Friday, 18 December 2015

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The End of Greek Power

Bust of Alexander the Great

Shifting alliances

The historian Robin Lane Fox states:
‘The forty years or so which followed the Spartans’ unlikely victory over the Athenians are a kaleidoscope of wars, ever-changing alliances and brief bouts of supremacy for one or other major power in Greece.’  
The great days of Athens were over. By 403 perhaps half of her male citizenry was dead, down to around 25,000.  The city was no longer a magnet for visiting intellectuals. However the ideals of Athens did not die. The Athenian achievements in sculpture and the theatre spread to other parts of Greece and other states attempted to copy the democratic model. 

Victory in the Peloponnesian War had restored Sparta to the leadership of Greece. However, in the next thirty years it threw away its gains by repeating the mistakes Athens had made: its arrogant behaviour aroused the hostility of the other Greek states. The victorious king, Lysander, imposed puppet oligarchies in many of the cities, slaughtering many democrats in the process, and the Spartans took for themselves all the war booty that their allies had gained.

Above all Sparta was drawn into conflict with Persia. Darius II died in 405/6 and a civil war broke out between his sons, Ataxerxes and Cyrus. Sparta unofficially supported Cyrus by sending a force to join the Greek mercenaries already fighting for him. These mercenaries included Socrates’ pupil, Xenophon. In 401 Cyrus was killed and his army defeated near Babylon and Xenophon’s Anabasis describes the homeward march of the 10,000 Greeks from the heart of the Persian Empire. The most famous part of this account is his description of their arrival at the Black Sea and their joy at the sight of open water.

From 396 to 390 the Spartans were at war with a league that included Corinth and Athens, with the Persians aiding the anti-Spartan forces in revenge for the Spartans’ support of Cyrus. With the ending of the war in 386 the Spartans allowed the Persians to recover the Greek cities of Asia Minor that they had lost in the fifth century. 

After Socrates

Bust of Plato: Roman copy

This is an unavoidably sketchy and superficial discussion of two huge topics! If you want to investigate further, you could go to the magnificent Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Go here for Plato and here for Aristotle.


Socrates’ most famous pupil was Plato (427-348), probably the most influential European thinker.  Certainly he was the most copied-out philosopher of the ancient world. Unlike his mentor, Socrates, he clearly had great faith in the written word. He was born into an aristocratic family and some of his relatives became prominent politicians, notably the oligarchs Critias and Charmides. He was a philosopher and a mathematician, who introduced the dialogue method of argument. This allows a variety of points of view to be expressed and the reader does not have to agree with the author’s line. Dialogues were not exclusive to Plato. They were written by a number of followers of Socrates, probably because they were imitating his method.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Greece or Rome: which is best?

I would love to have been at this debate! Who would you put your money on - Mary Beard or Boris Johnson?

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Socrates (c. 470-399) is the intellectual figure of the ancient world. He has profoundly influenced western thought and was also a central influence in early Islam. In the ninth century AD the Arab philosopher, Al-Kindi (c. 801-73), wrote an extensive treatise on Socrates that has long since been lost.

We know about him through
  1. Aristophanes’ hostile play, The Clouds (423 BC), written in Socrates’ lifetime, in which he was depicted as a figure of fun and accused or being a sophist. ‘Hail, Socrates, master of twaddle!’ The choice of Socrates as a figurehead shows how famous the philosopher already was in the 420s. 
  2. The memoirs of his pupil, the historian and soldier Xenophon (c. 428-c. 354), in which he is portrayed as a good man full of common sense, who wholeheartedly worshipped the gods and was opposed to sex with boys. 
  3. Above all in the writings of his greatest pupil and devoted admirer, Plato in a massive series of 'dialogues’ crafted between twenty and forty years after Socrates died. It is Plato’s account with its 'halo effect' that has been accepted by posterity, though its reliability has been disputed for centuries. Thanks to Plato. Socrates is also seen as a great moral teacher, and he has frequently been compared to Christ. Like him, he was executed.

Through these writings Socrates shaped the entire future of western philosophy.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Sophists

Protagoras of Abdera, the greatest of the sophists
This post is particularly indebted to J. V. Muir, ‘Religion and the New Education’, in P. E. Easterling and J. V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society, (Cambridge University Press, 1985) and to Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (Jonathan Cape, 2010).

What is the meaning of the mutilation of the herms and Alcibiades’ alleged parody of the Eleusinian mysteries on the eve of the Sicilian expedition? Is it the sign of a fundamental crisis in late 5th century Athens or of a moral panic?

