This book by Michael Scott, published in 2009 by Icon, picks up from where one of my recent reviews, Alciabiades by P.J Rhodes, left off1. In 404 B.C. Sparta, with Persian backing, have triumphed in the Peloponnesian War and Athens was left on its knees, with its unique system of democracy replaced by a set of pro-Sparta oligarchs. Athens will rebound quickly however, and the next century will be filled with even more power struggles between the Greek city states and by the introduction of new major players to this drama. It ends with one of these rising powers, Macedon, uniting Greece and much of the known world under the rule of its warrior kings – Philip and Alexander2.
Despite the book’s title, this is not a straight forward process from free, democratic states to a tyrannical system of kings – and Scott acknowledges this, saying in his conclusion: “[The book is] a story not just of Athens at the height of its power and Alexander at his, but of the turbulent times of transition in between these two extremes.” It’s a story that focuses on the uncertainty faced and the difficult choices that the participants had to make. We’re also drawn into discussions on the role of an individual on the process, and on how states and people can deal with their history and future. How can Greece transition from the warring mix of unstable democracies, tyrants, elitist oligarchies and semi-barbarian warlords, into something more stable, something that can use the fantastic potential that existed in this vibrant mix of states? This is to some extent a tale of individuals (sometimes even by their conspicuous absence) – and so the narrative is told with a spotlight on the leading men in society: the democrats, the kings, the tyrants, the philosophers, the generals.
Despite these touches of politics and philosophy, this is very much a populist book – probably most comparable to Tom Holland. The acknowledgements say that it developed out of a series of undergraduate lectures, but it has been fully adapted for a more popular audience. Occasionally too populist – there are many references to the modern world, which probably do not stand up to scrutiny. However Scott, then a lecturer at Cambridge and now Assistant Professor in Classics and Ancient History at Warwick, has more than enough academic experience to add depth. It skims along quickly but, while there’s not always much detail to get bogged down in, it never really feels like it’s leaving out anything important to the narrative. One could certainly find a fuller picture of Alexander the Great, Demosthenes, the Theban Sacred Band or other major participants elsewhere, but here they are expertly picked and placed into the book where relevant for the themes.
This period of history is meant to be a bit of a dark age, a no mans land between the notable events of the Peloponnesian War and the rise of Macedon. In this book it doesn’t feel that way – the fifth century may have had Socrates, but here we find Plato and Aristole. The Fifth century was seen as the high point of Athenian democracy, and yet it’s in this fourth century period where we find the system working smoothly and have the writing to explain how. The great playwrights may not be around, but theatres sprang up across Greece like never before. Politically and economically it was certainly a time in transition, but that doesn’t make the era any less vital culturally than those around it.
The Philosopher’s Tale
The book begins by introducing Isocrates, a famous Athenian rhetorician. More importantly for our story, this meant he was also a Greek rhetorician and he had a dream – that one day Greece would be able to unite, better itself and lead the way in the ancient world. In his early years, this rested on hopes of democracy and his home city, Athens, coming to dominate the region. Infighting and other failures meant that by the end of his life (at the grand old age of 97) his hopes had shifted to the comparably stable but authoritarian king to the north, Philip of Macedon. Though Isocrates himself plays very little part in it, this dream provides the major arc of the book.
Isocrates wasn’t the only philosopher to have concerns for the future of the Greek states. One fascinating side story we comes across involves the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse, his namesake son and his well educated, but somewhat irritating, assistant Dion. Dion was a huge fan of Plato and invited him to visit Dionysius – it was the fashion at the time for rulers to play patron to such culture. Dionysius however was not used to having someone so used to speaking his mind, and eventually reacting by arresting Plato and selling him into slavery. Later, after Dionysius I’s death, his son found himself struggling to live up to his father’s reputation. And what better way to beat it than by embracing philosophy where his father had failed? Unfortunately Dionysius II also struggled with criticism and ended up arresting Plato and exiling Dion. Not to be put out from his plan of a properly educated tyrant, Plato then schemed and groomed the irascible Dion into a possible rival to the tyrant of Syracuse. Dion did eventually gain power in the city, but his popular support wavered back and forth, and he ended up being assassinated by Callippus (another disciple of Plato). It all comes to naught in the end but there’s an interesting comparison to a different (slightly more successful) father son pairing in Macedon, with the son’s education by Aristotle.
As an addition to this, Corinth would eventually send an old general of theirs called Timoleon with a token force to shore up Syracuse from the threats of Carthage and a returning Dionysius II. This general would clean the place up, stabilise it and according to Plutarch “actually achieve all those things which the orators in their speeches at city assemblies are constantly encouraging the greeks to do and be”. Finally he would retire and spend his last few years in quiet comtemplation. Philosophy 1 Tyranny 0.
Finally we have Diogenes’ interaction with the ruler of Greece, Alexander. He didn’t really give a fig, to put it bluntly. But when asked where he was from, he did reply “I am cosmopolites“, so perhaps the desire for peace and unification among Greece was not entirely lost to him.
Thebes, Sparta, Athens (Democrats?)
After our introduction with Isocrates, we look at the big Greek city states that emerged at the start of the century. Sparta was initially in the driving seat (albeit with Persia providing the power) and using its role as keeper of the peace to extent its sphere of influence. Their heroic general Lysander, who popped up briefly in Alciabiades, wanted to crush democracy and build his own power, but this put him in opposition to one of the Spartan kings, the level-headed Pausanias. Luckily he had the other king Agesilaus on his side. Unfortunately for them, they made enemies with Persia and sparked the rest of Greece into revolt against them – Pausanias and Lysander would soon be dead. This left Agesilaus in charge – he was a lame, little man and would have a mixed record as king; he had some successes, but oversaw the decline of Sparta as a major power.
