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Review: Bruce Clark’s “Athens: City of Wisdom”

Athens: City of Wisdom is a tour through over 3,000 years of the history of a city that has such imaginative sway and spiritual power over the hearts and minds of so many people around the world today.”

After Orestes avenged the murder of his father, Agamemnon, who was slain by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, the Furies hounded the ancient Greek hero who fled to the courts of Apollo and Athena to seek vindication before the goddess of wisdom. Athena, patron deity of the city of Athens, adjudicated. She offered reconciliation and a new way of life, an escape from the spell and cycle of vengeance that plagued Mycenae, signaling the birth of a new civilization. She invited the Furies to dance with Orestes and the people of Athens, old and new united together at last where reason (Orestes) and passion (the Furies) were synthesized together. “Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on. This peace between Athena’s people and their guests must never end. All-seeing Zeus and Fate embrace, down they come to urge our union on—Cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on!” All of this is supposed to have happened under the shadow of the Acropolis.

When we think of Athens, what do we imagine? Probably something like Aeschylus’s propaganda about Athens as the new seat of civilization uniting reason and justice with the fates of the old virtues in a harmonious city ready to ascend to new heights. “When students in the Western world are introduced to global history,” Bruce Clark writes, “they are often told that civilization owes a particular debt to events which unfolded on two stony citadels in different parts of the eastern Mediterranean.” One is Jerusalem. The other is Athens. The late second century church father Tertullian famously quipped, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” The question has reverberated down through the millennia. We are the inheritors of both citadels and their legacies.

What sway does Athens still have on us? The bastardized conception of reason promoted by doltish contemporary Whigs likes to claim Athens as its own. Yet Athens was a city steeped in mysticism and mystery; as such, the rationality of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics is hardly the rationalism of the orphaned children of the Enlightenment who have swapped the summum bonum for the summum malum. What of freedom? We are often told that our democratic and independent spirit comes from the Greeks. (As if no other civilization between theirs and ours experienced the blessings and fruits of liberty—not to mention that many people in ancient Greece were slaves and did not have the right to vote.) If anything, though, it is the independent and democratic spirit and imagination of Athens that tends to draw us to that city of rocks—and with good reason. 

Athens is a city of our imagination. That imagination led would-be conquerors (and actual conquerors) to its gates. That imagination also drew the philhellenes of the early 19th century, most prominent among them the swashbuckling and deformed-footed Lord Byron, to venture to Greece to help fight for the independence of its people. The names Perseus, Andromeda, Zeus, Athena, Pericles, and Alcibiades ring familiar to so many of us—names both mythic and historic. So do “the 300.” We have the philhellenes and their mythic poetry about Athens to thank for that.

Bruce Clark has written a most remarkable book. Athens: City of Wisdom is a tour through over 3,000 years of the history of a city that has such imaginative sway and spiritual power over the hearts and minds of so many people around the world today. Plato taught to Athenians, a small merry band of gifted intellectual pupils. He never imagined that his writings would be taught as far away as a continent he did not know existed or in a country now ruled by a communist party that had its own philosophical tradition emerging concurrent with that of Greece. As Bruce Clark makes clear, Athens matters.

But why does Athens matter? We return to this perennial question in the form of Clark’s book.

The story of Athens is inextricably bound to those “rocks that matter” that dominate the Athenian skyline. The Acropolis provides the most famous image of Athens. It is the ancient sacred temple mount that the Athenians built the Parthenon on as monument to their own greatness; the Acropolis, with its grand temple, was the envy of the Greek world. It invited tyrants to seek its plunder and, in turn, invited liberators to restore the Greek tradition of freedom (eleutheria) to its people. What the Acropolis has seen is the history that Bruce Clark tells. And it is a captivating tale of freedom, despotism, and hope.

We, who live in the 21st century, experience certain remarkable similarities to those who lived in that city, a city that is so intoxicatingly alluring to the Western imagination. We live in democracies, and the etymology of that word goes back to Greece and to the city of Athens, in particular. We also feel that our democracies, including the institutions, checks and balances, and the rule of law which undergird them, are currently unstable and under the threat of tyranny. Athens constantly lived in that turbulence of oscillation between enemies both foreign and domestic.

