Review by John Trikeriotis of Paul Cartledge's Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities

The civilization of ancient Greece had a unique political system in that a unified nation-state did not exist; instead, it was comprised of over 1,000 ‘poleis’, or cities/city-states, as they are more generally well known. This distinguishing feature owed itself somewhat to the vast expanse through which these entities were dispersed, not only on the Greek mainland, but also throughout the surrounding islands and beyond. Though these cities essentially shared the same religious beliefs, they were in most cases wholly autonomous and independent of each other, thereby maintaining an individuality which resulted in a separate and distinctive identity.

Dr. Paul Cartledge has selected a handful of these ‘poleis’ in his book entitled “Ancient Greece: A History of Eleven Cities”. Presented in chronological order, these entities are classified within the following categories: Prehistory (Knossos and Mycenae); Dark and Archaic Age (Argos, Miletus, Massalia and Sparta); Classical Period (Athens, Syracuse and Thebes); The Hellenistic Age (Alexandria), and finally Retrospect and Prospect (Byzantion). Serving as an introduction to the rich history of Greek civilization, this title offers a profile of each of these diverse cities, separated by not only geography, but in most instances, centuries as well.

As a historical consultant, author, lecturer and editor of countless volumes on ancient Greece, Professor Cartledge has established himself as one of the leading authorities on both Athens and Sparta, therefore, it comes as no surprise as to their inclusion in this title. What may intrigue readers are the criteria used in the selection process of the rest of these ‘poleis’, several of which might appear unconventional at first glance, such as Massalia (Marseilles) and Byzantion (Byzantium). However, the rationale for all the choices are justified in the context of not limiting the realm of Greek influence to only Aegean Greece.

While Cartledge’s erudition is evident throughout this book, it is especially perceptible when he addresses the city-state of Thebes. As the largest ‘polis’ of the area known as Boeotia, Thebes’ Hellenism has been questioned and is by far the most convoluted of not only the cities represented in this book, but perhaps of ancient Greek civilization in its entirety. The reasons for this assessment are most apparent during the Greco-Persian Wars of 490-479 BC, which accorded Thebes the wrath of their fellow countrymen, and most pointedly those who fought with the Greek alliance against Persia.

Learn more about this book

In what unequivocally has been a source of contention amongst scholars has been the disposition of 400 Theban hoplites that volunteered to defend the pass of Thermopylae (‘Hot Gates’) in 480 BC. The historian Herodotus recorded that even though this contingent fought with a coalition of Greek confederates led by King Leonidas, the ‘Father of History’ maintained that Thebes’ sympathies were aligned with the Persian invaders. Conversely, the historian Diodorus asserted that they were patriots who represented a minority faction whose allegiance was to the Hellenes’ defense of Thermopylae. In spite of their presence, the perception of the Thebans’ loyalty has been questioned as a result of surrendering prior to the annihilation of the remaining Greek defenders during ancient history’s greatest last stand. This behavior contradicted the actions of Thebes’ Boeotian sister city Thespiae, whose 700 hoplites perished with the 300 Spartans, under the hail of Persian arrows which Herodotus noted ‘were so numerous that they blot out the sun’. What is perhaps even more enigmatic is that in the following year during the Battle of Plataea (479 BC), the Theban forces had ‘medized’ by fighting with the Persians against their fellow Greeks.

What followed decades later was Thebes’ ascension as a dominant force in Greece due to the attrition suffered by both Sparta and Athens as a result of the Peloponnesian and Corinthian Wars from 431-404 BC and 395-387 BC, respectively. Theban hegemony began shortly thereafter, with their resounding defeat of the Spartiates at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC which had widespread repercussions throughout Greece. This significant victory eventually resulted in the liberation of thousands of Sparta’s helots and the establishment of Messene and Megalopolis. The founding of these two fortified cities by the Theban general Epaminondas in such close proximity to the Spartan military city-state, combined with the loss of valuable manpower rendered her impotent. Therefore, whether or not the Thebans have been unjustly maligned over the centuries, in this instance at least, the freedom of the helots or ‘disenfranchised’ fellow Greeks from Spartan rule may be considered Thebes’ finest hour.

While Thebes’ prominence extended beyond the Boeotian region for a relatively brief time, it ended in 338 BC when Philip of Macedon and his formidable army defeated the Thebans and Athenians who had combined forces at the Battle of Chaeronea. The traitorous actions of Thebes during the Persian invasions which had not been forgotten were still so reviled that in 335 BC, Philip’s son Alexander the Great, felt compelled in ordering the city’s destruction as a result of their disloyalty. Its downfall ended an era when according to the book’s author, the Greek ‘poleis’ such as Thebes, Athens and Sparta exerted influence throughout Greece, not only politically, but militarily.

To have limited the number of cities to this select few must have been a daunting task, especially since there were so many to choose from. However, Cartledge’s choices have exemplified the themes that were integral to ancient Greek civilization such as politics, religion, philosophy, historiography, etc., all of which had an impact, not only on ancient Greece, but the Western world as well.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher, Oxford University Press

(Posting date 29 March 2011)

HCS encourages readers to view other articles and releases in our permanent, extensive archives at the URL

2000 Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.