Book Review: The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization by Victor Davis Hanson

Doctor Hanson in his boo,: The Other Greeks proposes an interesting thesis. That thesis is that while it is true that the Ancient Greeks originated many of the concepts of the Western World such as drama, history and philosophy as well as the very ideals of democratic government and civic militarism, but it also gave us the concept of the freeborn yeoman farmer and that, if fact it was these men in the middle, the hoi mesoi, that made the flowering of the city-state possible by growing the food and fighting the wars.

The work under review can be considered the final and culminating book of Hanson’s ancient Greek society trilogy. The other two works are Warfare and Agriculture in Ancient Greece and The Western Way of War. In this final work, Hanson explores how the Greek farmers or georgoi, developed and shaped what later became known as Classical Greek society. This work, of course stands on its own, but it would edify the reader to have some familiarity with the earlier two works to see how Hanson’s ideas have grown and developed.

The author contends that the agrarian basis of Classical Greece has been long ignored by mainstream Classists. In a takedown of the ivory tower academic that professes to know all about Ancient Greece, Hanson says: “Many successful American PhD candidates in Classics can still review the difficult odes of Pindar. . . Few know when olives, vines or grain were harvested” (P. 7). Hanson, the son and grandson of California farmers, has a unique point of view on agriculture and how the ideal of the family farm influenced Greek society and still continue to influence the wider, modern Western world.

For Hanson, the men in the middle, or as the great Athenian lawgiver Solon called them the zeugitai, or “yoked men”, the word likely has two meanings, first that these men could afford a yoke of oxen to plow their fields and second that they would be “yoked” together in the phalanx fighting as hoplites, were the group that made the flowering of civilization in the Classical period possible. However, the rough and ready farmers hardily despised and avoided the actual “city” part of the city-state as much as possible.

Like his other works this one is supposedly written for a popular audience, yet the prose is neither fully colloquial nor fully scholarly but falls in the middle. Hanson also includes many personal stories about his experiences as a contemporary American farmer to draw parallels between modern and ancient rustics. These interpolations further dilute the book as a purely scholarly work. The book has an extensive end notes and bibliography, as well as a chapter by chapter supplementary bibliography as well as an extensive Index Locorum. With all that being said the Bachelors and Masters level student would find the book useful and interesting for an exploration of Greek life outside of the city, as well as perhaps, a starting point for research on the discussed themes.

The book is divided into three main sections. Part One “The Rise of the Small Farmer in Ancient Greece” has four chapters. In these four chapters Hanson discusses the rise of the small, diversified farms after the fall of the Mycenaean Palace culture and the subsequent interregnum. These small freeholders produced a new, very Greek concept, the city-state or Polis. Hanson sees these poleis as socially flexible, largely equalitarian and anti-elite. Using Book 24 of Homer’s Odyssey which describes Laertes’ farm as a primary source Hanson delineates the six main features of these new independent farms: (1) permanent homes for the farmers on the freeholding, (2) private irrigation to water diverse crops, (3) cheap labor, (4) crop diversification that spreads the workload over the whole year and reduced the risk associated with monoculture, (5) new crops that allowed the cultivation of previously marginal land and (6) localized processing and storage making the farmer more self-sufficient. Hanson goes on to describe the growing political and social clout of these new middling farmers and how it affected the poleis. Lastly, in “The Way of the Framer” Hanson really shines when he details the daily struggle and challenge of the georgoi, but not forgetting how bigoted and narrow minded these fellows could be in their thinking.

Part Two: “The Preservation of Agrarianism” the author explores how these new and growing of class yeomen rustics affected the economy, politics and military organization of the Greek world. Hanson argues that the hoi mesoi, all being near peers in economic and social power and unified by the common ideal of hard work and rough egalitarianism worked together to preserve their unique social, political and economic position. This concept of working together, being “yoked together” as it were, extended from the political into the military realm. The citizen hoplite in the phalanx is a direct and perfect expression of this ideal. In short, wars were about land to farm and therefore only land owning farmers should do the fighting. Fighting and farming are intimately linked. The phalanx was approximate to the grid of roughly equal farms. When the average georgoi bothered to look around, the farmer that worked the next plot over, also stood next to him in formation and sat next to him in the assembly. Even the language of war is the language of farming; “’horns’ of ‘yoked’ men who ‘threshed it out’” in battle (p. 241).

Lastly in this section Hanson tells us for the hoi mesoi the best thing about hoplite warfare was its low cost. Arms and armor were expensive, but not overly so. Campaigns, such as they were, were short and limited to the summer when farming work was at its ebb. The hoplite didn’t train, so no long period away from home was required like in modern military life and the chance of getting killed in battle was only about 10%, nearly negligible compared to working long, hard hours with dangerous farm equipment and large animals.

Section Three: “To Lose a Culture” details the decline of Greek agrarianism with the concurrent decline of the city-state. No social system lasts forever. Hanson describes under what conditions the social contract both within the city-state and between the various poleis began to breakdown as trade grew, the underclass, or thetes, began to make demands of and get political concessions from, the powerful zeugitai class. Further, warfare began to change, starting with the Persian Wars and accelerating with the long Peloponnesian War. Now campaigns were long, with sieges and naval warfare coming to predominate over the simple one- day hoplite battles. As these changes happened the landless began to take up more of the burden of fighting, especially in the vast Athenian navy and as light fighters; archers and javelin men, and so made further economic demands, such as pay for military service and demanding still more of a voice in the government. For Hanson, this radicalization of democracy spelt the end of the Classical agrarian based poleis. The last chapter, rightly called an epilogue, restates the main points of the book, offers what Hanson thinks are the fundaments of Western Civilization that grew from Greek agrarianism and lastly offers a paean to the American family farm as it fades in the face of new economic realities.

While The Other Greeks is noteworthy and important for its discussion of previously overlooked aspects of Greek life in the poleis period, it is far from a prefect work. The most glaring flaw is Hanson’s claim that nearly all aspects of Greek society in the poleis rose from agrarianism. He seems to go out of his way to ignore any contradictory evidence that other things might have had at least some influence.

Just three examples of these should suffice: First, except for a single throwaway line, he seems to ignore the large number of tyrants that arose in the Sixth century BCE in the city-states and how they helped in reducing the old aristocracy in the face of the new yeoman farmers, often by leading the new hoplite kakoi into battle against the horse riding agathoi. Second, when discussing hoplite battle Hanson concludes that “nerve” was the primary morale factor in getting citizen hoplites to fight and this “nerve” came from being a middling farmer among middling farmers with the same ideology. This statement completely disregards the military predominance of Sparta during the Archaic and Classical Periods. Thirdly, in his discussion of the economics of warfare he complete ignores the affects of trade on the subject, for it would be fair to say that Athens would not have been the Classical Athens we know were it not for its large commercial fleet and trading routes.

Ultimately, The Other Greeks is well worth the time it takes to read such a large work. While it does suffers somewhat from Hanson’s single-mindedness as to his themes and evidence and also from its half-popular, half-scholarly approach to the subject. Hanson’s writing style is surprising clear and rather concise given the breath of the thesis. The well-informed casual reader and the student of Greek and military history would find it valuable and informative.

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