Cover image for Athens : a history, from ancient ideal to modern city
Athens : a history, from ancient ideal to modern city
Waterfield, Robin, 1952-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Basic Books, [2004]

Physical Description:
xxi, 362 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
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Format :


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DF921 .W37 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
DF921 .W37 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
DF921 .W37 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Perhaps no other city looms larger in our cultural and historical imagination than Athens. For two and a half millennia, people have looked to the city's past as a beacon of genuine democracy, artistic expression, and the classical ideal. In this engaging narrative, noted classicist Robin Waterfield traces the life and history of Athens, a city whose idealized past continues to inspire the present.This is the only book to cover the entire history of Athens, from its brief period of classical greatness through its decline under a series of occupying empires-Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, and Turkish-to its resurrection in the modern era. Waterfield brings the city vividly to life through the colorful and varied individuals who shaped her history, from Solon, the founder of her democracy, to Pericles, Socrates, Euripides, and the other geniuses of the fifth century, and right up to more recent figures, such as Lord Byron and Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics.As Waterfield shows, the memory of Athens' glorious past-even if that memory is a myth-has inspired generations, and offers vital lessons for the current era.

Author Notes

Robin Waterfield is a full-time writer and has translated about twenty ancient Greek works. He has been a university lecturer at Williams College and at St. Andrew's. He divides his time between London and the southern Peloponnese in Greece.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Timed for the 2004 Olympics, this historical narrative aspires to a broader focus than most books celebrating the meteoric rise and fall of classical democracy in fifth-century Athens. Opening significantly prior to Pericles and following Athens' decline through the Roman empire and beyond, it does manage to contextualize the glory days of Greece within a broad historical arc, even if somewhat unevenly: the 1,500 years from Byzantium to Lord Elgin are compressed somewhat uncomfortably into the same amount of space devoted to ancient Athens' leisure activities. Athens in the twentieth century--including the civil war leading to Greek independence--appears only in the epilogue. In spite of these unfortunate foreshortenings, however, Waterfield's study of the deep footprints of the classical era in general and the Olympic ideal in particular is honest, accessible, and enlightening. Its tour of daily life in classical Athens is excellent, and while it deals with modern Athens much less than its subtitle would imply, the modern political world looms present in Waterfield's analysis of Athens' downfall, the result of shortsighted arrogance and overreaching. --Brendan Driscoll Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Athens will host the Olympic Games in 2004, perhaps restoring some glory to a city that, according to Waterfield, has seen better days. In this fast-paced history, Waterfield, who has translated many works from ancient Greek, chronicles the rise and fall of Athens, from ancient days (the bulk of his narrative) to the political revolutions of the 19th century. Legend has it that the great Theseus, who killed the Minotaur, was one of the city's founders and fostered its democratic spirit. Athens's location near the coast (facilitating trade) and its fertile land attracted migrants from the Mediterranean world. For Waterfield, the period of Athens's greatest glory came in the fifth century B.C., when Pericles overturned its aristocratic rule and established a democracy. For 30 years (446-416 B.C.), Athens reached a glorious pinnacle during which philosophy, religion, art and architecture flourished. The grandest accomplishment was the building of the Parthenon, completed in just nine years. During its peak years, Athens also attempted to reign over neighboring states, and its increasingly arrogant imperialism and materialism eventually resulted in war with Sparta and other Greek states that destroyed Athens's splendor. As Waterfield observes, Athens would never again achieve such glory, and it became a territory ruled over the years by Persia, Rome and Turkey. Waterfield sandwiches his helpful history between an opening section on the ancient Olympics and a closing one on the forthcoming games, which jars readers out of their pleasant excursion though the ancient city. 8 pages of b&w photos, not seen by PW. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

The dust jacket of this book juxtaposes a romantic drawing of the ancient Athenian Acropolis with a photograph of the first modern Olympic Games, held in a restored ancient stadium in Athens in 1896. Indeed, the theme of the book is the legacy of this famous city throughout the centuries. About half of the volume covers the two-century period of the classical era, the so-called Golden Age. The remainder shows how the Athenians failed to live up to their own ideals, and how in later years, the city, now ruled by others than Greeks, became first a museum, and then, in the medieval period, a virtual ghost town--a remote outpost of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. What sustained the city--indeed, revived it--to become the capital of modern Greece was the undying reference in the minds of Greeks and foreigners alike to its famous past. This is a book for general readers; experts (and the author is an expert) will learn little new from it. But rarely has anyone told the story with such charm, elegance, and insight into the lives of Athenians through the ages. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Public and undergraduate collections and above. E. N. Borza emeritus, Pennsylvania State University, University Park Campus