BMCR 2005.02.26

Aegean Greece in the Fourth Century BC

John Buckler, Aegean Greece in the fourth century BC. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 1 online resource (xi, 544 pages, 20 unnumbered pages of plates) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9047400100 $190.00.

As Buckler (henceforward B.) rightly observes in his preface, “no single historian since K.J. Beloch in 1922-1923 has written a coherent history of this period.” In fact, if we look at the first half of the century, ending with the death of Epaminondas (362), the date can — incredibile dictu — be pushed back as far as 1840, when G.R. Sievers published in Kiel his still useful Geschichte Griechenlands vom Ende des peloponnesischen Krieges bis zur Schlacht bei Mantineia (not in B.’s bibliography). The reason is not far to seek, and was stated with pithy concision by, of all people, Justin (8.1.1-2): “The Greek states, through their individual determination to dominate, between them destroyed their own sovereign power. Indeed, only when crushed did they realize that, as a result of their headlong rush into mutual destruction, their separate losses had brought about the downfall of them all.” Sievers records the depressing nature of this material, lacking anything “the investigation of which was really attractive to me.” Yet despite melancholy events and unreliable sources, he tells us, he set about his task zestfully, indeed “mit Ausdauer und unbeschreiblichen Genuss”, a phrase highly appropriate to B., whose energy never flags, whose learning is prodigious, and who brings to his vast narrative (roughly 200,000 words, not counting footnotes) both a mordant sense of political realities and the hands-on topographical expertise of an old Greek hand who has covered almost all the terrain he describes on foot. But his title (the reader should be warned) is a misnomer. What B. has in fact written is a military and political history of the Greek states, from Lysander’s arrival in Piraeus (404) to Philip of Macedon’s assassination (336). With Philip’s death, he tells us, the history of classical Greece ended; and so does this book. The opinionated judgment is characteristic. Within the framework he has set himself, B. — showing unmistakable sardonic Genuss over Spartan mindlessnss or Athenian greed — has written an exhaustive (and, inevitably, exhausting) history, rich in detail, never shying away from harsh verdicts, of Greek polis culture at its most short-sightedly competitive, arrogant, and self-destructive. This remarkable volume fills a huge gap. The innumerable local engagements and confusing political alignments in particular have been sorted out and clarified in a way that leaves us all in B.’s debt. Again and again, reading his sharp correlations of textual and archaological testimony with his personal on-site conclusions (most often where my own explorations coincided with his) I felt that it would be hard, short of radical new evidence turning up, for any future historian to improve on B.’s findings.

The military canvas in particular is vast, and covered in mind-numbing detail: this is not a book that can be read in a hurry, much less dipped into at random. B.’s analysis of military actions tends to be built, brick by brick, into his political judgments, and — since for the polis more than most institutions warfare was the regular direct instrument of political policy — gives these judgments an impressive evidential force. This strikes one forcibly throughout B.’s first seven chapters, covering Sparta’s mishandled ascendancy, from the immediate aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, by way of the Corinthian War, Conon’s dealings with Persia, the King’s Peace of 386, and the conflict with Thebes that culminated in Sparta’s crushing defeat at Leuctra (371). Thebes and Corinth, long Sparta’s allies, were rapidly put off by the high-handed ways of Lysander and his successors: arrogance and stupidity, then as now, made a singularly lethal compound. B. is especially good on the incompetence, of Agesilaus in particular (“an arrogant, malicious, and stupid man”), during Sparta’s ill-conceived attempt — the result of acute embarrassment at having abandoned them to Persia in return for aid late in the Peloponnesian war — to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor. “Both the home government and its chief officers were too ill-equipped, too inexperienced, and too myopic to achieve their goals.” Others have said as much: B. proves it, in detail. As he points out, it took the Spartans another nine years to learn the necessity of disentangling themselves from Asia Minor. He also queries, with justice, the prevalent assumption that Coroneia (394) was essentially a Spartan victory: Agesilaus had in fact achieved none of his goals. The Thebans and their allies were unbroken, the Spartan army was in retreat, Agesilaus himself had been badly wounded, and Thebes rapidly regained its position as a leader in central Greece. B.’s revisionist eye serves him well here. And the moral of that, said the Duchess, is that absorbing all Xenophon’s enthusiasms can play havoc with one’s historical objectivity. Consider B.’s stringent, and correct, dismissal of the popular notion that resentful Corinthian oligarchs formed a kind of aristocratic party. As he says, Corinth’s wealth derived from trade, and the much-weakened old aristocracy was no more than a minority group among the commercially wealthy. That kind of gritty realism serves him well throughout.

