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Fun City

Christian Habicht is Professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His early works were published in German; this book, too, appeared in that language and has now been translated into English, very well, by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Habicht has for years been established as probably the leading authority on the history of Athens in the centuries between the fall of the Athenian Empire, in 404 BCE, and the establishment of the Roman Empire by Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, known to history by the extraordinary name he took for himself: Augustus, the Sublime One. The book now made available in English will surely be the standard work on the subject for the next thirty years. If one has a regret, it is the absence of illustrations and—particularly—maps. There are military campaigns to follow, and there are place names in Attica itself, not all of which are familiar even to the tolerably well-informed reader.

When we think of Athens, we think naturally of the city in the fifth century BCE. Great works of literature were being produced. Tragedy and comedy both achieved classic form with a stream of masterpieces. The serious writing of history was invented and raised at once, by Herodotus and Thucydides, to levels of excellence never surpassed. Meanwhile the young Plato was learning from the old Socrates the new art of systematic philosophy. And all this amid superb new works of architecture and sculpture, which were to be for centuries the standard of artistic excellence for Europe and the West. They were the creation and adornment of the city which Pericles declared to be an education for all Greece, and which is still a magnet for the modern tourist.

So it was, indeed, already in the postclassical period. Roman aristocrats loved to make the grand tour of Greece, that irritating but fascinating place, which though conquered and looted still possessed the power to dominate the mind and the taste. Athens, above all, was to many educated Romans what Paris was to Americans in the early twentieth century, and more. Before 100 BCE we already find Romans settling in Athens and going native; chauvinist Italian jokes at their expense begin early.

Cicero, the greatest literary Roman of his age, has left us an unexpected treasure, a mass of personal letters to his dearest friend, unbuttoned and unreserved. The letters were written because the friend spent most of his life in Athens, acquiring the name Atticus, the Athenian. Had he lived in Rome, they would not have been written. And so we owe to the city of Athens not only so many masterpieces of Greek literature, but also a great treasure in Latin: what we so rarely get for any of the interesting people of the ancient world, a genuine insight, informal and unretouched, into private thoughts and emotions. Of course, Cicero himself would have been greatly mortified by the survival of such uncensored material, which often shows him in a light very different from that of the serene and dignified grandee for which he tried so hard to pass.

Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, conquered Greece, including Athens, in 338 BCE, but he and his successors, the various kings of Macedonian stock who dominated Greece for the next three hundred years, allowed the city a nominal independence. Habicht’s book tells the history of Athens in the 300 years that separate that first conquest from the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Thereafter the separate existence of Athens as an independent state, often more theoretical than real, but always at least notionally respected, came finally to an end, and the city was included with the rest of Greece in one Roman province.

History is a snob, or at least historians are snobs, and it tends to look on the unsuccessful with only a patronizing eye.

History to the defeated
Can say Alas, but cannot help or pardon:

—the shameful lines of Auden have often proved all too true. Who is really interested in the history of Florence in the eighteenth century? Athens of the later period, too, has often been dismissed with scorn: it was unworthy of the heroic ancestors who defeated the Persian invasion, invented the drama, and built the Parthenon. That is unfair. The fact was that the age of the city-states had passed. Out of the conquests of Alexander there emerged kingdoms that disposed of power in men and resources that overwhelmed the old cities of mainland Greece. There was no way of resisting that power, and decade after decade the Athenians had no option but to steer the best course they could among the kings of Egypt, Syria, and Macedon, all Macedonian (which is to say half Greek), all greedy, all ruthless, and all with an eye on the prestige of possessing or dominating Athens. There was usually, despite all attempts to get it out, a garrison of Macedo-nian troops in Piraeus, the port of Athens. But the Athenians did not give up their hopes of becoming again a major power; and these centuries saw them repeatedly regain, and repeatedly lose, the various Aegean islands which they regarded as their patrimony.

The story is in many ways a depressing one. The Athenians were obliged to manifest joy at the triumphs of these overlords and sorrow at their setbacks. They voted them extravagant honors, statues and titles and shrines, occasionally reaching deification and honors previously paid only to gods; only to tear down their statues and revoke their titles if some turn of events held out the fleeting prospect of real independence. Later Greeks, and moderns too, have often found this sycophancy shocking.

