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.”

As in the fifth century, every year five hundred citizens were chosen by lot to serve on the Council; every month fifty of them, by rotation, acted as its executive committee. They prepared business for the Assembly, the gathering of all citizens, which had the supreme direction of the city’s affairs. The Assembly it was that made alliances, voted honors, declared peace and war. It is impossible not to admire the tenacity with which Athenians clung to this cumbrous system, which was disliked by all their masters, and strove to reinstate it every time it was abolished by one king or another and replaced by some oligarchic or tyrannical regime. In Habicht’s words, “The most lasting impression produced by a study of the inscriptions is that of a community regulating its affairs in exemplary fashion”; and there was no decline in the eagerness of the citizens to play a full part in democratic politics. That is more than can be said for some modern democracies. And when there seemed to be a chance of getting rid of the Macedonians altogether, the Athenians took the lead in attempting it.

The Athenian society of this period was a quieter affair than that of the great days of the fifth century. Extravagance was frowned on, and citizens were not encouraged to draw attention to themselves by making a splash with their money. We even find no more of those Attic gravestones, charming but expensive, which represented young men hunting, or mature men in military dress, or women sitting at their dressing tables. Statesmen aspired, sometimes with success, to balance the budget.

The arts did go on. Actors and musicians had a powerful trade union. Tragedies continued to be written, performed, applauded. Their authors won prizes; statues of them were erected in the theater. The plays are lost, so completely that we cannot tell how good they were. Comedy, too, flourished. The comedy of Aristophanes passed out of fashion, with its robust satire, virulent political comment, and startling obscenity, giving place to a gentler drama of love intrigues and witty servants, the world of Menander, and Terence, and Molière, and Goldoni, and The Barber of Seville, and Bertie Wooster. Habicht rather charmingly thinks the reason for the change may have been that “playwrights perhaps needed to make fewer concessions to lower-class or rural tastes and were still successful.” Maybe; but some city dwellers, even some members of higher-income groups, have been known to enjoy a dirty joke. Perhaps it is rather to be seen as part of a more general shift of taste in the direction of the less striking and extravagant.

In one matter Athens did remain supreme, and that was philosophy. Plato had led the way in the early fourth century BCE by establishing a permanent school in the suburbs, the famous Academy. His pupil Aristotle broke away and founded his own establishment, the Lyceum or Peripatos. Nothing attracts philosophers like the presence of other philosophers, and soon the founder of the Stoic sect, Zeno from Citium in Cyprus, settled in Athens. He gathered disciples and eventually left a flourishing school. The group was completed when Epicurus established his philosophical community (“The Garden”).

All four schools went on for centuries, attacking each other’s well-known views and defending their own with increasing subtlety and sophistication: sometimes one flourished most, sometimes another. They attracted pupils from all over Greece, and from beyond. In the second century BCE Hasdrubal from Carthage, under the Greek name of Clitomachus, became head of the School of Plato; and in the first century BCE it was the regular thing for a young Roman of family and prospects to spend a year or two attending the lectures of the philosophers in Athens. We get some touching glimpses in Cicero’s letters of the great man trying, from a distance, to keep an eye on his son as he studied there. The son spent too much, drank too much, studied too little, and tried to keep his formidable father satisfied by devices familiar to undergraduates ever since.

Gradually Athens became part of the heritage industry. People came to admire the great public buildings; the ordinary residential parts were described as ugly and unworthy. Plus ça change, murmurs the visitor to the modern city. It was to study with the philosophers that bright young men came and settled; while cultured tourists thronged to be shown Plato’s chair and Epicurus’ house, and to visit Colonus, the setting of Sophocles’ late masterpiece, Oedipus at Colonus. Cicero, who was intensely sensitive to such impressions, has given us a touching account of the feelings of a group of cultured Romans in Athens. How is it, he asks, that we are more powerfully moved by being in places associated with great writers and thinkers, than we are by hearing about them, or even by reading their works? “My mind turns to Plato, who used to teach in this spot; at Colonus I had Sophocles before my eyes.” An aspiring orator in the party has made a point of going down to the sea, at the place where the great Demosthenes is said to have exercised his voice by shouting against the roar of the waves, then he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Pericles. “There is no end to it in this city: everywhere we walk, we step on some piece of history.”