The same applies to his treatment of the complex relations between the Greek states and Artaxerxes II, who, as Pierre Briant has well emphasized, not only achieved the longest reign in Achaemenid history but was also a shrewd and powerful diplomat, very far from the effete monarch in decline suggested by contemporary Greek sources. (Neither in his bibliography, nor in his footnotes to Ch. V, “Konon’s War and the King’s Peace”, does B. mention Briant, in particular his Histoire de l’Empire Perse de Cyrus à Alexandre (1996), an omission which makes one wonder when this section was originally written; but since B. comes to conclusions virtually identical with those of Briant, the latter’s absence is less noticeable than might otherwise have been the case.) B. deals in detail with the way, after his naval victory off Cnidos (394), Conon, nicely balancing Athenian loyalty against Persian patronage, used his fleet, and a “liberal policy of independence for the Greeks and opposition to Spartan domination of them”, to “further Athenian interests without rekindling fear of new Athenian imperial ambitions” (B., 130-1). The result was a remarkable resurgence of Athenian influence, from Thasos and the Hellespont down the Ionian littoral to Rhodes and Cyprus. All this, ironically enough, Conon managed while working in close cooperation with the Persian satrap Pharnabazus. The same applied to getting the Greek allies to support a joint naval campaign against Sparta: mutual advantage, plus gold, induced amnesia regarding the fact that the Greek cities of Asia Minor, though technically autonomous, were still the Great King’s subjects. B. judges to a nicety the way Pharnabazus balanced the benefits of hobbling Sparta against the dangers of restored Athenian sea-power. How the Spartans induced a shift in Persian policy that undercut Athens’ long-term ambitions; how the idea of autonomy for all was used to subvert both the Boeotian federation and Athens’ renascent sea-league; and how, after a flurry of renewed military and naval activity (including the loss of an Athenian fleet off Abydos), Artaxerxes imposed on the Greeks in 386 a treaty that confirmed his possession of the Greek Anatolian coastal cities (Greek resentment of this being matched only by their inability to do anything about it), form by far the most successful section of B.’s narrative. As he says, “the King’s Peace not only ended the Corinthian war but also formally the Persian wars against the Greeks that had begun with the Ionian Revolt of 499.” Its implementation, incidentally, made Alexander’s later claim to be settling unfinished business with the Achaemenid empire at least problematic.

In Chs. VI-IX B. covers Sparta’s systematic abuse of the King’s Peace in pursuit of greater hegemony (“Agesilaos’ manipulation of the treaty would prove a brutal trangression of it that would inexorably lead to an obscure field named Leuktra”), most notoriously the unprovoked capture in early 378 of the Theban Cadmeia that ushered in the drawn-out, and for Sparta finally disastrous, Boeotian War; the rise and fall of Athens’ revived naval confederacy, which used the mantra of “autonomy for the islands” to regain its position as the leading Hellenic sea-power; the brief rule of Thebes post-Leuctra,1 terminated by the indecisive battle of Mantineia, after which, as Sievers saw long ago, “everyone’s expectations were dashed, the only clear result being that the Thebans failed to establish their hegemony, while the Spartans lost theirs irretrievably”;2 and the chaotic, confused decade between 366 and 355, during which Athens’ abortive efforts to recapture Amphipolis by establishing a bridgehead in the Chalcidic peninsula (not to mention ill-advised involvement in the Satraps’ Revolt) led to a string of reverses in the so-called War of the Allies and the dissolution of Athens’ Second Confederacy. The degree of political bickering, parochial ambition, and minor military activity throughout this period makes it hard reading, and B.’s dense text — tinged throughout with a barely concealed contempt for the greed, incompetence, and arrogance of the city-states’ brightest and best — never lets us forget Justin’s lethal evaluation for long. There is an instant sense of relief detectable in B. when (not a minute too soon for him, one feels) Philip II of Macedon finally appears on the scene to give Greek history, for good or ill, a long-absent sense of well-organized and effective direction.

