Class War

Peter Green

  • Democracy’s Slaves: A Political History of Ancient Greece by Paulin Ismard, translated by Jane Marie Todd
    Harvard, 188 pp, £25.95, January 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 66007 6

At first sight – and indeed after careful investigation – ancient Athens looks anything but an ideal spot for the incubation and development of democracy, whether direct, representative, or the uneasy compromise that eventually emerged. Athens prided itself on having been the sole city not to fall to invaders during the general collapse of Mycenaean dynasties in Greece c.1200 BCE; and even if this claim, like that to autochthony, is questionable, it indicates, at least in the upper crust, a stubborn adherence to, and preference for, the type of rule that was vanishing: that of local royal aristocracies obsessed with blood and lineage, hunting, horsemanship, and the peculiar sense of honour contingent on successful warfare and the code of the warrior. To this culture both the gold funeral masks of Mycenae, with their terrifying impression of inbred contemptuous power, and the surviving traditions of that world in Homer’s Iliad – hugely popular in a society from which it could hardly have been more different – bear eloquent witness.

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