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Gawantka’s Sogenannte Polis1:
And Some Thoughts à propos

Konrad H. Kinzl

E-mail kkinzl@trentu.ca

Echos du Monde Classique / Classical Views n.s. 7 (1988) 403-412





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This book, a stupendous, magisterial tour de force, easily qualifies as one of the most important contributions to the study of Greek history, and to the history and language of its study, in recent decades. The learning is immense, the methodology flawless, the scholarship of the most exacting precision, and the style of writing commensurate with all these qualities.


The title of Gawantka's study echoes (presumably intentionally) Aristotle's H( KALOUME/NH PO/LIS.2 There is of course hardly a classical scholar who does not employ the term "Polis" — and who would also employ the same definition as any one of his co-workers. Gawantka traces the entry of the term "Polis" into the inventory of the classicist's special terminology; and he examines systematically the literature (predominantly, and characteristically, in German; Gawantka has cast his net widely to include all of European classical scholarship), down to 1914.3





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The last discussion of the utility of the term "Polis", though only tentative, and inconclusive in its results, was between H. Schaefer and V. Ehrenberg,4 who, perhaps more than any other scholar, has helped to enthrone "The Polis" as a term central to our "comprehension" of Greek history. Ehrenberg's most influential book is his Greek State / Der Staat der Griechen.5 For Ehrenberg, the Greek State, in the pre-hellenistic period at any rate, is of course the "Polis". Neither the concept of The Greek State, nor the term "The Polis", nor the equation of The Greek State with "Polis", however, are self-evident. They have no basis in the sources: they are the product of processes within the history of classical scholarship as well as within the broader context of European history (especially of German history) of the last two centuries.

Gawantka diagnoses four lines of development in particular to be traced.

First: Aristotle's concept of the PO/LIS lives on in Thomas Aquinas and Renaissance scholarship, rendered into Latin as res publica or ciuitas, and subsequently into the national languages of Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as "City State" or "City," Stadtstaat, La cité, etc. (or it appears simply in its Greek form PO/LIS) (see chapter II). As such, however, it signifies either an individual Greek PO/LIS (in the singular), or (in the plural) two or more. This usage continues consistently, until 1898 (see p. 407 below, on Burckhardt).

Second:in the seventeenth century, state and nation are still conceptually inseparable: a nation is conterminous with its state. Montesquieu (see 84f., on Montesquieu's De l'Esprit des lois from 1748) thus lists as nations, e.g., the Chinese, Japanese, French, Athenians, Spartans, but not the Germans, Italians, ancient Greeks: only the former partake in a "national character" (ésprit de nation; in German Nationalgeist). That term gained currency in Germany in 1765 (see 104: F.K. von Moser, Von dem Deutschen national-Geist). It is in the debate carried on in Germany that, for the first time, the linkage of State and Nation became fractured. "Wir armen Deutschen . . . ohne Vaterland," J.G. Herder (whilst, as a schoolmaster in Riga, a subject of the Russian Czar)





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exclaimed, in 1767 (126f.): were they also to languish lacking a Nationalgeist? Conversely, if the Germans were capable of possessing a Nationalgeist, was there any reason why the ancient Greeks did not? Once the Greeks were equipped with a Nationalgeist, however, it became imperative to expose its essential characteristics ("das eigentlich Charakteristische"; see 99, etc.). For J.J. Winckelmann, coming from the study of Greek art, the task was easy, his finding was Das Schöne. Herder embraced it: what is Greek is beautiful and what is beautiful is Greek, including the "schöne Idee einer Republik im Griechischen Sinne" which would sprout the "Griechische Freyheit" (123ff.).

Third: Voltaire, in 1739, wrote of a Europe "comme une espèce de grande république partagée en plusieurs Etats," whence Herder's "schöne Idee einer Republik im Griechischen Sinne."6 In the latter part of the seventeenth and the early eighteenth century, the Delphic Amphiktyony was the subject of intense debate. It took its departure from an often cited passage in Dionysios of Halikarnassos (Ant.Rom. 4,25,3; see 112 n. 41). It spawned further debate of truly historic dimensions. The Abbé de Mably coined, in 1766, the phrase "la République fédérative des Grecs" for the Amphtktyony. In its English translation, as "the United States of Greece," it could be cited as a model for the yet to be founded "United States of America." In Germany it was equated with the old German Reichstag; whilst the concept of a Greek Bundesstaat was equated with the (for the time being) utopian goal of a Germany unified in such a federal state (ch. IV.3; it of course had to be a Reich, and as such it was ultimately proclaimed in 1871 in Versailles).

