Athens from Alexander to Antony
by Christian Habicht
Harvard University Press, 406 pp., $39.95
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 …