There were very gross episodes, as when King Demetrius filled the city with his mistresses and encouraged the Athenians to give them divine honors as personifications of the goddess Aphrodite, harassing good-looking boys of good family, and even (according to some sources, perhaps unreliable) installing himself and his call girls in the Parthenon. We possess an Athenian hymn in praise of this licentious monarch, in which the poet proclaims that

He is radiant, as a god should be, and handsome, and smiling, and
Marvellous to see, his friends are round him in a ring, and he is in
the midst:
His friends are like the stars around him, while he is like the sun:
The other gods are far away, or they have no ears:
Or they don’t exist, or they take no heed of us, but you we see here
present:Not of wood, not of stone, but real! To you then we pray:
First grant us peace, beloved, for you have power to grant it.

Later Greeks professed outrage. What a comedown from the Battle of Marathon! Habicht treats it simply as a serious plea on the political level: Demetrius is being asked for aid against Athens’s northern enemies and

a motion introduced by Dromocleides and passed by the Assembly, the text of which is given by Plutarch, addressed the very same problem.

I think we miss here a certain sense of fun: the hymn was surely intended to amuse, among other things, by the very shamelessness, the flatness, of its hyperbole (“To you then we pray”). Demetrius will have laughed at that, and so will many of the Athenians. Whether it is the most edifying kind of mirth, or even the most enjoyable; whether one would be altogether happy to be in a situation where that kind of humor is in place: that, perhaps, is another and a darker question. But we should not forget the sardonic reply of another Macedonian king, Demetrius’ son, when he in his turn was addressed as a god: “The man who empties my chamber pot doesn’t think so.” These were not unsophisticated people.

But it is unjust to ignore another side of the history of Athens. Apart from its literary and artistic legacy, the city had devised and bequeathed to the world another incalculable invention: democracy. The word was far from possessing in antiquity the unchallenged status it enjoys today, that of a Good Thing, to which even tyrants must at least pay lip service. It was on the contrary a rare and highly controversial growth, regarded by both Macedonians and Romans, who in turn held power over Athens, as perverse and seditious nonsense, to be suppressed out of hand, or at best tolerated with impatience. Twentieth-century parallels come to mind for such attitudes on the part of dominant powers. Habicht refrains from drawing them; perhaps rightly.

Despite many attacks on a system declared by its enemies to be “acknowledged foolishness,” Athens remained passionately attached to its democracy. That did not of course mean equal rights for slaves, or a political role for women, any more than the Founding Fathers meant to include those categories when they spoke of all men being created equal. It meant equality before the law, and freedom of speech, for all those Athenian men who were citizens. For some offices it meant election, but for most positions it meant not election, a procedure which favored the wealthy and prominent, but the much more radically egalitarian process of drawing lots. When lists of officeholders begin to show many names from the ranks of the notables, the few leading families, it is a sign that democracy has been suppressed, and that Athens is being forced to go over to the system that at all times seemed natural (and therefore right) to most people in the ancient world, as it has for most of the history of civilization: the dominance of those born to rule. As the old British couplet goes:

It seems just like the fulfillment of prophecies,
When all the best people have all the best offices.

The evidence of lists of names is very important for this period, for which we have no continuous narrative histories like those which survive for more favored periods of antiquity. Fortunately the democracy never lost its taste, when it was at liberty to indulge it, for recording all its doings on stone. These documents need a good deal of interpreting, if they are to tell us much about what was really going on. Habicht is an expert in the study of inscriptions, and he can squeeze the last drop of historical information from the record of the membership of the national cadet force, the “ephebes,” or the award of a golden crown of honor to some foreign dynast who has conferred a benefit on the city. Sometimes such honors recognize a gift of wheat to the people, or its sale at a subsidized price: Athens could never feed itself from its own territory, and the need to import food played an important part in the city’s foreign policy. These stone records can have much to teach us. As Habicht says, while it is impossible to frame a connected narrative history of Athens in this period, “yet the inscriptions that have survived can often provide detailed insights into the workings of the state.”

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