The scholar, and the person of literary and cultured tastes, reads such a passage with emotion. Here are feelings with which we can empathize. We too make our literary pilgrimages and feel the thrill of contact with our heroes as we stand where they stood, sit where they sat. With Rome the matter is not quite so simple. When the Romans came into contact with the Greek world, they felt all the emotions natural to people from a stronger but lower culture, confronted with the creations and the life style of a more artistic people, which did not look strong enough to defend its treasures. They were at once impressed, resentful, scornful, and—above all—acquisitive. We may perhaps compare their reactions with the feelings of the Crusaders when they caught sight of the fabulous wealth and refinement of Byzantium.

If history teaches anything, it is that in this situation the stronger can be expected to finish up in possession of the treasures of the weaker; it is as natural as water running downhill. Once the Crusaders had seen Byzantium, even though the emperor was supposed to be their ally against the Muslim enemy, it was predictable that sooner or later they would smash it and scramble for the loot. And so of course they did. When the Romans had seen the treasures of the great Greek cities, so much more advanced than Rome, it was pretty certain that occasions would come along which would provide the excuse for those cities, too, to be smashed and looted. And so of course they were. Tarentum and Syracuse and Corinth: one by one they all went under the Roman hammer.

Athens was to some extent a special case. With admirable foresight it had invoked Roman aid as early as 200 BCE, and it remained a most loyal ally for more than a hundred years. The city reaped very considerable reward from this policy—and never, we observe, gave occasion for the Romans to sack the city. Also Romans of culture liked to visit the place. But in an evil hour, in the year 88 BCE, Athens suddenly decided, for reasons which we cannot fully decipher, to throw in its lot with the half-Greek Eastern King Mithridates, who stood forth as the champion of Hellenism against the intensely unpopular Romans.

The result was catastrophe. The Roman sack, so long delayed, came with especial savagery, for the Roman general was the terrible Sulla, the first to lead a Roman army on Rome itself, and a man whose indifference to bloodshed made his name still dreaded a generation after his death. Soon after he had captured Rome, we read, the proceedings in the Senate faltered and came to a halt: the senators could hear from outside their building the shrieks of men being killed. All eyes turned to Sulla. Rising for a moment in his place, he said calmly, “Don’t be disturbed, Conscript Fathers; a few revolutionaries are being punished on my orders.” Such a man was little moved by the destruction of Athenian buildings or the massacre of Athenians. Habicht cannot bring himself to quote the description of the sack in Plutarch in its full horror.

There was no counting of the slain, but their numbers are to this day determined only by the area that was covered by blood…. But although those who were thus slain were so many, there were yet more who slew themselves, out of yearning pity for their city…. [In the end, supplicated both by Athenians and exiles and by Romans] Sulla, being himself also sated with vengeance, after some words in praise of the Athenians of olden days declared that he pardoned a few on account of many: the living for the sake of the dead.

There one has it: respect for the glorious past, which (as a person of high culture) one does naturally venerate; but in the context of its destruction. Julius Caesar echoed that, when the unfortunate Athenians, forced to choose one or the other side in a Roman civil war, had chosen the losing side, that of his opponents: “How often do you expect to be rescued by the fame of your ancestors from the destruction you bring on yourselves?” But Caesar did in fact deal leniently with Athens. Sulla’s massacre, and of course the looting that accompanied it, left Athens impoverished for a generation. It was perhaps something that was bound to happen, sooner or later. Romans could feel sentimental about the glory that was Greece, and without the Roman infatuation with Greek culture we should not possess much of what we have of it; but the price was dreadfully high.

We get another revealing glimpse of this double-think when one of Cicero’s aristocratic Roman friends writes him a letter of condolence on the death of his daughter. It is a charming letter, humane and nobly expressed. Laurence Sterne quotes it at a touching moment of Tristram Shandy. After all, he says, we all must die: look at the passing into oblivion not only of people but of cities! On a recent trip to Greece the writer had been forcibly struck by such thoughts.

As I was on my way back from Asia Minor to Greece, sailing from Aegina to Megara, I turned my eyes to the neighboring countries. Behind me was Aegina, in front was Megara, on my right Piraeus, on my left Corinth: all at one time very flourishing cities; now they lay before me prostrate and in ruins.

And who ruined them? we ask. The answer is lamentably plain (though the writer is guilty of some rhetorical exaggeration: despite Sulla, who had burnt most of the port, “including the arsenal of Philo, a marvellous work,” Piraeus was a going concern), but a Roman aristocrat of culture was capable of stopping before reaching it. He might prefer to muse elegantly on the disasters wrought by time and on the ineluctable workings of history: ruinous, but quite impersonal. Nobody, of course, was to blame.

This Issue

June 25, 1998