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This webpage reproduces an article in the
American Journal of Philology
Vol. 16, No. 3 (1895), pp373‑375.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p373  The Ancient Boeotians: their Character and their Culture and their Reputation, by W. Rhys Roberts. Cambridge, at the University Press. New York, Macmillan & Co., 1895.

An Attic neighbor is an old proverb. The Peloponnesians could be bad neighbors too, as Thukydides (III.105)º says, perhaps in allusion to the proverb; but the Attic was undoubtedly a bad neighbor. Boeotia on the north and Megara on the west fared alike ill at his hands, as ill as Connecticut and New Jersey at the hands of the Manhattanese. When Dicaeopolis in the Acharnians of Aristophanes opens his peace-shop, the first trader from abroad is a Megarian, the second is a Boeotian, and it is hard to tell which is the more contemptuously treated, the Megarian, who is starved out of all human feeling, or the Boeotian, who has been fattened into hopeless stupidity. But whereas no one takes Diedrich Knickerbocker's chapter on the Yankees seriously, most writers on Greek antiquity have passed down the Attic caricatures of Boeotia with scarcely a criticism, and it is only of comparatively late years, and only among scholars of a certain degree of historical imagination, that there has been any decided protest against the diabolical malice of the 'Attikonikoi.'

In his chapter on Hesiod, Bergk, whose vision of things Hellenic was very much widened, as every scholar's must be, by close study of Greek lyric poetry, has some excellent remarks on Boeotia and the people of Boeotia, and recent writers have modified to some extent the old prejudice that has incorporated itself in the familiar classical phrases which always do duty whenever Boeotia is mentioned, such as 'thick air,' 'land of wethers,' 'Boeotian swine,' and the 'ox-eared dwellers in Oxearshire.' But no one that we can recall has  p374 gone into the matter with so much fulness as Mr. Roberts in his attractive little volume on 'The Ancient Boeotians,' which will do good service in rectifying crooked judgments on the northern neighbors of the Attic state. Mr. Roberts is a Welshman and professor in a Welsh college, and his book was put together at Saint Andrews, and somehow these conditions seem to fit the advocate of a lost cause. The Welsh have had to suffer many things of their English neighbors, and that is the reason why Shakspere's triumphant Welshmen are so effective. Falstaff's 'I am dejected. I am not able to answer the Welsh flannel: ignorance itself is a plummet o'er me' might well represent the Athenian's despair at Theban supremacy. And though Edinburgh is the Athens of the North, the Scottish dialect which the North Britons complacently call Doric seems to be much nearer the Boeotian Aeolic, and reminds one of the sharp difference that has been made between English 'wit' and Scotch 'wut.' But of late years foreigners like Max O'Rell have had much to say for Scotch esprit as against English, and as an exemplar Andrew Lang may serve instar omnium. Cambria and Scotia have been justified as Mr. Roberts has tried to justify Boeotia. And yet by some perversity no one likes to have his special home paralleled with Boeotia. Mr. Roberts is not enthusiastic over the Welsh 'Fery true' by which Dr. Jowett renders Cebes' Boeotian ejaculation in the Phaedo, and when Professor Tyrrell translates the part of Aristophanes's Boeotian into Irish-English, he is careful to tell us that his character is the 'stage' Irishman. The fact is everybody is an Athenian, and it is as Athenians, but Athenians free from malice, that we are to read Mr. Roberts's book.

