Book Review: Athens
By James H. S. McGregor
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014
Roughly 3.5 million people live in Athens today, crowding its kitsch-shops and restaurants, sauntering along its brick-kiln hot streets, yelling into their cellphones about soccer, or YouTube, or just plain old love. The sweaty, smiling, ridiculously attractive 95 percent of those millions know to the last decimal point the balance on their subway cards but nothing whatsoever about the crag of rock that perches over their streets and alleys, seeming always just to be catching the morning light. It’s left to the scraggly, pasty, scholarly remaining 5 percent to look up and see the great Acropolis with its temples and shrines. The average twenty-something young Athenian woman is miraculously self-assured, yes, but because she knows she can make fat American boys trip on flat ground simply by smiling at them, not because her ancestor-women 2500 years ago provided the template by which all the rest of human history would judge beauty; the average twenty-something young Athenian man is charmingly arrogant, yes, but because he knows he can seduce your girlfriend (or boyfriend, depending on his mood) away from you with a single look and chooses to refrain, not because his ancestor-men 2500 years ago defined law and thought for world that had only dimly approximated them before.
Athens is, in other worlds, a living city, and like all old living cities, it organizes its pumping, hustling tissues sometimes awkwardly around the hard marble kernels of its earlier glories. Living Athens has dance parties to attend and economies to bungle; historical Athens is guarded carefully as its tourists bring in the only reliable source of money the whole country knows. No level of the place’s allegedly elected government cannot be bought, but there is no bribe big enough to get you permission to dig a well in your own back yard.
As University of Georgia professor James McGregor (scraggly and pasty? Perhaps. Scholarly? Most certainly) calls it in his new book, the “fascinating and recurrently agonized” city of Athens sits atop a long and dense history in much the same way the Acropolis sits atop the urban sprawl of the place itself, and perhaps inevitably, Athens keeps coming back to that chunk of rock and its storied past:
Eventually the Acropolis was crowded with shrines, altars, and votive gifts that together created a cacophony of devotions that anyone would have been hard-pressed to keep straight, but keeping them straight was not at all the point: the point was to accumulate, embellish, and enrich the shrine, bringing more holiness to it in order to draw more holiness from it, and creating a carnival of gods, heroes, demigods, priests, prophets, devotees, and donors. This clamor would not have appealed to the austere and philosophical Athenians who have retroactively given the city’s reputation a rationalistic, disciplined cast, but at least in the eighth century when all this activity had its start, no one had ever heard of a philosopher.
McGregor’s book – a bit brisk, a bit dry, but earnest and interesting – takes its readers through the social and political twists and turns Athens has endured in her long anticlimax of a history. This information – this forced march past tawdry Middle Ages, Ottomans, grabby Corsican megalomaniacs, and disinterested German dictators – has been written up many times in the last 70-something years and of course is available in its bare bones (and sometimes quite enfleshed) in many different online venues. A book like Athens stands in constant risk of falling between two stools; vapid and distractible civilians wanting a little extra information about a possible vacation spot will want to read no more than one mention of neo-Platonists in their entire lives, whereas veteran readers of classical history (that happy, outgoing crew) will consider anything less than four chapters on neo-Platonists to be an insult against Olympiodorus the Younger. McGregor does his best to keep his account moving lightly along, and some of his elaborations about the varied cultural legacies of the city are striking:
Classical drapery is among the most sophisticated and influential sculptural themes. What Greek sculptors did became a model not just for the plastic arts but for painting and drawing well into the nineteenth century. Clinging, intricately wrinkled and folded drapery that captures the light in interesting ways and suggests dynamic movement in a static figure is one of the most significant attributes and legacies of this art. It has had little place in modern art, but that is an aberration in art history. The human body in purposeful motion, whether revealed directly in athletic poses or indirectly through the play of light and shadow across draped figures, is the most stunning achievement of Greek classical art.
But even so, it’s possible to worry that a book like this will have trouble finding its ideal audience – or that it might not even have one any longer. Travelers care less and less about the history (as opposed to the shopping) of where they go, and specialists care less and less about a genial general-interest trot through the facts. And Athens, wizened and old, the birthplace of Western identity for good or ill, cares not at all for the tales told of her down in the agora.