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More than the Olympic home

Athens A History -- From Ancient Ideal to Modern City Robin Waterfield Basic Books: 362 pp., $27.50

August 15, 2004|Peter Green | Peter Green is Dougherty Centennial professor emeritus of classics at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of "Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age." From 1966 to 1971, he lived and worked in Athens.

The return of the Olympic Games to Greece this year has generated a predictable amount of brouhaha, with enthusiasts and cynics alike eager to surf what everyone hopes will be a profitable, if evanescent, wave of public interest. The cynics have had a field day with the various dysfunctional contretemps that have plagued Athenian preparations, seeing them as typical hazards of ditzy Balkan organization and a bureaucracy that remains incurably Ottoman, if not Byzantine. The enthusiasts, of whom Robin Waterfield is a notably starry-eyed example, cry shame on such stereotyping and argue that the 2004 Olympics "could be -- should be -- the start of a new era for Athens and the end of modern Greece's two-hundred-year search for legitimacy."

The disorganization may have been gleefully overhyped, but it wasn't by any means fantasy. The International Olympic Committee was worried sick by looming deadlines, and the famous Athenian conviction that Greeks get everything done by the last minute and second of the 11th hour isn't calculated to soothe anyone's nerves. In this case, Athenian optimism may indeed have proved justified: Losing face remains, as always, a national no-no and powerful incentive to quick action.

As a former Athens resident and an incurable Hellenophile, I watched preparations with affectionate optimism. So did most of my Athenian friends, though they are well out of the way in the islands now, having sensibly rented out their houses to foreign tourists. But the stance taken by Waterfield is not only insufferably condescending, it is also, like quite a few of his other obiter dicta, historical nonsense. Greece has had legitimacy, and to spare, for years. Athens does not need the boost of the Games to make it a major, sophisticated European city (as Waterfield elsewhere asserts): It already is one.

Unfortunately, the romantic idealism that persists in viewing the Athens of Cleisthenes' democratic reforms, Pericles' naval imperialism, Sophocles' plays and, of course, the Parthenon through a rose-tinted kaleidoscope has very little time, or admiration, for anything that followed. Waterfield's study of Athens, topped and tailed with heady stuff about the Olympic spirit, is a notably egregious example of this. In a book whose text runs to 327 pages, 256 take us only as far as the Emperor Hadrian (AD 138). Nearly two millennia of Byzantine and Turkish occupation, plus the 19th century War of Independence and all that followed, are disposed of by Page 304. The contrast is instructive.

If "Athens" were simply about the city's history from prehistoric times to its makeover by Hadrian, it would be a far more useful book. Waterfield's narrative is clear, well-organized, reasonable in its judgments and -- bearing in mind how compressed he has to be -- eminently readable. He takes us at a brisk trot from the Mycenaean age (myth and archeology are nicely blended) through the archaic resurgence of the polis to Solon, Peisistratos and the events leading up to the Persian invasion. He spreads out during the Periclean era to show us Athenians at work and leisure.

But inevitably, after the defeat by Sparta in 404 BC, everything for Waterfield begins to run downhill: Litigiousness becomes endemic, and spinmeister orators replace high-minded statesmen. After the defeat by Macedonia at Chaeronea in 338 BC, though "Athenian pride was still fanned by the memory of its fifth-century greatness," nevertheless, "the pride emerged in rebellious rhetoric rather than action." Under Macedonia and, later, Rome, Waterfield paints Athens as the "mere university city" of one of Louis MacNeice's best poems.

Waterfield is uneasily aware of the implications of the way he treats the city's ancient and more recent history, but his justifications only make matters worse. There is, he claims, "far more evidence for the ancient city, up to the end of the fourth century BCE," a judgment that would have surprised George Finlay, the great historian of medieval and Turkish Greece, or William Miller, author of "The Latins in the Levant: A History of Frankish Greece (1204-1566)," neither of whom figures in Waterfield's bibliography.

Waterfield also explains his skimping on the period after 1834 with the claim that since Athens then "became the capital city of the new nation-state of Greece ... the history of the city merged with the history of the country, which is another book altogether." It is? The ancient city, he writes, "is what most people think of when they hear the word 'Athens.' " They're there to visit the antiquities. They may (he goes on, rolling out the tourist cliches) recall smog, ouzo, traffic jams, cheap tavernas and the old airport without air conditioning; but it's the sites, the museums and the invention, against odds, of direct democracy and most of Western culture that really get them, and it is to them that this book is addressed.

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