Athens: A History, from Ancient Ideal to Modern City

Athens: A History, from Ancient Ideal to Modern City

by Robin Waterfield

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In this engaging and readable narrative, noted classicist and author Robin Waterfield traces the life and history of the city of Athens, with an emphasis on the classical period when, in the space of a century, Athens reached the pinnacle of its power and fell due to arrogance and shortsighted self-interest. Focusing on Athens' social and cultural history, as well

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In this engaging and readable narrative, noted classicist and author Robin Waterfield traces the life and history of the city of Athens, with an emphasis on the classical period when, in the space of a century, Athens reached the pinnacle of its power and fell due to arrogance and shortsighted self-interest. Focusing on Athens' social and cultural history, as well as on the powerful and fascinating individuals who left their mark on the city, Waterfield explains Athens' rise and fall, and shows us how-through centuries of war, occupation, and destruction-Athens emerged as a burgeoning modern European city. For over two millennia, the memory of the city's glorious past has ensured that Athens remains synonymous with democracy, civilization, and culture.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Athens will host the Olympic Games in 2004, perhaps restoring some glory to a city that, according to Waterfield, has seen better days. In this fast-paced history, Waterfield, who has translated many works from ancient Greek, chronicles the rise and fall of Athens, from ancient days (the bulk of his narrative) to the political revolutions of the 19th century. Legend has it that the great Theseus, who killed the Minotaur, was one of the city's founders and fostered its democratic spirit. Athens's location near the coast (facilitating trade) and its fertile land attracted migrants from the Mediterranean world. For Waterfield, the period of Athens's greatest glory came in the fifth century B.C., when Pericles overturned its aristocratic rule and established a democracy. For 30 years (446-416 B.C.), Athens reached a glorious pinnacle during which philosophy, religion, art and architecture flourished. The grandest accomplishment was the building of the Parthenon, completed in just nine years. During its peak years, Athens also attempted to reign over neighboring states, and its increasingly arrogant imperialism and materialism eventually resulted in war with Sparta and other Greek states that destroyed Athens's splendor. As Waterfield observes, Athens would never again achieve such glory, and it became a territory ruled over the years by Persia, Rome and Turkey. Waterfield sandwiches his helpful history between an opening section on the ancient Olympics and a closing one on the forthcoming games, which jars readers out of their pleasant excursion though the ancient city. 8 pages of b&w photos, not seen by PW. (Apr.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Of sophistry, slaughter, slavery, and, here and there, the smog that a visitor to Athens chews today while enjoying "the taste of ouzo with the sunlight filtering through a shady vine." Later this year, Athens will serve as the site for the Olympic Games, whose ancient origins lie in the western Peloponnesus and whose modern version was born in the city in the mid-19th century. Waterfield, a translator of ancient Greek literature, gives credit for the latter revival to the Athenian plutocrat and nationalist Evangelos Zappas, long overshadowed by Baron de Coubertin as the architect of the modern games. He then turns quickly to the city's classical age, and there he mostly remains, giving a lucid account of the deeds of some of its more illustrious citizens, among which are, of course, the likes of Pericles, Socrates, and Alcibiades. The emphasis on personalities has good authority behind it, for, as Waterfield rightly notes, "an ancient Greek polis was its citizens; the name 'Athens' referred only to the physical city with its buildings and open spaces; as a political unit, the name was 'the Athenians.' " Waterfield's account of postclassical Athens is cursory, though, even with many equally illustrious (or at least picturesque) characters with which to populate his pages, and he devotes only three dozen pages to the city under the many centuries of Byzantine and Ottoman rule. He reasonably observes that the literary and historical attestations for ancient Athens are richer than those of its succeeding iterations, but this quick treatment leaves little room for a discussion of how the modern city-and modern Greece-came to be. In the end, Waterfield's study is serviceable, but listless; onelongs for what Jan Morris might have done with the same material. Even on the matter of the ancient polis alone, it is less impressive than Christian Meier's Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age (1998). In a strong field of competitors, this one carries few championship qualities. Agency: Carlisle & Co.

