Biography & Autobiography, Book Reviews, Charles, Classical History, Political Discussion & Analysis, Social Behavior, War, Wars To Come
comments 13

Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens (David Stuttard)

Cover of David Stuttard's non-fiction work "Alcibiades," published in 2019.

We live in an age lacking dynamic leadership. We are instead led, if one can call it that, by men who are clowns, feminized, or confused—or, often, by confused feminized clowns. The idea of a charismatic, ambitious, intelligent, unapologetically masculine leader has entirely vanished from our minds, in part because we see no examples among us, and in part because we are indoctrinated such men are retrograde and properly consigned to the past, and we should accept our new, apparently vat-grown, “leaders,” typically resembling some hybrid of John Kerry and Trigglypuff. Still, a heretical little voice whispers to us, pointing out that eras of human flourishing and accomplishment are always led by men of glory, and asking us, why is that?

To answer that question, and learn some related lessons, we cannot do better than review the life of one of the most famous Athenians—Alcibiades, son of Cleinias. Born in 450 B.C. and dead by the arrows of assassins forty-six years later, his life must be read to be believed. In past eras, his story was taught to schoolchildren and known by all, but no longer, since schoolchildren are only taught about stupid, unimportant, unaccomplished (or pernicious) people who check the right identity politics boxes. At least among sectors of the Right, though, Alcibiades has recently returned to the spotlight, thanks to the pseudonymous Bronze Age Pervert’s peerless reimagining of Mitt Romney if he had been Alcibiades. Romney could never have been Alcibiades; that’s the joke, and the point—but to fully get the joke, it helps to know the background, and this outstanding book is a good way to learn it.

Print (PDF)

You don’t have to be on the Right, though, to benefit from knowing about Alcibiades, and David Stuttard’s Nemesis captures Alcibiades in all his genius and contradiction. We know from the title that the ending is not a happy one for the main character. Or maybe it is, given his premises, and the premises of the time. The Greek philosophers knew, as was carved on the façade of the temple at Delphi, that man should pursue “Nothing in Excess.” But the philosophers, though we remember them as the most important men of the age, were in fact often looked down upon by the doers of the age, who did not, usually, respect the Delphic maxim. And none less so than Alcibiades.

Alcibiades’s motivations are clear, even at this great distance. His core motivation, common among the Greeks but taken to a fever pitch by the greatest among them, was the desire, like Achilles, “always to be best and to surpass all others.” For us, tempered by two thousand years of Christian belief, of exaltation of charity, love, and selflessness, and contempt for pride as being the greatest sin, it is hard to truly embrace this attitude. But the desire to be best, better than others, is a natural attitude among men, held with greater or lesser fierceness (and nearly completely lacking in women, even if nowadays sometimes shallowly implanted by ideological indoctrination). Everything Alcibiades did was to advance this goal, with a single-mindedness, an obsessiveness, that always characterizes those who accomplish great things—but with terrible costs, for others and, ultimately, for Alcibiades, though he would not have counted any of that cost.

As with all histories of the Ancient World, for nearly every event he narrates, Stuttard has to select among competing sources, usually written years later, often of dubious veracity. Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War is his main source; Stuttard suggests, without exactly claiming, that Alcibiades may have been a direct source for Thucydides, offering his own spin, which is certainly possible and would explain various elements of the History. (I don’t know if this theory is original to Stuttard.) The contemporaneous plays of Aristophanes pillory Alcibiades (often lightly disguised), but as the author notes, Alcibiades was always enormously controversial, so even from such direct sources an accurate picture cannot be guaranteed, and sources from centuries later are even less reliable. Still, the basic story of Alcibiades’s life is not in dispute.