A generation gap?

Did all the Athenians believe in the gods? The mutilation of the herms provides evidence that respect for religion in its traditional forms was not universal - but this on its own was not really startling. But the apparent impiety was interpreted as a threat to the nomoi, the written and unwritten laws of the constitution. lt seemed as if something had gone badly wrong and that the standards which had fortified the troops at Marathon were no longer upheld. Well-to-do young men appeared to be embracing dangerous ideas that set them apart from their parents and led them to disregard the beliefs and practices of traditional religion.  There was a notorious club of the kakodaimonistai - aristocratic young men who met together on the unlucky days of the month to cock a snook at popular superstition. By definition this was interpreted as a fundamental undermining of the state.

Melvyn on Sparta

If you click here you will be taken to the Radio 4 'In Our Time' archive and be able to listen to the discussion on Sparta hosted by Melvyn Bragg.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), II

Map of the Sicilian expedition, 415 BC

The rise of the demagogues

After the death of Pericles, things could never be the same. According to Thucydides, the leaders who emerged from his shadow were petty, self-seeking rabble-rousers, such as the demagogue, Cleon, acquired an influential voice in the Assembly. The socially conservative playwright Aristophanes satirised him as a tanner (he owned a tannery) but in reality he was a skilful general who inflicted a humiliating reverse on the Spartans.

The constant Athenian strategy in this phase of the war was to avoid a direct confrontation on land with Sparta, to maintain the fleet, and to keep the empire together.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), I

A helmeted Spartan hoplite

The historian Bettany Hughes has described the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta as one of the most pitiless wars human history has ever known. The Greeks used the term stasis to describe it. The war was not fought between Athens and Sparta alone. Each was involved in a web of alliances with the other Greek states. The war extended from Asia Minor across the Aegean to Greece and thence to Sicily and southern Italy. Even the Persian Empire intervened and in the end its subsidies decided the struggle in favour of Sparta. The resources brought to the war by both sides were enormous. Athens fought on until it had completely exhausted its material resources. Tens of thousands, including Pericles, died of the great plague of 430-29. The war lasted an entire generation, in the course of which huge changes took place. At the end of the war there were signs of great destruction and also of intellectual crisis.

Athens: From League to Empire

The cities of the Delian League
The historian, Herodotus, defined to hellenikon,  'Greekness' as 'shared blood, shared language, shared religion, and shared customs'. This common feeling was strengthened by the menace of the common enemy (Persia) in the wars of 499-479.  Yet the Greeks of the classical period never managed to translate their awareness of 'Greekness' into political unity. Unity came later, imposed by the conquering empires of Macedon and Rome. However in 478-477 the Delian League was founded. lt was this confederacy that carried the burden of the Greeks' war against the Persians, and it was the first instance of an organised offensive union of Greek states.


The League was necessary because the Persian threat did not go away after the victories of 480-79. In the aftermath of Salamis, Plataia and Mykale, Greece needed a leader - a role Sparta was unwilling to assume. She had many domestic difficulties that distracted her from a wider role - size of her helot population, fear of helot uprising. She also lacked the experience of naval warfare. For the next fifty years, the period of relative peace (known as the pentekontaetia of 479-431) she seemed content to let the power of Athens grow. Corinth too stood back from leadership. Like Athens she had a naval tradition, but she lacked Athens' ideological magnetism. It was natural therefore that the leadership role should be assumed by Athens. She had many positive attributes.  

Saturday, 7 November 2015


It looks as if Tom Holland's book on the Julio-Claudians is a seriously good read - up to the standard of his triumphant Rubicon.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Household, family, women

Children at play


The Greeks did not have the concept of the modern nuclear family, and did not even have the word ‘family’.  The basic unit was the household, the oikos, which included a complex kinship structure, slaves, land, dwellings and storehouses. In theory, it was economically self-sufficient. At the head of this unit was the master (kurios), who in theory had sovereign power over all its constituent elements.  These included all the women, unmarried brothers, any son who had not attained the age of majority, and slaves. The role of the oikos was the production of heirs and the preservation of family property (the klēros).

The house
Archaeology has not yet discovered an aristocratic district of Athens. In contrast with the splendid public buildings, Athenian houses from the sixth to the fourth centuries were modest even for wealthy citizens. Most would be flat-roofed (some two-storey) with a wooden framework, built of sun-dried mud-brick reinforced with timbers, supported on stone foundations. Because mud is not a durable material and rapidly decomposes, little has survived of these houses.  However we know that in the larger houses, rooms were arranged round a central courtyard. 