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Basic Books
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A HISTORY From Ancient Ideal to Modern City


Copyright © 2004 Robin Waterfield
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-465-09063-X

Chapter One


Nothing beats water, and gold, bright as firelight, gleams More than all other lordly wealth. But, dear soul of mine, If you want a real contest to celebrate, just as you need search The barren skies for no bright star more warming than the sun, So the supreme games of which to sing are those of Olympia. -Pindar, Olympian Odes 1.1-12

Once every four years, from the traditional, though probably not authentic, starting date of 776 BCE, men from all over the Greek world, from Spain to the north African coast to the Black Sea, converged on Olympia. They came to this well-watered town in the western Peloponnese, surrounded by low, wooded hills, to compete against one another in the games. They competed as individuals, not as representatives of their native or adopted cities. There were plenty of other games in Classical Greece-especially in Nemea, Delphi, and Corinth, where the other "crown" games (those with only a wreath as a prize) were held-but at best they stood as the World Athletic Championships today stand in relation to the modern Olympics. There was honor to be won in any of the games, but nothing compared to the prestige of the Olympics. The ancient Olympic Games continued to be held for over a thousand years until Theodosios the Great, emperor of Rome, banned them in 393 CE. Theodosios was a Christian, and the Olympic Games were a religious festival in honor of Zeus.

Students of the ancient Greeks, as of any alien culture, are constantly having the rug pulled out from under their feet. They spend half their time seeing, with sighs of relief or jolts of self-recognition, similarities between them and us, in respect of their cultures and even their characteristics. But the students spend the rest of their time aware of profound differences-and the fact that the Olympic Games were a religious festival is one of these differences. Nowadays, athletic competitions are strictly secular, unless they are in thrall to the great god of commercialism. But a visitor to or a participant in the ancient Olympic Games would have witnessed not just athletic competitions but also feasts, processions, prayers, and sacrifices, on every day of the festival. The association of athletics and religion at Olympia was probably fostered mainly by the belief that Zeus would enjoy the display, though we cannot entirely rule out the idea that the competitors were offering a sacrifice-their energy-to the god.

The combination of religious festival and competition was by no means restricted to the Olympic and other games: dramatic contests, for instance, were part of festivals to the god Dionysos. Or again, even a spontaneous celebration might include a rapidly organized athletic contest, if there were enough men present to make it worthwhile. The ancient Greeks invented sport. They were naturally competitive and would not have understood the sentiment that taking part is as good as winning. For the Greeks, winning was everything, and losers felt ashamed at their failure:

They cower in back alleys, Keeping away from their enemies, Full of remorse at their failure. (Pindar, Pythian Odes 8.86-87)

Athletics, then, was peculiarly Greek, and when the successors of Alexander of Macedon hellenized the East, they took the craze for athletics with them. The Jewish author of the Apocryphal Maccabees, writing in the second century BCE, complained that young priests in Jerusalem were practicing the discus rather than their duties (2 Maccabees 4:14-15); an Indian king of the first century CE had a Greek-style training ground built so that he could throw the discus and javelin; and numerous Eastern cities instituted Greek-style athletic festivals of their own. By the end of the first century CE, there were over three hundred athletic contests around the Greco-Roman world.

In order to allow athletes and visitors to travel in safety from their homes to Olympia, there was a sacred truce. Well in advance, heralds traveled the length and breadth of the Greek world announcing the precise date of the games and the extent of the surrounding truce. The date was roughly known already, since the games were held every four years, and always in the late summer, with the central day of the festival falling on the second full moon after the summer solstice. This is a very hot time of year in Greece for athletics, but little agricultural activity took place at this season, and so more people were free to attend. The athletes themselves were of course amateurs, although for the glory of their family and native city they shunned other work (if they were not already nonworking aristocrats) for some weeks or months while they trained for the event and became used to exerting themselves in the summer heat. There were trainers, especially for wrestlers, and manuals on exercise and diet. There was also a considerable amount of medical knowledge about sports injuries.

