Thursday, September 2, 2010

Reasoning: Greek History Review #3

I have never been a history person. My dad is a big medieval history buff and my mother loves the history of fashion and costume. It just did not appeal to me in terms of names and dates and events. I always liked mythologies and genealogies-- important people and trends that demonstrate the development of ideas and progress over time. When studying for the AP exam I knew general trends and time periods that allowed me to interpret any piece of information on the exam. That was the way in which I managed through every history class. Dates were expendable pieces of information that I crammed at the last moment.

Going to college, when I finally settled in as a Classics major, there seemed to be two camps: the history people and the literature people. I easily slid into the literature camp, without a second thought. My complete aporia at the set-up of my Greek history class simply made the division appear more clearly to me. Although the class focused on concepts rather than dates, the immense amount of fragmentary reading of the primary sources never properly stuck together in a coherent mass in my mind. It could have simply been that it was only one of a list of things to do each night, but it might have simply been that I needed a little more of a guiding hand. My closest classics friend, for whom I do not yet have a elegy-related pseudonym (now Propertius), similarly disliked history and the history class, so I felt justified in my difficulties.

I now realize that although my dear friend protested against history, he always knew the approximate dates of the fragments of poetry he so diligently studied, knew anecdotes from every era, and could provide the historical context for any piece of literature which we discussed. This understanding of history was equal to that of most of the historians that I know-- his information just stems from different reading and research. Upon coming to this revelation, I realized that I at least needed to acquire the historical understanding of this anecdotal kind in order to position myself as a proper classicist.

Over the past few days I have continued my quest to read through Murray's Early Greece. Yesterday, I proctored an exam which provided me with about 3 hours of straight reading time so I dragged myself within 100 pages of the end. Once again, the influence of the Phoenicians captivated my interest.

Even learning from my previous reading, recounted in my previous blogpost, that the Phoenicians of the Greeks were one and the same with the Cannanites of the bible, I still could not get through my thick skull that the writing of the Phoenicians must have used the Hebrew alphabet (or as it actually turns out a more archaic precursor to that alphabet) from which the Greeks derived their own alphabet (Murray 94).

I found this chart to be particularly cool [1]:
The chart is a little bit misleading. Both the Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets do not have vowel sounds. These are called abjed alphabets [2]. Murray explains that "the forms of most of the Greek vowels are derived from Phoenician consonantal or semi-consonantal letters for which Greek had no use" (Murray 94) the development of an alphabet with vowels actually represented in the script itself was "revolutionary in its consequences" (Murray 94) [3]. Writing became widespread in Greece between 750-650 BCE (Murray 96) and "the earliest poets whose work was recorded in writing may well have been Hesiod and Archilochos if not Homer" (Murray 96). Another fascinating piece of information that I gleaned from Murray is that even if Homer used the aid of writing to compose his work, it was "the ancient claim that it was Peisistratos who established a fixed test of the poet; for competitions in recitation require rules about what should be recited" (Murray 271).

I finished Murray's Early Greece yesterday. It was the most interesting historical piece I have read since first semester last year when I wrote the historical chapter of my thesis. I just began reading both  The Art and Culture of Early Greece, 1100-480 B.C. and Origins of Greek Thought in the last 24 hours. Both captivate my interest for different reasons. Vernant's book is an earlier version of the development of the polis and the Greek rational thought from the Minoans and the invading Indo-Europeans who began the Mycenean palace culture. Hurwit's book details the cultural development from the dark age up until the end of the first Persian War, specifically focusing on the art. Since my thesis utilized data concerning the changing of grave monuments and pottery in Ancient Greece, this book appeals to me as well. The only reason I started Vernant's book is because it is easier to fit in my purse (and I went with my mother to the doctor's office).

  1. Image is from
  2. Phoenician Alphabet at Wikipedia
  3. Today I started reading Origins of Greek Thought, which explains that Linear B, which was the script used in the Mycenean palace culture, was a syllabic rather than and abjed or a vocalic alphabet (I am not sure if vocalic alphabet is the right name) (Vernant 23). Linear B was developed from Linear A, which was the Minoan script, and Linear B was used by a specialized class of Cretan scribes (Vernant 24).

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