For a good many readers it will, inevitably, be B.’s final chapters, X-XIII, that form the most important part of his narrative. In Ch. X he deals with the Third Sacred War and the way Philip exploited it to help win a commanding position in the politics of central Greece.3 Ch. XI covers the period from Philip’s siege and capture of Olynthus to the uneasy stand-off between Macedon and Athens after the Peace of Philokrates (346). B.’s withering dissection here of Demosthenes’ diplomatic gaffes and financially unrealistic militarism is matched only by his determination to see Philip as reasonable, non-aggressive, generally popular, and the victim of Athenian “meddling in [his] affairs.” No sense here, yet, of the unravelling of Philip’s hegemony in Greece about this time that some allege.4 B. states flatly: “Where evidence exists, it points to the conclusion that most Greeks looked favorably upon Philip.” This is hyperbolic. More convincing is B.’s argument that Demosthenes failed to see how crucial to Macedonian defense control of Thrace was, and that if this irked Athens it was only because of Athenian adventurism in the area. Even here he ignores the always sore problem of Amphipolis. It thus will come as no surprise that in Ch. XII it is argued — in fact with some cogency — that “[the Athenians], not Philip, broke the Peace of Philokrates,” and that Philip declared war on Athens not only because, like Hitler, his patience was exhausted, but as a result of Athens’ endless provocative infractions of the treaty. The chapter ends with Philip’s inconclusive attacks in 340 on Byzantium and Perinthos (even B. concedes here that his prestige “had indeed suffered a rude blow”), and his capture of the Athenian grain-fleet — a neatly practical way of convincing Demosthenes and the war-party that he meant business.

Ch. XIII takes the southern states and Macedonia to Chaeroneia (with Philip still behaving so reasonably that it remains a little vague how in fact they got there), followed by the establishment of a Greek koine eirene imposed without reference to the Great King, Philip’s plans for the invasion of Asia Minor, his repudiation of Olympias and rift with Alexander, and his untimely assassination. B.’s narrative, even though he talks about “romance of some sort”, makes it amply clear that Philip’s remarriage to Attalus’ niece was part of a calculated move creating a tight-knit senior military cabal and sidelining Alexander, presumably on suspicion of a rumored usurpation bid by him and his mother. B. admits that Alexander cannot be proved to have arranged his father’s assassination, but points out that he had every practical motive for doing so — the threat to his succession posed by Cleopatra’s son, and, worse, his exclusion from the leadership of the Persian expedition — and was, unlike Olympias, in a position to promise the assassin protection after the event. B.’s historical narrative thus maintains its tone of politically disillusioned realism right to the end, and will surely arouse the ire both of diehard polis advocates and of those who still contrive to view Alexander as an idealist with a cultural mission. This neatly executed left-and-right, I suspect, must have given B. considerable sardonic enjoyment. If he overdoes, as I think he does, Philip’s munificent patience and lack of imperial ambitions in Greece, he deserves credit (however unpopular his revelations may prove) for laying out in detail the chicanery, dishonesty, arrogance and double-dealing of Athens’ political record during these difficult years. If he is right, Demosthenes and the war-party fatally involved Athens in a confrontation that need never have happened at all. Yet, it could be argued, the sorry record of the Athenian polis in dealing with Macedonia does not, per se, invalidate the concept of polis democracy, any more than Philip’s undoubted efficiency, both military and political, validates the concept of autocratic kingship. These are not matters with which B. concerns himself: neither Plato nor Aristotle figures in his narrative. But by simply sticking to the minutiae of public events, in a traditional diachronic narrative, he has established a solid ground-plan on which future historians can build. The learning, scholarship, and personal autopsy that have been lavished on this magnum opus (“What historians need is not more sources but stouter boots”) are phenomenal. That in itself is a very considerable achievement.

