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Age of Pericles: Reading Recommendations?

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AlexInBoston View Drop Down
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    Posted: 17 Jul 2009 at 14:54
Hey everyone,

I'm having a devil of a time finding a good book on the Golden Age of Greece.  (I know, you'd think it wouldn't be that hard, right?)  I'd like a semi-readable book that covers the whole period, but I'm particularly interested in the Socrates / Plato / Aristotle...uh, I want to say triumvirate but that would be misleading given our context.  Those dudes.  Recent works are preferable.  I can handle fairly dry stuff; I'd sacrifice a gripping read for greater scholarship.

Thanks in advance!
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Aster Thrax Eupator View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Aster Thrax Eupator Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Jul 2009 at 20:18
Ah, wonderful! A subject very close to my own heart! Right, first off I would say that if you want a political narrative, one of the best works is P.J. Rhodes' "History of Greece", which can be supplemented with the dated, but still quite readable and interesting N.G.L. Hammond's "History of Greece". De Croix' work, "The origins of the Peloponnesian war" is highly readable, but hardly representative of modern scholastic opinions on the matter. Bury and Meigg's "History of Greece" is, although dated, still one of the best, and oldest readable works on the subject. Anything by the formidable professor Kagan is certainly worth a read, with his main focus being on the Peloponnesian war. M.I. Finley's "The ancient economy" is essential to understanding many of the problems in the economic sphere, whilst Andrewes' "Greek society" adds a great deal more interest to those looking into the socio-economic sphere. As for art, a good introduction would be chapter's from Susan woodford's work on Greek art and architecture, which can be supplemented with Boardmans' much more extensive work. In the area of cultural history, Kitto's "Greek tragedy" provides a good background, as does W.G. Guerthies' "Ancient Philosophy". If one is interested more specifically, as I am, in the political aspects of this period, I would advocate Buckley's "Aspects of Greek History" and Rhodes' "Athens and Sparta" as good, but quite piecemeal and fragmented reads on the subject, as well as the majestic C.Higgnet's "Athenian constitution" and the much smaller, yet fascinating work by Forrest on the rise of Democracy in Greece in general. If you are interested in the architecture of classical Athens and the city itself, the American classical school in Athens do some very interesting pamphlets on their excavations and the gradual layout of the Agora. When you've done some of the basic reading, which it seems that you obviously have, you can move on to that most interesting work "The Cambridge companion to the age of Perikles", which provides a good, all-round, although heterodox, selection of essays which, in the words of the editor, L.J Samons II are intended to "provoke debate" rather than to provide information to the reader. Furthermore, why not just dip into to the good old literary sources of the three great attic tragedeans, aristophanes, some pre-socratic fragments (Anaxagoras, Prodixos, Protagoras etc) and Platos' works? You could also read Thucydides, Plutarch, Herodotos and Xenophon. Doubtless I've forgotten some works, but my recent article for the AE magazine "Athens and Empire" has a large selection in the bibliography which you could have a look at. Just please, don't read Tom Holland for information on this period! I have to say, Kudos sir, you seem to be just the caliber of chap we are looking for on this forum! Huzzah!

Edited by Aster Thrax Eupator - 18 Jul 2009 at 00:49
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote AlexInBoston Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Jul 2009 at 20:38
Thanks so much, Aster!  This is great.

Kagan's Peloponnesian War is on my list - I was leaning towards the more recent condensed version, because I'm a wuss.  Will that cover art, drama and philosophy in at least some fashion?  Would I be better served grabbing his biography of Pericles instead?

Several of the books you've suggested have gone on the list as well; this is really a terrific overview you've given me.  I'll searchfor your recent article, too.

And yes, my general plan is to alternate source materials with more recent analysis - which reminds me, how do you feel about Barry Strauss?  I understand his "Trojan War" is largely hypothetical and one has to keep in mind that when he names Achilles, he doesn't literally mean he thinks Achilles exists - but with that grain of salt, is he getting the basic ideas right?