He was born in 450 B.C., a member of the Athenian elite, with high aristocratic lineage from both his parents, though his mother’s family had been exiled more than once. His mother, Deinomache, was married and divorced from Pericles, the greatest Athenian of the age, before she married Cleinias. And when Cleinias was killed in battle in 447, Alcibiades was sent to the household of Pericles to be raised as his ward. Thus, Alcibiades grew up during the years of Athens’s greatest glory, after the defeat of the Persians and before the Peloponnesian War. Tales, perhaps apocryphal but showing how he was viewed by contemporaries, are told of his childhood and adolescence. The tales prefigure his later reputation, as a boundlessly immodest, but super-competent, glory hound always willing to take risks greater and matters further than others, disrespectful of authority, prone to using violence to settle arguments, and hyper-sensitive to slights or to being seen as other than the best in any endeavor. And, given his social role as a member of the aristocratic elite and a member of Pericles’s household, he was also exposed to the rough-and-tumble of Athenian politics, which was not a gentle sport.

When the Peloponnesian War began in 431, Alcibiades eagerly went to war. He fought as a hoplite at the Athenian victory at Potidea, early in the war; it was told that, advancing too far into the enemy’s ranks, he had to be saved by Socrates, under whom he had earlier studied. Naturally, his bravery was admired, in that age when martial bravery was the core measure of a man, and Alcibiades rapidly entered the public life of Athens, funding liturgies and engaging in politics. But he was also already collecting enemies, lots of them, as we can tell from his being repeatedly satirized in the plays of Aristophanes. The war ground on, with Alcibiades enrolling in the cavalry, which fit since he was obsessed with horses, a typical aristocratic pursuit. He again and again showed his bravery and managed to not be hurt or killed, and when he turned thirty, he became eligible for elective offices, both military and civil. At that moment, however, Athens and Sparta signed the Peace of Nicias in 421, pushing the pause button on the war.

During the troubled Peace, Alcibiades pushed an aggressive line, keeping himself in the forefront of Athenian politics, and of Greek politics more generally, entering multiple winning chariot teams at once at the Olympic games and spending every day, all day, being a tireless self-promoter. He was instrumental in demanding the destruction of Melos, the aftermath of the famous Melian Dialogue, which encapsulates the dominant Athenian attitude of the time toward other Greeks. Naturally, all this made him even more enemies, who sourly, but perhaps accurately, viewed his self-promotion as that of a man who wanted, not like Pericles to be “first citizen,” but to be a tyrant.

Fitting the pattern that characterized his life, Alcibiades reached too far. When the war fired up again, he was one of the major advocates for the massive Athenian expedition in 415 to conquer Syracuse, which failed disastrously and resulted in tens of thousands of Athenian deaths. It was just prior to the launch of that expedition that Athens was rent by the mysterious destruction of the Herms, idols set up throughout the city as defenders of it. Suspicion fell on Alcibiades, known to be irreligious (though, as Stuttard points out, it is extremely unlikely that Alcibiades would have deliberately jeopardized the Syracusan expedition he had worked so hard to accomplish). And then his enemies also accused him of profaning the sacred Eleusinian Mysteries—but postponed his trial until the Syracusan expedition, on which Alcibiades would sail, should return.

And sail he did. But neither he nor the expedition returned. Halfway through the expedition, with his enemies working overtime back in Athens, the Assembly sent a ship to arrest Alcibiades and return him to Athens to stand trial for impiety and sacrilege. Instead, he fled to Sparta (and the Sicilians destroyed the rest of the Athenians), Athens’s greatest enemy, and offered his services to them. At this point, two related characteristics of Alcibiades come to the fore. First, he was able to, apparently overnight, completely adapt himself to an alien culture, and participate in it at the highest levels, as if he had been born to it. Second, he turned traitor at the drop of a hat; this was only the first instance. Alcibiades was for one thing only: Alcibiades, and the rest of his career is testimony and confirmation.

It helped his transition that Alcibiades had Spartan friends and connections, some by happenstance, some because the Athenian aristocracy always had a tense relationship with democracy and tended to feel commonality with other Greek city-states that had an aristocratic government. Back in Athens, Alcibiades was formally cursed by the priests, all his wealth was confiscated, and a stone set up listing his disgrace. To boot, he was sentenced to death in absentia.

