The cover of this book reproduces a painting by Leo von Klenze, better known as a classicizing architect than as an artist. The Athenian acropolis, seen from the west, rises up in all its polychrome glory, with the setting sun illuminating the monuments of the Periclean age—the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the temple of Athena Nike—and every detail picked out with visionary clarity.
In the foreground, men, women, and children are gathered together, apparently for a religious ceremony. Above is an evening sky whose unruffled cloudlessness sets off the motley parade of buildings below.
At first sight there might seem a disjunction between this radiant evocation of Periclean Athens and Christian Habicht’s history of Athens in the Hellenistic period, which others have seen as a period of the city’s decline. But in a curious way cover and contents are akin: through a plethora of detail, this book depicts an Athens not in decline but rather post-classical, living a full and vigorous political life in a world dominated by larger powers.
The subtitle of the book, “The History of the City in the Hellenistic period,” is equally striking. No indefinite articles here, as in William Scott Ferguson’s Hellenistic Athens: An historical Essay (1911), or in John Day’s An Economic History of Athens under Roman Domination (1941). Habicht’s history is firmly political, a narrative of persons and powers interacting so as to produce events: the women and children of von Klenze’s picture are absent, though the stray woman turns up as a wife, widow, or hetaira.
The book therefore sets its own terms; and on those terms it is a triumph. This will not only be the standard work on Hellenistic Athens for decades to come, but a central contribution to the history of the period in general. Though scrupulously documented, it is written not just for the specialist but for a wide educated readership: ancient languages are cited very sparingly (Greek with accompanying translation), and a glossary of some two hundred entries goes from “Ageneioi: die Bartlosen, Altersklasse bei Wettkämpfen” to “Zeus Eleutherios: Zeus der Befreier.”
Not only is this by far the author’s longest book, but it crowns a long series of Vorstudien devoted to the same subject, notably the monograph on the political history of Athens in the third century (1979) and its sequel (1982) covering a slightly later period, and in addition a stream of articles now republished in one volume under the title Athen in hellenistischer Zeit (Munich 1994). This concern with Hellenistic Athens reflects in part the author’s own move in 1972 from the University of Heidelberg to the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. There he succeeded Benjamin D. Meritt, who had made the epigraphy of Athens his life’s work, and he also became a colleague of Homer A. Thompson, for many years Director of Excavations in the Athenian Agora. But Habicht’s connection with the subject can be traced much further back, to the magisterial publication of decrees of Hellenistic Samos that had formed his Habilitationsschrift,
The combativeness which Habicht demonstrated in that article is not entirely absent from the present work: several paragraphs have openings such as, “Nothing justifies the supposition occasionally to be found in the literature that …” (p. 16), “For a long time research has generally been convinced that …” (p. 67), “It has often been assumed that …” (p. 144), “It has recently been supposed that …” (p. 272). On the other hand, Habicht candidly registers corrections of his own views (thus p. 129 n.1), or reasoned disagreements with them (thus p. 302, on the “anarchy” of 88/87). This reviewer noticed only a single mistake of fact, on the date of Dio Chrysostom’s Rhodian oration (p. 311), and even this Habicht has now silently corrected ( ZPE 111  81).
Questions of interpretation lend themselves more easily to disagreement: but here too Habicht has chosen his positions with care. Just as he now admits, however, that he may have gone too far in calling the Chremonidean War “Athens’ War” (p. 148), so one might wonder if some of the views presented here are a little too clear-cut. Thus scholars like Walbank and Momigliano who called that same war a “rebellion” or a “revolt” are sharply rebuked on the ground that Athens had been “free and master of its own decisions” since 287 (pp. 151-152 with n. 92). But Habicht himself points out that even after 287 the Antigonids occupied Piraeus, Eleusis and other places in Attica, and it seems pedantic to withhold a term like “revolt”: we refer to the “Hungarian uprising” even though Hungary was nominally a sovereign state in 1956. Similarly, when Appian says that Sulla “gave [the surviving Athenians] laws close to those which had previously been set for them by the Romans” ( Mithr. 152), he and modern scholars who have followed him are rapped on the knuckles: the post-Sullan constitution “was not a result of the war, but had developed already in the later second century, scarcely as a result of Rome’s direct intervention, but presumably with benevolent sufferance ( unter wohlwollender Duldung) on the part of the ruling circles in Rome” (p. 314). Sulla may not have given Athens a constitution in the same way that Pompey gave one to Bithynia, but can it really be doubted that the post-war constitution was a result of that war?
In conformity with Habicht’s sternly political view of history, the book is structured into a series of chapters, framed by a brief preface and epilogue, which lead the reader through Athens’ vicissitudes from the defeat at Chaeronea in 338 to the battle of Actium. Only one chapter, the fourth, is concerned with “Culture in the public life of the city”: and even this discusses drama, the philosophical schools, and non-philosophical prose not so much for themselves but, as the title indicates, for the way in which they reflect politics, or in which their exponents, especially philosophers, engage in political life. “A general history of the city is not the place (nor is the author sufficiently competent) to give a critical evaluation of the literary productions of its poets and writers, or to pass expert judgments on the surviving works of its artists” (p. 104). But apart from the assumption that the historian’s task is to “pass judgments,” even a truly “general history” of Hellenistic Athens might have said more about the one Athenian poet, Menander, whose works survive, or have been restored to life in the last hundred years. According to Habicht, Menander’s plays “lack a specifically Athenian background, and present everyday people with their passions and peculiarities, their strengths and weaknesses” (p. 108). But the Dyscolos presents a vivid picture of dirt-farming in the deme of Phyle; the Epitrepontes does no less (though by means of narrative) for shepherds and charcoal-burners in the Attic countryside. But dirt-farmers and charcoal-burners are out of place in Habicht’s Athens.
As his remark on “expert judgments” might imply, Habicht is not reluctant to pass judgment on the actors in his narrative, though he inclines to indulgence when the Athenians are in question. He may be right to qualify Polybius’ adverse verdict on Athenian foreign policy after 229 (5.106.6-8; pp. 177-179). But after 200, as the Roman presence looms ever larger in Greek affairs, it is hard to absolve Athens of rank opportunism in such cases as Haliartus in the 160’s (p. 219), Oropus in the 150’s (pp. 265-269). Habicht himself is at a loss to explain how, after decades of Roman favor, the Athenians suddenly threw in their lot with Mithridates VI of Pontus: “Athens’ break with Rome … is not easy to understand, since only a short time before its relations with Rome had been marked by obvious cordiality” (p. 300). But states great and small are constantly liable to miscalculate their interest, and there is no reason to suppose first-century Athenians exempt from human error. After Pharsalos, Julius Caesar rebuked them for their equally mis-timed support of Pompeius: “How often is the fame of your forefathers going to save you from self-destruction?” (App. Bell. Civ. 2.88) An “undeserved reproach” in Habicht’s opinion (p. 349), but was it? Viewing Athens from the perspective of the late first century or the early second, Dio Chrysostom is less than flattering: “If someone were to point out that those inhabiting the city are not worthy of it, or of the repute which those of former times left behind, in my opinion he would be correct” ( Or. 31. 117). Julius Caesar would presumably have agreed.
The book concludes with the glossary already mentioned, with stemmata of the principal Hellenistic dynasties, and with indexes of geographical and personal names; but there is no subject-index, which might usefully have drawn together such themes as the Areopagus, the ephebate, or trade. It is excellent news that the Harvard University Press is contemplating an English translation of this book; as well as a subject-index, let us hope that this will provide some maps and plates of an actual, lived-in city, and not just a reproduction of Leo von Klenze’s nineteenth-century fantasy.