Harvard (2021) h/b 389pp £28.95 ISBN 9780674988279
What are the options facing an author who wishes to write, with integrity, a narrative history of a distant but significant period of ancient history, where the literary sources are by and large not contemporary, limited and partisan?
One option is to write defensively, with frequent caveats: ‘perhaps’, ‘it may be’, ‘there must remain a question mark against’ etc. and to offer copious footnotes on the reliability of particular citations. The result will be safe, but perhaps dull.
There is another option and that is to write a free-flowing narrative which engages the readers but clearly signposts them to end notes (so much less obtrusive then footnotes) where the author can comment on the weight to be given to the material he has included. S.’s scholarly end notes make up about one eighth of the book.
This latter, entirely honourable, course has been followed S., an independent scholar who has written at least ten books on Ancient Greece, in this powerful and substantial account of the Greek city states in their relationships and encounters with each other, with neighbouring tribes and foreign powers, in the sixth and fifth centuries BC.
S.’s focus is on Athens and more particularly on the role of two individuals, who he believes have not always received the acknowledgement they deserve for their contribution to the rise of Athens and its civilizing legacy. They are Miltiades, the victor of Marathon, and his son, Cimon. They represented, S. argues, the conservative patriotism of the ‘old families’, whose wisdom and successes the populist democrats subsequently wished to downplay. He observes that ‘In an age before written history, when knowledge of the city’s past was shaped primarily through yearly speeches praising the war dead… with Pericles controlling the agenda for so long, it is not surprising that the achievements of his rival, Cimon, should be at best overshadowed.’
Although the book concentrates on the period covered by the lives of Miltiades (b. late 550s) and Cimon (d. 450) it includes significant events before (from the early tyrannies in Athens and Solon’s reforms) and after (down to the rise of Alexander the Great). The Persian invasions, the tensions and rivalries between the city states, especially between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian league, alliances and counter-alliances, betrayals, personal ambitions, human frailties, battles on land and at sea, are all covered in detail in S.’s powerful and distinctive literary style.
He has a penchant for eye-catching images: a rumour ‘oozes’, triremes ‘scud’ and he draws the readers in so that they almost experience the excitement, the emotion, the apprehension, even sometimes the fear, of battle scenes. For example, when Cimon’s fleet approaches Thasos (‘a saw-toothed range of mountains’) ‘…a skein of triremes sped to meet them. By now the Athenians’ response was second nature: sails lowered, masts removed, hoplites fully armoured ranged along ships’ decks; helmsmen marking targets; oarsmen flexing fingers ready for their muscle-tearing spurts of speed…’. S. is a copious user of adjectives, almost on some occasions to the point of being formulaic—’gleaming goldmines’—and is fond of alliteration—‘the slap of sails, the rap of ropes.’
S. is a born teacher who seamlessly inserts into this narrative information about (to name but a few) the structure and handling of triremes, the history and practice of ostracism, the role and influence of the oracle at Delphi. All explained without interrupting the flow. A number of black and white illustrations of pottery, statues etc. shows that S. is well aware of non-literary evidence, and maps, a timeline and index aid the readers’ understanding.
No one can come away from this well-produced and presented book without being better informed and challenged to think more deeply about an enthralling and significant period in the human story.