BMCR 2005.11.04

Athens: A History, from Ancient Ideal to Modern City

, Athens : a history : from ancient ideal to modern city. New York: Basic Books, 2004. xxi, 362 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 046509063X $27.50.

The earlier part of 2004 saw the market virtually flooded with general books on Athens (ancient and modern), in time to coincide with the lucrative tourist trade that was anticipated to descend on Athens for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in the later summer.1 Robin Waterfield’s Athens, released in April and competitively priced at $27.50 for the hardbound edition, was very much aimed at the general reader/tourist. In keeping with the intended readership, there are no footnotes, not even a bibliographic essay. This in itself is unfortunate, as it rendered the book essentially unsuitable for the classroom once all the hype of the Olympics was over (unless a second edition can make up the shortcomings). In further keeping with the intended readership, the book begins not with Athens, but with the festival at ancient Olympia; the cover of the edition I read appropriately illustrated the Panathenaic stadium during the 1896 Olympics, though a rather fanciful and impossibly symmetrical reconstruction of the Propylaia of the Acropolis graces the upper part of the dust-jacket. This said, the book is a good read and does provide an introduction to a city that has seen over 5000 years of continuous human occupation, even though it is abundantly clear that Waterfield is much more at home with the heady days of Classical Athens than the pre- and early history of the city and the post-Antique period.

A short introduction (pp. xvii-xxi) presents the author’s reasons for writing a popular rather than an academic history of Athens. I was delighted to read in the introduction: “Moralizing about history, of course, carries the risks of anachronism and hindsightedness. Nevertheless, this is what I unashamedly do in this book” (p. xx), although this was immediately followed by the cliché “One of the important reasons for the popular (nonacademic) study of history is and always has been to learn from past mistakes and try to avoid them in the future.” Yet readers expecting a good dose of moralizing will be disappointed. The author also presents his reasons for focusing on ancient Athens, notably, and typically for classicists, up to the end of the fourth century BC as opposed to the following twenty-one hundred years. Nevertheless, the statement that there is far more evidence on the ancient city (p. xvii) does not ring totally true. There are, to be sure, numerous books on the subject, but the quantity of modern scholarship is not synonymous with the quantity of evidence, and any scholar of Roman, Byzantine, post-Byzantine, and modern Athens will note vast lacunae in Waterfield’s cursory and ultimately inadequate bibliography (pp. 343-346). Although the past did remain an important source of life for the city, as Waterfield notes (p. xxi), this is perhaps more true for the Hellenistic and Roman periods, but is hardly the case for Byzantine and post-Byzantine Athens. Waterfield’s hope, in the closing paragraph of the introduction, that “It is time for Athens to take its place as a modern European city, part of the network of cities around the world, not just part of Greece” might be perceived as a little patronizing. A read of Eleni Bastéa’s elegant The Creation of Modern Athens would convince even the most avid classicist that Athens came of age as a modern European city some time ago (though the Second World War and the civil war that followed sent Athens a proverbial two steps backward). Moreover, I would have thought that Greece’s entry into the European Union, rather than the 2004 Olympics alone, had something to do with the place of Athens as a modern European city.

The first part of the book, entitled “The Olympic Ideal,” is made up of two chapters: the first on the Festival at Ancient Olympia and the second on nineteenth-century Athens and the 1896 Olympics. The first chapter (pp. 3-19) provides a good overview of the ancient Olympic Games, giving the reader a succinct account of the ancient events, as well as the ideal of Panhellenism. The second (pp. 20-30) begins with the 2004 Olympics, then spirals back to the time of the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, gives an overview of Athens in the nineteenth century, and concludes with a short but spirited account of the 1896 Olympics, not least Spyros Louis’s victory in the Marathon. The book then, rather abruptly, goes to prehistoric Athens. The entire first section seems more like an afterthought than an integral opening of the book, tacked onto what quickly settles down into a fairly traditional overview of Athens based on familiar ancient sources. In contrast, the opening section aims to give the book a little spice and liven it up for anyone attending the 2004 Olympics.

The next six sections, which together constitute the vast majority of the book, essentially provide what many classics textbooks set out to do: to describe Athens from the first steps of the city toward radical democracy, to overview the heights of Athens in the Classical period, and to account for the city’s Classical downfall. Here is Classical Civilization 101 in all its glory! The section and chapter headings are both predictable and a little pedestrian, and in the end, they were written by a classicist, not an historian. The first section, “The Early City and the Foundation of Democracy,” is made up of five chapters: 3. Athens in Prehistory (pp. 33-39); 4. Archaic Athens (pp. 40-47); 5. Solon: Poet and Statesman (pp. 48-53); 6. The Peisistratid Renaissance and the Athenian Revolution (pp. 54-62); 7. The Persian Wars (pp. 63-72). There are no surprises here. The early history of Athens is quickly dispensed with, archaeological evidence is barely touched upon, and the text is sprinkled with more than one jejune statement, such as (p. 37): “The king of a Mycenaean community was simultaneously the political and religious leader of his people, and the CEO of a commercial enterprise.”