Fourth: although Herder, in his publications of 1767 and 1774, had conceptually anticipated "The Greek State," he actually abandoned it, as early as 1787 (137; 151). The concept was taken up again, however, to dominate the debate in nineteenth century German Altertumswissenschaft. In 1813, B.G. Niebuhr7 diagnosed a political aspect to the Greek Nationalgeist("eine politische Seite"); it is perhaps no coincidence that this is the year of the Befreiungskriege. Also, during the early decades of the nineteenth century, German scholars had successfully persuaded themselves that it was they who had elevated Alterthumskunde to the status of a wirkliche Wissenschaft, whose scholarship was superior to that of the French or British (94ff.). By force of their superior scholarship they thus first created the concept of "The Greek State" and then proceeded to debate what it meant. According to German Idealism, facts





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must subordinate themselves to concepts; if they fail to live up to conceptual demands, too bad for them (90; 144 n. 107). Once Niebuhr had seen the "politische Seite" of the Greek Nationalgeist, it was only a small step to formulate "Der griechische Staat."

Neither the earlier nor the later of these modem concepts of a Greek State (the former of which is based on the idea of a Greece unified under the aegis of the Delphic Amphiktyony, the latter on a postulate of a specifically Greek "idea of statehood" which underlies all Greek states as a principle) has any grounding in the ancient sources in general or in Aristotle in particular. Aristotle's terms PO/LIS and POLITEI/A cannot be attached to the Amphiktyony which is a KOINO/N (SUNE/DRION), whilst POLITEI/A subsumes both PO/LIS and E)/QNOS (116ff.). "The Greek State," however, cannot be translated back into ancient Greek (H( TW=N *ELLH/NWN PO/LIS; H( E(LLEHNIKH\ PO/LIS; H( TW=N *E(LLH/NWN POLITEI/A; H( E(LLHNIKH\ POLITEI/A: these, crudely put, are nonsense terms [cf. 108ff.]). (One might speculate that the concept of "The Greek State" might never have seen the light of day had there been a unitary German national state.) By the time Ehrenberg issued the last edition of his Greek State, however, he even wrote about "the development of modern research into the Greek state,"8 as if "ancient research into the Greek state" had preceded it (107). In the nineteenth century, hermeneutic differentiation had fallen victim to the forces of epistemological unification, expressed in "The Greek State," and to the rule of the idea over the fact (159). It is interesting to note that G. Gilbert's Handbuch der griechischen Staatsaltertümer (English translations of which still grace the shelves of our university libraries), which above all amply documents variety and diversity in Greek constitutional history (which aspect occupies all of volume one and the first 261 pages of volume two), was promptly dismissed by German scholars as a shallow compilation, lacking in penetrating intellectual insights (159ff.). Nor does it surprise greatly that the quest for a determination of the true national character of the Greeks and their common ethnic characteristics produced antecedents to the more horrendous abuses of scientific theory and terminology during the twentieth century (ch. IV.5).9

It was not until 1845, however, that Die Polis made its, admittedly abortive, début. E. Kuhn10 coined the term in a study of the city as a form of settlement.





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There was no compelling reason for introducing the word. W. Vischer11 criticised it effectively out of existence — or so it seemed, at the time; at all events, it remained dormant until the very end of the nineteenth century. What finally accorded Die Polis the seal of approval, as it were, as well as currency, was the appearance of the first volume of J. Burckhardt's Griechische Kulturgeschichte in 1898 (drafted most likely around 1867-72, and edited after Burckhardt's death in 1897 by J. Oeri), a work that won universal praise only for its non-scholarly, i.e. literary, qualities, but which was nearly universally condemned for its un-scholarly nature (14f.). Burckhardt relied for factual information generally on the "textbook" by K.F. Hermann.12 He prints Die Polis (like Hermann who, however, in line with universal usage, has PO/LIS), to signify PO/LIS (= ciuitas), in the Aristotelian tradition of Hermann. Burckhardt himself offers no explanation for this departure (and, indeed, Gawantka [16 n. 14] leaves open the possibility that a re-examination of the manuscript might show that Burckhardt wrote PO/LIS, as he did in all other works of his).13

