Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece
by Robin Waterfield
Oxford University Press, 2018
“Every generation of historians,” writes prolific translator Robin Waterfield at the beginning of his new book Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece, “is obliged to revisit old territories and re-examine them in the light of current conceptions, approaches and information.” The way the 21st century views Sparta, for instance, has changed significantly from what it was half a century ago; even such iconic figures as Alexander the Great can find himself “up for reassessment.”
In this new book, as smoothly readable and authoritative an approach to the tangled subject of ancient Greece as could be readily imagined, Waterfield aims to counter the typical tripartite breakdown of such histories into the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic; his narrative moves from one period to the next (and, refreshingly, beyond the Hellenistic) stressing continuities as well as breaks and ultimately forming a history of Greece that would surely make far more sense to an ancient Greek than would the majority of books written on the subject in the last two centuries.
All the usual sign-posts are here: Homer, the Peloponnesian War, the ascendency of Sparta and its long struggle with Athens, the rise of Macedon to regional superpower status, first under Philip II and then, as all the universe knows, under his son – and there are the usual digressions, for Socrates, for Plato, for the tragedians and, as much as can reliably be done, for the common folk who are usually all but completely absent from books of this kind. Waterfield calls these common folk the silent majority, noting that “almost all the literature of ancient Greece was written by male members of the urban elite,” (hence, among other things, the book's title). “Unless or until miraculous new methods of analysis are developed,” he writes, “individual details of the lives of most Greeks will remain largely inaccessible.”
Instead, his book is full of generals and orators and the wealthy people who commissioned and bought the artwork and literature and craftware that forms so large a part of what we venerate about ancient Greece today. Waterfield is as familiar with that legacy as any scholar alive today, and he's adept at bringing it to life with human actors throughout his book, from tense wartime negotiations to late-night revelries by the rich and powerful:
Symposia were not supposed to get out of hand, but they did, of course, and then the guests might spill out into the street in komos, a revel or riotous party. The boisterous group would dance and careen through the streets, still dressed as symposiasts and still singing to women's pipes, carrying their cups and instruments and torches and even the great jar of wine (or having their slaves do so), perhaps also carrying a large model phallus in honor of Dionysius, abusing innocent passersby with coarse humor, and gate-crashing other symposia. Pots show komasts fighting or engaging in rough sex.
“The komos was a ritualized display of elite arrogance,” he continues, “they could make a nuisance of themselves and get away with it.”
Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens is an ideal seminar on ancient Greek history, in book-form: it's scholarly but never pedantic, and it's all told by a true enthusiast with a gift for clarifying. If Waterfield is correct that every generation needs its own new history of ancient Greece, he's certainly provided a fine example, a book fit to stand alongside Christian Meier's Athens or Josiah Ober's magnificent The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece.
Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.