The second section deals with “The Classical City: Democracy and Empire” and is composed of two chapters: 8. Cold War, Empire, and Democracy (pp. 75-86), the “Cold War” referring to the relationship between Athens and Sparta immediately after the Persian Wars, and 9. Periklean Athens (pp. 87-103). The next two sections abandon the historical panorama of the preceding (and succeeding) sections and provide a dumbed-down classical civilization course on Religion (Chapter 10, pp. 107-119), Drama (Chapter 11, pp. 120-127), Education: The Sophists and Sokrates (Chapter 12, pp. 128-135) and Indoor Life: Sex, Symposia, and Sandals (Chapter 13, pp. 136-146), “sandals” being a euphemism for clothing. Religion, drama, education, and indoor life are all part of “The City at Leisure.” In contrast, the “The City at Work,” comprises two chapters: 14. Work, Money, and Taxes (pp. 149-158) and 15. The Agora, Women, and Slaves (pp. 159-172). Again, there are no surprises here, but the manner in which these subjects are addressed shows a certain lack of imagination. The following section, entitled “The Downfall of Athens: A Greek Tragedy” restarts the diachronic panorama, and is made up of four chapters: 16. Open Warfare (pp. 175-182) on the Peloponnesian War; 17. The Arkhidamian War (pp. 183-191); 18. The Tipping of the Scales (pp. 192-199), largely devoted to the ill-fated Sicilian expedition and Dekelia; and 19. Defeat and Civil War (pp. 200-213). There is no doubt that the author is intrigued by the Peloponnesian War, as he devotes more energy to it than any other subject. Nevertheless, in the longue durée of the city, the Peloponnesian War represents only one episode.

With the Peloponnesian War over, we begin the penultimate section on “The Hellenistic and Roman City.” Three chapters take us through: 20. Athens in the Fourth Century (pp. 217-230); 21. Hellenistic Athens (pp. 231-244); and 22. The Coming of the Romans (pp. 245-256). In many ways the Hellenistic and Roman periods have seen some of the most original and refreshing scholarly contributions in recent years, spearheaded by scholars such as Christian Habicht and Susan Alcock, yet little of this is reflected in Waterfield’s overview of Athens in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

With the book largely over, we finally enter post-antique Athens, with the section entitled “Athens Reduced and Reinvented,” which is broken up into four chapters: 23. Athens under Byzantion (pp. 259-272); 24. Athens under the Franks (pp. 273-280); 25. Ottoman Athens and Elgin’s Marbles (pp. 281-293); and 26. Byron and the War of Independence (pp. 294-304). As the very titles of these chapters suggest, the later history of Athens is largely seen through English eyes. Not only do Elgin and Byron dominate the literary and physical topography of later Athens, but we hear more about the unreliable English chronicler Matthew Paris, even about the mercenaries under Harald Haardraade (his spelling), and, in a later period, Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, than we do about the demography of Athens during these periods. Moreover, the testimony of the great Ottoman “Pausanias,” Evliya Çelebi, who devoted quite a bit of his energy on Athens and Attika, is nowhere cited.2

The book finishes with an epilogue, which includes Chapter 27. The 2004 Olympics (pp. 307-324), which is, in reality, a rehashing of Modern Greek history, beginning with the presidency of Kapodistrias, moving onto the “Great Idea,” the Greek Civil War, as well as notes on the junta and the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, before we come to the 2004 Olympics. A final chapter, 28. Envoi, provides a short and personal overview of Athens today and through time. It is here that Waterfield returns to moralizing about history, and one prominent moral to the story is that had ancient Athens been a little less arrogant, it might have survived for longer (p. 326). As modern examples of arrogance that the visitors to the 2004 Olympics might understand, Waterfield provides the examples of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and, the “highest riser,” the United States of America (we do not hear about Tony Blair’s England). Waterfield thus offers his book as a warning to arrogant America to heed the precept of Classical Athens: “The ancient ideal is to respect others, even if their customs are different, rather than trying to impose our values on them” (p. 327). This is a noble sentiment, which I very much endorse, but it could have been presented a little more cogently.

The text itself is interspersed with two sets of black-and-white illustrations of mediocre quality (to be found between pp. 122-123 and 266-267). The illustrations are essentially unnumbered, and are not an integral part of the text (although the illustrations are numbered on pp. xiii-xiv, they are not numbered on the plates, and there is no adequate call-out of the illustrations in the text). Indeed, it is unfortunate that there is so little connection between images and words. This is clearly an author who is not used to working with images. Moreover, the selection is a little odd. For sporting events, we have two black-figure images of boxing and the pankration, but little else; these are followed by predictable busts of great citizens: Themistokles, Perikles, Demosthenes, Sokrates, Aristotle, and Herodes Atticus, Geometric pottery, snippets of the Parthenon decorative program, a kouros, a kore, and so on (in short, everything that might be in a high-school text on Greek civilization). In the second batch of images, we see a statue of a boxer (as if this is the only Olympic and Panathenaic event), several paintings of Byzantine and post-Byzantine Athens, and a solitary photo, sadly out of place, of starving children in Athens in 1941. There is not one image of Athens today: the Plaka, the modern Olympic facilities, the TV-antenna-studded skyline, Syntagma Square, the new tramline, the Neo-Classical architecture—not even Karagiozis is considered worthy enough for inclusion. Immediately following the final chapter are four maps of Athens, Attika, Central and Southern Greece, and Greece and the Aegean. The maps are not without errors: on Map A, for example, the Hill of the Muses and the Pnyx are presented as one and the same.

In the end, Waterfield’s Athens is one that suffers from having been written too narrowly by a philologist: we fast-forward through pre-Classical Athens and post-Classical Athens, and bathe in the literary glory of Classical Athens. As for how this book shapes up against its competition, Waterfield’s Athens lacks the practical information, including plans of the Acropolis, Agora, and Pnyx, of Richard Stoneman’s A Traveller’s History of Athens, and it lacks the elegance, wit, and breadth of scope of Michael Llewellyn Smith’s Athens: A Cultural and Literary History.


1. Among others, see Michael Llewellyn Smith, Athens: A Cultural and Literary History, Oxford 2004; Richard Stoneman, A Traveller’s History of Athens, New York and Northampton 2004.

2. K.E. Bires, Ta Attika tou Evlia Tselembe, Athens 1959 (in Greek).