The Rise of Athens; The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt.

The Rise of Athens; The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization by Anthony Everitt. Random House, 2017.

Anthony Everitt has traced the history of Athens from its origins as one of the many small Greek city states of the sixth century B.C. Part of that history is the complicated endeavor of the Greeks to establish some mechanism for creating both a working consensus within the individual polis and amongst the Greek cities.

The evolution of Athenian leadership, “the rise of Athens,” went through several stages. It began in 478 B.C. with the league or alliance of Ionian Greek city states whose treasury was on the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea. The league’s objective was to support the liberation of the Greek cities located in Anatolia (modern Turkey) and the eastern Mediterranean from Persian domination. This alliance had various titles:  the Delian League, then the Athenian League, then the Athenian Empire – each reflected stages in the growing domination of Athens.

Mostly a naval alliance, the Athenian-led confederation could construct and support a substantial number of trireme (warships) available to challenge the Persian Empire. Each trireme had three banks of slaves as rowers. It took a considerable population of slaves to man the ships of the Athenian navy.

The city’s trade in vases and other art objects and imports of grain from the Black Sea and Egypt went through the port city of Piraeus. Most of the triremes in the Athenian fleet were built in the Piraeus’s shipyards. A wall was built between Athens and Piraeus to secure that commerce.

“The world’s greatest civilization” may be hyperbole. The Athenian constitution did have a democratic character – if that is how you measure civilization. Its office holders were generally elected. The electors, however, were small in number relative to the total population of the city. Women were not eligible, neither were foreigners and slaves.

Greek cities also fielded a substantial land force, mostly drawn from the class of helots – free men – who had the vote. They were also a vital part of the Athenian war machine; these citizen-soldiers formed into a phalanx. They were farmers and artisans who could afford the bronze armor and iron weaponry. Western democracy can be traced to many origins. Greece is one of them, and particularly this relationship between citizenry, infantry, and a lower class.

Did Greek military tactics shape the Athenian social structure? Or, was it the other way around, a preexisting social structure determined the military system? Everitt makes no call.

Sparta succeeded Athens in the leadership role of the Greek confederation. With Sparta, there is less to be admired. It consisted of small settlements scattered on the muddy Peloponnesian Plain. No great architecture. But the Spartans were heroic in their defense of the collective Greek cities in the 5th Century B.C. Everitt has less to say about their enemy, the Persians, except that their continuing presence and military strength was the primary reason for the “rise of Athens” and Sparta.

Most of Anthony Everitt’s interesting account of classical Greece comes from its own historians and philosophers. Athens functioned in much the same way that university cities do in our day.  That put a premium on conversation which, in the case of Athens, centered on the symposium. The Greek version departed from the symposium as we know it today. There are, however, similarities; for example, the presence of a symposiarch. He was chosen by the throw of the die and functioned as a “Lord of Rule.”

But he was also the “Lord of Misrule” – there was a lot of drinking – unlike our sober symposia. Before participants got too soused, there would be a discussion of the affairs of the city. As things got more out of hand, songs would be sung, there might be entertainment – professional dancers and singers.  And games. The participants reclined on couches, inviting a snooze after the food and wine.

The symposium could be considered anti-democratic since the guest list was short and the participants, no doubt, homogenous, shaped by the socio-economic structure of the city.

Then and now Athens inspired world architecture. The Acropolis was severely damaged when the Persians sacked the city in 480 B.C. It was rebuilt during the leadership of Pericles 495 to 429 B.C.  Athens could afford good architects, good stone, and a generous use of bronze statuary. (It is to be pointed out however, that both the fine marble and bronze were painted over in bright colors.) It was a good investment for the city. Athens was almost immediately a tourist city and remained so over the next two millennia.

Those gods and goddesses on the Athenian acropolis were worshipped. While they introduce rational thought into their religion, Greeks were worshipful. And at the same time tolerant of other religious traditions. They made room for foreigners’ gods and goddesses within their pantheon.

Everitt pays no attention to the centuries of civilization in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, except to point out that Persia represented a threat to the “world’s greatest civilization.”  And perhaps that threat was one cause of its rise.


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