Edinburgh (2020) h/b 264pp £90.00 (ISBN 9781474466424)
Democratic Athens was, writes B., an ‘imagined community’, a term (first coined by Benedict Anderson) which he goes on to amplify: ‘any community whose members do not know the majority of their fellow-members is an imagined community. Such an act of imagining is conceived of in positive terms as a necessary construction.’ Whereas previous scholars have argued that this construction was the work of either the elite or the masses, B. suggests that all strata of Athenian society had a hand in shaping their ideology, and that the material they used most often to achieve their aims was myth.
Familiar from childhood, certain myths formed the bedrock of Athenians’ identity: the myth of their autochthony, of their protection of the children of Heracles from Spartan attack, of their battle with the Amazons, and of their insistence that Thebes bury the bodies of the fallen in the wake of Polyneices’ attack. All can be found in a wide range of Athenian literature from speeches—epitaphioi logoi (funeral speeches at the public burial of the war dead), forensic speeches, speeches in the Council or Assembly—to drama and private pamphlets.
Yet, as B. argues compellingly, the slant that each of these genres gave myth was dictated by convention. For example, while drama encouraged debate, epitaphioi logoi presented an idealized image of the state. So, different versions of the same myth with different visions of its significance appear in different genres and at different times, since changing circumstances could lead to the introduction of new nuances depending on the intention of speaker or writer and (significantly) the public mood. Thus, while Euripides’ Ion explores the importance of autochthony to the mythical royal family, in epitaphioi logoi it is the demos which is autochthonous: kings are not mentioned at all and all Athenians are well-born, although, writing in the wake of the divisive aristocratic coup of the Thirty, Lysias avoids even this term and praises, instead, Athenian homonia, or harmony.
Similarly, values—a mission to uphold international justice and protect the weak, or a hatred of hubris—which Athenians believed set them apart from foreigners (Thebans, Spartans, Persians and their mythical equivalents, the Amazons) are constantly brought into play but in subtly different ways, whether by orators consoling mothers for the loss of sons, or pamphleteers such as Isocrates urging Athens to lead Greece to war.
Following general chapters on the role of myth within Athenian society as a whole and specific genres in particular, B. examines each of the four myths mentioned above, and how they were tailored to suit specific contexts. That this is a revised version of his doctoral thesis can often be told from his style, but he argues his case well, enhancing our understanding not just of what Athenians believed about their past and their place in the world but of their own role in shaping that belief. With three tables and seven black-and-white photographs, footnotes, a comprehensive bibliography, an index locorum and a brief index, this well-produced book is an important contribution to the study of how democratic Athens created its own image to be projected to itself, to the world and ultimately to us today.