Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Golden Age of Athens

I have been making slow progress, but progress nonetheless. My recent readings have spanned a most interesting century of ancient Greece, from the Herodotus history of the Persian Wars (499 BC – 449 BC) to the Thucydides classic, History of the Peloponnesian War, which recounted the long conflict among the Hellenic city-states from 424 BC – 411 BC.

Much of what we idealize about the Greek love of knowledge and freedom dates from the flowering of Athens during the years between those wars. At the time, their leader Pericles said that Athenians were “lovers of beauty without having lost the taste for simplicity, and lovers of wisdom without loss of manly vigor.”

In The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton credits two writers with giving us the best insight into this period:

For the Athenians of the great age, we turn not to Thucydides, the historian, interested in Athens rather than her citizens, but to two writers unlike in every respect but one, their power to understand and depict the men they lived with: to Aristophanes, who made fun of them and scolded them and abused them and held them up for themselves to see in every play he wrote, and to Plato, who for all that his business lay with lofty speculations on the nature of the ideal, was a student and lover of human nature too, and has left us in the personages of his dialogues characters so admirably drawn, they still live in his pages… This society he introduces us to is eminently civilized, of men delighting to use their minds, loving beauty and elegance…ever ready for a talk on no matter however abstract and abstruse a subject.

Aristophanes and Plato are a distinct contrast from the historians, just as Thucydides and Herodotus are very different from each other. Thucydides focused more intently on the military and political history of Athens, not reflecting as much of a wide-ranging curiosity as Herodotus. But Thucydides’ account reads much more like a modern work, less fragmentary and more organized in its approach.

I’ll admit growing war-weary with Thucydides, and balanced my reading of his military history with one more play by Aristophanes, The Congresswomen. Edith Hamilton says of the playwright:

To read Aristophanes is in some sort like reading an Athenian comic paper. All the life of Athens is there: the politics of the day and the politicians; the war party and the anti-war party; pacifism, votes for women, free trade, fiscal reform, complaining taxpayers, educational theories, the current religious and and literary talk – everything, in short, that interested the average citizen. All was food for his mockery.

There is something very modern about the comic sensibility of Aristophanes, but he was no high-brow. The Congresswomen features fart jokes and other scatological humor. That and its no-so-subtle sexual innuendoes might give the play an R rating, and if I were to imagine actors to appear in a movie version, Roseanne Barr and Adam Sandler would not be out-of-place.

The “golden age” of Athens did not last for long. Thanks to the Peloponnesian War, reported in detail by Thucydides, Sparta overcame Athens and destroyed much of what made it a beacon of ancient civilization. In the newly repressive Athenian climate, a philosopher like Socrates would be put to death for nothing more or less than a propensity to ask too many questions.

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