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  • Ancient Crete: From Successful Collapse to Democracy's Alternatives, Twelfth to Fifth Centuries BC
  • James Whitley
Saro Wallace . Ancient Crete: From Successful Collapse to Democracy's Alternatives, Twelfth to Fifth Centuries BC. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. xxvi + 450 pp. 6 color plates, 203 black-and-white figs., 3 tables. Cloth, $99.

Crete in the Early Iron Age and Archaic periods presents a number of very particular problems for the ancient historian. Most educated lay people associate Crete with its Bronze Age civilization, the so-called Minoans, and most historians of ancient Greece tend to be more familiar with Athens and the Peloponnese. That is, after all, where the great events that Herodotus and Thucydides describe took place. Most of our literary sources (none earlier than the fourth century B.C.E.) for ancient Crete take the form of philosophical reflections or antiquarian tidbits, and focus not on events but institutions. These facts make a conventional narrative history, an histoire éventielle, of ancient Crete (whether in the Archaic period or later) more or less an impossibility. It is nonetheless precisely in the institutions of ancient Crete—the law codes, the andreion, the agele, and the persistence of oligarchy throughout the historical period—that the historical interest lies. This literary perspective emphasizes Cretan difference: Cretan exceptionalism within the Greek-speaking Mediterranean. And the study of Crete begs the question: why did democracy not emerge more often? And, more specifically, if widespread literacy and the publication of law are the keys to democracy, why did it not emerge first in Crete and not in Athens?

For these and other reasons, interest in Archaic Crete has revived in recent years. Scholars have generally adopted one of two approaches. The first is to take a closer look at institutions, reading our sources more closely in the light of the rich epigraphical evidence, the approach adopted by Paula Perlman. The other is more strictly archaeological: to try to synthesize and analyze the vast quantities of archaeological data we have for the island—in short, archaeological history. Archaeological history (as pioneered by Anthony Snodgrass) is more than archaeological synthesis, more than a description of material facts ordered by geography or chronology. It seeks to address a range of questions: some historical and institutional (as above); some anthropological and comparative (were the poleis of Archaic Crete true states?); and others that arise from a consideration of the archaeological record itself (why is Crete so well represented in the seventh century and so poorly in the sixth?).

Archaeological history is nothing if not ambitious, and the task that Saro Wallace has set for herself is a formidable one. Most of the older finds are inadequately reported; the literature is in Greek, English, French, Italian, and German; [End Page 667] the topographical information is often vague, reliable maps being regarded as something akin to a military secret in Crete; and the information is vast and intractable. Wallace, however, is not alone. In recent years, synthetic studies of Cretan Iron Age and Archaic settlements have appeared (by Nowicki and Sjögren, respectively); American excavations at Kavousi and Azoria have improved our understanding of the internal structure of settlement; regional surveys have vastly refined our knowledge of settlement patterns; Mieke Prent has produced a comprehensive synthesis of Cretan cult from the end of the Bronze Age to Archaic times; the excavation and publication of the cemeteries of Knossos and Eleutherna have greatly improved our understanding of the ceramic sequence, regionalism, and mortuary practices; and a closer look at the material of sixth- and fifth-century date by Brice Erickson has begun to close the so-called "Archaic gap" covering much of the sixth century B.C.E. Nor is Wallace alone in her comparative and anthropological interests. As she generously acknowledges, these interests are shared by other scholars (notably Donald Haggis and this reviewer).

These ambitions, and the range of interests involved, perhaps explain the structure of the book. It is in five parts, further divided into forty chapters. The first part (chaps. 1-6) is devoted to setting out her research agenda and providing the necessary background to previous scholarship, terminology, and chronology. This section...


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