Furnishings were sparse. The most elaborate feature was probably the banquet couch, which also served as a bed and a funeral bier. Simple stools were common. Clothes were folded and kept in wooden chests. Although looms have not survived depictions of them on vases document an activity that was probably practised in every household.

The Athenian house was divided into men’s and women’s quarters. In the andron, the men of the house entertained their guests. This was the one room likely to be decorated. As this room was often near the entrance, guests attending a symposium could do so without entering the inner parts.  The women’s quarters, the gynaikon, was at the back of the house, where the activities would have been child-rearing, cooking and weaving. According to the Roman writer, Cornelius Nepos, the gynaikon was ‘never entered by the man unless he is a very close relative’.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Moral Values

Pederastic couples at a symposium;
from a wall-painting in Paestum, Italy

This post in indebted to the Joint Association of Classical Teachers’ The World of Athens, 1st edn. (Cambridge University Press, 1984), to Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (Penguin, 2006), and to John Dillon’s, Salt and Olives: Morality and Custom in Ancient Greece (Edinburgh University Press, 2004).


The term aretē is usually translated virtue but it may more accurately be rendered human excellence. It denotes the sum total of the moral, social, and even physical excellence proper to a human being. It is conventionally divided into four particular virtues, wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice. The virtues of men and women were thought to be quite distinct. Courage was inappropriate for a woman, timidity for a man.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Greek Religion

The Greek pantheon

Zeus, King of the gods,
identified by the Romans as their god, Jupiter
Athenian religion was polytheistic. In polytheism there are many gods, each with a defined sphere of influence.  The worshipper does not pick and choose between them but pays respect to all: failure to do this means the neglect of an area of human experience.  The Greek gods had human form, they were born and might have sexual contacts: but they did not eat human food and they would not age or die. They are frequently described as the 'blessed gods’, not subject to the infirmities of the human condition.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Rebuilding of Athens

The Parthenon today
A great deal of this post is indebted to Mary Beard's excellent The Parthenon (Profile Books, 2007), a book that explodes many myths and romantic stories. I have also used the British Museum's booklet The Elgin Marbles and the Short Guide to the Acropolis Museum.

Before the Persians came

The Acropolis 

The Acropolis is a limestone rock 156 metres above sea level. All sides of the hill are precipitous and the only feasible approach is from the west.  This confined space has been inhabited since the Neolithic period and by the end of the Mycenaean period it housed a palace and an ‘Old Temple’ dedicated to Poseidon and Athena. The tyrant Peisistratos reconstructed the ‘Old Temple’ and adorned it with marble sculptures. In 490 BC following the victory at Marathon the construction of a new marble temple to Athena began. This was the Older Parthenon, and its only mortal residents were the privileged few who served the goddess, the priestess of Athena, and the Arrephoroi, a group of girls whose duties included the setting up of the loom for the peplos, the goddess’s robe.   By the fifth century, therefore the Acropolis was a holy place dedicated to the cult of Athena and other divine patrons of Athens.  

Athens was a city of narrow streets and modest houses, but increasingly impressive public buildings. The tyrant Peisistratos had commissioned monumental public buildings and works. He and his sons enlarged the open space that became known as the agora and provided fountain houses and aqueducts. The democrat Cleisthenes made further additions. He set out boundary stones that staked out the public area as a religious precinct and made it closed to a certain type of criminal.  

The Persian sack

In 480 the Athenians evacuated their city, taking with them their holiest possession, the ancient olive-wood statue of Athena.  The Persians sacked both the town and the Acropolis, including the Older Parthenon so that not a single temple remained. After Salamis the Athenians are said to have sworn an oath not to rebuild the desecrated shrines but to leave them as a monument to Persian impiety. However some modern authorities, notably Mary Beard, are sceptical about this story. The Athenians gathered together all the fragments of the despoiled statues and architectural sculptures and buried them in the Acropolis in pits discovered by archaeologists from 1885-91.

The beginnings of reconstruction

The immediate need was to secure the defences of Athens. Themistocles, ordered the swift rebuilding of the city walls to protect the city and link it to the sea, in spite of protests from Sparta. The circuit of the walls was roughly 6.5km in length and was furnished with thirteen gates and an unknown number of towers and posterns. The wall ran right through the old Potters' Quarter (the Kerameikos) and divided the great cemetery area into an inner and an outer. In the 460s and 450s the Long Walls were constructed to link Athens and Piraeus.  