He ignored Athenian rage, and used his rhetorical charm to convince the Spartans he was really on their side. He promptly began feeding the Spartans state secrets learned in Athens, and giving them excellent strategic advice, while engaging in sophistry like “I’m doing all I can to reclaim a homeland I no longer have.” Then he had an affair with the wife of one the of two Spartan kings (he was, no surprise, a famous playboy in Athens too), probably fathering a son by her. He also became involved in the machinations between Sparta and Persia, the latter angling again for influence over Greece, especially in Ionia. Stuttard deftly describes the complex Persian involvement in the war, although he has the annoying habit of insisting on using Old Persian forms of names, hence Dārayavahuš, instead of Darius.

The Persians played off the Spartans against the Athenians, but at this time were supporting the Spartans. So, fighting in Ionia, perhaps sensing a wavering of Spartan support for him, Alcibiades fell in with the local satrap, Tissaphernes. For Alcibiades was not only a first-class orator; he also had that type of personality difficult to withstand in person, which meant that he often carried the day in the fiercely argumentative councils of his time. The defect in relying on that talent to win arguments, though, is that when you’re absent, the effect wears off. In the 1990s, before he returned to Apple, Steve Jobs ran NeXT, and he kept the company afloat by wooing investors caught in his famous “reality distortion field.” But he couldn’t enchant everyone at once, or use his talents on consumers, and so his company never really succeeded. For such men (and they are all men), it is only when underlying conditions conspire to push your line in your absence, to make it stay appealing and the obvious choice, that this strategy will work for long, and Alcibiades was always being called away. (Moreover, the flip side of the reality distortion field is often narcissism without self-reference, combined with a belief in your own destiny. These are probably necessary elements to its success, but faced with the right opponents, and the slightest setback, this can be used against you.) So when the Spartans arrived to arrest Alcibiades, he had already shifted his loyalties to the Persians, in 412 yet again skipping out just ahead of the executioner.

Now Alcibiades morphed into a Persian, effete in Greek eyes, but effective in the tangled politics of Persia. He helped the Persians play the Spartans against the Athenians. Soon enough, the desperate Athenians, negotiating with Alcibiades, offered Tissaphernes a better deal than the Spartans for Persian support—including eliminating Athenian democracy, and letting Alcibiades return, because Alcibiades convinced them he controlled Tissaphernes. Which he didn’t, but he figured he would worry about that later. But he didn’t go back to Athens yet, instead fighting in northern Ionia and Thrace, now against the Spartans. In 407, finally, he stage-managed his return to Athens, to great acclaim, as the savior who would now lead the city, at long last, to victory.

Then it all went permanently wrong, after so many years of juggling, balancing, and lucky escapes. The Persians went back to the Spartans; it became clear Alcibiades had lied about his influence. He sailed out as commander of the Athenian fleet and lost most of it, at the Battle of Notium (conducted recklessly by an incompetent subordinate, but Alcibiades got the blame). He could win no victories on sea or land, but needed money, so he looted a city loyal to Athens. Quickly, and logically, the Athenians turned against him, and once again, Alcibiades got out while the getting was good—to Thrace, land of hard-drinking horsemen, cousins of the Greeks, where he had allies, and again mutated himself, to a Thracian prince.

But in 404, Sparta finally defeated Athens, and imposed the oligarchical rule of the Thirty on Athens. The Thirty acted to eliminate their enemies, and their enemies included Alcibiades, a free floating threat who might pop up any day to destabilize the fragile state. Alcibiades, sensing the danger, unwisely left Thrace, where he was relatively safe and functioned as a warlord, and moved back to Persia. The satrap Pharnabazus put him under house arrest, in Phrygia, and Alcibiades waited for an audience with the Great King—no doubt, he hoped to once again rise to glory, and could not do so in backward Thrace. But the Athenians and the Spartans both wanted him dead; Pharnabazus obliged, sending his own uncle and brother to do the job. They stole his weapons, set his house on fire and shot him down as he rushed out to fight, naked, with only a dagger. So passed Alcibiades, son of Cleinias, to his eternal reward, whatever that may be.

