BMCR 2021.10.04

Athens 415: the city in crisis

, , Athens 415: the city in crisis. Key dates in the ancient world. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. Pp. vi, 201. ISBN 9780472054466 $70.00.

As the historian Robert Darnton showed in his famous essay on the “Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin,” the episodes during which foreign cultures seem most opaque and downright weird can sometimes be the best points of entry into them. By that standard, the mutilation of the Herms—cephal(l)ic stone pillars—might serve as good an entry-point into Athenian history, religion and society as the murder of cats. This is essentially what Hardy does in this book, the first in a new series that is intended for classroom use. I should say at the outset that I liked this book. After reading it for this review I decided to assign it in my Greek Civilization course in the fall.

In keeping with its series’ goals and audience, the book does not aim to offer a new interpretation of the events of 415, which remain as murky as ever, nor to engage in scholarly controversy, but to engage undergraduates. Chapters are interspersed with brief selections from relevant primary source “interludes,” translated by Robert Hardy. The discussion in each chapter comments on the selected source or puts it in context.

Chapter 1 (“Pnyx”) gives a whirlwind but effective introduction into Athenian history, democracy, and the decision to invade Sicily. The Melian Dialogue is well chosen and nimbly translated to convey something of the political appetite for imperial expansion that prevailed in Athens in 415.

Chapter 2 (“Symposion”) transitions from the open-air debates on the Pnyx to the exclusive, elite gatherings in the men’s quarters (andrones), and to elite culture more generally. Here the discussion touches on drinking clubs (hetaireiai), Alcibiades, Nicias, and on the central importance of honor to the elite self-image. Nonetheless, Thucydides’ second debate about Sicily is the focus text here. This works to keep the story moving, to show the figures of Nicias and Alcibiades in action, and to highlight the theme of elite competition on a public stage.

Chapter 3 (“Theatron”) moves to drama, focusing on the City Dionysia and Euripides’ Trojan Women. Hardy does not seem to buy the notion that the play was a protest about Melos, but she is willing to entertain the possibility, not only because it ties in to the earlier discussion but because it underscores the extent to which some Athenians might have dissented from the city’s bellicose policies.

Chapter 4 (“Oikos”) starts from the passage in Lysistrata where the magistrate recalls the disturbance of the assembly debate about the Sicilian Expedition by the sound of the women’s ritual laments for Adonis. Was this the women raising their voices against the invasion? This question allows Hardy to offer “a partial look at the culture and society the women were part of” (87). The discussion moves from the oikos to women’s role in religion, and finally returns to the question that opened the chapter. Hardy weighs different arguments but leans against the possibility that women were protesting the impending decision of the assembly. I can imagine this being a fertile topic for class discussion. The chapter ends with a selection of sources about the Adonia, with extensive selections from Theocritus and Bion. In contrast to the other primary source “interludes,” it was not clear to me how an instructor might use these texts to support the discussion. The chapter leans heavily on Xenophon’s Oeconomicus. A selection from that text might be useful.

Chapter 5 (“Agora”) turns to the Scandals themselves. This is the central chapter of the book, but also the murkiest. Why did the Athenians get so worked up about someone damaging statues or imitating secret rituals in private homes? There are no easy answers but Hardy raises several possible interpretations, some more plausible than others. Personally, I doubt the Herms were targeted because they represented “the essential attributes of the adult male citizen” (119), or that the Mystery Profaners were engaging in psychotropic leisure activities away from the “unwashed throng” (123). I can imagine a class getting into the debate, trying to make sense of the relevant (appended) passages of Thucydides for themselves, including trying to figure out what the excursus on the tyrannicides has to do with the matter.

The final chapter (“Dikasterion”) deals with Andocides’ On the Mysteries. This is a rich and difficult speech, full of legal quotations and slippery arguments. Those sections are wisely not included. After some relevant background on the Athenian legal system, the emphasis is on Andocides’ narrative of the aftermath of the Scandals. Here Hardie pays special attention to the role of informers, which allows her to bring the discussion back to the earlier topics of women and the oikos, and slaves.

I think this book would work well for instructors who like open-ended questions and discussions of primary sources. It might not work as well for instructors who prefer a more textbook-based lecture format. It also might not work very well as a stand-alone textbook for an entire course. I plan to use this book to supplement the textbook. As I think is typical for such courses, it tends to mix a historical arc with a selection of topics such as religion, law, the household, etc. This book connects these disparate topics together in a compelling way by turning a footnote of standard Greek Civ courses (mine included) into a central lynch-pin from which to explore a foreign culture and society.