HomeCreators, Conquerors, & Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece by Robin Waterfield

Primary tabs

September 20, 20181808Views

Creators, Conquerors, & Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece by Robin Waterfield

Nigel Hillpaul reviews Robin Waterfield's new 2018 history of ancient Greece and explores how a Greek identity arose from its individual city-states

I bought my first book on Greek history as a small boy in a second-hand bookshop in Saffron Walden. Those great nodding crests hooked me at once and I have been on the end of the line ever since.

As a young man all those dreams were realised when I was part of a crew rowing a trireme around the Aegean; but as Faulkner said the past is not dead, it’s not even the past – what it is is a prism through which we interpret the present, so books on Greek history, among others, come round at a fairly steady pace. This resonates with modern concerns about unity and distinction, how (and why) peoples come together to create a national identity, how it is shaped and the resistance to it. ‘We Greeks are one in blood and one in language; we have temples to the gods and religious rites in common, and a common way of life’.

As a spoiler, I would rate this with Ober's The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece as the latest standard work.

Because of its geography, Greece was an archipelago of city-states separated by mountain ranges ('As the sky is decorated with stars, so the Aegean is decorated with islands', Aelius Aristides) and that separation bred competition between the poleis and even when the Persians came, they always found friends. The myth of Greek exceptionalism was largely self-created and self-perpetuating; us and them, Hellene and barbaroi. 'When the Greeks spoke of "Greece" they meant the abstract sum of all those communities, but in reality there was no shared homeland'.

A run through the field of ancient Greek history with separate chapters on women, democracy, slavery and philosophy is used to support the hypothesis (although personally I am certain the collapse of Mycenae and Knossos had more to do with climate, environmental collapse and Völkerwanderung than subjugation by rivals).

That competition eventually narrowed the field to Athens, Sparta and Thebes, but knockout rounds cleared the way for one winner on the podium; the victors laurel only fits one head.

However, that intercity-state competitiveness came through contact and contact means exchange (goods, people, ideas), and at some point around the 5th century BC that sense of exceptionalism started to crystallise. Loyalty to polis never diminished, but it acquired a veneer of Greekness, transforming the competition for resources into a competition of ideas among things, of Greekness itself. (Someone once told me that you could create a Zeno out of any Greek state or island and have a plausible philosopher).

Once the looming menace of Persia had been dissipated at Thermoplylae, Marathon and Plataea, the wars between Athens and Sparta which Waterfield confidently describes for the reader in under 150 pages (for a more magisterial anaylsis, see Kagan's in depth retelling over the course of four books), were as much about what version of Greekness would win.

The Persian wars had given them a taste for organised warfare and aggrandisement, the losses in sea battles (p.164) and the Athenian war dead stele (p.183) paying for and defining the Athenian interpretation of Greekness which found its ultimate expression in the rebuilding of the Acropolis, 'the most dominant theme of the sculptures (in it) is victory – of rationality over chaos, of man over monsters, and of Athenians over everyone'.

Those culture wars were as much about the choice between melas zomos or symposia, which meant that eventually Sparta was on a hiding to nothing. Despite Athens’ best efforts to lose (the Delian League War, the Thirty Tyrants, Syracuse), lounging around getting inebriated and trashing the furniture while pretending to be on a trireme in a storm (which having rowed one, I can sympathise with) is always going to win over eating liquidised black pudding and feeling smugly virtuous (both examples assuming, of course, that you were a man and free).

Following form, though, doesn’t mean generating function. Macedonian symposia (especially as wine became steadily unadulterated in the wilds of central Asia) meant getting drunk more quickly while reclining on the couches (no chairs for those world-conquerors), reliving creature comforts in the wilds. Getting the point of someone’s argument didn’t mean the same thing in Athens as it did in Samarkand when Black Cleitus got pinned to the door by a rebuttal from Alexander.

Wars export culture as well as conflict and part of that problem of Greekness arose when those areas regarded as peripherally Greek started competing, the Macedonians (the equivalent of Leeds to a Metropolitan liberal from Kensington), muscle and money punctured the illusion of southern superiority. Philip took it to its logical conclusion at Chaeronea and Alexander rubbed the point home at Thebes before launching his self-aggrandising crusade for Greek revenge on the Persians.

Despite his widely touted wish for a syncretic kingdom, the Greeks and Macedonians had one thing in common, an ability to curl their lip at the idea of barbarians being civilised and made Greek. Victors never adapt, the vanquished always have to and will subvert their victors by doing so. Alexander‘s death showed how quickly that worked as exposure to countercultures rubbed off that veneer of exceptionalism, the wars of the Diadochi turning Hellenes into satraps and pharaohs, tyrants and kings.

When it came to their absorption by Rome, it forced a re-evaluation, to subvert their conquerors by creating a meta-Greekness that enabled their ideas of learning and philosophy to survive rather than dying out in some dusty backwater. The Greek brand became so successful that the Romans ended up selling it for them.

Greece had to die so that, phoenix-like, Greekness could be born.



Oxford University Press, 544pp, £25.00

Nigel Hillpaul

Byzantinist, varangian and rural antiquarian


Twitter: @TheHillpaul


Click here for more by Nigel...

Add a comment