The Greeks had a habit of making up myths and legends to explain the origins of their customs, and there was one about the truce as well. It was said that King Iphitos of Elis, the town north of Olympia which was responsible for the running of the games, asked the Delphic oracle what he should do to stop the Greeks fighting one another. The oracle replied that he should declare a sacred truce for the duration of the games. For several months surrounding the games, then, warfare throughout the Greek world subsided. In the ancient Greek world, this cease-fire is quite remarkable. Their history shows that the Greek states were belligerent, constantly fighting someone or other, and involved in complex networks of shifting alliances, dictated usually by self-interest. There is no little irony in the fact that one of the things we most admire in the ancient Greeks is their love of freedom-and yet one of the chief manifestations of that love was their constant striving to control in some way the futures of their neighbors.

Geography is not quite destiny-after all, Greece never again split up into numerous independent states-but certainly the landscape of Greece encouraged these rivalries. In the first place, it was quite likely that a community was cut off even from its nearest neighbors by rugged landscape-Greece is dominated by mountains-or in the case of the islands, tracts of open sea. In the second place, fertile agricultural land and timber forests were scarce and worth fighting over. Over the centuries, one such citizen-state (the cumbersome but fairly accurate translation of the ancient Greek word polis) usually gained control over a number of outlying smaller villages, as for example, Athens gained control of the surrounding district of Attica or Megara did of the Megarid. Mountains and coastline formed natural barriers to this expansion. The upshot was that on mainland Greece there were twenty-five or so regions-Attica, Thessaly, Boiotia, Lakonia, Epeiros, Phokis, to name a few-each invariably with at least one major town and with borders and inevitable border disputes with its neighbors. Since much Greek history is incomprehensible otherwise, it is vitally important to realize that there was no independent and unified nation of Greece until the nineteenth century CE, though the mainland and the Aegean islands were regarded more or less as a whole under the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.

The center of the Olympic complex was the Altis, a grove sacred to Zeus. Over the centuries, in addition to a colossal temple of Zeus, many other buildings sprung up and were developed and redeveloped, so that the modern visitor is faced with a perplexing mass of stone-strewn sites, intersected with paths. This is at least some kind of reflection of the crowded scene of ancient times, as thousands of spectators, peddlers, prostitutes, entertainers, athletes, and officials wound their way between the sacred buildings and hundreds of statues. Dominant over all was the great temple of Zeus, which by the end of the fifth century housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the thirteen-meter-high, gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus seated on his throne, the creation of Pheidias of Athens. The temple too was built on a magnificent scale to accommodate such a priceless statue, and visitors could climb to an upper floor to get a closer look at the top half of the statue. In addition to this enormous temple, there were important temples to Hera and Rhea (the mother of the gods), a shrine to the local hero Pelops (after whom the whole Peloponnese-the "island of Pelops"-is named), an oracular shrine of Zeus, council houses and colonnades, treasuries filled with offerings from successful athletes or their native states, a huge gymnasium (big enough to house an indoor running track) for the athletes to train in, and a number of other grand buildings.

Zeus's altar, on open ground in the Altis, attracted attention for its famously huge mound of solidified ash, the result of centuries of burnt animal offerings; it marked the spot where Zeus is said to have hurled his thunderbolt when laying claim to the sacred enclosure. Spectators jostled one another for a view of the statues of past heroes-and right by the entrance to the stadium, they could see the name-and-shame bronze statues of Zeus on the pedestals of which were inscribed the names of those who had attempted to cheat or bribe an official in past games. There were very few of these, considering the long history of the games, and they were paid for by the cheat or his native city. Towering over all other statues was the symbolic figure of Victory, sculpted by Paionios of Mende and dedicated at the end of the 420s BCE by the people of Messenia. Perched on top of a column nine meters tall, it depicted Victory swooping down to Olympia. Enough remains of the statue, now splendidly housed in the new museum at Olympia, for us to regret that it is no longer complete, for its grace and the impression of speed given by the way her flimsy clothes cling to the front of her thighs and swirl out behind. In Roman times the complex was extended, with baths and a hotel, for instance. Before the construction of the hotel, we should imagine visitors slinging a piece of material over bushes or the branches of trees as a crude tent. And then there were the facilities for the games: the stadium for the footraces, the hippodrome for the horse events, the sandpit for the wrestlers and boxers.

