Ancient Athens is remembered today as the cradle of a civilization that stands as an ideal of the reasoned life, as the source of radical transformations of thought that remain with us today in ideas of citizenship, freedom, political organization, and social obligation. Christian Meier gently reminds us, however, that in this context, Athens was a collective of landed citizens numbering fewer than 150,000 individuals spanning four generations in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.
Meier's sweeping narrative begins with the decisive Athenian victory at the battle of Salamis, when a hastily assembled fleet held off the much mightier navy of the Persian emperor, Xerxes. It was in war, Meier suggests, that Athens first came to see itself as a place unlike any other. When they were not battling Persians, Athenians often fought neighboring city-states over, say, who would have the right to host a round of Olympic games or control shipping lanes. (The Athenians, quipped Thucydides, "were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.") The Athenian penchant for fighting with their neighbors--and, when neighbors were otherwise occupied, amongst themselves--led to the city-state's decline at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C., when Meier's saga draws to a close.
Meier brings a flair for storytelling to his thoroughgoing portrait of Athens's shining moment, with a cast of characters strong on well-known figures like Solon, Alcibiades, Euripides, and Socrates. Meier also writes with self-effacing modesty, noting that his is but one interpretation among many and that history that, as his does, "obeys the law of narrative sequence [is] the most time-honored perspective for curtailing understanding." Yet Athens does nothing of the sort, offering instead a fine overview of the complexities of Athenian life from which every reader of classical history will profit. --Gregory McNamee [via]