Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.05.11

Peter Funke, Athen in klassischer Zeit.   Munich:  C.H. Beck, 1999.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 3-406-44574-8 (pb).  DM 14,80.  

Reviewed by Ehrhardt, Christopher T.H.R., 39 Lonsdale Street, Dunedin, New Zealand (
Word count: 1172 words

This is another of the series of small paperbacks, 'C.H. Beck Wissen', like Josef Wiesehöfer's Das frühe Persien, reviewed in BMCR 00.03.09. F(unke) has an easier task than Wieshöfer's -- to cover the history of a very small state over some two hundred years, instead of the history of a series of great empires over twelve hundred -- and performs it very capably. As an introduction and overview of the political history of Athens from Cleisthenes to the Lamian War it is well balanced, well informed and reliable, and can safely be recommended for any 'educated lay person' who wishes to know more about the character of that extraordinary state where, in a few generations, a community of (probably) less than quarter of a million produced some of the greatest and most influential literature and art in world history and proved that 'ordinary men', given reasonably favourable circumstances, could govern a state and support and develop its culture with much greater success than any of the élite groups which ruled most other Greek states of the time.

The following criticisms are a reviewer's duty; they are not meant to imply that the reviewer could have written a better book, nor to negate the praise contained in the previous paragraph.

As usual, the fourth century -- the age of Plato, of the orators, of Menander, of the cultural and architectural blossoming of Athens while Lycurgus controlled its finances, and of the final development and successful operation of the democratic political system -- is passed over very quickly: seventeen pages bring the reader from the King's Peace to the surrender to Antipater, while the period of Cleisthenes' reforms, from 510 to 500 B.C., fills fifteen pages, the Ionian Revolt to the Battle at the Eurymedon gets twenty, and 'the age of Pericles' thirty two. As usual, too, a description of 'Athenian democracy' is given in the 'age of Pericles' section, but nearly all the details are based on fourth century evidence, with the tacit and unsafe assumption that the counter-revolution in 403 did little more than re-instate the system as it existed before the Thirty; Mogens Hansen's work, though cited in the bibliography, seems to have had no effect. Again as usual, the 'Themistocles Legend' appears as historical fact: pp. 30-31, Phrynichus' 'Capture of Miletus' in 492 with the fortification of Piraeus the same year, by Themistocles in his archonship, who also, the same year, 'urged an increase in Athenian naval power (p. 38); pp. 37-38, the change in 488/7 from election to lot for choosing archons and the ostracisms of the 480s, all due to him, though 'In den Quellen ist zwar kein unmittelbarer Zusammenhang zwischen seiner Person und den verfassungsrechtlichen Änderungen der 80er Jahre nachzuweisen'), as though Badian had never written 'Archons and Strategoi'.1 Against Herodotus (V 110-112), F. attributes to the Persians the decision to begin hostilities at Marathon, on the grounds that they wished to anticipate the arrival of the Spartan reinforcements (p. 33); he should indicate that, though this view may be plausible, it contradicts the only good evidence we have. Similarly, against Herodotus (VIII 10, cf. VIII 60a), F. states (p. 43) that the Persian ships were both larger and less manoeuverable than the Greeks' triremes, though there is no evidence for this.

For the Pentakontaetia, it is a long held view that the tribute of thirty talents imposed on Aegina was 'enormously high' (p. 52), but in fact it was only enough to pay the crews of ten triremes for three months; the Aeginetans must have spent far more each year on their fleet while they were independent. One may also take issue with the claim that Athens suffered a 'crushing' ('vernichtende') defeat at Tanagra (p. 53) ('vernichtend' is a favourite adjective of F.'s for battles) -- after all, within a few weeks they were able to 'crushingly' defeat the Boeotians at Oenophyta. In describing the Samian revolt of 440-49, it is misleading to state (p. 58) that 'die Spartaner [sich] aus der Angelegenheit herausgehalten hatten'; it is plain from Thucydides (I 40) that the Spartans proposed intervention on the Samian side to the Peloponnesian League and were stopped by Corinthian opposition, as F. rightly emphasises (ibid.).

Athens did not surrender 'unconditionally' at the end of the Peloponnesian War (p. 98), nor were the walls of Athens destroyed after the surrender (p. 82), though the Long Walls and the Piraeus fortifications were. Finally, it is strange to have Mausolus politically active in 341/0 (p. 117), though he had died in 353.

Against these blemishes should be set the clear and incisive sketch of the political background to Cleisthenes' reforms and the excellent outline of the reforms themselves (pp. 7-22); the discussion of the rapid growth of legends about the overthrow of the tyranny and the role of Harmodius and Aristogeiton (p. 28), and the reason for the Olympieion being left unfinished for over six hundred years (ibid.); the insistence that, in Periclean Athens, democracy and imperial rule went together (p. 57); the description of the culture of the 'Periclean Age', in sculpture, architecture, drama and philosophy (pp. 70-82) -- though Old Comedy is mostly post-Periclean (all Aristophanes' plays are), and the trial of Socrates and Plato's Academy have no business here but should come after the end of the Peloponnesian War (pp. 81-82). Subsuming the tyranny of the Thirty and its overthrow, the Spartan intervention in Asia Minor, and the whole of the 'Corinthian War' under the heading 'Epilogue' to the Peloponnesian War makes for a much better understanding of fourth century history than does the common habit of drawing a firm line through Greek history in 404 B.C.

Neither the opposition to Macedon from the 350s till Chaeronea, nor the reign of Alexander gets really adequate treatment, but F. is right to point out the mutual distrust between Alexander and Athens, and the other Greek states, and to emphasise Lycurgus' achievements in re-building Athenian strength. Finally, he deserves praise for closing his account of 'classical' Athens, not with Alexander's death, but with a very brief but insightful account of the Lamian War, and Antipater's destruction of the democracy.

The bibliography is, perhaps regrettably, limited to German works, but it includes translations of several useful books in English and French; it is therefore hard to understand why it includes no translations of any Greek authors: a serious reader would learn at least as much about classical Athens from Thucydides, Demosthenes and the 'Ath.Pol.' as from, e.g., K.-W. Welwei, Das klassische Athen, and it seems bizarre to include Christian Meier's Die politische Kunst der griechischen Tragödie but not a single tragedy. Nor any comedy, though, when Dionysius I of Syracuse asked Plato to send him an account of the Athenian constitution, the philosopher allegedly sent the monarch a set of Aristophanes' comedies.

This is a book which can safely be recommended as an introduction, and more advanced students also will often find thoughts and insights which are worth pondering. An English equivalent (not a translation) would be welcome.


1.   E. Badian, 'Archons and Strategoi', Antichthon V 1971, 1-34.

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