A thick, lively popular history that tells a complex story without dumbing it down or devoting more than a modest effort to distinguishing fact from myth.
All ancient histories begin with prehistory, and veteran British historian Everitt (The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire, 2012, etc.) describes the Homeric age before 1000 B.C.E. as Greeks themselves viewed it, an ingenious approach that emphasizes the many differences between ancient cultures and modern societies. The heroes of the Iliad were a surly, murderous lot. Lovers of Mary Renault’s classic The King Must Die (1958) may not welcome news that Theseus, the mythical founder of Athens, raped any woman that took his fancy. After a dark age, classic Athens emerged around 700 B.C.E., a turbulent city riven by conflicts between the rich and the poor. The vaunted democracy that emerged after 600 B.C.E. inspired America’s Founding Fathers but also taught them what to avoid. Every male citizen gathered and voted, so it often resembled mob rule. An aggressive aristocratic class remained, and charismatic leaders became populist dictators. Yet it worked. Athens prospered and dominated other cities for two centuries until it tangled with rival city-state Sparta in 434 B.C.E. and lost. After 400 B.C.E. Athens declined into a more modest town, but its intellectual heritage—Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Aristotle, Archimedes, etc.—carried through its fourth-century conqueror, Macedonia, second-century conqueror, Rome, and, subsequently, the Western world. Though dense with incident, the narrative is highly readable, and the glossary and timeline are helpful additions.
Nearly 500 pages of names, plots, betrayals, battles, and murders may be more than some readers want to know about ancient Greece, but Everitt keeps the action moving, making this a worthy alternative to the classic doorstop, Will Durant’s The Life of Greece (1939).