Early in the resurgence of Athenian society after the Bronze Age collapse, a petty tyrant and his band of supporters, Kylon, attempted to seize control of the city. Their coup failed. Kylon and his men fled to the Acropolis and laid themselves to rest inside the Parthenon believing that this sacred temple would offer them asylum for their crimes. They were butchered by Megakles for their would-be putsch. Athens was saved. Megakles and his supporters, though, were exiled for sacrilege. From the very beginning of Athens’s “modern” history after the Bronze Age collapse, the Acropolis was at the heart of this contest between lustful tyranny and democratic patriotism with all the nuances and intrigue in between. 

Through the efforts of Solon and the benignity of Cleisthenes, Athenian democracy began to take shape. It was not a perfect journey. There were many bumps and twists and turns as Athens’s nascent democracy and democratic institutions and laws took root. But if Athens had managed to survive internal turmoil, its next great threat came from foreign forces seeking to impose universal imperium over the world under cosmological divine sanction. That great power seeking to impose universal empire which married politics and religion was the Achaemenid Empire of Persia. The Greek city-states of Ionia had just recently fallen under the Persian yoke and Athens had inflamed the rage of the Great King, Darius, by supporting Greek rebels. According to Herodotus, advisors would whisper into the ears of the Persian kings, “Remember Athens.” The Persian bid to conquer Athens was on.

When the Persian armies crossed the Hellespont to invade Greece, the Athenians took charge. They beat back the first Persian expedition at Marathon. The Persians would eventually regroup and invade again. Heroes from Athens emerged, especially the great innovator and naval strategist Themistocles, “a fickle, impatient character with an agile mind who had one overwhelming conviction: the vital importance of maritime power.”

Themistocles is remembered as the great savior of Athens in the Second Persian War and the father of the Athenian navy which permitted the flourishing of the so-called Athenian Golden Age in the immediate aftermath of Persia’s expulsion from Greece and the disastrous Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their respective “allies.” As the Greek navy led by Themistocles and the Athenian warships rowed into battle shouting “eleutheria, eleutheria!” the Greeks smashed the Persians and sent them to the bottom of the sea.

We often forget that despite the victory at Salamis the city of Athens was sacked. Athenians who did not accept Themistocles’s interpretation that the prophecy of the city’s deliverance of a wooden wall meant the navy and not the Acropolis, gathered themselves into the sanctuary of the Parthenon confident that the gods, Athena especially, would deliver them from the might of the Persians. They were wrong. The Persians scaled the rocks and slaughtered all inside (revenge for the earlier Athenian desecration of the temples at Sardis). “Some defenders,” Clark reminds us in vivid imagery, “threw themselves off the Rock in despair.” They fell and tumbled to their deaths, bodies splattering on the rocks below. The Acropolis wept as Athens was burned, but the Persians were eventually expelled, and the city—including the Acropolis with a new Parthenon—was rebuilt.

The rebuilt Acropolis, adorned with new statues and stones of the new Parthenon during the Periclean renaissance, gazed over the vibrancy of Athenian democracy in its heyday with a “technical excellence…only recently grasped by the modern world.” The rebuilt temple mount now looked over the Athens of memorable fame and immortality. Ostracism. Pericles. Socrates. Alcibiades. Plato. Then Athens collapsed. The Athenian democracy was replaced by an oligarchic tyranny. Then the tyrants were expelled and democracy restored.

This is the story of Athens, or at least part of its story that we remember and perpetuate. Caught between the forces of conspiracy and tyranny on one hand and liberty and democracy on the other, Athens oscillated between despotism and democracy over its 3,000-year history. Some of the tyrants were Athenians. Others were foreign conquerors. 

The city that had saved itself from would-be tyrants and foreign conquerors soon fell to the Macedonians. Athens was a principal instigator, led by Demosthenes, against the ambitions of Philip of Macedon. The eloquences of Demosthenes convinced the Athenians and other Greeks to stand and fight against the would-be tyrants from Macedon. Defeated in battle, Athens had to submit to Macedonian domination. 