From 1898 to 1914, Die Polis victoriously invaded the scholarly literature to assume a central place in the German vocabulary of Greek historians and others touching on Greek history (or even just ancient history). It made its début outside the German language with the publication La Polis grec, by the Belgian H. Francotte (in a series edited by the German E. Drerup and published in Germany), in 1907. Francotte, however, steeped in the thinking of Fustel de Coulanges, might just as well have printed cité in the footsteps of Fustel's La Cité antique.14 Its reception in the English literature appears to have occurred at a slower pace; in any case it does not figure in Gawantka's study which ends with 1914.15





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It does not of course matter much whether we print PO/LIS or polis, The Polis, Die Polis, La polis, etc.; or, indeed, whichever term we choose to employ (e.g., res publica, ciuitas, cité, City State, Stadtstaat; or even a term yet to be invented) — so long as the term (a) is unequivocally anchored in the sources; or (b) can be shown empirically to be universally applicable; or (c) has been received in the modern literature in a universally uniform meaning; or (d) at its most general, at least aids our cognitive faculties by designating a phenomenon which cannot otherwise be named; or (e) of course, and ideally, all of (a) through (d). Not one of these conditions, however, is met by "The Polis" (in whatever spelling or translation): (a) the Greek PO/LIS occurs in the sources in a variety of meanings; even in Aristotle, it does not have any of the modern meanings except where it is used by the modern author in its narrow Aristotelian sense p. 404 above; (b) empirical study of the realities of Greek life in general and political life in particular does not proffer justification for the use of one single term of universal applicability; (c) the modem literature has produced about as many definitions (if it offers any definition at all) as there are authors; (d) the term "The Polis," at best, clouds our perception, transporting us to "a no-man's-land, somewhere between historical reality and a modern utopia" (25-29; esp. 29).16

Gawantka's study does not help us — there must be limitations17 to any study — in finding a way out of the cul-de-sac created by (1) nineteenth century German idealism which demands of reality that it subject itself to the dictates of ideas; (2) German yearning for a national state within which the German Nationalgeist would express itself on the "politische Seite"; (3) German scholars' conviction in that period that they alone had raised Altertumskunde to the status of a true science, namely, Altertumswissenschaft; (4) a Swiss cultural philosopher's (or his editor's) whim in deciding to print, instead of PO/LIS, "Die Polis", in a work which was a literary but not a scholarly success; and the uncritical reception of that term by the international community of scholars, in utter disregard for methodology, hermeneutics, and the history of classical scholarship and its methods.





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If, however, (as Gawantka concludes inconclusively), one were to search for a lively and comprehensive sketch of the world of the Greek states as it once was, one would have to go back to the Handbuch by Heeren, first published in 1799.18




Modern confusion over the meaning of "The Polis" is well adumbrated by Gawantka's discussion of the literature up to 1914 (esp. chs. III and IV). Archaeology, however, has added a further twist. In a recent book on archaic Greece its author19 acknowledges his debt to a number of living scholars; he singles out, however, Aristotle and Ehrenberg. Following a similar path, another archaeologist expounds on "The Formation of the Greek polis: Aristotle and archaeology." 20

The archaeologist does not need "The Polis", or "PO/LIS", whether in the Aristotelian sense or any other sense: he only needs to say whether he has excavated an urban settlement or not. Coldstream, however, not only embraces the general and imprecise term "The Polis," but he goes on to define it by calling on Aristotle, and finally weds to all this his mute stones, passing in review the diversity of the archaeological remains (excellently indeed, and very much along the lines of eighteenth century scholarship's emphasising diversity). He also conjures up the spectre of a Quellenkritik which subjects the "written sources" "sometimes ... to such a ferocious internal criticism, that virtually nothing then remains."21 His own "elementary" principles of Quellenkritik culminate in the following pronouncement: "Aristotle could reconstruct the antecedents of the polis in the more progressive parts of the Greek world; just as today a social anthropologist, showing far greater boldness than Aristotle, may study the ways of primitive societies still existing in Africa and the Pacific islands, in the hope of throwing some light thereby on an early stage of an ancient civilisation."22 It ought not to be necessary to point out that Aristotle did not, could not possess the methodological equipment of the modern