Within the new circuit wall, the Athenians reconstructed their city. First of all, the agora was rebuilt. 

The main buildings in this market area were the Council Chamber, the Court House, and the Royal Stoa for the officer of state (the king archon, whose primary function was justice). It was here that the officers of state stood on a block of stone (lithos) to take their oath to abide by the laws of the state and it was here that the laws of Solon, carved on stone, were made accessible to the people.  The Stoa Poikile was a colonnaded building that housed paintings. Temples to Hephaistos and Athena were also built. The statues of the would-be tyrannicides, Harmodios and Aristogeiton, were given pride of place. 

However, a good deal of social and political life was moving away from the agora. Meetings of the Assembly were now held on the Pnyx, an immense new meeting-place hewn out of the rock.  Dramatic competitions took place in the sanctuary of Dionysus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis.

The Pnyx as it is today, with the carved
stones for the speaker's platform

The Parthenon

Late in 449 the Assembly, at the instigation of Pericles, voted to reconstruct the burned temples on the Acropolis in a vast programme of public works probably supervised by the surveyor and sculptor Pheidias. Writing five hundred years later, the historian Plutarch commented on the remarkable speed in which the building took place. In 447 BC work started on a temple that was designed to be the most extravagant and beautiful ever build. It would later be called the Parthenon, the shrine of the virgin goddess, Athena and would be the most visible symbol possible of the greatness of Athens.  Because so much of the Parthenon is in ruins, we are greatly reliant on the description of the Greek traveller Pausanias,  who visited it in the second century AD. 

The Parthenon was built of 22,000 tons of marble quarried from Mount Pentelicus. The details were picked out in paint. 

The kernel of the Parthenon was an oblong building with a porch of six columns at each end leading into two rooms of unequal size. The Parthenon (‘room of the maidens’) in the west of the building was the smaller of the two and may have been intended as a store-chamber for the goddess. The larger room was the Hecatompedos, the ‘hundred-foot chamber’ that housed the massive thirty-five foot high statue of Athena Parthenos. Around the outside of the central building ran a peristyle or colonnade of forty-six columns (eight across each end and seventeen along the side, counting the angle-columns twice). The temple stood on a base of three steps and there are two more steps up into the porches.

The temple is built in the Doric order
The outer columns support a marble beam (architrave) on which rests a frieze consisting of ninety-two sculptured panels (metopes), alternating with vertically grooved blocks (triglyphs). The metopes seem to have shown mythical battles and perhaps symbolise the defeat of the Persians, whose captured shields and daggers were to be found amongst the war booty in the storeroom below. The overhanging cornice runs the length of the building. At the ends are two pediments filled with groups of marble sculptures. Inside the building is a frieze that forms a continuous sculptured band around the central structure.  This has survived reasonably intact in London or Athens.  

However, there is little consensus over what the frieze was trying to show. In 1789 James Stuart argued in his Antiquities of Athens that it depicted the Panathenaic festival but, though this is often stated uncritically in books on the Parthenon, there are many problems with this interpretation. We cannot be sure what the frieze was meant to depict. There was originally a full roof of marble tiles supported by wooden rafters. This was blown up by the Venetians in 1686.

The statue

The statue of Athena Parthenos was fashioned by Pheidias and dedicated in 439 or 438.  It was made of gold and ivory over a timber frame: ivory for the flesh, gold for the drapery and accoutrements and was probably more expensive than the Parthenon itself. Athena stands holding a Nike (victory) on her right hand. With her left hand she supports her shield, which shelters the snake, the symbol of Erichthonios, the legendary king of Athens, as it rests on the ground.  She is wearing the 'peplos'. Her 'aegis' (breastplate) is adorned with snakes and the head of Medusa. Her helmet has a sphinx at the centre and griffins on either side.

The Parthenon was completed in 438 and formally dedicated to the goddess at the Panathenaic Festival of that year (see a subsequent post for more details about this festival). It is now clear that it was not a place of worship but a statement of civic strength. The treasury of Athens was kept there under the protection of Athena and one archaeologist has described the Parthenon, rather unromantically, as a strong box.

Other buildings

Nike adjusting her sandal
from the parapet of the
Temple of Nike
The Parthenon was not the only temple on the Acropolis. Two smaller temples,  the Erechtheion, dedicated to Erechthonios and the temple of Athena Nike (Victory) were completed after Pericles’ death in 429. The Erechtheion was built during the Peloponnesian War in order to replace the earlier temple of Athena Polias that was destroyed by the Persians. At the south porch the roof was supported by six statues of maidens, known as the caryatids. It was to the Erechtheion that every four years, the people of Athens brought a new robe, the peplos, for Athena's wooden statue. 

