Greece’s golden century

Historians who claim that the fifth century BC was the golden age of ancient Greece have missed a trick, says Michael Scott. He argues that some of the most crucial developments in classical Greek history did, in fact, occur a century later

The ancient theatre of Epidaurus (or

This article was first published in the October 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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What links the groundbreaking, worldchanging statues, rulers, orators and philosophers shown in the above pictures? The answer is that they were all living or being created in the ancient Greek world between 400 and 300 BC, a period known as the fourth century. But you will be hard pressed to find a book about this underrated era on the shelves of your local library.

In the story of ancient Greece, the neglected fourth century BC, despite the treasure trove of glories it contains, is nearly always pushed out of the limelight by the 100 years preceding it, the fifth century BC, the so-called ‘golden age’ of ancient Greece. How has this imbalance come about? Why has the fourth century not caught our imagination? What could it tell us if only we were to listen?

The fifth century BC is not without its merits. It was in this century that the Parthenon – the defining monument of ancient Greece, which still stands proud over modern-day Athens – was created. It was in the fifth century BC that Athenian democracy gathered speed and Athens itself rose to rule a mighty empire across the Aegean. It was in the fifth century BC too that the Greek world tore itself apart in a gruelling war between its two main powers, Athens and Sparta. In 404 BC, at the very end of the fifth century, Athens lost that conflict.

Most people have heard the story of Athens’ celebrated democracy during the fifth century BC – not least because of its links over the millennia with our own systems of democratic government. But what happened next? What happened after Athens fell?

All too often, the answer in textbooks is a resounding silence, until the story picks up again late in the following century with the emergence of King Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great, who rose to rule massive swathes of the ancient world.

The fourth century BC, if it is acknowledged at all in the history books, is remembered as the time of Alexander (just look at the recent Hollywood film starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie). The result is that, in the way we currently tell the story of ancient Greek history, we skip from the fall of democratic Athens at the end of the fifth century to the rise of the absolute monarch Alexander the Great in the last part of the fourth century, missing out all that comes in between. We jump between two polarised worlds of democracy and absolute monarchy as if the great majority of the fourth century had never existed at all.

So why has the fourth century become the “sickly cousin”, to quote one historian, of the glorious fifth?

In part it has a lot to do with our obsession for, on the one hand, anything to do with democracy, and on the other, the antics of swashbuckling heroes – not to mention our unhealthy tendency to misread the history of Athens for the history of Greece as a whole. It also has to do with our love of simple historical pictures: we like our history when there is one power in control (Athens, Alexander…) rather than when it is complex and entangled.

Confusion and disorder

The fourth century does not make itself any more appealing in this regard when we look at the major ancient historical sources. Whereas in the fifth century, ancient writers like Herodotus and Thucydides set out boldly and clearly (even if one-sidedly) how we should understand the great conflicts of the age, in the fourth century the main historical source, Xenophon, ended his account in 362 BC by saying “there was more confusion and disorder in Greece… than ever before. This is where I give up. Perhaps someone else will take up the challenge…”

Thankfully there has recently been a real effort to resuscitate the fourth century and save it from the dustbin of history. That effort has revealed two key reasons why we need to get stuck in. The first is that we have simply underestimated the amount of evidence available to us. Xenophon’s discouraging efforts have obscured the colourful array of windows into the world of the fourth century, which match anything available from the already heavily-mined world of the fifth. We have historians, we have orators, we have philosophers, comedians, playwrights, political pamphleteers, social commentators, economists, military strategists, medics and biographers. More importantly, we have an ever increasing and overwhelming amount of archaeological and inscriptional evidence to take into account.

These last two types of evidence in particular open up new aspects of the ancient world to us, many of which never usually make an appearance in literary sources (themselves almost always written by male elites). From town planning to individual homes, from religious practices to shipping, from funerals to working the land, from military installations to political monuments, the archaeological evidence brings whole new spectrums of fourth-century activity into view.