I keep promising lessons for today, so what are those, or some of those? First, Alcibiades is a prototypical Man of Destiny. My belief is that such a man will inevitably rise to power following a future fracture, and though the timing is impossible to predict, I’d guess sooner rather than later. Troubled times call forth such men, even if we have mostly forgotten they exist. Much of the reason Alcibiades was able to cut his flaming arc across the sky was the instability of his times. War, economic turmoil, changes in attitudes, all played a part; in a more stable time with less tolerance for flash, say Augustan Rome, he would have toed the line or ended up quickly dead. But in the right circumstances, such a man can become dominant nearly overnight (something hinted at in Trump’s rise, with all his gross defects and without most of the virtues of Alcibiades).

As Stuttard discusses, as the centuries passed, Alcibiades became partially fused in the public imagination with Alexander the Great. This was inevitable, no doubt, not only because their careers bore a surface similarity, but because every society needs heroes. Success when alive means the masses overlook the missteps and vices, and time after death gives a sheen to achievements and buries the errors and crimes. I celebrate Hernán Cortés, man of contradiction and high fortune, but let’s be honest, if he had lived closer in time to us, it would be harder to overlook his sins and failures. No matter—what is important is that the masses need a hero and a broken society needs a leader. This suggests that when the modern Man of Destiny arrives, a pent-up hunger will smooth his path.

It is not to the contrary that Alcibiades was ultimately unsuccessful, or that his slippery ways were often far from admirable by our standards (or, though to a lesser degree, by the standards of his own time). A man largely unbound by the past is needed to reboot society and, no doubt, cometh the hour, cometh the man. There are other examples, such as Napoleon, or, again, Augustus—not clones of Alcibiades, to be sure, but sharing many of his core character traits. Each such man is tailored to the society and times in which he rises, so each is different. But one must be very careful of what one dreams; like wishes granted by a djinn, the results of the Man of Destiny are unpredictable, at best, and very unpleasant, at worst. Thus, for example, it seems to me increasingly unlikely that the man who will arise in the coming fracture, great or small, will exemplify Christian virtue, even if he claims to be Christian. Much more likely the pagan virtues will overtly reassert themselves—not fake pagan virtues manufactured by twentieth-century ideologues, but the real pagan virtues, for good or ill.

And what does this imply for America’s resurgent Right? Success, most likely, since its program is that of reality, but that is not my topic here. Rather, it has been much on my mind of late what alliances will form in the days immediately before us, and survive the acid test of effectiveness in the looming wars to come. Those very different can form binding alliances in the face of evil; the most evocative are J. R. R. Tolkein’s fictional cross-species alliances. But can a believing Christian form an alliance with, or serve, a modern-day Alcibiades, who cares nothing for Christianity or Christian core values, yet advances many of the same goals, seeks human flourishing, and, most importantly, smashes our common enemies? Is there a point at which such strange bedfellows, pagans and Christians, cannot coexist within one society? I don’t know, though in the short term at a minimum, I strongly endorse the alliance, both because it’s a winning one, and I like to win, and because, as Rod Dreher points out all the time, Christians simply don’t have numbers or the Zeitgeist on our side, so I conclude the only solution is alliances.

Second, the times of Alcibiades offers a lesson about how our own times will develop. This period of Greek history offers innumerable examples of the destruction of comity within Greek city-states. The most famous is Thucydides’s description of how Athenians turned on each other, ending hallowed freedoms of speech and engaging in political violence. It’s safe to conclude that this is the inevitable arc of democracy (Peter Turchin would say of any society), and that the set of civil rights tied to republican government under the American Constitution of 1787 is a system that only works in a relatively homogeneous society that has a high degree of collective virtue, and then only for a short time, as counted on historical time scales. We can be sure the same breakdown will happen here; it is obviously already well under way as shown by the suppression of speech and violence visited by the Left on the Right since 2016. It is a fantasy to pretend otherwise; we might as well accept it. There is no way back, only forward, through the fire. Trying to turn the clock back to 1787, or 1865, isn’t going to work. A new thing, for a new age.

