Book Review: The Spear, the Scroll, and the Pebble: How the Greek City-State Developed as a Male Warrior-Citizen Collective


by Richard A. Billows

New York and Oxford: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. Pp. xvi, 267+. Illus., map, appends., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN:1350289191

 paperThe Evolution of the Greek City-State

Richard Billows presents a new, and exciting explanation for the development of the Greek City-States in The Spear, the Scroll, and the Pebble. He begins with a discussion of the politics of the Greek mainland prior to the formation of distinct City-States or, as Greeks called them, polis. The focus on the polis is important because it is a historical model for subsequent states prior to the modern nation-state. Prior to the polis, Billows argues, were a series of ethnos, loosely ordered regional states in the Iron Age similar to those of the Mycenaean period. Ethnos were similar to tribal societies consisting typically of scattered, often unwalled, villages and towns in a particular region of Greece. Phocis, Achaia, and Lykia are among the ethnos identified by the author (a list of ethnos and polis are given at the end of the book.)

Gradually, some regions coalesced into City-States, the famous polis. Billows identifies the “Centrifugal Polis Model,” like the Boeotian Confederation that formed around Thebes, the “Centripetal Polis Model 1,” Sparta and the Periokic System, and “Centripetal Polis Model , Athens and the Deme System.

Some polis were more democratic like Athens, and some more autocratic like Sparta, in Billows’ view, depending on how the state developed. Obviously, Athens was more autocratic under the tyrants, or when Sparta imposed an oligarchy on it after the Peloponnesian Wars for example. The tendency towards City-States is a result of a geography of mountains separating regions and most land being close to the sea. Economic development through trade in particular also played a role, with the polis depending on artisans and merchants who were attracted to settle in urban areas to eventually form the ancient version of a middle class. Trade enabled population growth which not only established the polis, it also allowed the creation of overseas colonies around the Mediterranean coast by the Greeks. Billows explains the economic parameters of the City-State, using ancient sources to show typical wages and the costs of rent and other important economic goods.

The meat of the book focuses on the development of the Hoplite warrior-citizen, Literacy, and Democracy in the polis. Billows firmly agrees with the idea of a Hoplite Revolution in Greek warfare somewhere around the Eighth Century BCE. Homeric warfare was different, consisting of small bands fighting heroically around a particular warrior. Hoplite warfare was made possible by the economic rise of the polis, with the rise of a substantial middle class that could afford to purchase the full Hoplite panoply of spear, shield, and armor. These were citizen-warriors, who when called to battle left their homes to fight for the polis. They became disciplined soldiers who fought in strict phalanx, shoulder-to-shoulder formation. The training and organization necessary for Hoplite Warfare forged a collective around the City-States that unified their populations into cohesive bodies. The development of City-States' naval forces furthered this unity with the sailors who crewed the triremes of the polis providing another group of citizen-warriors.

Democracy proved to be the other key force in developing the collective polis, as the major means for state decision-making. After periods of tyranny in the early history of most polis, various versions of democracy appeared. The first stage of democracy relied on city councils of a small group of men (500 in the case of Athens) elected by the citizens of the polis. Sometimes sortition (or random choice from the citizens) was used to choose the council. In Athens, the council of 500 was replaced every year, so almost all male citizens had a chance to serve at some point in their lives. Assemblies of the whole citizenry of the polis were increasingly added to the democracies of Greece over time. The philosophical writings of Aristotle, Plato, et al., give us some idea of how Greek polis democracy worked in practice. Decisions were rationally debated in public fora and then voted on by the Council and Assembly as to implementing policy. There were both written laws and unwritten rules (traditions, sometimes passed on orally) that underlay the functioning of democracy. From examples archaeologists have found, we know written laws were often displayed publicly in stone inscription for all to see, and for honoring important citizens. Based on the philosophers, young male citizens were educated on how to make decisions and on the writing of good laws. There was a great deal of participation in the running of the polis, and key was the informed citizen acting as part of a greater collective, casting his pebble to vote on what his City-State would do, who its officials were, who led its armies and navies.

The last big question Billows seeks to answer is whether there was widespread literacy in the polis. Billows believes the answer is clearly yes. Relying on sources from Aristophanes to Plato, Billows notes multiple references to schools being common in the various polis, not just Athens. He points to evidence that it was the law in Athens for schools to be established for “free-born” boys. There also is artwork depicting schooling, and archaeological sites that have been identified as schools. Strabo notes the presence of a school in the town of Mykalessos, a dependency of the polis of Tanagra. The presence of written graffiti around Athens is also a sign that farmers were literate. And why would inscriptions of laws be placed on stones, if most citizens of the polis could not read? There is writing on broken pieces of pottery, even in rural locations. In Aristophanes’ play ‘The Acharnians,’ a simple farmer, Dikaipolis is clearly literate, referring to being a writer. Ostracism required the voter to write the name of the ostracized, and Athens was not the only City-State to practice ostracism. Names appear on gravestones as well, where family members would return to mourn relatives. Why are there so many names, if most mourners were not literate? And there is the example of a poor Athenian citizen petitioning the polis for the restoration of his poor relief payment of 2 obols per day, a speech that was written for him to read. Billows gathers this evidence to suggest that the Greek polis were the first societies to have mass literacy. This literacy furthered the development of democracy through creating a literate, informed citizenry.

To sum up, Billows sees a literate, Hoplite, democratic culture developed in the polis, where a mass audience would participate in the “high culture” we associate with the Ancient Greece of Plato, Euripides, Herodotus, and the other great writers of Classical Greece. A tough book with a lot of interesting ideas geared towards the academic market, but worth a read for a deeper understanding of Classical Greece.

Our Reviewer: Dr. Stavropoulos received his Ph.D. in History from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2013. Currently an Adjunct Professor at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, his previous reviews include Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras: The French Perspective, Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution, Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies, In the Name of Lykourgos, The Other Face of Battle, The Bulgarian Contract, Napoleon’s Stolen Army, In the Words of Wellington’s Fighting Cocks, Chasing the Great Retreat, Athens, City of Wisdom: A History, Commanding Petty Despots, Writing Battles: New Perspectives on Warfare and Memory in Medieval Europe, SOG Kontum, Simply Murder, Soldiers from Experience, July 22: The Civil War Battle of Atlanta, New York’s War of 1812, and The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777



Note: The Spear, the Scroll, and the Pebble is also available in hard cover and e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: –Alexander Stavropoulos   

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