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scholar. Coldstream in effect suggests nothing less than that scholarship has not progressed since the days of Aristotle, that Aristotle is still up-to-date in his methodology, in short, that modern scholarship is pointless. If proof were needed for the claim that Gawantka's book was a desideratum of the highest order, that proof is provided by Coldstream's presentation.




I shall now [...] attempt to point out a possible route of escape from the conceptual dilemma.23 First, we need to discard the twin postulates of totally independent statehood for each and every Greek community ("state" or "polis"), and of an underlying conceptual bond (a "Staatsidee" which, by extension, would allow us to perceive its nature, as "The Greek State" or "The Greek Polis", by examining only one manifestation of that idea exempli gratia). Second, we must call into question the dogmatic posture of utterly and completely denying that there ever was such a phenomenon as a Greek state (encompassing all Greeks).

Our concept of the State, if it can claim any roots in the ancient world, goes back no further than the example of Rome (and perhaps the contemporary hellenistic kingdoms); it is not grounded in the world of archaic and classical Greece. We moderns, who can recognise a state only if we can point to green or yellow lines in our maps indicating borders, cannot of course see such a phenomenon called state represented by the Greek world as a whole. We therefore focus our gaze on what seems a more likely candidate, "The Polis." With the exception of the few hegemonial powers, however, the autonomy of the vast majority of these "states" was a very limited one; it never approached that of even the smallest modern sovereign state. At best, they were "sub-states," more comparable perhaps to a Canadian province. This is particularly true in the area of foreign policy. The Greek state under this definition is easily defined by exclusion: it is the area which is not BA/RBAROS GH= and it is one which does not hold A)POIKI/AI; at its fringes, and under foreign domination, in part, and at certain times, that area was always in a certain state of flux, but it was, in its entirety, very clearly set apart from the non-Greek world. Historical circumstances are responsible for this definition. Mycenaean Greece already appears not to have known the concept of a unitary state in the modern sense. The beginnings of historical Greece, in the primitive conditions of Early Iron Age Greece, also did not permit a different development. By the time historical





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Greece emerged, however, a principle had become entrenched which still confounds scholars to this day. The line of demarcation, as it were, outside of which violence as a means of settling disputes is recognised as permissible, had been drawn extremely narrowly. It is only within the narrow definition of kinship (phyle, phratria, genos, oikos) and the community formed by such kinship groups, that violence was unacceptable. Even within that community, the universally popular sport of stasis (always centred somehow on individuals or groupings of individuals, and involving at least some activity transcending the boundaries of the community) did not clearly and unequivocally fall outside the line of demarcation of unacceptable violence.24 Since hellenistic-Roman times, however, that line has been drawn at a different point — causing us conceptual indigestion. Because post-classical viewers perceive stasis (along with its attendant features, especially phyge) as "civil war" (using, as also in "exile," a word of Romance extraction), which, by definition, can only occur within a ciuitas, they also must define those communities affected by stasis, as autonomous entities or "states".

If one were to define the land occupied by Hellenes as a "state," one would find supporting evidence for this hypothesis in several areas. In particular, that "state" conducted a foreign policy of surprising uniformity. A)POIKI/AI were sent out by it, under the centralised guidance of Delphoi. While trade and commerce with foreign, even hostile powers were allowed, no such collaboration was permitted in the military field (the fact that collaboration, chiefly in the form of medismos, did in fact occur, merely illustrates my point). Military incursions by foreign powers were countered jointly, under the direction of a hegemon, who alone was in a position to issue commands to members (we would say, using a term formed from a non-Greek root, "citizens") of the other communities banded together under the name of SUMMAXI/A (which we translate by "alliance," a word which characteristically does not derive from a Greek root). We all know that that Greek state "failed." One need not invoke a Greek national character (with its thinly veiled racist overtones that have infested the thinking of the modern world) to explain that failure: the explanation lies in its early history, which admitted violence as an acceptable argument in the settling of disputes as a matter of course and to a far greater degree than societies of later ages (which are of course not — lest we conveniently pat ourselves on our collective backs — less violent, and whose states one might with equal justification regard as having failed). This, if not its sole cause, to a very large measure contributed to the failure.

