Image Problems

Peter Green

The fifth volume of the Cambridge Ancient History, covering the fifth century bc, was first published in 1927. The League of Nations still mattered, the exploits of T.E. Lawrence were a welcome antidote to memories of the Somme and Passchendaele, and the British Empire still coloured a sizeable proportion of the world’s maps red. In classics, W.W. Tarn (perhaps influenced by both Lawrence and the League of Nations, not to mention missionary fervour) was spreading the message that Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian Empire in order to establish the Brotherhood of Man. CAH V, too, was indelibly marked by the era that produced it. Its subtitle was ‘Athens 478-401 bc’, and its cover bore, embossed in gold, a reproduction of the helmeted bust of Pericles in the British Museum. Though criticism was by no means absent, it was, in essence, a paean to the Periclean Age, in which the illustrious statesman figured as a glorified headmaster co-ordinating a uniquely democratic regime as it threw up, with bewildering richness, such disparate characters as Socrates, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Alcibiades and the sculptor Pheidias. The virtues of creative and morally justified imperialism had a peculiar attraction for a governing class that was increasingly, as the 20th century advanced, facing challenges to its own rule. But by 1992, when the second edition of CAH V was published, the idealisms supporting the old regime had been shattered, and the empire it had led was largely a thing of the past. The League of Nations was gone; and after the Holocaust and Hiroshima the Brotherhood of Man looked decidedly tarnished. Victorian meliorism had been stripped from the axioms of political and military behaviour, so that motives or actions once deemed impossible for advanced societies now seemed all too likely.

All this had an inevitable impact – not always well received by conservatives – on the study of ancient history and the classical world in general, as CAH V2 quietly made clear. ‘Athens’ was removed from the subtitle: ‘The story of the fifth century,’ the editors reminded us, ‘is not just an Athenian story.’ Postcolonialism has left its mark: Pericles’ rival Cleon, they pointed out, ‘may have been right to say that democracy could not rule an empire’. Most strikingly, the gold-embossed representation of Pericles disappeared from the cover, and this is unlikely to have been done solely as an economic measure. The new Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles (2007) took the change of attitude somewhat further. L.J. Samons, the editor, made clear that the dominant theme of what survives from Pericles’ spellbinding oratory is not the open society, but Athenian power, and that Pericles primarily used dêmokratia as a useful tool to build that power, offering payment, employment, colonial land and other benefits in exchange for votes and military service.

In addition to criticisms of Athenian imperialism, we find growing attacks on the Periclean attitude to women (they should be seen and not heard), the systematic exploitation of once free allies transformed into tribute-paying subjects, the militaristic propaganda of the Funeral Oration and the self-congratulatory civic grandeur of the Parthenon itself. What’s significant about all this, but seldom emphasised, is that the basic evidence, such as it is, has been in plain view all along: Herodotus, Thucydides, Old Comedy, Protagoras, Xenophon, Plato, Plutarch’s biography and of course the remains (above all on the Acropolis) of the great civic building programme. This suggests that any interpretative changes are due more to the varying assumptions of a succession of observers than to any fundamental factual misrepresentation.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in