Social Memory in Athenian Public Discourse

Uses and Meanings of the Past

Subjects: Classical Studies, Greek, History
Hardcover : 9780472118328, 424 pages, 6 B&W illustrations, 6 x 9, December 2012
Paperback : 9780472037780, 426 pages, 6 B&W illustrations, 6 x 9, March 2020
Ebook : 9780472028412, 464 pages, 7 illustrations, December 2012
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Examining the role of Athenian social memory in understanding the political climate in fourth-century Athens

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Prompted by the abundant historical allusions in Athenian political and diplomatic discourse, Bernd Steinbock analyzes the uses and meanings of the past in fourth-century Athens, using Thebes’ role in Athenian memory as a case study. This examination is based upon the premise that Athenian social memory, that is, the shared and often idealized and distorted image of the past, should not be viewed as an unreliable counterpart of history but as an invaluable key to the Athenians’ mentality. Against the tendency to view the orators’ references to the past as empty rhetorical phrases or propagandistic cover-ups for Realpolitik, it argues that the past constituted important political capital in its own right. Drawing upon theories of social memory, it contextualizes the orators’ historical allusions within the complex net of remembrances and beliefs held by the audience and thus tries to gauge their ideological and emotive power. 
Integrating literary, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence with recent scholarship on memory, identity, rhetoric, and international relations, Social Memory in Athenian Public Discourse: Uses and Meanings of the Past enhances our understanding of both the function of memory in Athenian public discourse and the history of Athenian-Theban relations. It should be of interest not only to students of Greek history and oratory but to everybody interested in memory studies, Athenian democracy, and political decision making.

Bernd Steinbock is Associate Professor in the Department of Classical Studies at the University of Western Ontario in London.

"... Steinbock offers a new approach to the way in which the past was used in public discourse in ancient Athens and his study will doubtless provoke other scholars to re-think common perceptions of the role of the historical allusion in the Attic orators."--Classical Journal

- Frances Pownall

"Steinbock gives all of his Greek sources in translation, which makes his book accessible to a wider circle of readers. When he feels it important to add the Greek original, he regularly does so in brackets, which can be distracting, but I appreciate his desire to reach a wider audience. This is a very rich and rewarding book that should stimulate others to apply its methods to many other moments in Greek history and to deepen our understanding of Greek uses of the past."--American Historical Review

- Carolyn Higbie

"'History without historians' is the provocative subtitle of a recent collection of essays exploring how the ancient Greeks themselves perceived, constructed, and used their own past. Steinbock’s study is yet another contribution in this promising direction... Steinbock is definitely at his best in outlining the impact of social memory on Athenian politics and public discourse."

- Janek Kucharski

"Steinbock explores the role of social memory in Athenian public deliberation during the fourth century BC. ...His nuanced picture of Athenian memory, the orators’ role in its negotiation, and indeed much of his analysis of the recollection of Thebes in Athenian public discourse are must-reads and will prove a valuable point of departure for any future study of Greek social memory."

- David Yates

"While many works have been devoted to the impact of the Persian Wars in shaping collective memory and identity, Steinbock ventures into the less explored field of the use of memory in the context of public communication for influencing decision-making. The choice to monitor a specific case study allows the author to explore in depth the reshaping of the past both over time and in relation to the rhetoric goal of the moment. The most interesting aspects are the analysis of the speakers’ capability of engaging with alternative interpretations of past events challenging “established memories”, and the convincing demonstration that arguments from social memory were decisive factors influencing common decisions. The parallels with contemporary political discourse are illuminating – in particular, George Bush’s use of the memory of America’s role in World War II in his speech to the troops in Iraq on December 14, 2008 (p. 1 f.), and the persistent memory of Morgenthau’s 1944 plan of turning Germany into an agrarian state in German historical consciousness and political discourse during the 1980s and 1990s (pp. 298-230)."
--Bryn Mawr Classical Review

- Lucia Cecchet

"Deepens our understanding of Athenian social memory in the Classical period [and] ... opens up new avenues of investigation into a subject that has already received a considerable amount of attention."
--Classical Philology

- Classical Philology

"A careful, balanced, and frequently illuminating study of Athenian social memory ... We may never be able to capture fully the dynamism of Athenian social memory, but Steinbock has gone a long way in showing us how to get a sense of its power and utility, not just for the Athenians but also for modern students of their history."
--American Journal of Philology

- American Journal of Philology

"The concept of social memory seems potentially very fruitful and one should hope that more books like this one will appear and further elucidate the ancient Greeks’ notions of their past."

- Eirene

"An important contribution to the discussion of the importance of the past in Athens and offers convincing analysis."