New Book Reviews in CWA 82

3 mins read
Yale University Press, £25.00; ISBN 9780300219012

The Spartan Regime: Its Character, Origins, and Grand Strategy

by Paul A Rahe

Rahe is a distinguished history professor, and after a lifetime of studies has produced the first of three books to unravel the problems of Sparta. The trouble is, he is no archaeologist, and consequently he is far too kind in his analysis. The Spartans were essentially barbaric thugs. After conquering and virtually enslaving their neighbours, the Messenians, in the 7th century BC, the Spartans turned themselves into warriors. Military brutality dominated their whole way of life, they rejected culture and the use of money, and they eventually became the best soldiers in the region. Subsequently, many of the liberal elite in Classical Greece – from Plato to Xenophon – idealised them. Aristotle places Sparta as being the best example of a mixed constitution with equal amounts of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy, and with a well-balanced system of checks and balances. Rahe takes much the same line. Thus he produces a very learned analysis of the constitution while rather ignoring the brutal economic realities that lay underneath. He tends to run together the virtues of Sparta in the 7th century – when they produced fine poets such as Tyrtaeus – with the thugs of the 5th century, and he virtually ignores what happens to Sparta later, especially the cultural and economic reforms of the 3rd century. His detailed account of the Spartan constitution therefore displays immense erudition, but hopefully he will remove the rose-coloured spectacles through which he views the Spartans in later volumes.

Review: Andrew Selkirk

University of Pennsylvania Press, £60.00; ISBN9781934536865

The Origins of Maya States

by Loa P Traxler and Robert J Sharer (eds)

Most studies on Maya states unsurprisingly focus on the height of regional sociopolitical complexity in the Classic period (c.AD 250-850). But how did these great states develop in the first place? The Origins of Maya States, an output of an international conference held at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, is the first comprehensive volume in more than 30 years to tackle this question, examining a broad variety of topical issues – including the emergence of interregional connectivity, state ideological systems, and labour control – to reconstruct the archaeological landscape of the Preclassic period (c.1000 BC-AD 250). This is no easy task, and, as the editors Traxler and Sharer quickly acknowledge, perhaps the most important characteristic shared by all Maya states is their variability. Still, the volume manages a considered central thesis – a provisional model of Maya state evolution in 14 bullet points – without oversimplifying its narrative. It also incorporates discussions of major Mesoamerican regions outside the Maya area, especially highland Mexico and the Gulf lowlands, which provides helpful, and potentially crucial, context for the trajectory of the Maya. Better suited for scholars rather than casual readers, the book could have benefited from more coverage of the northern Maya lowlands of the Yucatán, a fault, according to the editors, caused by publication time-constraints rather than organisational oversight.

Review: Nicholas Bartos

Harvard University Press, £33.95; ISBN 9780674725522

Making Faces: The Evolutionary Origins of the Human Face

by Adam S Wilkins

Tracing our evolutionary history back to the emergence of the first vertebrates some 500 million years ago, Wilkins pairs biological and genetic studies with the archaeological record to examine how humans developed the most expressive faces in the animal kingdom. It was an intriguing transformation that also provided the foundation for some of our species’ unique characteristics, including the neural and muscular mechanisms necessary for speech, the cognitive ability to interpret emotional responses, and thereby sociability and culture. The book is a little heavy on scientific jargon, but gives a truly fresh appreciation of the wonders of the human face – even if they are still lost on us first thing in the morning.

Review: Nicholas Bartos

University Press of Florida, £13.54; ISBN 9780813054131

The Archaeology of Smoking and Tobacco

by Georgia L Fox

The archaeology of smoking might seem a niche subject, but don’t pass the pipe on this astute and informative volume. Bits of tobacco paraphernalia are among the most commonly found artefacts on North American sites, and the plant’s popularity and longevity of use among all classes, genders, and ethnicities makes it a brilliant entry point into the American experience across history. Fox packs material culture studies with anthropological and economic theories, persuasively demonstrating tobacco’s role in nearly every major shift in American life, from indigenous ritual and colonial export to the emergence of slavery and 20th-century imperialism. Even if you are not a smoker, be sure to burn through this fascinating book.

Review: Nicholas Bartos

Yale University Press, £45.00; ISBN 9781588395993

Roman Portraits: Sculptures in Stone and Bronze

by Paul Zanker

It is common in even the world’s most-prestigious museums to find rows of Roman portraits clustered together with almost no signage. This vibrant catalogue of the Met’s distinguished collection, written by one of the leading authorities on Roman sculpture today, is thus very pertinent indeed. Alongside excellent photography which, from multiple angles, captures the majestic textures of these works, Zanker succinctly describes the lives and accomplishments of significant ancient figures, as well as the sociopolitical and practical circumstances that influenced the forms and styles of their portraits. The result is a hybrid volume: a glossy coffee-table book filled with academically nuanced chapters.

Review: Nicholas Bartos

These reviews appear in CWA 82Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.