Third, and more obliquely, any book about great men contains an implicit lesson about how we teach the young. As Plato said, the stories we tell “mold and shape” our children, and that is why curating them is important. The Left knows this, and the catamite Right refuses to fight them, which is why the Left is able to indoctrinate our children in ever more extreme ways. Not just in school—I watched part of Godzilla: King of the Monsters on an airplane the other day, gazing in horrified wonder at the wide range of ludicrous propaganda. Among other indoctrination, the movie continuously portrayed and valorized Mary Sues of approved victim groups as world-bestriding heroes, while men were shown as simpering, vacillating weaklings, who, in rare moments of competency, still knew their proper place, subordinate to the Mary Sues. Or, to take another media example, that clutch of odious homosexual brainwashers, GLAAD, having achieved its goal that a preposterous ten percent of “regular characters on primetime scripted broadcast series” be portrayed as sexual deviants, rather than saying “thank you” to the media which thus toadies to them, immediately demanded that the new goal be—twenty percent. All of this is bizarrely anti-reality, yet we are fed so much of it we often do not realize it, and our children are defenseless against these attacks (except mine—they consume a steady counter-diet, along with weapons practice). Teaching stories such as the life of Alcibiades, and drawing proper, and subtle, lessons, cleanses the mind of such rot, so I strongly recommend every family read this book, and books like it, and that parents then direct children what they should learn from heroic men of history—including that what is past, is prologue.

PDF (Typeset) Version eBook (ePub) eBook (MOBI/Kindle)


  1. Prism says

    Good day Charles, I shall not praise you again, nothing in excess and all that.

    In defence of our age, the complexities we face are much larger, our enemies better disguised and the numbers that must be convinced or bent, by will or force, are exceedingly more in numbers and influence than any faced by men like Alcibiades. Faced with the seduction of Persian rule, the Greeks could wax lyrical about their freedoms and distinct culture, but how exactly does one resist the siren song of freedom? It is after all the promise of unending freedom that underpins the decadence that exercises you so. That your country exports to places like mine ):

    The alliance I’d advocate is not between Christians and Pagans, such categories are rather meaningless today. Besides, motivated minorities are who change the direction of society. The needed alliance recalls Tolkien, it should be a fellowship of talents, with Wizards (the technologically astute), Elves (the wise), Humans (the brash) and Hobbits (the brave). An alliance of Christian and Pagan Alcibadi (?) would quickly flounder. Much like the man himself.

    By the by, perhaps reading the book will convince me otherwise, I already knew the broad outline of Alcibiades career and his intimacies with Socrates or was that Plato? but he strikes me as a discount Julius Caesar. Caesar was brave, a warrior and most of all victorious! I see no comparable virtues in Alcibiades. Brave sure, but brave traitors are the worst, precisely because they could have bravely embraced honour.

    • Charles says

      Yes, I’ve waxed lyrical myself repeatedly about the problem of the Luciferian appeal of unlimited freedom. (The classic statement, though, is Ross Douthat’s: “Liberals, on the other hand, dream the same dream and envision the same destination, even if they disagree on exactly how to get there. It’s the dream of Thomas Friedman as well as Karl Marx, as old as Babel and as young as the South Korean cloners. It whispered to us in Eden, and it whispers to us now: ye shall be as gods. And no conservative dream, in the 400 years from Francis Bacon until now, has proven strong enough to stand in its way.”)

      What country are you in?

      Yes, perhaps an alliance of too-disparate elements would founder. It would eventually, anyway. But in the short term, perhaps it can be used to break the power of our enemies. I do like “discount Julius Caesar.” Yes, Alcibiades was fatally flawed, more so than Caesar. My point was not that he was awesome, but that history is changed, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, by such men, by a very small number of men. The masses don’t matter–never have, never will.