If Gawantka were to succeed in prompting scholars to re-think, not only the conceptual chaos under which we study Greek history — as M.I. Finley again





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reminded us in his last book: "without a theoretically grounded conceptual scheme, the thin and unreliable evidence lends itself to manipulation in all directions, without any controls"25 — but the entire way in which we view Greek history, he will have been adequately rewarded for his labours.







1     Wilfried Gawantka, Die sogenannte Polis; Entstehung, Geschichte und Kritik der modernen althistorischen Grundbegriffe der griechische Staat, die griechische Staatsidee, die Polis. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH, 1985. Pp. 250. Paper, DM 54.00, ISBN 3-515-03694-6.

The study was originally accepted as a Habilitations-Schrift by the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, and revised for publication.

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2     Arist. Pol. 1252 a 1ff. at the end of the opening sentence of the work:
[text of Aristotle, Politics 1252 a

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3     There are six chapters. "Der Diskussionsstand," 9-29; "Einige wortgeschichtliche Betrachtungen zur Entwicklung des Gebrauchs von PO/LIS und Polis in den nachantiken Wissenschaftssprachen," 30-52; "Zur Geschichte des Begriffs die Polis: on E. Kuhn i.J. 1845 bis G. Jellinek i.J. 1900," 53-78; "Zur Entstehung und Geschichte des Begriffs der griechische Staat," 79-161, broken down into 6 sections ("Anhaltspunkte in der wissenschaftlichen Literatur," "Gab es bereits in der Antike eine 'Erforschung des griechischen Staats'?," "'The United States of Greece': der griechische Staat als ein vorgestellter Sachverhalt einstiger Verfassungswirklichkeit," "Herders 'schöne Idee einer Republik im griechischen Sinne,'" "Die Suche nach dem 'gemeinsamen Volksthum' der Hellenen," "Die einstigen griechischen Staaten und 'der' griechische Staat in der deutschen Fachgelehrsamkeit des 19. Jh."); "Zum Siegeszug des Wortes die Polis in der deutschen Altertumswisenschaft in d. J. 1900-1914," 162-189; "Zusammenfassung," 190-196. There are seven Appendices; a bibliography (213-220); and indices of ancient authors, modern authors, and "Sonstige Personen, Namen, Begriffe, Schlagworte" (again a model of Gründlichkeit).

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4     H. Schaefer [review of V. Ehrenberg, Der griechiche Staat, 2 vols., 1957-58] ZSRG 77 (1960) 422-438 (= id., Probleme der Alten Geschichte [Göttingen 1963] 384-400).

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5     V. Ehrenberg, The Greek state, (London 19692) (based on the German "second edition" of Der griechische Staat, [Zürich 1965]) is the last edition of the book, which has its origins in a section in A. Gercke and E. Norden, Einleitung in die Altertumsissenschaft, vol. 3, fasc. 3, (Leipzig 19323), entitled "Der griechische und hellenistische Staat" (replacing B. Keil, "Griechische Staatsaltertümer," in op. cit., vol. 3, [Leipzig 19142]).

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6     See 118. Voltaire, Le siècle de Louis XIV (1739); in Oeuvres historiques (Paris 1957) 620.

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7     In his 50-page review of A.H.L. Heeren, Ideen über die Politik, den Verkehr und den Handel der vornehmsten Völker der alten Welt, vol. 3, fasc. 1 ("Griechen") (Göttingen 1812) (several editions thereafter), in: B.G. Niebuhr, Kleine historische und philologische Schriften, vol. 2 (Berlin 1843) 107-158. See 87 with n. 11; 91.

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8     Ehrenberg, op. cit. (above, n. 5) 256.

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9     E.g. K. Linné, Systema naturae (Stockholm 1735) (12th ed., 1766); for my compatriots, I cite: "Plangiocephali capite antice compresso: Canadenses" (see 134).

