The Shining City: Classical Athens and its Historiography

Classical Athens was a titan in the ancient world, a city-state resplendent with wealth and power. Her powerful navy was known throughout the Near East as a significant military force, while the city’s machine of commerce hummed as this power earned its strength through trade. From its rise as a significant city-state during the aftermath of the Greco-Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War in the 400s BCE to the fall of Athens to the Roman Republic in 146 BCE, Classical Athens is one of the most influential powers in history. During the time of Athenian hegemony to the present day, historians have attempted to piece together the history of Athens. Evidence of these attempts can be found from the pre-Rankean Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Marxist historian G.E.M. de Sainte Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquest, James Davidson’s cultural history Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, and John Hale’s all-encompassing Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy, whose varied approaches paint a picture of a living city-state that has long since fallen from its height. These specific histories were written between 1837 and 2009, offering an extensive range of time and schools of thought to play a part in writing the story of Classical Athens.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s extensive work Athens: Its Rise and Fall is fascinating and an excellent example of pre-Rankean history. Written in the 1830s, this work is the earliest of those selected to explore the historiography of Classical Athens, and it is clearly from a time before there were set standards in the historical community. There are surprisingly footnotes in this expansive tome, most referencing ancient texts or including further observations that the author chose not to include in his primary work. It was surprising as well to note that there were almost no visible contemporary sources in his footnotes as observed. Bulwer-Lytton begins his work by outlining his plan to explore Athenian history in a methodical manner, exploring the founding of Athens, the makeup of Attica, as well as a discussion on immigration to the region from other parts of the Mediterranean world.[1] Although Bulwer-Lytton does generally explore Athenian history from a top-down perspective as was common for historians in 1837 prior to Leopold von Ranke, he also delves into the religious and cultural history of the ancient city-state as well. Throughout one section of his extensive work on Athens, Bulwer-Lytton explores the role of the spirit of mountains, waters, and the grove. Adding that “Throughout the East, from the remotest era, we find that mountains were nature’s temples. The sanctity of high places is constantly recorded in the scriptural writings. The Chaldaean [sic], the Egyptian, and the Persian, equally believed that the summit of mountains they approached themselves nearer to the oracles of heaven. But the fountain, the cavern, and the grove, were no less holy than the mountain-top in the eyes of the first religionists of the East.”[2] From a literary perspective, Bulwer-Lytton’s writings are brilliant, and his flowery and sophisticated language helps to paint an extensive portrait of the Greek World at the time of Athens’ founding, a time where mythology clashed with history, and where the two are difficult to separate.

The work by Bulwer-Lytton is also a work that eventually does delve into the top-down history of political figures and the military. Much of the book centers on the Greco-Persian Wars from 499 BCE to 449 BCE, an extensive conflict that pitted the Greek city-states against the Persian Empire, which today’s popular culture centers on the historic Battle of Thermopylae. For many historians, this period kick-started Classical Athens’ period if naval dominance and power over the Greek World. In fact, Bulwer-Lytton says as much, stating that “When the deluge of the Persian arms rolled back to its Eastern bed, and the world was once more comparatively at rest, the continent of Greece rose visibly and majestically above the rest of the civilized earth. Afar in the Latian plains, the infant state of Rome was silently and obscurely struggling into strength against the neighbouring and petty states in which the old Etrurian civilization was rapidly passing to decay.”[3] To the author at the time, Classical Athens and Ancient Greece as a whole rose to its height after the defeat of the Persians in the Greco-Persian Wars and the Battle of Thermopylae. The Greeks following the Persian withdrawal rose to their height, above any other civilization that would itself rise to similar prominence such as Rome, Carthage, or the Gauls, whose height would come around the time of the Roman conquest of Greece. Finally, Bulwer-Lytton explains how Athens managed to become the dominant Greek city-state during this time period, stating that “It was from two sources that Athens derived her chief political vices; 1st, Her empire of the seas and her exactions from her allies;2ndly, an unchecked, unmitigated democratic action, void of the two vents known in all modern commonwealths—the press, and a representative, instead of popular, assembly.”[4] Here, the author attempts to connect Athens to the West and their values. The newborn United States, the rising British Empire, and other powers at this time touted their representative democracy and values of the free press and naval dominance. Bulwer-Lytton ties Classical Athens to his nation in 1837, showing that he sees Great Britain in the same light as Athens.

            Marxist historian G.E.M. de Sainte Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquest is a monumental exploration of class history in Ancient Greece—as well as Classical Athens—that is valuable in tracking the progression of historiography from the perspective of the class struggle. De Sainte Croix writes of the two classes that develop in Greek society, from the aristocrats to the commoners. He also discusses the creation of an oligarchy in Classical Athens, and how power shifted from being born into the noble class to instead financial power in land holding and other properties.[5] Even though Classical Athens and Ancient Greece existed thousands of years before Marxism became an ideology, de Sainte Croix cannot help but explore revolutions during this time period through the lenses of class. In one instance, he writes that “…democratic constitutions of various kinds, successful or unsuccessful in different degrees, were introduced, often by violent revolution, and sometimes with the intervention of outside power. The regimes they displaced were usually oligarchies of wealth…”[6] This text is a perfect example of a Marxist historian’s interpretation of Classical Athenian history. Although he explores different events throughout Athenian and Greek history as well as the figures involved, class is always the root cause of discontent, typically a ruling aristocracy or oligarchy being overthrown by the masses.

Exploitation is also a common theme in de Sainte Croix’s work, especially in the form of a relationship between someone who is powerful and someone who is weaker on the class scale. De Sainte Croix uses military conscription was one example of exploitation, stating that for someone who is in the aristocracy, it might simply mean placing someone who never worked for a living in an inconvenient position for a short time, although often taking them away from something more profitable. For the lower classes and commoners, it was devastating, as it took them away from the work which assisted them in providing for themselves or their families.[7] In one section of his book, de Sainte Croix even rails against historians who ignore different categories in society, in particular calling out British and American historians who discuss history and are unaware of issues such as class. Instead, de Sainte Croix lambasted other historians for relegating class to sociology, rather than simply being another form of studying history.[8] In addition to exploring the vital nature of class in Classical Athens, he also explores how the field in his time was grappling with the subject. As a Marxist historian, it is vital to the author that he search through Greek history as not just a linear story of rulers, battles, and technological or philosophical developments, but also through how the people lived, and how factors during their lifetimes influenced history. Class exploitation is vital in understanding this, as it explains the currents of history more succinctly than a traditional history might accomplish.

From the very start of his book, de Sainte Croix outlines the stakes involved in studying class and exploitation of the people in Ancient Greece and Classical Athens. Although other authors such as Bulwer-Lytton and Hale attempt to connect Athens—a naval power dedicated to democracy—to their own contemporary nations of the British Empire and the United States, respectively, de Sainte Croix instead seeks to link issues faced by the people of Ancient Greece to the beliefs and theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He states that “Marx and Engels made a number of different contributions to historical methodology and supplied a series of tools which can be profitably used by the historian and the sociologist; but I shall concentrate largely on one such tool, which I believe to be much the most important tool and the most fruitful for actual use in understanding and explaining particular historical events and processes: namely, the concept of class, and of class struggle.”[9] Rather than attempting to link his writing to the past in some legacy that comes to the present, de Sainte Croix instead sees the origins of class and class struggle in Ancient Greece and Classical Athens. For him there are stakes as there are for Bulwer-Lytton and Hale, but they procure different results. Rather than create a philosophical bloodline from Athens to Britain and the United States in traditions of naval prowess and representative democracy, de Sainte Croix instead sees class and class struggle afflicting the people as far back as more than two thousand years ago. Just as these issues faced people in 1848 and 1917, and to de Sainte Croix to the time of his writing, they even faced the Greeks, a society praised for being advanced and enlightened. Rather than seeing Athens as its own unique city-state at a time where hundreds more of varying sizes existed, de Sainte Croix instead attempts to make a connection of over two thousand years to ideas first truly formulated in the nineteenth century. Although a good history from the perspective of class, the author clearly does have stakes when writing about Ancient Greece and connecting them to philosophical ideas that impacts people today.

James Davidson’s Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens is an extensive cultural history of the ancient city-state. He states that comedies written in this time period are a window into culture and everyday life as the ancient world, rather than the tragedies, which explore the lives of the aristocracy. Davidson explains in his introduction that “Very few scholars are interested in Athenaeus [Second century Greek scholar] himself and his pernickety banquet, but the scraps from his table provide a unique resource for historians of pleasure.”[10] The author uses Athenaeus’ work Banquet of Scholars, which describes the types of food and drinks at a banquet, which the guests discuss what is on their table. In one part of his work, Davidson states that “Fish consumption, for instance, was not only considered hedonistic and self-indulgent but also a massive drain on financial resources.”[11] The author goes into detail that Bulwer-Lytton never went into and explores the culture of Athens not as an object of class struggle like de Sainte Croix, but instead culture as it is. For example, Davidson’s exploration of the cost of fish and comparing the one drachma a day pay of the average skilled laborer goes into greater detail than any other author of this time period being explored for historiographical purposes.[12] In his examination of the cultural symbolism of fish and its price, Davidson has done more than de Sainte Croix or Bulwer-Lytton in exploring Athenian culture. This distinction is vital for studying historiography for Classical Athens.