      • Prism says

        I am Nigerian, so in the midst of your despair, remember, there is always worse.

  2. Shane says

    Dear Charles, I have to criticize you for the article. Upon reading the description of our current leaders as a physical combination of John Kerry and Trigglypuff I guffawed with the type of laugh that was similar to the one we remember that the kid in school we all felt a bit sorry for had. I’ve probably lost a few status points in the social hierarchy and will be looking at a means of compensation financial or otherwise.

  3. Jaspreet says

    From the midst of a blizzard of paper: you knocked it out of the park again! Good show!

    Stuttard’s literary judgment is sometimes off (he’s a terrible writer when he tries to be ‘writerly’), that said, the first 185 pages or so of this book are the best single-volume introduction to ancient Athens I know. Mainly because Stuttard sticks close to Plutarch and explains and illustrates Athenian culture in a logical, reasonable order to make Alcibiades seem like a living figure rather than a waxwork (as in Jacqueline de Romilly’s dated and overrated biography that was recently translated into English). Eventually he loses control of the material, but the book is still highly recommended and one does wonder why it has sold so poorly.

    You won’t be surprised to hear that Alcibiades is openly hated by most postwar classical historians, who can’t see the point of him (some, like the nonagenarian would-be adventurer Peter Green, are patently jealous — Green is a failed novelist who spent a few years in the Greek islands as a fisherman before becoming an academic bureaucrat, and thinks he deserves hero-worship as a result). When they praise him, they try to make him sound at best like a less weird-looking version of Pete Buttigieg. But of course he stands as the single greatest obstacle to their attempt to make Athenian democracy into a model for ‘classical liberal’ ‘radical democracy’.

    The Whigs have been trying this for almost 200 years; if ever you want to waste your life and subject yourself to cruel and unusual punishment, try subjecting yourself to an abridged version of George Grote’s spectacularly awful (if impressively erudite) history of Greece, which was a major influence on John Stuart Mill. A triumph of learning and data-gathering and an embarrassing failure in terms of judgment as well as literary style. Indigestible — but all accounts of Athenian democracy since the 1840s seem to succumb to Grote’s bad influence, and most people who write them share his toxic combination of self-pity and self-loathing.

    Anybody who wants to study the reality of Greek democracy can start by looking into the noble house of Alcmaeon. Members of this family were influential for two centuries before Cleisthenes founded the democratic constitution in 508/507 BC; Pericles was an Alcmaeonid; when Alcibiades, the last influential member of the house, died that was the end of Athens as anything more than a university town with an interesting past. Fourth-century Athens gave us great prose writers: Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon and the eloquent but pathetic Demosthenes. But it steadily degraded from imperial city to regional power to uppity local parliament with an overrated and ineffectual army. Only Sparta’s decline was faster and sadder. I genuinely don’t think the democracy could have survived as long as it did or been so successful without Alcmaeonid leadership in every generation.

    Athenian democracy had some genuinely impressive achievements, not least when the franchise was more limited, but after the death of Pericles the Assembly degenerated into demagoguery and stupid power struggles, which of course got even worse after Alcibiades fled. The oligarchs and tyrants who tried to take over after the Sicilian disaster were poorly coordinated, and lacked an Alcibiades to unify the citizens. Thus, more stupid power struggles, botched diplomacy with the Persians (whose support could have helped them beat Sparta) and a humiliating defeat that they never recovered from. They needed a leader, and from 415 BC onwards they didn’t have one.

    Funny how ancient historians who claim to devote their lives to these studies can never openly answer questions about why Athens became so formidable when the tyrants were chased out, or how and why the constitution began to degenerate, or whether the seeds of instability and self-destruction weren’t there from the beginning. I don’t necessarily have good answers myself, but the ‘professionals’ these days are so ideologically brainwashed, so blind to their own limitations, and so scared of saying the wrong thing, that they will, 19 times out of 20, chicken out of serious discussion on these subjects even in private conversation when there is nobody else around who could possibly care.

