Athens, Sparta, and Corinth in Western Civilization Texts

Every February, the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah College—where I teach—sponsors a symposium devoted to discussing a theme broadly relevant to faculty and student interest.  In the past, the center has sponsored themes on the subjects of culture and community, the two Americas, imagination, memory, and friendship, among others.  This year’s theme is “The Transforming Book”; our keynote speaker will be Anthony Grafton, former president of the AHA

The historians at our school are contributing to the symposium by organizing a session on the transformation of textbooks in our respective areas.  Each of us will take a few minutes this evening to discuss how textbook narratives and focal points have changed in American history, European history, and world history.  As these textbooks represent summary digests of narratives deemed important for the history of America, the world, and the west, the panel should be an interesting one.

I took this as an opportunity to consider how Corinth has factored (historically) into narratives of the Greek polis in Western Civilization textbooks from the 1930s to today.  I looked briefly at about a dozen texts that I could easily borrow via ILL or happened to own.  Arranged chronologically, they include:

  • 1. Arthur P. Watts, A History of Western Civilization, Volume I, New York 1939 (Prentice-Hall)
  • 2. Harry Elmer Barnes, A Survey of Western Civilization, New York 1947 (Thomas Y. Cromwell Company)
  • 3. Carolton J.H. Hayes, Marshall Whithed Baldwin, and Charles Woolsey Cole, History of Western Civilization, 2nd Edition, New York 1967 (The Macmillan Company)
  • 4. Roland N. Stromberg, A History of Western Civilization, Revised edition, Homewood, IL 1969 (The Dorsey Press)
  • 5. Steward C. Easton, The Heritage of Western Civilization to 1715, 2nd edition, New York 1970 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc)
  • 6. Edward McNall Burns, Western Civilizations: Their History and their culture, Vol. 1, Eighth Edition, New York 1973 (W.W. Norton & Company)
  • 7. Mortimer Chambers, Raymond Grew, David Herlihy, Theodore K. Rabb, and Isser Woloch, The Western Experience to 1715, New York 1974 (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • 8. John P. McKay, Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler, A History of Western Society, 2nd edition, Boston 1983 (Houghton Mifflin Company)
  • 9. Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, The Western Heritage, Brief Edition, Vol. 1: To 1715, Third edition, Upper Saddle River, NJ 2002 (Prentice Hall)
  • 10. Jackson L. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, Volume 1: To 1715, Fifth Edition, 2003 (Thomson Wadsworth)
  • 11. Mark Kishlansky, Patrick Geary, and Patricia O’Brien, A Brief History of Western Civilization: The Unfinished Legacy, Vol. 1: To 1715, Fifth Edition, New York 2007 (Pearson Longman)
  • 12. Joshua Cole, Carol Symes, Judith Coffin, and Robert Stacey, Western Civilizations: Their History & Their culture, Brief Third Edition, Volume 1, New York 2012 (W.W. Norton & Company)

The problem with my approach, of course, is that textbooks are continually updated and few libraries hold on to outdated textbooks.  It is consequently hard to know whether a textbook’s fifth edition discusses a city like Corinth in a similar or different manner than a first edition.  Nonetheless, the results seem to show interesting patterns.

It was hardly surprising that Western Civilization textbooks written to establish the fundamentals of western society would focus on Athens over Corinth and Sparta.  Given Athens’ historic associations with democracy, philosophy, and the arts, most writers have devoted the most space to Athens.  That said, I was surprised to see these assumptions explicitly stated by author #1 (Watts 1939) (pp. 54-55):

“The Greeks were essentially the founders of European civilization… Between 500 and 338 B.C. all the Greek achievements in thought, literature, and art took place in one city: Athens. During the same period the Thebans, Spartans, and Corinthians distinguished themselves mainly by their stupidity.”

And I was equally surprised when I read in author #2 (Barnes 1947, p. 98 & 114):

“For a long time it was held: (1) that the Greeks were a pure race; (2) that all the Greeks were highly civilized; and (3) that they were biologically far superior to other historical persons…Such fantastic views have now been completely abandoned by historians and anthropologists.  The Greeks were a highly mixed race. Only a very few of the historical Greeks, chiefly in Attica and Corinth, ever achieved high civilization. Most of them, like the Boeotians and Arcadians, were culturally backward. And there is not the slightest evidence that even the Attic Greeks were biologically superior to the other peoples of the West in either ancient or modern times….This bucolic simplicity may have produced great soldiers, but it was not conducive to the creation of a great culture, and this accounts for the cultural backwardness of most of the Greek city-states.”

Watts and Barnes were forthright in what other early textbook authors may themselves have held.  Both display a strong bias to Athens – Corinth happens to make an entrance in Barnes’ text because of its commercial reputation.

