi. The monument, dedicated collectively by the Greeks after Plataea, became a source of controversy from the very beginning. Yates argues that the dispute was rooted on dissonances between aristocrats, a transcendent notion of panhellenism, as attested by Pausanias the regent, and the civic aims of the poleis individually, which were mentioned in the epigram of the column. The removal of Pausanias’ epigram is interpreted by the author as a conscious rejection of the unified memory of the Persian War in favor of counter commemorations, centered on the polis and constituting several master narratives of the war, although the states never discarded the Panhellenic scope of the Greco-Persian conflict. The second chapter (“Panhellenism”) goes on with the above-mentioned argument regarding the claim of the independent poleis to the Persian War, by highlighting the focus of the Greek states on their own achievements against the Persians, celebrated nevertheless in a Panhellenic scale.

The third chapter of the book analyzes the different assertions of the war by several Greek states, through their dedications at Delphi. The disputes of the Greek states over the war are attested vividly by their commemorative monuments in the Apollo’s sanctuary, which promote the definition of the Greek victory over the Persians, constructed within the borders of the single poleis, underlining above all the role of each state individually.[5] In chapter four, Yates discusses the time and space the Persian War took place, by examining the various answers to the matter. The fifth chapter closes the study of the memory and commemoration of the war not as a Panhellenic achievement, but as an accomplishment of the single poleis, by analyzing the meaning the Greek states assigned to the war.

The final two chapters, “A new Persian War” (ch. 6) and “After Alexander” (ch. 7), highlight the change occurred in the fourth century in regard to the Panhellenic scope of the remembrance of the Persian War. In the sixth chapter, Yates examines how Philip and then Alexander made use of the classical tradition of the Greek victory over Persia, by inventing and promoting a Panhellenic narrative of the war, to which all Greeks as a whole could be related and be proud of. Finally, chapter 7 provides a brief discussion of the late-four-century-invented tradition of the Greek victory in the Persian War as a Panhellenic achievement, coined by the Macedonians, and how this narrative dominated over the other narratives of the classical period in the Greek world and beyond from the early Hellenistic period onward.

Yates deepens in the question of the recollection of the Persian War in the classical period, by using only some characteristic archaeological evidence of the commemoration of the divided memory, as case studies. He undoubtedly analyzes sufficiently the related ancient passages that prove his main argument, keeping both the main text and the footnotes, simply put, focused and to the point, without compromising on his thorough scholarship. There is no doubt that the author accomplished to reach his intended audience. A non-academic, interested in the topic, can easily follow the argument discussed in the book, as a researcher equally can be intrigued and inspired by the refreshing approach of Yates to one of the most talked-about events of the antiquity. It becomes evident by this monograph that the Greek states of the classical period rarely recalled and celebrated the Persian War as united Greeks, but rather defined and perceived themselves as members of their respective states. This led to the construction of idiosyncratic and often competing with each other stories about the Persian War throughout the classical era. The discussion of the change in the narrative of the memory of that conflict in the late fourth century completes the argument of the author in regard to a divided recollection of the Greco-Persian fight in the classical period, which comes to a clear distinction to its Panhellenic version in the Hellenistic era. The “Sates of Memory” by D.C. Yates represents an essential academic piece of work that deals with an enticing aspect of the ancient world that never ceases to inspire in terms of the study of memory, identity and propaganda in the classical period of Greece and beyond.

[1] See e.g. Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Myth, History, and Collective Identity. Uses of the Past in Ancient Greece and Beyond, in: Nino Luraghi (eds.), The Historian’s Craft in the Age of Herodotus, Oxford 2001, pp. 286–313, and Hans-Joachim Gehrke, Greek Representations of the Past, in: Lin Foxhall / Hans-Joachim Gehrke / Nino Luraghi (eds.), Intentional History. Sinning Time in Ancient Greece, Stuttgart 2010, pp. 15–33.
[2] Jean-François Bommelaer, Guide de Delphes. Le site, Paris 1991.
[3] Eric Hobsbawm, Introduction. Inventing Traditions, in: Eric Hobsbawm / Terence Ranger (Hrsg.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983, pp. 1–14; Eric Hobsbawm, Mass-Producing Tradition. Europe 1870–1914, in: Eric Hobsbawm / Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983, pp. 263–308; Pierre Nora, General Introduction. Between Memory and History, in: Pierre Nora (eds.), Realms of Memory. Rethinking the French Past, Trans. from the French by Arthur Goldhammer, New York 1996, pp. 1–20.
[4] David Yates, States of Memory. The Polis, Panhellenism, and the Persian War, Oxford 2019.
[5] See here also Eleni Krikona, The Notion of Panhellenism through Athenian and Syracusan Dedications in Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi in the early 5th century BCE, in: Ana Popović / Julia Kramberger / Mislav Fileš / Filip Franković (eds.), Through the Eyes of a Stranger – Appropriating Foreign Material Culture and Transforming the Local Context, Zagreb 2018, pp. 38–57.

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