From Macedon to Rome to various Frankish and Italian overlords to the Ottoman Turks, the glorious light of Athens’s ancient heroism and egoistic image vanished but its allure lived on in those who still lived in the city. For nearly 2,000 years it was under the control of foreign rulers who did not share the Athenian ideals of trial by jury, separate but cooperative institutions, and citizen participation in political and social affairs: the Byzantine rulers who claimed the inheritance of Rome; Western crusaders turned kings through politics, murder, and intrigue; Turkish sultans claiming the Roman legacy transforming the Acropolis from a Christian church to an Islamic mosque. Despite the despotism that Athens was suffering under, the Parthenon at the Acropolis stood tall—a majestic reminder of what the city had accomplished and called her loyal sons and daughters to restore.

That Acropolis with its gleaming Parthenon, however, no longer exists. The central Parthenon at the heart of the Acropolis we see today, impressive and majestic as it still is, is hollowed out. It is mostly ruinous though its pillars and outer walls remain standing, inviting our gaze and contemplation over what was. The imagination of painters and poets have conjured up the splendor of what might have been. As far away as Nashville, Tennessee in the United States, a reimagined and reconstructed Parthenon stands: a testament to the influence of Athens outside its city and across oceans.

How did the ruined yet still majestic and awe-inspiring Acropolis come to be? During the Ottoman conquests in Europe, the armies of the Turkish sultan did battle with the Holy Leagues alliance assembled by the Pope and supported by the Holy Roman Empire and, especially, the Most Serene Republic of Venice. The armies and navies of Venice had become the frontline in this new civilizational struggle, and Athens was at the heart of this conflict.

During the fighting for Athens, German-Venetian artillerists fired a cannonball that flew into the Parthenon. The temple mount soaring high above Athens had been turned into the gunpowder storage of the Turkish defenders. A mortal shell from German-led artillerists fell into the Parthenon, its fuse slowly burning to the gunpowder stored in the metal ball waiting to ignite. A massive explosion, the most sublime event witnessed by those there to this horrendous cultural catastrophe, rose high into the sky with a thunderous boom rocketing across the city. It was as if Zeus himself had thrown a thunderbolt into the heart of the city. An eye-witness account by a German officer recalls: 

“A lieutenant from Lüneburg, however, offered to propel mortar bombs into the temple…and one of the bombs fell through (the roof of) the temple and right into the Turkish powder-store, whereupon the middle of the temple blew up and everything inside was covered with stone, to the great consternation of the Turks.”

So the Parthenon exploded. So the Acropolis changed forever. But our cultural memory and imagination of it remains the same as always: that alluring prize and majestic splendor of our own vitality and genius calling us to the lofty heights that unite carnality and transcendence.

The Venetians took Athens only to abandon it shortly afterward. Athens fell back into the hands of the Turks. For another 100 years, Athens was under the boot of the Ottoman Empire until waves of romantic nationalism, spurred by the new ideas of revolutionary liberty, arrived in the supposed birthplace of democracy of yesteryear. The Greeks took up arms against their overlords. Europe looked on with caution.

The Greek War of Independence coincided with the emergence of philhellenism across Europe. In the United Kingdom, France, and the Germanies, poets, philosophers, and even some politicians who were immersed in the classical tradition of Greece saw the revolution as the fate of that would determine the course of their own hearts and souls. The philhellenes rushed to help fight for Greek independence even as the governments of Europe played a waiting game before coming to the help of the Greeks.

The most famous of these philhellenes to venture to Greece to fight for Greek liberty was the greatest of the English Romantic poets, Lord Byron. Byron had been to Athens before. In his eastern journeys, he had come to lionize and idolize Greece and Athens in particular, “a place of sexual liberty and experimentation of which he could not have dreamed in England.” The memory of the ancient Greeks and their struggle for liberty we remember is, in part, owed to Byron. It was he who composed those memorable lines that we now take for granted: “Earth! render back from out thy breast/A remnant of our Spartan dead!/Of the three hundred grant but three,/To make a new Thermopylae!”

Lord Byron ventured back to Greece in its hour of revolutionary fervor and hope. The Acropolis was controlled by the revolutionaries, and the ecstasy of freedom was contagious. Byron was embraced in open arms at Missolonghi by the Greek patriots. He undoubtedly dreamt dreams of dreaming again on those sacred rocks which inspired him a decade earlier. Then he died, ignominiously from disease in the middle of the war before the Greeks won their liberty once again. Although Byron did not get to parade underneath the Acropolis of the newly independent Greece, the Acropolis was graced to see once more a free and independent people. The long struggle for liberty seemed won. Until it was not.