Inevitably, in a work of this size and scope, fellow-practitioners will argue with B. on points of detail: I list a few of my own disagreements here. I can see no good reason for his back-dating the official (Amphictyonic) commencement of the Sacred War to the fall or early winter of 356, before the War of the Allies was over and while there was still dangerous political near-anarchy in Thessaly. There is no compelling evidence for Xenophon having been a combatant at Coroneia, and arguments from probability run flat against it. B. is entitled to regard the Peace of Callias as a 4th cent. forgery, but not without justifying his position; on the other hand to treat Pausanias son of Cleombrotus (twice) as a king of Sparta is a plain slip-up. B. twice states that till the end of the 4th cent. [sic] “the Athenians and their allies respected the King’s claim to Asia and its people”. Including those who served with Alexander? B. really does seem to believe the century ended, for all practical purposes, in 336. And, for so seasoned a topographer, his compass-sense is very erratic. He places Thrace, Olynthus and Amphipolis in the north-west Aegean; he has Philip marching east from Pydna, which, strictly interpreted, would have landed him in the Thermaic Gulf. He talks about Theban “disregard of federalism”, though in fact Thebes’ obsession with controlling the Boeotian League was a dominant factor throughout that city’s history. His fuzziness about the dates of the Etesian Winds (the modern meltemi), which he has blowing in winter, betrays the summer visitor. But these are minor cavils. For every one of them there are ten or more convincingly argued positions, often innovative, and sometimes delivered with trenchant wit (the Athenians collecting protection-money “at trireme-point” is a phrase that lodged itself permanently in my mind).

The same high praise cannot, I fear, be accorded to this massive work’s production. At $190.00 Aegean Greece in the Fourth Century B.C. is priced beyond the reach, not only of most individuals, but of more than a few libraries. Those who can afford to lay out such a sum deserve considerably better service than they get. The black-and-white line maps are crowded, hard to read, amateurish, and in sharp contrast to B.’s meticulous topographical findings. The twenty photographic plates, also black-and-white, lack clarity and tonal contrast: some look like bad conversions of color slides. The index is inadequate and perfunctory. The usefulness of bottom-of-the-page footnotes cannot compensate for the slovenly copy-editing, which achieves a nadir almost unique in my experience of academic publishing. I noted over ninety gross typographical errors, and I doubt whether this represents a full count. The text is dotted with misspellings (“hautily”), eccentric phraseology (“gulleries”, the old French “ban” for “levy”), grammatical and syntactical errors (“had forbade”, “whom should be executed”), bizarre metaphors (“These islands also sat in the lap of Spartan seapower”), and at least one totally false sub-heading (p. 452), presumably left over from an earlier recension. Most of these blemishes could, and should, have been removed in the normal obligatory check-through by any even moderately literate editor. When a second edition is called for, I hope B. will insist on getting what should have been routine treatment at the time of original publication. At the current selling price, readers could also reasonably expect professionalization of B.’s maps, and far better quality in the reproduction of his valuable photographs. That these are both areas in which classical scholars have traditionally been ill-served is no excuse for such shoddiness.


1. B. has already dealt with this period in greater detail in his monograph The Theban Hegemony, 371-362 B.C. (Cambridge MA, 1980).

2. Sievers p. 347: “So war denn die Erwartung Aller getäuscht: nur das war entschieden worden, dass die Thebaner die Hegemonie nicht erlangt und die Spartaner sie rettungslos verloren hatten.”

3. Here too B.’s account is based on his earlier specialist monograph, Philip II and the Sacred War (Leiden, 1989).

4. E.g. Julia Heskel, in The Greek World in the Fourth Century, ed. L. Tritle (New York 1997) 184, based largely on the account by Griffith in N.G.L. Hammond & G.T. Griffith, A History of Macedonia, Vol. II (Oxford 1979) 469-554.