BMCR 2000.10.12

The School of History. Athens in the Age of Socrates

, The school of history : Athens in the age of Socrates. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xii, 525 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780520929715

The history of 5th-century Athens is one of the key subjects of classical scholarship and therefore has an enormous bibliography. Every new essay on this is meritorious as such, but it is still more appreciated if it is a new and original presentation of the subject, as is Munn’s book.

The book is a clear presentation of the history of Athens from 510 down to 395 B.C. It is divided into three parts (I: “The spirit of democratic Athens”, 510-415; II: “The crisis of Athens”, 415-403 and III “Resurrecting Athens”, 403-395). It also includes four appendixes: A. Epigraphic Chronology; B. Euripides’ Helen and Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae; C. Chronology of the events 410-406 and D. The Surrender of Athens and the Installation of the Thirty. Amongst the reference tools, the notes extending from page 347 to 439 are particularly rich as is the bibliography, from pages 441 to 467.

Munn not only studies factual history but also stresses cultural and social history. This is one of the main features of the book, as compared with other dedicated to this subject. Another distinctive feature is the lucid analysis of literary sources, from which much data can be obtained.

The book begins with a review of what Munn calls “the past of democratic Athens”. In this chapter, Munn discusses the Athenians’ conception of the origins of their democracy (drawing from sources such as choral songs and tragedies). He reasons that since drama and politics involved persuasive performances before much the same audiences the language of theater influenced that of political oratory.

Chapter two and three deal with the upper class of Athenian society. One of the representatives of the aristocracy is Plato’s uncle Charmides, son of Glaucon, who is studied as a model of arete. In fact, some of the characteristics of nobility are arete, kalokagathia — a named created during this century — and prowess in war. As Munn points out, “the competitive quality of arete made it an exceptionally useful social force, motivating not only bravery in battle but also various forms of public service.” An analysis of the number of people belonging to the aristocracy is also made: if the total adult male citizen population was about 40,000, and the number of aristoi was above 2,000, these represented five to ten percent of the population. The upper class, considered by the Athenians to be a servant of the Athenian democracy, in fact provided a great number of services to the polis. These included diplomatic services ( xenia), defence of public interests of the city against malefactors (which turned into sycophancy) leadership of the people, control of the eisphora and other forms of liturgical service, education of the population through the sophists, writing of speeches ( syndikoi), and interpretation of oracles ( chresmologoi).

Part two begins with a chapter on the expulsion of Alcibiades. This is a very detailed analysis of the events that took place between 415 and 413 B.C. Munn considers that Alcibiades shared with Hyperbolus, Cleon’s successor, the commitment to achieve dominion in Sicily.

Chapter 5 deals with the period between 413 and 411, i.e., the period in which the oligarchy was organised. The analysis of Euripides’ Helen, in light of the experiences of Alcibiades (his expulsion and, afterwards, his exculpation) shows a relationship, once again, between fiction and contemporary events. Recognizing Alcibiades in Euripides’ Helen accounts for many of the singular aspects of the play, such as the role of Theonoë. Theonoë could be seen as an allonym for Theano, a priestess who publicly refused to curse Alcibiades at the time of his execration. Other aspects of this chapter are the analysis of the creation of an oligarchic constitution in 411 (and of the body of the Five Thousand and the interim council of 400) and the analysis of the relationship between Samos and Athens. The reaction against the oligarchy is well represented by the Samian revolution against Athens. On the other hand, the nomothetai played an important role as a stabilizing factor and as a constitutional body which laid down the laws according to which Athens was ruled after the overthrow of the Four Hundred.

Chapter 6, comprising the years 411 to 408, studies some important Athenian victories, such as the victory at Cyzicus, and analyses the restoration of Athenian democracy. Alcibiades, who co-ordinated a surprise assault upon Byzantium in the winter of 409/8 which resulted in the defeat of the Spartan-led garrison and the reconciliation of that city to Athens, could return to Athens in 408. This aroused passionate feelings for and against his person. This chapter also includes an analysis of the introduction of the cult to the Mother of the Gods, Cybele.