The history of Athens in the twentieth century is even more tragic than in the prior millennia. As dark totalitarianism fell upon Europe once more by the twin threats of Nazism and communism, Athens found itself in the middle of the struggle between light and darkness, freedom and tyranny, just as it always had.

As the Nazis unleashed their war machine over Europe, it was only a matter of time before Athens would fall under the scope of fascist ambitions. Italy declared war, but the Greeks courageously beat back Mussolini’s armies. In 1941, with France already fallen and plans to invade the Soviet Union ready to commence, to shore up their southern flank, the Nazis began their conquest of the Balkans. Yugoslavia fell first. Then Nazi soldiers and tanks led the charge into Greece to accomplish what the Italians could not. Despite the valiant heroism of Greek, British, and Commonwealth soldiers, the Nazis rolled into Athens and the forces of tyranny once again paraded under the Acropolis.

This was “the darkest decade.” In particular, the immediate aftermath of the Nazi occupation was bleak: “The winter of 1941-42 was perhaps the most nightmarish in the history of Athens since the late fifth century BCE, when the city suffered plague and then economic hardships which went with military defeat.” Clark retells the horror of the deaths of 50,000 or more Athenians from starvation and political repression and their resorting to eating wild grass and snails.

By 1944, however, the tides of the war had turned. The Nazis were in retreat on all fronts. Ambition and hope flooded Athens. Liberals, progressives, monarchists, socialists, communists, patriots, and nationalists all found themselves on the frontline in the new winds of Athens’s political future. With the Nazis gone, the race to secure Greece was on. The British arrived in their own style of MacArthur’s “I shall return” bravado. Georgios Papandreou, a moderate liberal, was installed as prime minister. The Greek flag was raised proudly and patriotically over the Acropolis. During this bright but brief moment of light in the midst of darkness Clark writes, “Papandreou soon raised the Greek flag over the Acropolis and praised the heroic role played by local resistance forces in defeating Nazism.” 

The honeymoon did not last long. Communist partisans and their pro-Stalinist sympathies caused problems. Civil War was on the horizon. Then fighting among the Greeks broke out. The communists immediately got the upper hand and looked ready to storm into Athens and establish a new government. Winston Churchill, in his last chapter of military triumphalism, flew into the beleaguered city. Above the Acropolis “Churchill and his foreign secretary Anthony Eden did something astonishing: they paid a flying visit to Athens, or rather the still encircled city centre which remained under British and government control.” 

The Greek communists were defeated. A democratic Greece led by a restored monarchy proved unstable but lingered on, the only bastion of democracy in the Balkans now dominated by Soviet proxies. Conservatives, moderate liberals, and communists battled each other before the instability of the post-1945 government led to the establishment of a military junta. Military tanks rolled into the streets of Athens underneath the weeping eyes of the Acropolis: “Tanks were also patrolling the centre of Athens, and 10,000 people, including leading politicians from across a wide ideological spectrum, had been arrested.”

Despite the setback and the backsliding into military autocracy, democratic elections were restored in 1974, and Athens went on its way navigating the final decades of the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism with the lies and crimes of the Soviet Union and their proxies exposed, Athens became the hub for the new Europeanism that brought the country, and city, into the European Union that it is now wrestling with in the present.

Mount Olympus is the mythic residency of the Greek gods. It is from that mountain that the name for the Olympics is taken. The Acropolis looked over the athletes of the first Olympics. It did so again in 2004. This time, however, it was not just Greeks who paraded beneath the slopes of that rocky mount where the ruined but preserved Parthenon still stands. 201 nations of the world and their athletes assembled in the city that is remembered as the birthplace of the Olympics, democracy, and the hope of global cosmopolitanism. So long as international competition with a friendly face, democratic governance, and international cooperation remains the hope of many, Athens will remain the city of dreams and imaginations that draws so many souls to it.

In recent years and decades, histories and “biographies” of other prominent cities have been published. It is only fitting that Athens join that illustrious list. And Bruce Clark did exactly that with an eloquence and prose that would surely make Pericles and Demosthenes blush.

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and contributed to The College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He can be found on Twitter @paul_jkrause

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