And finally...you are not the first person I've heard disparaging Tom Holland, which is a shame as I have "Persian Fire" sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read.  How bad is the guy? 

And what's your take on Robin Lane Fox?  I'm nearly through "The Classical World" right now, which I thought might give me a broad refresher course before I dove deeper into specific areas.


(Edited due to a total brain fart causing me to combine Strauss and Kagan, which deeply embarrassed me when I realized it while sitting on the subway.)


Edited by AlexInBoston - 17 Jul 2009 at 22:55
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Aster Thrax Eupator Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 Jul 2009 at 00:45
Unfortunately, Kagan's condensed Peloponnesian war is expressely concerned with the quite complex military history of the actual conflict itself, and the 50 years or "Pentecontinetia" outlined by Thucydidies that divides the end of the 2nd Persian war and the begining of the Peloponnesian war. The larger work, in three volumes I believe, is similarly concerned essentially with the military history and high politics of the period, and adressed the literary and cultural products of the period - such as, for example, Aristophanes' "Peace" - as essentially historical sources and being only supplementary to his essential analysis. To be honest, Kagan is a giant in the history of the Peloponnesian war these days, and his three volume work and articles on the Peloponnesian war are not for the faint hearted (neither is, incidently, the De Croix work I advocated), but his smaller, more condensed version, although a little sensationalised in places, is highly readable and informative. I personally found it much more helpful once I had read some basic political overviews of the period before I went in to reading the history of the Peloponnesian war. In any case, Perikles died in 429/428, when the Peloponnesian war was in its' earliest stages. The period of Kleon, Nicias, Laches and Alcibiades which follows is essentially quite different in terms of politics and military operations - the failure of democracy caused the rise of the pseudo-oligarchic "400" in 411/410, and similarly, the "30 tyrants" installed by Sparta after the battle of Aegispotomoi in 404 was similarly partially responsible for instilling the increasing discontent with Periklean radical democracy that lead to the society which produced the figure of Sokrates. Perikles essentially dominates the "Pentecontinetia" (c.479-(462-446)-449/431) and the brief conflict, called by some such as Souza the "first Peloponnesian" war. It's a bit misleading that many works on reading lists about the "age of Perikles" contain so much concerning the Peloponnesian war, although admittedly it is one of the hallmarks of this period and, as Thucydides realised, one of the most devastating wars that Greece was ever to see. As Salmons points out, the "age of Perikles" is essentially a shorthand, and one has to consider if one means the actual "age of Perikles (c.462-429/428), or just the term as a shorthand to mean the overal period of Athenian radical democracy following the Persian wars to the domination of Thebes in the late-mid 4th century. From the former premise, I would advise abandoning study of the Peloponnesian war until some intensive study of the Periklean period has been completed, which, in any case, would be the logical progression to follow.
 
Quote but I'm particularly interested in the Socrates / Plato / Aristotle
 
This, unfortunately, complicates matters - Sokrates lived, c.469-399, Plato c.427-347, and Aristotle c.384-322; all quite different periods politically, philosophically and culturally, and thus, each of which needs to be studied individually in some respects in their own context. I would personally recommend studying the philosophy of each period with the study of that period in question overall, and thus read some Sokratic (although the Plato-Socrates problem obviously complicates things no end) works whilst studying the period of "Periklean Athens" (I would advocate Protagoras and Meno, Critias, Last days of Sokrates and the Symposium (both of them!)). However, I'm not so up on ancient philosophy as it really isn't my focus at the moment. Sokrates is relatively easy to grasp, but Plato and Aristotle can be real headaches - I would recommend reading some bits of Bertrand Russell's "history of western philosophy" and overall histories of philosophy, as well as some philosophy textbooks, to get a better, overall view of their philosophies, but the works themselves can be nice pieces of literature, anyway! I would recommend the Republic books 1 and 7 for Plato, and the Nicomeachean Ethics for Aristotle (but for gods' sake stay away from things like the metaphysics until a lot later!!!!!!!!). Also, reading some of Xenophons' "Hellenica" or "History of my times" and Hansen's "Age of Demosthenes" for the political context of Aristotle.
 