Likewise inscriptions – documents written on stone – enable us to glimpse the complex and evolving bureaucracy of Greek cities, the rigid rules governing sanctuaries and religious ritual, the complexities of building contracts, as well as a whole host of other aspects of ancient society. The fourth century was the time in which the Greek world really began to publicly document itself in earnest. While the preceding century is of course not devoid of literary, archaeological or inscriptional sources, it is becoming increasingly clear that the fourth century is the period in which we can use the wealth of material on offer to get at the ancient world in an unprecedented variety of ways and at a forensic level of detail.

But the second reason why the fourth century is fast coming onto the agenda is due to a realisation of our own errors as observers of the past. Think of Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers. In which century did they live? Many people, I think, would be tempted to say the fifth. Or the orator Demosthenes? Fifth century again, I would imagine.

We assume, because we have been taught that the fifth century was Greece’s golden age, that anyone important must have lived in that time. But it is just not the case. Plato did most of his work and Aristotle all of his in the fourth century. Demosthenes too. In worshipping the fifth century, we have been guilty of collapsing the chronology of the ancient world. Even worse, we have used evidence from the fourth century as if it came from the fifth.

Historians too often use Aristotle’s recently discovered Constitution of the Athenians for instance – his treaty on the workings and history of Athens’ democratic constitution, written in the 320s BC – as if it were talking only about fifth-century democracy, over 100 years before. Its like using evidence from the Houses of Parliament now to talk about what it was like at the end of the 19th century. In our eager attempts to make a sensible picture out of the patchwork of surviving historical evidence, we have been guilty of compressing the ancient world into a single fifth-century snapshot. We have ignored the importance of change over time, a story the fourth century seems ideally suited to underline.

What kind of stories could the fourth century tell us if we were prepared to listen to it? First and foremost, it is the story of tumultuous change. It was during the fourth century that a Greek world in which democratic Athens was top dog morphed into a world ruled by a single absolute monarch, Alexander the Great.

Our image of the ‘glorious’ fifth century is coloured by an obsession with democracy and swashbuckling heroes

How did such a dramatic political change come about? This was a century in which old empires expired and new cities and peoples were catapulted into the front line, forever redrawing the political framework of the ancient world. Using the vast array of sources at our disposal, we can follow that process of change through the eyes of the people involved in making it a reality. We can follow history not as a defined sequence of events made inevitable with hindsight, but as a series of opinions, debates and decisions by key players over how to respond to the changing world around them.

But the story of the fourth century is by no means only a story of political change. Throughout the century, the Greeks were constantly expanding into unknown parts of the ancient world. Trade and people were moving with ever-greater speed and purpose across land and sea. Communities thousands of miles apart were becoming intertwined and dependent on one another both politically and economically as fights to secure alliances and natural resources became commonplace.

By the end of the century, Alexander ruled an empire that stretched from Greece to modern-day India and was trading with communities even further away in every direction of the compass. The fourth century saw the globalisation of the ancient Greek world, with all the perils and opportunities that came with it (including immigration, social policing, economic collapse and ancient Greece’s very own credit crunch).

The fourth century also bears witness to a significant increase in focus on the individual’s place within that turbulent and expanding world. Such a focus varies from a practical interest in how best to insulate oneself and one’s family from economic downturns to sociological critiques of different human characteristics to more philosophical engagements with the very nature of the human soul.

Nor is it just a quest to understand the individual. In a world where so much was uncertain, there is a need to know something that was certain. The fourth century is a period of frenzied exploration and investigation into the science of the natural world, the mechanics of the human body and the nature and weaknesses of different political systems among a myriad of other things.

It is also a time when people reached out for anything that might help them make sense, and take control, of their changing world. They embraced new gods and religious practices like cursing, they developed a renewed respect (in Athens at any rate) for the rule and development of a code of law.

But in doing so, they also brought competing ways of explaining and controlling the world into conflict and opened up new possibilities for uncertainty. Scientific medical explanations for disease, for example, clashed with religious explanations and cures. Religious sanctuaries were forced to defend their record, their place, and even sometimes their physical existence, in the fourth century. Law courts became the way for the individual to secure justice in Athenian society, but brought with them the increased uncertainty and fear that skilled individuals may be able to use such institutions to manipulate the political and legal system for their own ends.

