Ancient Greece

Tom Holland enjoys a novel way of examining the ancient world  


Reviewed by: Tom Holland
Author: Paul Cartledge
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £12.99


What historians, for ease of convenience, term ‘ancient Greece’ was never a political unity. Hellas, the word which the Greeks themselves used to describe their world, referred less to a unit of geography, more to a shared mental landscape. Linked though they might be by common language, religion and custom, the one thing that really united the Greeks was an utter inability to get on with one another. 

They lived as the citizens, not of a single country, but rather of an immense patchwork of poleis: fiercely chauvinistic city states. More than a thousand of these existed, scattered by successive waves of emigration and conquest as far afield as Spain and the Hindu Kush. Clearly, then, the task of providing for the general reader a short introduction to ‘ancient Greece’ is no simple one. “Small book, big trouble,” as the poet Callimachus almost put it. Fortunately, Paul Cartledge has come up with a quite brilliant solution to the challenge. 

Rather than attempt to cover Greek history in all its immensely complicated entirety, he has opted instead to train his spotlight upon 11 different cities, each one carefully chosen to exemplify a particular aspect of his subject. Athens is there, of course; Sparta also makes the cut – unsurprisingly, perhaps, bearing in mind that Cartledge is an honorary citizen of the modern-day city, and the world’s greatest expert on its ancient forebear. Suggestively, however, only three of his other selections came from Greece itself, and of these three, only two – Argos and Thebes – were major powers during the classical period. 

The third, Mycenae, enjoyed its heyday many centuries earlier, back in the legendary age which will forever be associated with the Trojan War: every historian of ancient Greece needs an opportunity to talk about Homer. 

Cartledge’s other selections are all drawn from the huge number of Greek settlements that were established over the course of a millennium and more along the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, and which famously led Plato to compare the Greeks to frogs gathered around a pond. The first of these, Cnossus, on the island of Crete, 

is older even than Mycenae; it, like Miletus on the eastern coast of the Aegean, is nowadays a ruin, and nothing more. It is a tribute to the eye of the Greeks for a good site, however, that the remaining four should all have had an afterlife that long survived antiquity: Massalia, or Marseilles, as it is known today; Syracuse; Alexandria; and Byzantion, which became Constantinople, which in turn became Istanbul. 

Well, then, at the end of his brief but thoroughly stimulating book, should Cartledge declare the very fabric of civilisation to be composed of cities.  


Tom Holland’s Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom is published by Little, Brown