Tuesday, 29 August 2000

Christian Meier: Athens (1993)

Translation: Robert and Rita Kimber, 1998
Edition: John Murray, 1999
Review number: 587

The Golden Age of Athens (approximately the fifth century BC) is one of the most amazing times in human history. Western culture owes a great deal to ancient Greece, and much of what formed us can be traced to this one city over the three or four generations during which it was a major power. The role call of great names includes Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes, Pericles, Thucydides and Xenophon; and reverence for "the cradle of democracy" ensures it a vast symbolic importance in the world today. Christian Meier's book seeks to show how a city of under 200,000 - even when virtually disregarded slaves, women and inhabitants of foreign extraction are included - rose to such a position; what it was like and how it changed during its Golden Age; and what brought about its downfall.

Given the paucity of Athenian resources when compared to the city's ambitions (even given the discovery of rich silver mines on their territory), the eventual fall of Athens is hardly surprising; once a major expedition failed (the attack on Sicily) it was just a matter of time. The rise is more interesting. Meier writes about the foundation of democracy and why it might have overcome the aristocratic oligarchy which preceded it; and why Athens was for a long time one of the biggest and richest Greek cities without the political power which might be expected to go with this position. Given the small number of literary sources, even from the Golden Age, these are issues which can form the basis for endless argument, and Meier concentrates on saying enough to fit in with his theme, the unique quality of Athenian civilization.

The democracy which developed in Athens was radically different from the system that we give that name to today. It was participatory, rather than representative, and vast sections of the population were excluded, either by law or because they were too poor to be greatly involved. The wealthy tended to dominate, especially those who came from the old aristocratic families. After the downfall of Pericles, who dominated Athens for a generation, demagogues took over (including Aristophanes' butt Cleon) and their policy of appealing to the lowest common denominator quickly led to ruin - which could be seen as a warning to many of today's politicians.

Meier does not mention the problems inherent in taking the ancient accounts at face value, but he has little choice but to do so. (It is also hardly feasible to preface every second statement with a warning about its accuracy. In one or two places the danger is spelled out - for example, in deriving a picture of the teachings of the Sophists from the writings of Plato.)

It seems to me that Meier has done a really good job, and has produced a book which is interesting to the layman - and probably contains just about everything they might want to know about its subject.

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