One trouble about the designation 'Boeotian' is the great variety of elements that pass under the common name. Close scrutiny will reveal a diversity enough in the stratification of Attica, but the jarring layers had been compressed into a unity under the dominion of Athens, whereas Thebes never succeeded in making her rule permanently conterminous with the canton. We do not look for echoes of the far-off struggle between Athens and Eleusis in the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and the contest of Poseidon and Athena for the possession of Attica, though perpetuated in plastic art, is not taken seriously. It has become a friendly suit. But a glance at Boeotian territory reveals name after name that recalls undying feuds. Thebes against Plataea and Plataea against Thebes. Orchomenus against Thebes and Thebes against Orchomenus. We are reminded of Florence and Pisa, of Siena and Perugia. So it is hard to write about the Boeotians, as if they were of one blood, of the same set of traditions; and this witches' caldron of conflicting elements explains a great deal. It explains the hatred of Athens for Thebes. It explains the 'Medism' of Thebes in the Persian War, about which much 'patriotic' nonsense has been written. Even Mr. Roberts finds it necessary to extenuate the behavior of the Thebans during that period and to prove that there was a sound remnant in the state. Indeed, so innocent a Pan-Hellenist is he that he falls headforemost into the trap laid by the Theban speakers in Thukydides, and puts all the blame for the lack of Hellenic patriotism on the dominant oligarchical faction. Herodotus, with his clear vision, saw that Greece was the result, not the cause, of the Persian War, and that a good old-fashioned hatred is as potent an historical factor as anything else.

 p375  In the chapter on literature and art in Boeotia, Mr. Roberts passes in rapid review the figures that illustrate the annals of Boeotia from Hesiod and Pindar down to Plutarch. Chief among the arts in which Boeotia excelled was flute-playing, and here again we have an antagonism between the Attic cithern and the Boeotian fife — which explains so much in a land and age of musical antipathies. He then counts up the painters and sculptors that have done Boeotia honor, and repels the theory that the Tanagra figurines, which have revolutionized our notions of antique art, are other than native productions. Tanagra had no reason to love Athens.

A special chapter is given to Epaminondas, in whom 'character and culture were uniquely united.' Princeps meo iudicio Graeciae, says Cicero in a familiar passage. Cicero, vainest of mortals, doubtless saw a certain likeness between the hero of Leuctra and Mantinea and the imperator, who quelled the robber tribes of Mt. Amanus in Cilicia. Renan, it may be remembered, solves the question why such exceptional geniuses arise in such unlooked-for localities on the simple ground that great men are the flowering of generations of dullards. Of himself he says: "Je suis l'aboutissement de longues files obscures de paysans et de marins. Je jouis de leurs économies de pensée ; je suis reconnaissant à ces pauvres gens qui m'ont procuré par leur sobriété intellectuelle de si vives jouissances . . . Une race donne sa fleur quand elle émerge de l'oubli. Les brillantes éclosions intellectuelles sortent d'un vaste fond d'inconscience, j'ai presque envie de dire, de vastes réservoirs d'ignorance." As Renan to Brittany, so Pindar and Epaminondas to Boeotia. But this line of defence would hardly fit into the scheme of Mr. Roberts's apology.

In the fifth chapter Mr. Roberts draws an interesting parallel between Boeotians and Batavians, in which Epaminondas figures as a William the Silent, while Plutarch is a less clever Erasmus; and in the sixth and last the case for the Boeotians is summed up. Of course, every local history, like every biography, is apt to become a piece of special pleading, but Mr. Roberts evidently tries to be fair. Like Gorgibus in 'Les Précieuses Ridicules,' the Boeotians 'avaient la forme trop enfoncée dans la matière.' They were too much given to good living. They were too much devoted to local interests. But their political faults were Greek faults, and we are not to be swayed by the Attic verdict. We are to recognize freely 'the supreme effort which they made for freedom and peace,' and we are to do homage to the great names of their literature. We are not to say that King Lear speaks of a 'learned Theban' simply because he is insane, without emphasizing the fact that he speaks also of a 'good Athenian.' We must learn to appreciate the wide spread of culture in Boeotia and Boeotia's remarkable achievements in art. We must do justice to Boeotia and do justice to Holland, and finally we must thank Mr. Roberts for his contribution to the closer study of Greek cantonal life. The life of Greece cannot be understood without such special investigations as these into the varied elements that make up the complex nationality of the most interesting people known to history.

B. L. Gildersleeve.

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