The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilisation
Anthony Everitt
Amberley
584pp, 40 illustrations (26 in colour)
Paperback, £20

The claim that Athens represents 'the world's greatest civilisation' is a very familiar one. Overlooking conflicts and slavery and instead focusing on lasting contributions to the world, such as developments in democracy, philosophy and the arts, especially drama, it is easy to see the Athenians as a civilised bunch. The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilisation by Anthony Everitt (formerly Secretary General of the Arts Council of Great Britain and author of biographies of Cicero, Augustus and Hadrian) serves as a follow-on from his earlier book, The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire (Random House, 2012). It explores how the polis reached such great heights during the 5th and 4th centuries BC, what impact it had on posterity, and why we should still celebrate Athens today.

Everitt sets Classical Athens in its wider context, also introducing Sparta, the powerful Peloponnesian city-state that was the antithesis of its Attic rival in so many ways, and the Persian Empire that posed a threat from the east. After briefly presenting these two other key powers of the time, the book embarks on a lively history of Athenian
politics from the attempted coup of the nobleman Cylon to the reforms of Solon and then Cleisthenes, who pioneered democracy. After the rise of the great polis comes the defeat at the hands of the Spartans in 404 BC and a brief departure from democracy, and then defeat again by Philip II at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.

As a book that charts the history of the Athenian civilisation as a whole, The Rise of Athens does not merely present a linear history of the changes the state underwent and the wars it engaged in. Everitt also explores many more aspects of life in the polis, including the role of women, marriage, pederasty, the Periclean building programme, institutions, such as theatre and religious festivals, and philosophy.

Everitt leads the reader through the eventful history of Athens with verve, and well-chosen passages of ancient literature in translation add colour to the author's engaging narrative. Some chapters start with a story about a particular figure, reflecting the variety of personalities and Athenian experiences that helped shape the essence of the city-state. For instance, the section on the Graeco-Persian Wars opens with an expanded and laudably vivid version of Herodotus' telling of the story of Pheidippides running 140 miles from Athens to Sparta with news that the Persian army had landed in Attica, and his encounter with the god Pan (perhaps a hallucination due to extreme exhaustion).

Noteworthy individuals appear throughout the book. We learn about key players, such as Themistocles, Solon, Pericles and Socrates, not just their definitive deeds, but also tales from their lives. Cylon, for example, who attempted a coup, has the glory of winning the diaulos (a foot race of about 400m) in the Olympic Games of 640 BC. The Rise of Athens may not offer radical new insights into the polis, but it serves as a lively, heartfelt celebration of its achievements and as an introductory history of the ancient city-state for the general reader.
Lucia Marchini

 

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