The Caryatid porch, the Erechtheion

The Acropolis was approached by new entrance gates, the Propylaea, a massive structure built of white Pentelic marble and grey Eleusinian marble that took five years to complete. The historian Thucydides singled it out as the flagship building of the site. The Odeion or ‘Music Hall’ was built on the hill slope. It was here that the dramatists gave previews of their plays. There was a new sanctuary for Artemis Brauronia, the goddess of childbirth, between the temple of Athene Nike and the Propylaea.

When the buildings on the Acropolis were completed, attention turned once more to the agora. A mint, a law court and a temple to Zeus were added at this time. 

Who paid?

The money came from the tribute money paid by Athens’ allies. The transfer of the funds of the Delian League (which will be discussed in a future post) from Delos to Athens in 454 had left the Athenians in sole control of vast war funds. 
‘The building and funding of the Parthenon are inseparable from the Athenian empire, its profits, its debates and discontents.’ Mary Beard, The Parthenon, p. 39.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Athenian democracy (2): the radical democracy

A changing political culture

The decades after the Persian defeat saw a new dynamism in Athens. This was the period of the great dramas, such as Aeschylus' The Persians, performed in 472.  It was also a time of a new polarization in politics. In the 480s comic dramas became part of the political festivals and Cleisthenes’ device of ostracism began to be used by the people against prominent nobles, sometimes for reasons that can seem frivolous.  The ostracisms were signs of a changing political culture in which traditional aristocrats found their assumptions challenged by the advocates of democracy. 

In 462-1 the radical democracy was established by a coup led by Ephialtes.  
  1. The Areopagus Council, the governing body, lost its powers, and the rulers (the arkhontes) became democratically elected. Decision-making now rested with the Assembly. 
  2. The Areopagus continued as a court but after a first hearing they had to pass on cases to one of the panels of public jurors (see below).

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Athenian Democracy (1): from tyranny to democracy

Ostracism at work: pieces of broken pottery
 with the names of Pericles, Cimon and Aristides


Athens was the world’s first democracy. While the rest of the world continued to be characterized by monarchical societies, Athens carried democracy as far as it would go before modern times.  The democracy existed for two centuries, and for less than that in the small number of Greek states that followed Athens. When it reappeared in the western world it was broader but shallower. Modern democracies are more remote and indirect, less 'political' in the ancient understanding of the term.

The Dark Ages: Aristocracy

In the three hundred years after the collapse of Mycenae, the Greeks laid the foundations of their system of government. Neighbouring families, clans, and tribes joined together for protection and developed the unit known as the ‘polis’, plural poleis

The polis can be defined as a community of citizens with rights (adult males), citizens without rights (women and children), and non-citizens (resident foreigners and slaves). It lived under a constitution independent of outside authority. The focal point was usually a fortified city with a market (agora) and a place of assembly (in Athens this was the agora itself), a seat of justice and a government. A polis had to have not only a city but also a hinterland. The city of Athens lay in Attica and the farming of Attica helped to support the city. The average Athenian citizen was a farmer.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Greeks and the Persians (II)

Relief from the Acropolis depicting a trireme

Arguably the defeat at Marathon was not a huge blow for the Persians. Darius faced a much more serious problem with a revolt in Egypt, and Greece, poor, remote and mountainous, was far less important as a prize. But the Greek sources are clear that the defeat at Marathon gnawed at Darius. When he died in 486 BC his vendetta against the Greeks passed to his son and successor, Xerxes I

Herodotus tells us that c. 482 BC Xerxes had two pontoon bridges built across the Hellespont at Abydos in order that his army could cross into Greece. Both bridges were destroyed by a storm and Xerxes had those responsible beheaded and the strait itself whipped.

In the intervening years, the Athenians had made preparations for a second invasion. At the instigation of the archon (magistrate) Themistocles, a brilliantly ambitious young man with great powers of persuasion, they had constructed the great harbour complex of Piraeus and were building up their navy. Two hundred triremes were constructed and the citizens of Athens were trained as rowers.

The Athenians were also helped by a stroke of luck.  In 483 they had discovered a huge new seam of silver in the mines of Larium. On hearing the news of this windfall, Themistocles, with some difficulty, persuaded the Assembly to spend the bulk of the income on the fleet.

