From Democrats to Kings

Peter Jones reads an engaging depiction of Ancient Greece in the 4th century BC

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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: Michael Scott
Publisher: Icon
Price (RRP): £8.99

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When the Spartans in 404 BC finally defeated Athens after a war lasting more than a quarter of a century, they installed an oligarchic government (‘The Thirty’). It was now a fair bet that the Athenian democratic experiment would come to an end.

But Athenians were made of tougher stuff. Within a year The Thirty were out, and the democracy restored.

This tells one as much about Sparta as Athens. Already Sparta’s allies in the war – like Thebes – were getting as restless with Spartan imperialism as they had with Athenian, and always there was Persia in the background, ready to make deals with anyone to maintain its power in Asia Minor, where so many Greek cities had earlier been founded. Indeed, Sparta had already taken Persian money to help it win the war against Athens.

The result was a renewal of normal service in the competitive, self-assertive, always suspicious Greek world: chaotic inter-state strife, with occasional pauses for breath, Thebes, Athens, Sparta and Persia being the main players.

It was left to Macedon in the north, under its brilliant, ruthless king Philip II, to impose order. He had mastered Greece by 328, and in 322 Macedonians brought the democratic experiment to an end. Enter the kings.

Scott sensibly enlivens the complexities of this rather bewildering world by portraying it through its leading personalities – Theban Epaminondas, Athenian Demosthenes, Spartan Agesilaus, Plato and others.

His efforts to find parallels with the modern world do not carry much conviction, but this period has always lain in the shadow of the glories of fifth-century Athens, and Scott is to be congratulated on bringing it to life again.

Peter Jones is author of Vote for Caesar (Orion, 2009)

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Check out Michael Scott’s regular blog on Ancient Greece