Ancient Thebes, in and out of time

Daniel Berman

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What is the relationship between the stories we tell about a city and the “real” history? Stories float from person to person as neighborhoods rise and fall, institutions develop and spread, and natural and manmade events bring gradual or catastrophic change. The media adds an additional layering as it appeals to civic loyalty and commitment in spreading the news.The real history is always somewhere right beyond our grasp, as the competing and conflicting narratives of individuals and institutions reflect a range of motives, from altruistic to selfish to just plain confused. Myths and legends grow up around a city because stories help us establish our connection to spaces and places and fix our personal and communal identity. Often the veracity of stories is less imporant than the feelings they evoke. This is true of Philadelphia, Paris, New York, or any other city.

But how does the historian, the narratologist, the archaeologist tell the difference between the real and the imagined, and what is the relationship between the two? In his new book Myth, Literature, and the Creation of the Topography of Thebes, Professor Daniel Berman attempts to reconstruct the ancient topography of Thebes through two, often conflicting, sources, the ancient literature and the contemporary archaeological record. Thebes, continuously occupied from the Mycenean period to the present day, is the ancient city of Herakles, Dionysus, Oedipus, and Antigone of Greek myth. It was an important dramatic site in Greek epic and lyric poetry, Classical tragedy, and the literature of the Hellenistic period. But behind and layered within mythic Thebes, there is also a very real city that has long experienced the beating pulse of everyday life. As you will learn in this interview, it is hardly a straightforward task to disambiguate the real and the imagined city, as these two elements became entangled so long ago.

I spoke to Daniel Berman on July 22, 2015.

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—Fred Rowland

Politics and the Street in Democratic Athens

A Gottesman

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In his new book, Politics and the Street in Democratic Athens (Cambridge University Press, 2014, Print / Online), Alex Gottesman explores the informal political structures that helped to shape events in the more widely documented institutions of assembly, council, and courts in Democratic Athens. Identifying the cryptic utterances and odd descriptions of ancient Greek literature for evidence of puzzles not yet explained by historians, Professor Gottesman patches together patterns of interactions and associations that point to a public sphere centered around the Athenian Agora.

The boundaries between formal and informal political structures were rather porous and they changed over time. Professor Gottesman describes an ancient form of publicity stunts which raised awareness among the public of legal and political issues and procedures. These publicity stunts brought citizens and non-citizens, high born and low, men and women, and slave and free together in a complex network of informal association. Professor Gottesman then speculates on how these informal networks influenced the more famous democratic political institutions of ancient Athens.

I spoke to Alex Gottesman about his new book, Politics and the Street in Democratic Athens, on March 27, 2015.

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—Fred Rowland