Quote And yes, my general plan is to alternate source materials with more recent analysis - which reminds me, how do you feel about Barry Strauss?  I understand his "Trojan War" is largely hypothetical and one has to keep in mind that when he names Achilles, he doesn't literally mean he thinks Achilles exists - but with that grain of salt, is he getting the basic ideas right?
 
Fascinating area of study! I don't really know that much about it, but I would certainly recommend a book that's right up your street, M.I. Finley's "the world of Odysseus"! I haven't read this book, but I've heard quite a lot about it, and I would love to hear your thoughts about it! I've actually opened up a thread on the Homeric question in general, which nobody seems to have replied to yet :( here - http://www.allempires.net/forum/the-historicity-of-homer_topic124044.html
 
Quote I'd like a semi-readable book that covers the whole period... Recent works are preferable.  I can handle fairly dry stuff; I'd sacrifice a gripping read for greater scholarship.
 
Hmm...In that case I would probably say that P.J. Rhodes' work could well be up your street - I've been more focused on the Athenian empire than the whole period overall, but you could hardly go wrong with Plutarch's "The rise and fall of Athens" and "On Sparta", or just Powell's "Athens and Sparta". However, for overall works, the only two that I've read in any great detail and that were of a significant length and, in my mind, worth studying intensely were the N.G.L. Hammond and the Bury and Meiggs - those two works haven't survived on reading lists for so long and in recommended texts because their ideas are out of date - they still have a lot of merit.
 
Quote I'm having a devil of a time finding a good book on the Golden Age of Greece.  (I know, you'd think it wouldn't be that hard, right?)
 
It's a rum thing, isn't it? With the sheer mass of literature on the subject, one would expect to pick up something quite quickly, but it seems an awful lot of it is heavily sensationalised or highly academic. I think that it's hard to find a happy medium between scholastic and layman's works in this field. I would just play it safe and go for an academic political narrative of the period, of which there are plenty, although often many of them are reduced to a few long-ish chapters in condensed histories of greece. I may be able to rumage up some more recommendations in a bit, however - I'll give it some thought.
 
Also, may I just recommend that perhaps you should turn your hand to writing as well if you want to learn about this period? I don't know if you're a student or what, but I find that writing consistently about a historical period helps to cement the knowledge in a manner that no amount of solid reading will ever do.
 
 
 
 


Edited by Aster Thrax Eupator - 18 Jul 2009 at 00:58
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AlexInBoston View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote AlexInBoston Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 22 Jul 2009 at 15:41
Well, I took your advice and tried writing, but after Plato fought the ninjas I wasn't sure what should happen next.

I was indeed meaning the shorthand Age of Perikles - and Golden Age might be less misleading there, huh? - and humph, I'm less interested in the military stuff that Kagan's apparently focused on.  Although I'll probably read it anyway. 

I'm going to take your advice exactly and read some of the philosophical works alongside more recent books about the period; that's a terrific idea.  Thought I'd start with "Last Days of Sokrates" - I've read the Symposium, although not recently.  Have you heard of the just-published "Why Socrates Died"?  (http://www.amazon.com/Why-Socrates-Died-Dispelling-Myths/dp/0393065278)  Looks interesting.

I was rather hoping there might be a book that covered each of those three philosophers in turn.   Why aren't there more people slaving away at writing exactly the books I want to read?  Very selfish of them.

I'll certainly let you know how I feel about Strauss's The Trojan War (and its take on the historicity of the Homer) when I get to it.  I plan to reread The Iliad first - as soon as I'm done battling through "The Classical World," which is freakin' long - and you seem like the right person to ask: what's the best translation around?  Is it Fagles?

Thanks again for your thoughtful replies; this is all enormously helpful to me.
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