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The Greeks and Greek Civilization


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Jacob Burckhardt was one of the greatest historians of the nineteenth century. He is best-known for his monumental Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, two editions of which are currently in print (Penguin 1990 and Phaidon 1995).
Oswyn Murray is a Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Balliol College, Oxford and the editor of the Fontana History of the Ancient World series.
Sheila Stern is a translator and critic. She was married to J. P. Stern, author of Hitler: The Fuhrer and the People.


In 1965, Murray wrote his scathing review of Palmer Hilty's translation of the Griechische Kulturgeschichte. His criticism of Hilty's selections taken from Burckhardt's lectures on Greek culture drew a letter from Moses Finley revealing that he and Sheila Stern were working on another translation with different selections. After Finley's death in 1986, the project languished until 1989, when Stern asked Murray if he would be interested in taking over the task of editing the book. This edition, the first to appear in the U.S., includes Burckhardt's most ground-breaking ideas from the German text (edited by Jacob Oeri, Burckhardt's nephew). Murray's helpful introduction succinctly explains the 19th-century context; substantial endnotes clarify the ancient sources. Although necessarily an abridgment of the whole, this fluid, smooth translation fills a gap in scholarship. Burckhardt (1818-1897) broke with the positivist Hegelian historians of his time who preferred to study the progression of events and "great men." He reconceptualized Greek culture with his new methodology and believed that how an event was perceived was more important than the event itself, which could only be presented subjectively. Through vivid examples from ancient literary texts and ethnographies, Burckhardt advocated the study of cultural history, meaning the study of writers, ideas, visual arts and other "monuments" of a society. This book will become a necessary tool in courses not only on 19th-century historiography, but on the ancient world as well. (Oct.)

With a masterful application of brevity, classicist Murray (Oxford Univ.) has edited Burckhardt's series of 19th-century lectures on Greek civilization. Burckhardt's reputation as the first cultural historian was established with the 1872 publication of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. As laid out in Murray's excellent introduction, Burckhardt's contemporaries attacked his efforts in Greek history both because they did not consider him an ancient historian and because, contrary to standard practice, Burckhardt used only primary sources. Burckhardt claimed that the Greeks were essentially different from modern Europeans, thus flouting his colleagues' new field of scientific philology. Further, Burckhardt saw a fundamental pessimism in Greek culture. For him, the "glory that was Greece" was nothing more than a modern myth based on the idealization of Greek art and Athenian democracy. Burckhardt's artistic (albeit occasionally opaque) blending of the forces that defined ancient Greece is fascinating and timely. Recommended for all history collections.‘Claibourne G. Williams, Ferris State Univ., Big Rapids, MI

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