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date: 18 September 2019

(p. xiii) Preface

(p. xiii) Preface

Hellenic studies is a lively, challenging, and fast-moving field—more so than in days when the study of ancient Greece (twinned with the study of Rome) exerted a more universal dominance over European self-definition. The reason for this is simple: the study of the Greeks always was a means of thinking about modernity too, and what we make of them—and so of their influence on us—is something that itself changes as our own perspectives, preoccupations, and identities change. This is no less true as we move into a world increasingly characterized by intense cultural negotiation, hybrid identities, and the awareness of extreme inequalities. The Greeks no longer dominate the production of Europe's cultural capital, but they still remain important elements in this more complex, multicultural landscape. Indeed, the new contexts of their study only bring to bear on them, and with greater urgency, a whole raft of new perspectives which have revivified their study. New questions and new types of question are being asked about the ancient Greeks—including, for example, those Greeks who traditionally have received very little attention, such as women, slaves, and migrants. The Greeks who have historically been most influential—the poets, philosophers, scientists, historians, and orators who have been intensely studied for over two millennia—are on the move as well, their voices more distinctive and fresher precisely because their authority is less inevitable, more contingent, and more closely linked to specific contexts and people.

One of the consequences of all this has been an extraordinary growth in the size and complexity of Hellenic studies as a field. It always was conceived as a broad and challenging area of enquiry. In an address delivered at the inaugural meeting of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, on 16 June 1879, Charles Newton suggested that the term ‘Hellenic Studies’ not only applied to linguistic work or textual criticism, but encompassed a wide sample of evidence, including material culture and inscriptions. Chronologically, his vision was ambitious: he insisted on the continuities between ancient and modern Greece, and declared that: ‘the space of time … over which our Hellenic Studies may range, may be computed as about twenty-five centuries, or perhaps something more.’ He also suggested that the geographical scope of Hellenic studies extended beyond Greece itself and ought to follow the example set by August Böckh, whose vast Corpus of Greek inscriptions included Greek documents ‘wherever they may be found, not only in Hellas itself, but outside the Mediterranean, and beyond the Pillars of Hercules’. Thus, just as (p. xiv) inscriptions were to be investigated regardless of where they were found, ‘so we may study the Greek monuments and language wherever these are to be met with’ (‘Hellenic Studies: An Introductory Address’, JHS 1: 1–6). Whatever, whenever, and wherever: Newton's inaugural address called on practitioners of Hellenic studies to show flexibility and openness in dealing with evidence, chronology, and geography, and in making these remarks he set the stage for the best work in Hellenic studies over the next century and more.

One hundred and thirty years later, the field has become so broad, so rich in methodological sophistication and specialized knowledge, that no one person could hope to master it all. This is where the present Handbook hopes to lend a hand: to give guidance to readers interested in Hellenic studies as a whole, to those who wish to navigate through difficult regions of the discipline of Classics, and to those who wish to hone their critical tools for further analysis of the ancient Greek world. It does not claim to offer a systematic account of the whole Greek world: such a claim would be foolhardy, even if the aim were not itself undesirable in any case. For a dogmatic overview would not capture what is, in its essence, an open-ended, complex, and dynamic process of enquiry—a process, moreover, that looks radically different depending on one's particular vantage-point. But it is precisely because perspectives change, because specialized research increases in volume and complexity, and because boundaries between disciplines shift, that the reader might appreciate some form of guidance which takes a wide view of the field. These are the concerns we tried to negotiate when we asked contributors to the Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies to think of the work as less an encyclopedia of the well established and more a research tool that provides inspiration as well as information. What we hope is that the Handbook exemplifies the various ways in which evidence can be used, explores the breadth and potential of current approaches to ancient Greece, and encourages informed dialogue between different disciplines, perspectives, and approaches. We hope that, as such, it will cater to graduate students and advanced undergraduates, but will also be found useful by established academics, who can use the collection as the first step into an area outside their immediate expertise, whether for new courses or their own research. All of our readers are advised that they can make good at least some of the deficits in areas thinly covered here by consulting other works in the series—especially the Oxford Handbooks of Archaeology, of Ancient Greek Law, of Byzantine Studies, of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World, and of Roman Studies.

The material we do cover is divided into four sections, each of which has its own thematic integrity, of which an overview is given in the editorial introduction to each. But they are united by the need to be aware of the perspective one is adopting in the study of Hellenism. In the first place, this means considering the many very different perspectives from which the notion of ‘Hellenism’ itself has been defined: this is the theme of the chapters in Part I. They are complemented by those in Part II, which starts to look at how the ancient Greeks viewed themselves. Its focus is (p. xv) the classical ‘polis’, both as a historical reality but also, and no less importantly, as a self-conscious ideal of civilized Greekness which has lasted for as long as Hellenism itself. What participation in this ideal amounts to is something explored in Part III, which deals with various branches of Greek literature, through which the ancient Greeks exhibited, created, and above all performed so much of their culture. The Greeks' attempts to speak to posterity and our own efforts to hear them (to become their posterity) are mediated and affected by the methods by which we study them. Our final group of chapters, in Part IV, then looks at the methods and approaches available to us. This section is obviously practical in some sense, and we intend it to serve as a guide to contemporary research and to potentially fruitful approaches in the future; but it has a historical and cultural aspect as well, since it reflects on the methods, practical and theoretical, through which the study of Hellenism has at different times been defined, and the uses to which it has been put. The last section thus completes the circle and points back to the reflections on Hellenism outlined, but really only just begun, in Part I.

An octopus swims on the front cover of our Handbook, and stares at potential readers. We chose this image because it seemed to us to speak of tenacity and transformation, which are two key aspects of ancient Greek culture. The painting is very early: it decorates a Minoan vase from Knossos, c.1450–1400 bce, and is now kept in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. But the octopus also appears in later Greek contexts, such as Homer's Odyssey, where Odysseus is compared to the animal when he clings to a rock after his shipwreck. In Richmond Lattimore's translation (Odyssey 5.432–5):

  • As when an octopus is dragged away from its shelter
  • the thickly-clustered pebbles stick in the cups of the tentacles,
  • so in contact with the rock the skin from his bold hands
  • was torn away.

Odysseus, like the octopus, wants to survive and (unlike the animal) manages to do so: he is even more determined and adaptable. His literary survival is reflected, later still, in the poetry of Michael Longley, for whom ‘Homer's Octopus’ becomes a reflection on poetry itself:

  • Poetry is like Homer's octopus
  • Yanked out of its hidey-hole, suckers
  • Full of tiny stones, except that the stones
  • Are precious stones or semi-precious stones.

This poem, from Ghost Orchid (London, 1995), summarizes many of the concerns of our Handbook: it talks about a purposeful act of will, the decision to ‘yank out’ the octopus—or engage in the study of ancient Greece. And then it speaks of unexpected, precious discoveries.