In chapter seven, the role of Alcibiades between 408 and 405 is analysed. This comprises his participation in the negotiations with the ambassadors who came from Sparta and his relegation to the Thracian Chersonese. The battle of Arginousae, in which Alcibiades also had an important part, is well known for the trial of the generals who won the battle for Athens but were held accountable for the loss of life that occurred afterward.

Chapter eight considers two very important years, 405 and 404, in which Athens surrendered to Sparta. The catastrophe at Aegospotami and its impact on Athens are important events of this period. Even if the negotiations by Theramenes seemed to bring peace to Athens, Athens surrendered to Sparta in the well-known ignominious terms (for instance, destruction of the Long Walls). Athens tried to preserve its patrios politeia, but all signs of democracy were abolished while the power of the oligarchy increased, with the creation of the Thirty. Athens also had to renounce its empire, as is clearly shown in the surrendering of Samos in late summer 404. During 404 and 403, Athens experienced a civil war, which is analysed in chapter nine. On the one hand, the Thirty were regarded with extreme disdain; on the other, Athens had an enormous quantity of exiles, who, of course, were conspiring against the Spartan power. One of these exiles is, again, Alcibiades. The exiles returned to Athens, and the Thirty were abolished, but internal wars could not be avoided, such as the war between Athens and Pireus.

Part three of the book is called “Resurrecting Athens, 403-395.” In this part, chapter ten deals with the very important legislative movement that took part between 403 and 400. As we know, this legislative action is responsible, amongst other things, for the creation of public arbitration, a very important institution which, unfortunately, is omitted by Munn. But this legislative action also accounts for a restructuring of the patrios politeia, a restoration of democracy and a new definition of citizenship. Here again, the nomothetai played an important role.

Chapter eleven has to do with the years 401 to 399. Here, in accordance with the subtitle of the book, the trial against Socrates is analysed, as well as other speeches such as that of Lysias against Nicomachus. As Munn points out, these speeches contain much information about the work of the nomothetai. The last chapter focuses on years 399 to 395, and is based on Thucydides’ work.

This book has some minor defects. First of all, it is, from my point of view, slightly chaotic. Too many perspectives are brought to the fore. Some chapters deal only with factual history, some constitute great excursus on other points of civilisation (such as law), sometimes including literary analysis. Amidst the sequence of facts, we find overly long excursus, such as the analysis of Socrates’ trial, which should be studied in another book. Sometimes also, the same institution (for instance, the nomothetai) is studied in different chapters thus breaking the unity of contents. In the preface, the author states that his book “originates in [his] desire to understand the achievement of Thucydides” and to find what Thucydides had in common with his contemporaries. Yet this purpose is only clearly seen in chapter twelve. Other chapters seem to be a mere exposition of the facts, not necessarily relying on Thucydides or dealing with his originality. This could be said, for instance, about the excursus on tragedy.

Finally, it is not clear if the author intends to write a cultural or a factual history, since both aspects are mixed together and, for a cultural history, important elements are lacking. Moreover, while intending to be exhaustive, Munn fails to deal with all the cultural, social and factual history of 5th-century Athens. The analysis of legal institutions, for instance, is incomplete.

The book has, on the other hand, very positive aspects. The analysis of Alcibiades is one of the best and most detailed I have ever read. The connection between drama and history is in some cases completely new and very original. The conclusion that Thucydides’ work may be recognised as a deliberative brief composed to instruct officers and members of the Athenian Council as they devised policy to present to the Athenian demos and its allies facing war again with Sparta in 396-395 is very suggestive as this is the meaning of the word syngraphe, which is applied to Thucydides’ work. For these reasons, this book will be an important reference book on Athenian history of the 5th century.