    Which got the short end of the stick — Alcibiades, whose talents were frustrated by the worse elements of the Athenian democratic constitution, and was prevented from rising to greatness by its limitations — or the Athenian democracy, that had every weakness and flaw exposed by the sheer fact of Alcibiades’ career? If only I’d thought more about all this back when I actually had the time to study fifth-century Athenian history….

    Anyway: this Bronze Age Pervert chap, whoever he is, deserves applause for reviving interest in Alcibiades — he’s far too important and interesting to be left to mediocre professional historians. It’s always stimulating to reflect on how a man with so many virtues could lack so much ‘virtue’ — and yet it’s never the Christians who find Alcibiades objectionable. It’s always the ‘secular humanist’ liberals and progressives who react with mingled anger and envy, shocked that a man so obviously gifted, talented, brilliant and blessed by Nature and Fortune could disagree with them so radically.

    The nerve!

    • Charles says

      Thank you. And fascinating. Makes me think I need to read more on the topic. Any recommendations? You suggest what to avoid, but what to read?

      • Jaspreet says

        That’s a tough question! I’ve latterly been trying to un-learn everything that I’ve been taught. Ancient history at Oxford has been infested by Marxism since the 1970s….

        GEM de Ste Croix’s magisterial ‘Origins of the Peloponnesian War’ (1972) is a classic of good scholarship marred only by unfailingly poor judgment. Worth reading because it amasses most of the data that you’d want to look at; also, it’s often quite engaging. But there are stupid statements on virtually every single page. Well, at least Ste Croix is refreshingly open about his subversive views. Most of his pupils are considerably less so. Read ‘Origins’ if you’re up for a heated argument with the author.

        The English-language scholar I recommend most highly on Athens generally is P. J. Rhodes of the University of Durham. He wrote a very dry book on Alcibiades in 2011 or 2012. You will be most interested in his book ‘The Athenian Empire’ (1985; revised 1993), which is a hard swallow but engages with all the most important evidence with a relatively light touch. If you like that (and can stomach it) his first book ‘The Athenian Boule’ (first published in 1972; updated in the 1980s) is quite good on details of the democracy.

        If you take to Rhodes, then let me highly recommend all of his translations. He did Aristotle’s (?) ‘Athenian Constitution’ for Penguin, and Thucydides for Oxford University Press (I haven’t seen this myself but am told it’s quite good), though my former students told me that his most useful books by far were his translations (with detailed commentary) of Thucydides I-IV that were published by Aris & Phillips, plus his translations in the same series of ‘The Constitution of the Athenians’ by “The Old Oligarch” and ‘The Athenian Constitution’ (the one done by some anonymous scholar associated with Aristotle). Six volumes in total….

        The Aris and Phillips series is now published by the Liverpool University Press; instead of Amazon you can get them easily either from the Liverpool UP website or else the Oxford University Press USA site (which distributes them in North America). These texts contain the Greek on the left-hand pages, the English on the right, and extensive introductions and commentaries. When I was in school and university most of them were terrible but increasingly they’re very good indeed. Get ALL OF the P. J. Rhodes-translated volumes, plus whatever Plutarch they have (I think there are four volumes in that series).

        For the past century classicists have denigrated Plutarch. Unfairly, in my opinion. Yes, the ‘Parallel Lives’ are moralising biographies, and from a scholarly point of view they have their weaknesses, and so on and so forth. Blah blah blah. Taken together they’re the best single resource we have on ancient history. You have to read the whole collection, I think (but of course I’d think that). Plutarch fills in much of the picture that you miss if you only read Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Arrian and Polybius.

        Plutarch made me see clearly just how irrelevant Athens became in the 4th c., and what a useless windbag Demosthenes turned out to be (Classics masters and university lecturers praise him mainly because his Greek was stylish — it undoubtedly was, but when you know the life of the man himself you cannot be impressed).

