Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in Literary Review, July 2004

The golden age of classical Athens, as Waterfield defines it, lasted about 140 years from the defeat of the Persians in 480 BC to the emergence of King Philip of Macedon who was to bring the free city states of Greece under Macedonian control from about 340 BC. Giants walked in Athens at this period: historians like Thucydides and Herodotus, tragedians like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, comedians like Aristophanes, politicians like Pericles. Direct democracy flowered and Athens' maritime empire flourished, producing the wealth that enabled it to build e.Grunëwald the Parthenon. But the disastrous war against Sparta (431 - 404 BC) virtually did for it, and incessant inter-state quarrelling, and eventually Philip, finished it off. From then on, Athens would never be 'great' again - or only in the sense that it had once had a great past.

Robin Waterfield's principal aim is to do justice to this astonishing period of human history by highlighting both the events and the individuals who made Athens what it was. 'Personality' history is rather frowned on these days, but personalities are essential for a popular history to hold the attention. More controversial is Waterfield's belief that the rise and fall of Athens can be seen as a sort of 'tragedy', due to its 'arrogance'. He does not convince me that Athenians were any more or less 'arrogant' in 340 BC than they were in 480, or that less 'arrogance' would have enabled them, or the Greeks as a whole, to ward off Philip of Macedon's all-conquering armies.

Waterfield's account of this seminal period of European history does not burst with new insights and interpretations. But it is wide-ranging, knowledgeable, clear, sympathetic, and thorough, as one would expect from someone who has made his reputation from many excellent translations of Greek literature, and the selection of incidents, topics and personalities for discussion is notably judicious - an account for any intelligent person who wants a basic introduction to the period.

Waterfield starts the story way back in Athens' mythical past with the figure of Theseus, legendary unifier of the countryside of Attica with its 'capital' city Athens. As Waterfield points out, the figure of Theseus was manipulated to reflect Athens' contemporary concerns with commerce, culture and democracy: we all need our foundation myths. As the idea of the polis - the autonomous 'city-state' - developed all over Greece from the 8thC BC onwards, Athens began its transition from kingship and then tyranny (a turannos being an unconstitutional, rather than necessarily despotic, ruler) to direct democracy, a constitutional form invented by Cleisthenes in 507 BC which made the Assembly of all male citizens over 18 the sovereign authority in the state (a position today held not by us citizens but by parliament). The assaults of the mighty Persian empire on Athens (490-479 BC) led to Athens' finest military hour, the repulse of Persia and the start of the 'golden age', the financial foundations for which were laid by Themistocles. He persuaded the Assembly to use the money flowing into the coffers from Athens' newly opened silver mines not to give themselves all a vast bonus (one proposal) but to invest it long-term in a fleet. This fleet enabled Athens to build up a large and profitable maritime empire.

But Waterfield does not end the story at 340 BC. While the 'golden age' and the background to it dominate the book (occupying some 240 of the 379 pages of text), Waterfield takes the story on at lightning speed up to the modern day in a useful summary covering 2,200 years in fewer than a hundred pages: from the Roman period, when Rome conquered Greece and made it a province in the second century BC, to the Byzantine, Frankish, and Ottoman occupations, followed by the war of independence, right up to Athens 2004. Waterfield movingly reminds us of the appalling suffering during the Second World War of the Greeks as a whole and Greek Jews in particular, of whom only ten per-cent survived. Less successful, I felt, were the two opening chapters on the ancient and modern Olympic Games, only marginally relevant to the story of Athens and clearly added to catch the fleeting moment. But they do not detract from this otherwise admirable introduction to one of the world's most brilliant ancient cities.

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