But the bias to Athens is most obvious from the changing relative proportion of text devoted to the institutions and history of different Greek poleis.  The following shows the pages devoted to discussions of institutions and culture of Athens, Sparta, and other cities (in the case of the last two) in western civilization textbooks: 

  • Watts 1939: Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (14 pages on institution + 5 pages on culture and arts = 19 total pages)
  • Barnes 1947:  Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (2 + 10 = 12 pages)
  • Hayes, Baldwin, and Cole 1967: Sparta (1/4 page) vs. Athens (1 + 2 = 3 pages)
  • Stromberg 1969: thematic discussion on Greek science, art, philosophy, rationalism, focusing mainly on Athens.
  • Easton 1970: Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (2 + 15 = 17 pages)
  • Burns 1973: Sparta (2 pages) vs. Athens (2 + 4 = 6 pages)
  • Chambers, Grew, Herlihy, Rabb, and Woloch 1974: Sparta (1.5 pages) vs. Athens (5 + 6 = 11 pages)
  • McKay, Hill, and Buckler 1983: Sparta (1 page) vs. Athens (2 + 8 = 10 pages)
  • Kagan, Ozment, and Turner 2002: Sparta (1 page) vs. Athens (1.5 + 4 = 5.5 pages)
  • Spielvogel 2003: Sparta (1 page) vs. Athens (1 + 4 = 5 pages)
  • Kishlansky, Geary, and O’Brien 2007: Sparta (1.5 pages) vs. Athens (1.25 + 5.5 = 6.75 pages) vs. Corinth (1 page)
  • Cole, Symes, Coffin, and Stacey 2012: Sparta (1.25 pages) vs. Athens (1 + 3 = 4 pages) vs. Miletus (.75 page)

The figures show that while Athens has always stolen the show in textbook chapters on Archaic and Classical Greece, it has stolen much less of the show in the last three decadesBetween the 1930s and early 1970s, the proportion of text devoted to Sparta vs. Athens was typically between 1:6 and 1:10.  But since the early 70s, that relative proportion has more typically been in the order of 1:3 to 1:6.  Authors of western civilization textbooks have recently devoted much less space to Athenian history and culture compared to a discussion of Greek culture more broadly. 

The other interesting pattern in those figures is the 2-polis vs. 3-polis model.  For most of the 20th century, the only two poleis that mattered were Athens and Sparta.  The latter was important because it was impossible to understand Athens without understanding Sparta (thanks to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian Wars).  The real focus was on Athens.  Gradually, though, authors carved out more space for the political institutions of Sparta, eventually giving equal space to Athenian and Spartan political development. 

Other poleis entered the picture only as tangents.  Despite a strong textual tradition for Archaic and Classical Corinth, and scattered archaeological evidence, Corinth was important to the narrative in so far as it helped explain Greek colonization, the relationship between commercial wealth and tyranny, and especially the Peloponnesian War—the growth of Athenian commercial interests in the west (Sicily, S. Italy) threatened Corinth’s commercial interests and led to the outbreak of hostilities.

Only from the early 1970s did Corinth receive a more detailed treatment.  Burns 1973, for example, notes that “Corinth and Argos were leaders in the development of literature and the arts” (contrast with Watts 1939).  Others describe Corinth as an important city of AR and CL Greece.

In the 1990s, the first edition of Kishlansky, Geary, and O’Brien devoted an entire page to Corinth in a section titled “A Tale of Three Cities.”  Their description covers the traditional points—tyranny and oligarchy at Corinth, temple construction, colonization—but also brings in archaeological evidence from trade (Corinthian pottery in the west) and local excavations (building projects and Periander’s diolkos).

Kishlansky et al., however, are the exception rather than the rule.  This text shows that Corinth can potentially be an interesting case study in the Archaic and Classical polis.  As it turns out, though, Corinth makes its debut just before the entire textbook industry itself undergoes fragmentation and dissolution. 

Corinth appears in one other context in these western civ textbooks – the Roman conquest of Greece – which I’ll consider tomorrow.


  1. “Despite a strong textual tradition for Archaic and Classical Corinth…” — do you really think so, David, compared to other Greek poleis? I mean, what does this textual tradition consist of? Bits in Herodotus and Thucydides and other (mostly Athenian) authors, right? It’s not like we have an enormous amount of textual material produced by Corinthians for Corinthians. There are a couple fragments of Eumelus… This isn’t to say that Corinth isn’t important, just that the evidence for Corinth simply isn’t comparable to what we have for Athens.

  2. Richard, that’s how this started. My colleague (a modern Europe / historiography guy) made that suggestion and I thought it would be interesting to document the trend.

    Dimitri, it’s relative! About 1,000 references to Corinth in the TLG for the Archaic-Hellenistic periods. I would guess that is more than 90% of the other 1400 poleis during this period. Fragmentary, but it still makes histories of Corinth possible. I’m thinking Athens is important to Western Civilization for reasons besides evidence.

  3. Yes, but Athens is important to “Western Civilization” in the first place because we can actually say quite a lot about Athens… because of evidence. I agree that we know more about Corinth than we know about cities like (say) Triphylian Lepreon or Lokrian Naryka, but it doesn’t mean that we can write detailed Corinthian histories of civic ideology or constitutional history the way we can with Athens.

  4. Right. The two go hand-in-hand because democracy is linked to literacy is linked to evidence. And I agree with you to some extent about Corinth. But can we really say that we are in any better position in understanding the constitutional history of Archaic and Classical Sparta using Xenophon and Plutarch? That’s a point I want to make: for much of the 20th century, Sparta has served in Western Civ texts as a foil for Athens. Authors have typically set up the discussion by saying “we’re going to use as our two examples of Greek poleis two extremes: Athens and Sparta.” But neither is typical. I’m not saying, by the way, that Corinth should necessarily be the third city. Cole et al. 2012 make Miletus the third polis.

  5. Agreed. What I’d be interested in is the ways in which Corinth figures in these textbooks. For instance, you could see that early textbooks, with their emphasis on political history, would end up pulling Corinth in a fair amount for for very particular purposes — Peloponnesian War, Corinthian War, etc. But now that the emphasis is shifting towards economic history, gender, social history — does that change the way Corinth is portrayed? Or is Corinth still just the trading and colonizing city par excellence?

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