The Greeks and the Persians (I)

Relief of Darius I
in Persepolis

The Persian Empire

In 480 the fragmented city-states of Greece confronted the greatest empire the world had yet seen. 

In 550 BCE Cyrus the Great defeated the Median Empire that had stretched from northern Mesopotamia into Anatolia and set up a dual monarchy of the Medes and Persians.  In 546 he defeated Croesus the king of Lydia and annexed the Greek cities of Asia Minor. In 539 he marched into Babylon. This conquest delivered Syria and Palestine into his hands. By the time of his death in 530 at the hands of nomadic tribesmen, he had established an empire that united the whole of west Asia, running from central Asia to Libya and from the shores of the Black Sea to the Indus. This empire brought Europe and Asia together in ways never experienced before. 

Between 526 and 525 Cyrus’ son Cambyses, conquered Egypt.  In 522 the usurper Darius I, known as ‘the Great’ was enthroned. Between 520 and 513 he conquered the whole of Sind and probably the greater part of the Punjab. In c. 517 he established control over several islands off the Ionian coastIn c. 512/1 he reached the magnificently wealthy Greek city of Sardis in Asia Minor, and took up his seat in the suburb of that city. This was a cardinal moment in Greek history.  Sardis became the western capital of the Persian Empire. By c. 510 Darius had gained the submission of the king of Macedon, to the north of Greece.   

The Persian Empire at its height

Culturally, the Greeks and the Persians were very different.  Though the king was meant to administer justice, the Persians had no idea of citizenship or political freedom and no concept of a city-state. Their aristocracy preferred hunting in their rural retreats and cultivating beautiful parks (from which we get the word 'paradise') to political activity.  The war between the Greeks and Persians was, among other things, a conflict of values - as the Greeks were very keen to point out. But the Greeks knew that though ‘barbarians’, the Persians possessed a complex and sophisticated civilisation. Greece had nothing like the Royal Road that ran 1,600 miles from Sardis to Susa.

The Ionian revolt

In 499 the Greeks of Ionia and their allies revolted against what they saw as Persian tyranny.  However, only Athens and Eretria, a merchant port on the island of Euboea, were prepared to go to their aid. 

 War fever broke out in Athens. In the spring of 498 a fleet of twenty ships set out for Ionia.  A fire destroyed the lower part of Sardis, including the temple of the goddess Cybele. However, the Greeks failed to take the city.  On their return journey they were overtaken by Persian troops. Finally, in 494 the Persian navy defeated the Greeks at Miletus, the last city to hold out.  Terrible reprisals followed as Asia Minor was brought back into the Persian fold.

When he had heard of the burning of Sardis and the sacrilegious destruction of the temple of Cybele, Darius vowed to punish Athens and Eretria. It is said that every day as he sat down to eat, a servant would whisper in his ear, ‘Sire, remember the Athenians.’ He was determined to defeat the democracy and turn the Aegean into a Persian lake. According to Herodotus, Darius was persuaded into launching the invasion by his wife, Atossa, the daughter of Cyrus. But he did not need persuading. Persia was an inherently expansionist power. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Athens: what to read

There are a good introductions to this subject in Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World. An Epic History of Greece and Rome (Penguin, 2006), Stephen Kershaw, A Brief Guide to Classical Civilization: From the Origins of Democracy to the Fall of the Roman Empire (Robinson, 2010), and Edith Hall, Introducing the Ancient Greeks (Bodley Head, 2015).

The standard work on Athens I have used is the Joint Association of Classical Teachers' The World of Athens (Cambridge, 1984). 

For the Persian Wars I have used Tom Holland, Persian Fire. The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (Abacus, 2006).

The mountains and the sea

The Greek World was the area where the Greek language was spoken. Most Greeks (Hellenes) lived in mainland Greece (Hellas), but small Greek communities were established outside Greece on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Sicily, and southern Italy. All these were places that could be reached by sea.


Mount Olympus

Greece is dominated by the mountains and the sea. The highest mountain is Mount Olympus in the north. These mountains made communication difficult, especially, and were one of the factors leading to the establishment of small, independent settlements where autarkeia (self-determination) was prized. There are few cultivatable plains on the west, and most settlements developed in the comparatively roomy eastern plain. A settlement and its surrounding territory was called a polis. The largest of these poleis was Athens.

It was difficult to use rivers for navigation (they dried up in summer, and flooded in winter). The main means of communication was by sea.