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10     "Die griechische Komenverfassung als Moment der Entwickelung des Städtewesens im Alterthume," Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 4 (1845) 50-87.

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11     "Über die Bildung von Staaten und Bünden oder Centralisation und Föbderation im alten Griechenland," Programm Basel 1849 (revised, in: id., Kleine Schriften, ed. H. Gelzer, vol. 2. [1877] 308-381).

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12     Lehrbuch der griechischen Staatsalterthümer, aus dem Standpuncte der Geschichte entworfen (Göttingen 1831; 18554; posthumous editions 18755 and 18845 by J.C. Bähr and K.B. Stark, and 1889-19136, 3 vols., by V. Thumser and H. Swoboda).

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13     Loc. cit.: "... ist ... kein Problem dieser Untersuchung;" on this point I would beg to differ: only by turning Die Polis into a loanword of the German language did Burckhardt make possible its becoming a "household word."

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14     La Polis grecque, Recherches ... (Paderborn 1907) (Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums, ed. E. Drerup. 1, 3-4). Actually a collection of four earlier studies by Francotte (171). N.D. Fustel de Coulanges, La cité antique (Paris 1864) (170-173; etc.).

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15     Polis does not appear in J.B. Bury, A history of Greece to the death of Alexander the Great (London 1900). The CAH1 has (3 [1925] 687, in a section written by F.E. Adcock, one of the co-editors) a sub-heading "The refuge, the Polis and the Asty." It is interesting to note that C. Hignett, much maligned for his "hypercriticism," dogmatically formulates, as if he were writing in German, "... the content which the idea of the polis possessed in Greece and especially in Athens . . ." (History of the Athenian constitution [Oxford 1952] 176). It would appear that it was not least under the influence of refugees from the devastation of Europe (and German academic life in particular) by the Nazis that the term became in the English language as current as it had already become in German — although other factors will also have played a significant rôle.

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16     Cf. also the programmatic (and curiously optimistic) reminder (14): "Grundbegriffe intentional wissenschaftlicher Althistorie sind aber noch immer Sache nicht bloß individuellen Geschmacks [my emphasis]."

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17     Cf. 29: "Erst wenn dies [i.e., the subject of Gawantka's study] geklärt ist, läßt sich vielleicht fragen, ob es sinnvoll oder gar notwendig sein könnte, 'die Polis' durch ein anderes Wort zu ersetzen."

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18     A.H.L. Heeren, Handbuch der Geschichte der Staaten des Alterthums, mit besonderer Rücksicht auf ihre Verfassungen, ihren Handel und ihre Colonien (1799; 18102; reissued Wien 18172). Cf. now, incidentally, H.-J. Gehrke, Jenseits von Athen und Sparta: Das Dritte Griechenland und seine Staatenwelt (München 1986) (cf. my review in Gymnasium 97 [1990] 172f.).

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19     A.M. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece; the age of experiment (London, Melbourne, Toronto 1980) 7. (The beautiful dust jacket of the book shows only Roman and modern structures.)

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20     J.N. Coldstream, The formation of the Greek polis: Aristotle and archaeology (Opladen 1984) (Rheinisch-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften. Vorträge. Geisteswissenschaften. 272).

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21     Coldstream, op. cit. (above, n. 20) 7.

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22     Ibid. 8.

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23     Some of the thoughts expressed in the following pages were first aired as part of the key-note address to the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Canadian West, in Banff, Alberta, 1986 02 21, under the title "Considering Archaic and Classical Greek History." I should like to express my gratitude to the organiser, Professor Martin Cropp of the University of Calgary, and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (whose grant to the Association enabled Professor Cropp to invite me).

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24     On stasis, see now the massive survey by H.-J. Gehrke, Stasis. Untersuchungen zu den inneren Kriegen in den griechischen Staaten des 5. und 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (München 1985) (cf. my review in AAHG, 42 [1989] 70-72).

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25     M. I. Finley, Ancient history: Evidence and Models (London 1985) 18 (ch. 2, "The ancient historian and his sources," 7-26, a "substantially shorter version of [which] chapter appeared in Tria Corda. Scritti in onore di Arnaldo Momigliano, ed. E. Gabba (Como 1983), pp. 201-14" [109 n. 11).

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