        When you have the time, you might as well just go through the whole Loeb Classical Library collection of Plutarch (the Parallel Lives are in a dozen or more volumes). If that’s too much of a commitment (and yes, it almost definitely is) then both Penguin and Oxford have paperback selections of just the Athens-related (and Sparta-related) biographies. Penguin Classics: “On Sparta”, “The Age of Alexander”, “The Rise & Fall of Athens”. Oxford World’s Classics: “Greek Lives” and “Hellenistic Lives”. One series is as good as the other, really.

        For the intellectual history of how Athenian democracy was viewed there’s little to recommend other than Vincent Azoulay’s recent biography of Pericles (2010; translated into English 2014), which is OK but valuable mainly for the second half that deals with the ‘reception’ of Pericles over the past 2500 years. The survey is highly illuminating — which is nice because it’s the only competent one I’ve seen so far.

        On the Whig misappropriation of Athenian democracy (Grote and J. S. Mill) there’s very little of value or interest. If you are bored you can Google for “Brill’s Companion to George Grote and the Classical Tradition” (2014) — most of the articles can be read for free. But I wouldn’t wish such dismal reading on you unless you are doing a very hard Lent indeed.

        Some years ago Routledge published an abridged version of Grote’s ‘History of Greece’ with an introduction by the mysteriously overrated Paul Cartledge of Cambridge (who studied with GEM de Ste Croix, naturally). He has such poor taste that he actually admires Grote. The introduction is still better than the history itself, which is useful mainly as an out-of-date data mine. But J. S. Mill wrote a very long, semi-critical review of Grote from which you can get the gist re. his conception of democracy.

        On ancient Greek democracy there are a fair few very recent studies by people like Stanford’s Josiah Ober that try to advocate postwar liberal democracy whilst spuriously trying to connect its features with those of the Athenian constitution. Ober’s been doing this continuously since the 1990s; his latest rehash of his own work was published in 2018.

        In case you were wondering: I don’t actually think very highly of Victor Davis Hanson’s ancient history scholarship. He had a few brilliant insights into warfare, and ‘The Other Greeks’ is a necessary (if repetitive) book. But he’s much better as a polemicist, as in the underrated ‘Bonfire of the Humanities’ (this and ‘Who Killed Homer?’, whilst flawed and sometimes tendentious, are still essential reading).

        FINALLY: when you get bored of Athenian democracy, save the best for last. Alan H. Sommerstein’s texts with commentary of Aristophanes that he did for Aris & Phillips are, for your purposes, first-rate, and even if you don’t know Greek he can be laugh-out-loud funny. I won’t say too much about his insights into Athenian democracy, except that I owe much of my pessimism to taking his flippant, libellous conclusions seriously. Also, his comedies improved my Greek immensely — I wouldn’t have studied so hard had I not wanted to get all the jokes. I think I learnt more about Athenian politics from ‘The Knights’ than any other single classical source of equivalent length.

        • Jaspreet says

          NB: just realised that I accidentally erased a line of text in that last paragraph. Perhaps I ought to spell out that ARISTOPHANES is the funny, flippant, libellous one who taught me about democracy, not Alan H. Sommerstein, whom I’ve never properly met, and know little about, other than the fact that he used to teach Greek at Nottingham, and spent 20 years putting together translations of Aristophanes that schoolboys use when they are too lazy to look up unfamiliar vocabulary in a Greek lexicon.

          Obvious point, but I thought I’d spell it out in case you too are currently sleep-deprived.

          • Charles says

            Got it. Oh, I am rarely, if ever, sleep-deprived nowadays. Let’s hope that continues!

  4. Shane says

    Quick reply off of the top of my head but sometimes a comment manages to highlight a pattern of thought that had been brewing in the back of your mind but you hadn’t articulated it. Regarding history, it never is the Christian’s. It is always the progressive’s, the one true faith that brooks no compromise. The endless, needles hair splitting and haughty moralising.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *