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Old August 16th, 2015, 04:15 AM   #1

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A recent article in defence of Ancient Greece


I wondered if members might be interested in this article I was recently asked to write

Article for Ancient History Encyclopaedia
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‘Above the crowning glory of our city the sacred temple of the Goddess Athena herself, smoke, clouds of black smoke.
“Athens is burning, Mandrocles, Athens is burning.”
With those words ‘The Wooden Walls of Thermopylae’ concludes with the Athenians having left their city to continue the struggle from Salamis. It is ironic that as I begin writing this contribution forest fires circle the outer suburbs of modern Athens while in the centre fire bombs are being thrown at the police. Athens and its struggles still lie at the centre of the story of democracy. The nature of those struggles needs to be remembered and investigated. That is why I embarked on the cycle of novels that chart the course of Athenian history from victory Marathon to the defeat of the city in the Peloponnesian war.
I am still surprised that whilst there is a plethora of fiction written about ancient Rome there is very little about ancient Greece. The 5th century BC gave us the birth of democracy, the basis of our philosophy and science as well as history and drama; the portals through which we can view and analyse these events. In addition the characters, politics, wars and culture of ancient Greece provide us with stories every bit as exciting and engaging as anything from Rome. For the Greeks themselves this must have been an even more dramatic experience because they created the template which the Romans were able to use.
Just to whet the appetite I’d like to briefly explore the source material for the first two of these books ‘Luck Bringer’ and ‘The Wooden Walls of Thermopylae’.
Take for instance the arrival of the tyrant, Miltiades, fleeing from the Persian Empire at the end of the Ionian revolt. The Athenians had supported the losing side and would have been aware that the presence of one of the Great King’s most hated enemies in their city marked them out for retribution. A situation exacerbated by the fragmented churning and division in Athenian domestic politics. Should Athens expel Miltiades in an effort to appease the Great King or use his experience to help defend their city? This, remember, was a divided city where the putative struggles of the new democracy and its early leaders competed with existing and embedded civic leaders representing their family interest as much as any policy. In these circumstances the very presence of Miltiades was toxic.
As for Miltiades himself, contemporary evidence is very slight but there is enough to know that despite his qualities he had the capacity to make enemies and a level of arrogance that made him disinclined to be questioned. In addition to this he arrived as a refugee having left his wife in his former territories managing only to salvage his life and a few ships. How then did he manage to persuade the Athenians not only to resist the Persians but to leave the city and fight in the open at Marathon against an army that no Greek land force had ever managed to defeat? How did he manage to persuade the Athenians to entrust command at the battle to him when some of the most powerful Athenians not only hated him but wished for a Persian imposed tyranny.
An equally interesting question is how did Miltiades, the aristocratic tyrant of the Thracian Chersonese, win over the democratic faction and its leader, Themistocles. We can’t be sure of the process because it isn’t documented but we can have a shrewd idea of the politics and intrigue that took place in the Agora, symposia, bars and brothels of the city.
Whatever the obstacles, Miltiades and the greatest of the Athenian leaders, Aristides, Themistocles, Callimachus and others, faced the Persian army at the Marathon supported by only a contingent of Plataeans but no Spartans. On that day they saved not only Athens but democracy which makes Marathon perhaps the most important engagement in Western history.
Miltiades emerges from the battle as a hero yet within less than two years he is prosecuted for treason by the city and dies of a leg wound becoming infected in captivity. What a story underpins that remarkable rise and fall. Yet of equal wonder is the presence of the first of the great tragic playwrights Aeschylus at Marathon whose brother Cynegeiros was killed in the final stages of the battle during the struggle for the beached Persian ships.
Aeschylus, the world’s greatest warrior poet; a man who despite his artistic celebrity chose to be remembered by the epithet ‘I was at Marathon’. Such was the importance of the battle in Greek eyes and those who fought there, the ‘Marathoni’, the men of Marathon, carried the respect with them for the rest of their lives. Marathon changed the ancient world: not only did it make a full scale invasion of Greece by the Persians inevitable it also altered politics within Greece particularly the relationship between Athens and Sparta whose army was the most noticeable absentee from the battle.
The dramatic change of the political landscape between Marathon and Thermopylae is the subject of ‘The Wooden Walls of Thermopylae’. The only satisfactory way to write a research based novel that could cover this period was to have the major events witnessed at first hand by somebody of little political account but who could be close to the power brokers. Hence the character of Mandrocles, ward of Miltiades and subsequently follower of Themistocles.
Of the ordinary people we have very little evidence but we do know that, particularly in Athens the nature of politics was volatile and spilled over into the streets. We also know that as the century progressed the men of the Athenian fleet became an important political weapon so the decision to view events from the perspective of a member of Miltiades’ crew in the flight from the Persians who fought at Marathon and then Salamis gives an attempt to give a voice to the participants who otherwise are reduced to noises off stage. Aeschylus probably fought at Salamis so it seemed logical to place him onboard the trireme Athene Nike with his friend, Mandrocles.
In his play ‘The Persians’, Aeschylus gives us a taste of the war he experienced at first hand and in doing so changes the face of drama. It is also fairly clear that drama and the Spring Dionysia festival were used politically and this gives insights into the social and political workings of the city. There is another mystery here. Women were politically and socially marginalised in Athens and the historians Herodotus and Thucydides give them no real voice. Yet Aeschylus, who unlike the historians fought in the Persian war, puts them at centre stage and not just in roles of abnormality such as Clytemnestra but as leading dramatic and moral characters. In this he is followed by Sophocles and particularly Euripides whose Iphigenia in Taurus is probably the most able and sympathetic character in Greek drama. Read the plays and a different perspective of women emerges from that of the histories.
The main challenge of ‘Wooden Walls’ is to attempt an explanation of two heroic acts that the two leading Greeks states were prepared to make. To answer the questions : Why did the Spartans change their policies and sacrifice three hundred Spartiates and a king at Thermopylae? How were the Athenians persuaded to put city before self and abandon their city and fight on as the homeless dispossessed?
The relationship between the Spartans and Themistocles is probably the key to this. As a consequence at the end of ‘Wooden Walls’ and the start of ‘The sacrifice of Athena’, the next in the series, we hear the voice of Aeschylus,
“Athens is burning, Mandrocles, Athens is burning.”
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Old August 17th, 2015, 05:03 AM   #2

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Not getting involved in the actual history here. But whereas Rome was a definite state, we talk of Greece as if it were a country.

But wasn't it basically a geographical area containing various individual states? And therefore not so easy to bracket together.
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Old August 17th, 2015, 05:12 AM   #3

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Originally Posted by johnincornwall View Post
Not getting involved in the actual history here. But whereas Rome was a definite state, we talk of Greece as if it were a country.

But wasn't it basically a geographical area containing various individual states? And therefore not so easy to bracket together.
Culture is more enduring than states... That today historiography is American-derived... and consider it difficult to define a nation or a culture out of a state.
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Old August 17th, 2015, 05:47 AM   #4
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Culture is more enduring than states... That today historiography is American-derived... and consider it difficult to define a nation or a culture out of a state.
My thought exactly. The "nation is a modern construct" cliche has no historical basis at all.
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Old August 17th, 2015, 07:33 AM   #5

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Ok but, why does not the subject matter of the geographical area/ culture attract the same attention as the Roman Empire/ state?
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Old August 17th, 2015, 08:14 AM   #6

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Originally Posted by nicholas milne View Post
Ok but, why does not the subject matter of the geographical area/ culture attract the same attention as the Roman Empire/ state?
Because gladiators are more entertaining than athletes...
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Old August 18th, 2015, 01:59 AM   #7

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Maybe,but compare the politics,drama,philosophy etc. The Greeks ,particularly the Athenians devised what the Romans copied.
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Old August 18th, 2015, 02:46 AM   #8

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Quote:
Originally Posted by nicholas milne View Post
Maybe,but compare the politics,drama,philosophy etc. The Greeks ,particularly the Athenians devised what the Romans copied.
Unfortunately modern imaginary requires great warriors and conquerors. At the end historiography of low level is not immune from this cultural aspect. In fact, if you think well, Alexander has got the attention of Caesar and last Hollywood productions follow just this trend [300, and the sequel about the sea battle]. If Magna Grecia was an Empire we would see something more ...
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Old August 18th, 2015, 06:30 AM   #9

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Thanks a good point,pity if Hollywood etc will only consider stuff currently making money. I'm also interested in Rome just think there is some great material on ancient Greece,particularly Athens that could be developed and enjoyed. "Luck Bringer" was the Historical Novel Society editor's choice so there is interest out there.
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Old August 18th, 2015, 07:19 AM   #10

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Originally Posted by nicholas milne View Post
Ok but, why does not the subject matter of the geographical area/ culture attract the same attention as the Roman Empire/ state?
Probably because there appears to be a more direct connection between the Roman Empire and the nations of today. This connection has roots in government, language and culture, a significant portion of which may be attributed to the Vatican.

The same connection is not there to Athens. The US government is a Republic, the same as Rome, not a democracy. Furthermore, there is no direct line between the government of Athens and any nation today, excluding Greece. For a thousand years, virtually every square inch of Europe was subject to the rule of monarchs. That simple fact makes it hard to accept Athenian democracy as the direct root of western civilization. You may correctly call it an influence, but nothing more.

It is true that the Romans copied and adopted many facets of Greek civilization. And the Greeks copied someone before them, probably the Minoans. And the Minoans copied a predecessor who surely copied a prior civilization. That is what cultures do, they just do not spring forth without influence from those before them.
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