Davidson’s work in Courtesans & Fishcakes also doubles as an economic history. In studying food and sex, the author naturally must also explore trade and commerce, and dedicates sections of his book to this topic. It is immediately clear through his examination of the cost of fish and the cultural purpose of it that there is also an economy to it. More fascinating is Davidson’s exploration of the economics of sex, going so far as to explain how money exchanges hands not for a sexual act, but for a night, and instead of a man paying for the act, he is paying for a woman’s or boy’s time.[13] Although this itself is an intermingling of cultural and economic history, gender history also plays a role. Women are more vivid in Davidson’s work than any other so far. Although the wife of a historic figure or a woman so massively important that it is impossible to ignore her might be explored by the types of Bulwer-Lytton—and barely so at that—gender is an inherent part of Davidson’s work. There is evidence of this while discussing the economy and culture of sex, which Davidson spends much of his work exploring. Although he touches on the linear history of Athens itself, as other authors do as well, he spends most of his work discussing the food, cuisine, sex, and family, a subject that transcends a basic linear history.

Perhaps most interesting in this work is Davidson’s exploration of gender and sex, and the rights of women in Athens during this time period. He begins by depicting an anecdote from this period, with Apollodorus—an orator—attacking Neaera in court. Throughout ancient sources, Davidson explores the derogatory terms used by men to put down women, stating that “The very act of naming was an important part of policing women and women’s sexuality. According to the laws of Syracuse, for instance, the great Greek city on the southern tip of Sicily, a woman was forbidden from wearing ‘gold ornaments or gaily-coloured dresses or garments with purple borders unless admitted she was a common prostitute.’”[14] In a move rare for any of the works being discussed, Davidson writes of modern feminist historians attempting to discuss the issue of women in Classical Athens. He even discusses how the newer ideas brought on by feminist historians has changed how people look at sources during the period.[15] Finally, the author discusses why specifically courtesans—or prostitutes as he mentions modern historians prefer to call them—are often given little impact on the historical record. He states that “Not surprisingly, these women have left little trace apart from their nicknames in the historical record. A roofless existence and a nomadic lifestyle were not productive of long-lasting monuments. But the casual remarks of observers indicate that ‘women who walk to and fro in the open’ were still very much a feature of the urban landscape long after Solon made them an exception.”[16]Although Davidson explores women throughout the text, this is the most visible discussion of not just discussing how the patriarchy attempted to keep down women, but also a frank interpretation of modern feminist historians looking through the ancient sources to create a history that fits modern standards.

In the most modern work explored from a historiographical perspective, John Hale’s Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy is primarily a military history, exploring the military campaigns and strategies of the Athenian Navy during the city-state’s height. However, Hale’s work also has elements of cultural and class history, describing things such as the day-to-day goings of the people of Classical Athens, as well as the impact on events that affect the average Athenian. In his first chapter, for example, Hale describes Themistocles traveling to a debate across the city. Rather than simply going over the political ramifications of such a debate as Bulwer-Lytton might have, Hale describes Themistocles’ morning routine and his family life at a micro level, before shifting to the macro and exploring the city-state itself, from the streets to local features.[17] In addition to exploring this aspect of daily life in Athens, he explores the lives of the sailors serving on these Athenian triremes. He states that “The experiences of the common Athenian in seafaring and fighting were beginning to rival those of the aristocrats…But the average thete had now seen Troy with his own eyes…During his naval service the ordinary citizen would follow the sea routes hallowed by the legends of Odysseus, Theseus, Jason, and Cadmus to Asia, Africa, Europe, and the islands in between.”[18] Hale’s description of the Athenian sailor’s and citizen’s experiences in a seafaring empire goes beyond previous authors, especially those who depend on traditional sources such as Herodotus, as Bulwer-Lytton does.

Further cultural history is also explored by Hale. Again, he departs from military history, describing the lives of the sailors serving under the Athenian banner. He described how Athenian mariners returned to port, and their first stop outside of the Naval Yard was to the barber. Hale then discusses the types of hair cuts that the common man, and how the barbers were often the first source of news for sailors returning to port.[19] These minor details add to the heavily detailed cultural history that Hale inadvertently explores as a result of his interest in naval power. Another fascinating aspect of this book is the exploration of life in Athens and the impact of her naval power. Hale states that Classical Athens under Pericles “…maintained a delicate balance between reason and tradition. The city provided almost free of charge a public education in political science, rhetoric, philosophy, and many other fields. So remarkable was the liberal intellectual life in the city that Pericles called Athens the “School of Greece.” Every citizen was expected to engage in the discourse.”[20] Hale’s history of Classical Athens is sold as a military history, but in many ways, it explores different facets of the city-state’s history that authors spent entire books exploring. Class and culture as discussed by de Sainte Croix and Davidson, respectively, are clearly in Hale’s text, while the diplomatic and military history that is more familiarly discussed in Bulwer-Lytton’s work is also present. As Lords of the Sea is the most recent book being explored from a historiographical perspective, Hale pulls together all these previous schools and ideas into his own work. Rather than being exclusively a military history of Classical Athens, Hale’s work is a history of Athens during his height of power in the ancient world.

Hale succinctly wraps of his work with Athens’ fall from greatness. After exploring the city-state’s development of a powerful navy and its embracing of democracy. He states in the end that “Many have tried [to match Athens’ power], chasing the same goals of democracy, liberty, and happiness that generations of Athenians pursued in their ships. Few can claim to have equaled their achievements; fewer still to have surpassed them.”[21] Just as Bulwer-Lytton attempts to connect the legacy of Athens to the powers of his day—his own British Empire—Hale also finds a place for the city-state in 2009. Connecting Athenian values of liberty and democracy with the self-proclaimed values of the United States, a clear connection is made from past to present that Hale finds to be important. Furthermore, the author attempts to tie Classical Athenian military might to these values, revealing that “Without the Athenian navy there would have been no Parthenon, no tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, no Republic of Plato or Politics of Aristotle. Before the Persian Wars Athens produced no great traditions of philosophy, architecture, drama, political science, or historical writing. All these things came in a rush after the Athenians voted to build a fleet and transform themselves into a naval power…”[22] Hale’s new military history clearly argues that without Athens and this vital moment in its history, the legacy of Athens that he explores and defends would not exist, and that its impact on culture and society today would not be felt. Instead of arguing that these features in Classical Athens were unique to the time, he attempts to tap into the past and to connect his country’s lineage to the city-state, rather than simply admiring the accomplishments of Athens separately from the United States and the West.

Classical Athens was a city-state that was unique among the other Greek cities and nations that existed during this same time period. Authors and historians since the times of Athenian hegemony have attempted to tackle the extensive history of this city-state, which is vital to European narratives of their own history. Authors such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton, G.E.M. de Sainte Croix, James Davidson, and John R. Hale all contributed to this history, from the pre-Rankean in the 1830s to as close as a nuanced military and interdisciplinary history from 2009. This evolution is clear from just the sources, with Bulwer-Lytton’s work starting off from a pre-Rankean and Gibbonian history, followed by de Sainte Croix’s class-based Marxist history and then Davidson’s cultural history that transcends class. This path ends with Hale’s new military history that goes beyond that into culture, commerce, class, and into other interdisciplinary fields. The subject of Classical Athens has been studied since the days of Herodotus, who lived during these times, and continuing the study of Athenian history adds further understanding to the lives and impact that those people had on history. In addition to this, the historians who now study the historic city-state are now learning about and writing of a city with a fascinating culture that transcends class, a navy that dominated the Aegean Sea, and a history that has for centuries fascinated people and been a centerpiece in western history.

[1] Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Athens: Its Rise and Fall (New York: Oia Press, 1837), 22.

[2] Bulwer-Lytton, 41.

[3] Bulwer-Lytton, 378.

[4] Bulwer-Lytton, 494.

[5] G.E.M. de Sainte Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 280.

[6] De Sainte Croix, 283.

[7] De Sainte Croix, 207-208.

[8] De Sainte Croix, 33-34.

[9] De Sainte Croix, 3.

[10] James Davidson, Courtesans & Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (London: William Collins, 1997), 13.

[11] Davidson, 210.

[12] Davidson, 212-213.

[13] Davidson, 219-220.

[14] Davidson, 94.

[15] Davidson, 96.

[16] Davidson, 100.

[17] John Hale, Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy (New York: Viking, 2009), 29-34.

[18] Hale, 127.

[19] Hale, 128.

[20] Hale, 145.

[21] Hale, 318.

[22] Hale, 18.

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