Athens: a Portrait of the City in its Golden Age, by Christian Meier (Pimlico, £16 in UK)


Periclean Athens was one of the great moments in European history, even if we see the overall struggle against Persia from a rather myopically western viewpoint. Though the battle of Marathon has had a better press from history, it was the sea victory of Salamis which really raised Athens high and gave its citizens the conviction that they were a chosen people. This was followed by Athens' great period as virtual head of the Delian League, but the famous Sicilian Expedition was a disaster and the long, disastrous Peloponnesian War ended in victory for Sparta. The Athenian democracy never really recovered and the city-state was humiliated further by Philip of Macedon, who had pan-Hellenic ambitions. The great statesman Themistocles, double-faced, irresistible Alcibiades, Socrates and Plato and the great tragedians are among the dramatis personae of this erudite, smoothly written book.

"Shortly before the Four Hundred assumed power, in January of 411, Aristophanes' Lysistrata was first presented. It is the play most often produced today. It shows the women from Greek cities that were at war with each other joining together and swearing to refrain from sexual relation- ships with their husbands and lovers in order to force them finally to make peace . . .

"The play is above all a superb comedy, but must also reflect the state of relations between the sexes. Could the women, so many of whose husbands, fathers, sons and brothers had been away in the army, if not killed in battle, really go on believing in the political wisdom of the men? Wisdom was so obviously lacking, at least if it was to be judged by success. The women were bound to rebel."

From Athens: a Portrait of the City in its Golden Age by Christian Meier