Thebes and the loose confederacy of states around it were part of those who rebelled against Spartan oppression and they soon found themselves occupied by the Spartans, but a grand conspiracy led by the soldier Pelopidas and the philosopher Epaminondas rose up against this and took back their city. Sparta were still far from finished, they had a much larger and more experienced military, but Thebes had a secret weapon – The Sacred Band. This group of 300 elite fighters (allegedly 150 homosexual couples) would play a cat and mouse game over the coming years, using guerrilla tactics to make up for their smaller numbers. Throughout this Athens was the ally of Thebes, but it was not entirely a reliable one; indeed, after a failed attempt at a peace treaty, the Thebans and the Spartans squared up for battle at Leuctra – with Athens nowhere to be found. It would be a humiliating defeat for Sparta. One that would herald their decline and Thebes’ rise.
Athens meanwhile is described by Scott as a “slippery fish” in its diplomacy. Switching from one ally to another, never quite sticking to the plan – this is possibly one of the side effects of Athenian democracy. There wasn’t one particularly strong leader who could really shake them up and unleash the potential in the city. There were attempts to rebuild their old empire, but these were more opportunistic than anything else and they lacked the great defensive site and reliable food supply to be properly secure in their military campaigns.
Phil and Alex (Kings)
To complicate these developments, the regions of Macedon and Thessaly in the north were becoming more an more involved in Greek affairs. They were arguably Greek themselves, though it probably depended who you asked on that one, but they had the population and the fertile land to build themselves into military powers. What held them back was infighting (though that was common enough elsewhere in Greece), as soon as one leader started to take off he would be assassinated and replaced by someone else. Throughout these wars in the 360s, the battle between Sparta and Thebes continued with Sparta now on the back foot. Finally in 362 at Mantinea, Thebes again came to battle against Sparta (who were by now allied with Athens). They arguably won the battle, but their great leader Epaminondas died and with him the chances of a Theban hegemony over Greece.
Into this void, with Sparta and Thebes weakened and Athens unable to get its act together, came Philip of Macedon. Somewhat smarter and more brutal than his predecessors, he’s eliminated all his rivals after taking the throne and then set about a program of reform for the Macedonian military. But he wasn’t just brutal, he was generous to his allies and neighbours. He built a stable position to the north of Greece, then moved into the stalemate below.
Athens was now faced with a tricky situation – the old issues of stability and growth, along with the new threat of Philip. Now we start to get individuals standing out from the crowd, each with their own plans for the future. Some led by Aeschines were open to Philip, they could deal with him as friends, but other led by Demosthenes saw Philip as the enemy, someone who would strive to destroy the Athenian way of life by any way he could. Demosthenes as he is described in this book comes across as a very similar character to Cato – both were worried about the rise of a tyrant who would destroy democracy, both pushed things to a point of no return through their uncompromising stance, both were respected as true patriots even by those who didn’t always agree. There are differences though, and Demosthenes would never be quite as formidable an opponent – he would eventually flee from his pitched battle, and he would much later be found to have taken bribes (ending his career and life). Scott describes the factional rivalry between these pro and anti-Philip campaigns with some skill, and it is really the high point of the book.
Philip would defeat Athens and Thebes at Chaeronea and go on to make plans to invade Persia with his new pan-Greek army. He would die and be succeed by Alexander before he could set off, and … it’s probably all a bit familiar from here. Scott’s coverage of this is a little rushed and half-hearted, it’s necessary to make sense of the outcomes but the Greek cities only really have a marginal role to play. They would shuffle about a bit with some unrest, but it was really nothing than the Macedon general Antipater (who features heavily in the next stage of the story3) couldn’t deal with. But despite Demosthenes’ pessimism, Athens would prosper under Macedon rule – economically and even democratically (Aristotle did his writing on the Athenian system under Alexander). In the end Isocrates dream of a unified Greece dominating the world had come to fruition, for a time at least.
In conclusion, it’s a pretty entertaining book on a great topic. There’s certainly more detailed or academic histories elsewhere, but Michael Scott strikes a great balance between easy to read storytelling and a narrative with a bit more depth – reminiscent of Tom Holland in some ways (and I like Tom Holland). The ending feels a little tacked on, as Greece starts to become peripheral, and some of the populist comparisons with the modern world are maybe a little thin; but otherwise, it works as a very accessible book for beginners into this particular era. Given that his next book has the title “Delphi and Olympia: the spatial politics of panhellenism in the archaic and classical periods”, it may be a bit more academic but he certainly does have a talent for writing4 history of the popular kind and it’ll be worth looking out for his next in that mould.
1 It’s not necessary to read that along with this, but more page views are always welcome.
2 For further reading from here, one could try Dividing The Spoils by Robin Waterfield. I’ve got a review on that one as well.
3 See 2.
4 I’ve also seen a few documentaries of his, ‘Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth’ and ‘Delphi: bellybutton of the ancient world’, on the BBC. There were good, if fairly standard, BBC4 fodder – not too heavy to watch over dinner, but not so light that you’re not learning something. I can’t remember him being a particularly outstanding presenter though.