Most Greek cities had large permanent theatres. Actors became superstars and even international ambassadors

But despite this interplay of new and old, certainty and uncertainty, and perhaps indeed because of it, the fourth century was also a period of great creativity. By the end of the century, most Greek cities had large permanent theatres, which played host to a constant round of dramatic performances. Actors became superstars and even international ambassadors. Theatres that are still in use today, like the exquisite example at Epidaurus (see picture on page 57), were constructed in this period.

The fourth century was also an important period of temple building across Greece, in Asia Minor and even in north Africa. Even more crucially, it was a dramatic period of development for ancient art, which responded to, and helped shape, the world around it. From the taboo-breaking first ever fully naked female statue of the goddess of love and sex, Aphrodite – created by the sculptor Praxiteles for the city of Cnidus in Asia Minor (see picture on page 56) – to the sombre statue of ‘Peace’ nursing the infant ‘Wealth’ in Athens, the fourth century, far from being a time of artistic decline as has so often been argued, was a century of artistic diversity and creativity.

The fourth century has incredible potential to expand and improve our understanding of the ancient Greek world in a myriad number of ways. Digging into it reveals not only just how much is on offer to us, but also, just how crucial this period of time was for the ancient world.

It was in the fourth century that decisive debates on politics, economics, philosophy, religion, society and identity took place as part of a transition between ‘Classical’ and ‘Hellenistic’ worlds. It was also in the fourth century that we see the ancient Greeks beginning to engage seriously with their own past, to reconstruct it for their present needs and to manipulate it in order to shape their future. The fourth century reminds us, above all, that history is what you make of it. It is up to us now to make more of the fourth century BC.

Michael Scott is the author of From Democrats to Kings: the Brutal Dawn of a New World from the Fall of Athens to the Rise of Alexander the Great (Icon, 2009).


Great men of the fourth century BC

Epaminondas of Thebes

Who would have thought that a vegetarian philosopher could become one of the great architects of power in ancient Greece? Epaminondas was one of the fearsome generals of the city of Thebes. He was a man who won Thebes supremacy over much of fourth-century BC Greece, who defeated the legendary warriors of Sparta, whom Cicero would call the leader of Greeks and whom no less a man than Sir Walter Ralegh would honour with the title “the greatest of the ancient Greeks”.

Isocrates of Athens

How could a man who never held public office, who never spoke in a public debate, have had any impact on the affairs of Greece? Isocrates, son of a flute-manufacturer, who made his money through teaching rhetoric to some of the greatest men of his age, also became one of the ancient world’s first real-time public political commentators. His life spanned much of the fourth century and his political pamphlets document its turbulent times as he hands out advice to the power-brokers of Greece and tries to shape their, and Greece’s, destiny.

Diogenes of Sinope

He masturbated in the agora and defecated in the theatre. He lived in a barrel and urinated on people as they passed by. He was the first and ultimate exponent of the philosophy of self-sufficiency, rejecting everything that society had to offer and every rule it tried to impose, a lifestyle which earned him the title ‘the Cynic’. But he also represented a way of living attractive even to men like Alexander the Great and was the first to really understand how much events of the fourth century had changed the world in which he lived.

The agora: Athens’ beating heart

What was life like in fourth-century Athens? The place to be was the agora, the beating heart of the city, the melting pot of political, social, economic and legal goings-on.

In an area not much bigger than Trafalgar Square, here one would be assaulted by a hive of activity: over 170 different types of goods being bought and sold in bustling markets; prostitutes waiting to be picked up; people coming to check public documents in the new city archive, to read recently published laws in the chief magistrate’s office, to defend themselves in the newly built law courts, to report for jury service, to check their civic duties for the month, to worship the gods and to collect water.

The agora was a place to which citizens were drawn in order to be seen, but which could also contaminate reputations if lingered in too long. It was a place for a pleasant evening stroll and the place for a vicious punch up. It was a place where statements of class, political affiliation and intention could be made just by buying a certain type of fish. It was a place of memory, in which statues of founding fathers and recent heroes mingled with the throbbing crowds, and paintings of great battles and inspiring virtues acted as backdrops for spirited discussion. It was a place of poets and philosophers, politicians and prostitutes.

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It was also a place that everyone made fun of, but which was a grave dishonour to be banned from. The agora, whose remains can be visited today, was what made Athens Athens – and unlike any other city in the ancient world.