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Reviewed by:
  • The History Written on the Classical Greek Body
  • Nassos Papalexandrou
Robin Osborne. The History Written on the Classical Greek Body. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xv + 260 pp. 62 black-and-white ills. Cloth, $85.

The title of this pithy book requires some unpacking. Osborne thinks of history both in terms of the familiar literary genre and as the actual lived experience by individuals and communities. Here he is interested in expanding his field of evidentiary data from well-known texts (e.g., historical and juridical) to bodies seen and perceived within a culture that would have shared with us the same ideas about what constituted the “classical Greek body,” a category of recent coinage. His book reads as a very interesting experiment of sorts, one that seeks to shed light on what texts tell us about civic roles and values versus what we can read on bodies represented mainly in vase painting and sculpture. The bodies Osborne avails himself of are never the actual bodies of individuals that lived and breathed in Classical antiquity. I opened this book anticipating that some archaeological data, e.g., those gathered in numerous deposits during the recent Metro excavations in Athens, would have made it to his analysis. Archaeology uncovers skeletons and these can tell a great deal about the personal histories of individuals and their bodies (sometimes even more than we usually expect: dietary habits, diseases, physiques, lifestyles, and roles that may be deliberately distorted in visual monuments and texts). Burial deposits also illuminate constructions of various personae during funereal ceremonies. But Osborne is interested in the discursive body and its constructions, literary and visual, and their mutual interconnections or lack thereof. His experiment is welcome and refreshing—it constitutes a model for further research and testing by others—and his arguments are interesting and thought provoking. What troubled me throughout this book is Osborne’s overly optimistic handling of the material/visual evidence, especially his assumptions about our ability to explain what we see in terms of what was perceived by contemporary viewers. As he himself puts it, “classical Greece also offers us a past society about whose visual experiences we are particularly well informed” (19). Is this really the case? At this point, I should disclose that I am not a trained historian, a primary target audience for this book, but a classical archaeologist trained in the analysis of material and visual culture. As Osborne warns his readers, “the past that archaeologists and historians study is not the [End Page 525] same past” (6), so it may well be that an archaeologist’s understanding is not necessarily that of the historian. In the remainder of this review, I provide a brief outline of the book’s structure and arguments, and I highlight methodological problems and the controversial nature of the set of data mined by the author. Despite these problems, or precisely because of them, this book warrants close and attentive reading by a wide spectrum of specialists.

Osborne’s analysis unfolds mainly in the format of various cases that test social oppositions recorded in ancient texts (e.g., citizen/non-citizen, local/foreign, polluted/non polluted, divine/human) vis-à-vis their demarcation (or lack thereof) in visual monuments that were more directly embedded in daily life than the texts in question. The texts at the historians’ disposal have obvious communicational limitations, paramount among which is that the inherent structure of language preconditions how a world is expressed in it. As a remedy, Osborne advocates that historians mine visual documents not only as corrective lenses but also as a means for gaining insights into ancient experiences that lie outside the interestedness and particularity of texts. He seems to think that visual culture affords understanding of context, texture, and nuance of psychological experience, evidence that is by default absent from ancient texts but also much wider in scope than the realm of verbal experience: “to write a history based on texts alone is to write a partial history, a history which treats just one of the systems humans have for understanding the world as the only way of understanding the world” (17).

Despite his “textual” skepticism, it is precisely...


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pp. 525-528
Launched on MUSE
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