The noise and bustle would be familiar to modern visitors, were they transported in time back to the ancient Olympics. But apart from the commotion, many aspects of the festival would seem strange. Most important, there were far fewer events in the ancient Olympics-no synchronized swimming or beach volleyball, for instance, nor even a marathon race, despite its supposed ancient Greek origins. When the festival first started, it was limited to a footrace or two, and everything was on a far simpler scale, but by Classical and later times more events had been added and the festival had expanded into an elaborate, five-day extravaganza. We should imagine the games spreading from a local village affair, designed originally to initiate young men into adulthood, until the games encompassed the entire Greek world.


Two days before the official start, all the contestants and officials were required to walk the sixty kilometers from Elis, where they had congregated a month earlier to train under the supervision of the committee. On the way to Olympia, the formal procession stopped from time to time to perform a sacrifice or carry out some other rite. Then on the first day there were sacrifices, and the competitors and purple-robed judges swore oaths of fair play; well-known orators might give speeches in a semicompetitive fashion, and in later years there were competitions for trumpeters and town criers. The second day saw the chariot and horse races, and the pentathlon, followed by feasting and relaxation in the evening. The third day was especially distinguished: in the morning all the officials, athletes, and representatives of Greek cities accompanied the priests of Zeus and one hundred oxen in a procession to the altar, where the animals were ritually sacrificed; and in the afternoon the footraces were held. The evening of this central day was the occasion for a public banquet. On the fourth day it was the turn of the wrestlers and boxers, and there was the grueling race run in armor. Finally, on the fifth day, in addition to the inevitable sacrifices and feasting, all the victors of the games displayed themselves to the crowds in a procession to the temple of Zeus, where they were crowned with wreaths of wild olive, their only prizes, as a sign that they were dedicated to the god. This is a simplified calendar: various events came, and sometimes went, at various times in the games' history.

Victors were heroes, and in some cases literally gained that semidivine status, when their native city honored them with worship and sacrifices after their deaths. There were few dissenting voices. The travelling bard Xenophanes of Kolophon (ca. 570-ca. 480) sourly complained that success in the Olympic Games did nothing to enhance the good government of a city (fragment 2.15-22), and there were others too who preferred a less superficial way of judging success as a citizen. But success enormously enhanced the prestige of the winner in his native city; in seventh-century Athens, a victor called Kylon even tried to translate his popularity into control of the state. A rich winner might enhance his fame by paying a poet to compose a victory ode in his honor: Simonides, Pindar, Bakkhylides, and Ibykos are the best-known poets of such odes, and the show-off Alkibiades had the internationally acclaimed playwright Euripides compose one for him. However, the craze for paying for this form of immortality lasted only a little over a hundred years before giving way to commissioning a sculptor to carve a statue.

The lack of cash value of the prizes reflected not only the Greek ideal that fame was more valuable than material wealth but also the fact that the games were originally intended for the wealthy elite, who did not need the money, despised working for money, and enjoyed the resonance the games had with the heroic past of Homer's poems. As Homer has a couple of his heroes say at different points of the Iliad (6.208, 11.783), it is the hero's job to strive "always to be the best, superior to others." In fact, the participants in the Olympic Games for much of their history (certainly until about 450 BCE, and longer for the equestrian events) did predominantly come from the elite, and the games were viewed as a place for equals from different cities to meet and attempt to establish superiority.


Excerpted from ATHENS by ROBIN WATERFIELD Copyright © 2004 by Robin Waterfield. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Robin Waterfield is a full-time writer and has translated about twenty ancient Greek works. He has been a university lecturer at Williams College and at St. Andrew's. He divides his time between London and the southern Peloponnese in Greece.

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