Revisiting the Golden Age of Athens

Have I ever read another historical account written with such verve? Perhaps not: David Stuttard is a marvelous writer. His sentences shimmer with excitement, making readers of Phoenix: A Father, A Son, and the Rise of Athens feel they are right there with the Greeks of 2500 years ago as they sweated in the heat, shivered in terror of war, and bristled with anticipation on the cusp of Athenian greatness.

An Indo-Europeanist rather than a classical historian, I am an unlikely person to comment on Stuttard’s new book about Miltiades IV (the Younger) and his son Cimon II. But it is good sometimes to put aside linguistic details and examine the larger picture, and when I read Stuttard’s opening words about Athens in 480 B.C.—“With every day that passes, tensions ratchet higher. For months the news has been apocalyptic . . .”—I cannot help but think of the present world as well, and to think of it with sweat, terror, and also (in better moments) anticipation at what—and who—might yet rise from the ashes.

While there is of course no imperative to think about ancient Greek battles and politics in the first place with an eye on contemporary events, it is nonetheless no bad thing to give serious consideration to the rises and falls, successes and failures, of people and polities across time and space. Surely no one finds it surprising that both politicians and ordinary citizens in the modern era regularly read Thucydides, whose large-scale account of how emotions sway political destinies remains unequaled. Indeed, The Peloponnesian War was on many a bedside table even before the appearance in 2017 of Graham Allison’s controversial Destined for War, which picks up on a bald statement in Thucydides (1.23)—“It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable”—and suggests ways of using statecraft to avoid the “Thucydides trap” of accepting that the rise of China must inevitably herald an American decline.

Stuttard writes that “there is much in the lives and times of Miltiades and Cimon that . . . should be of interest to us all: the clash of cultures; refugees fleeing from atrocities; precarious democracy; politicians seemingly out only for themselves; states, nominally partners, always at each others’ [sic] throats, constantly afraid that so-called allies will betray them.” If that doesn’t excite you, this book is not for you. Even if you are not excited, though, it is worth contemplating the effect of a different sort of Thucydides trap: an overreliance on the belief that “the father of scientific history” will have gotten things right. As Stuttard points out, Thucydides has little to say about Miltiades and Cimon—to whom, by the way, he was probably related—no doubt in large part because he wished his account to glorify Cimon’s archrival Pericles. Nor do we receive a rounded picture of either man from the first-century B.C. historians Cornelius Nepos and Diodorus Siculus, who wrote in Latin and Greek respectively, or from Plutarch, a Greek of the first and early second centuries A.D. who acquired Roman citizenship and wrote a series of Parallel Lives, one of which juxtaposes Cimon and the Roman general and consul Lucullus.

The standard date for the start of the period known as Classical Athens is 480, when the Greek naval forces, most of them Athenians, defeated Xerxes’ Persians in the waters by Salamis, an island in the Sargonic Gulf just a few miles from Athens. The greatest flowering in this period—sometimes called the Golden Age, sometimes the Age of Pericles—is generally dated to 461–429 (between Cimon’s ostracism and the death of Pericles) or, more specifically, to 449–431 (between the Peace of Callias, which marked the end of the Persian Wars, and the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War). These decades saw, for instance, the construction of the Parthenon (begun in 447) and the first performance of Antigone (ca. 441), the first of the three Theban plays by Sophocles, who was awarded his first victory at the annual festival known as the Great Dionysia in 468 as a result, it is reputed, of Cimon’s intervention.

But what led to the Golden Age? What led to the ascendance of Pericles? Stuttard gives answers by concentrating on Miltiades and Cimon, two complex figures about whom a readable biography was just waiting to be written.

Miltiades traced his lineage back to Ajax, one of the Greek lights of the legendary Trojan War, and was, in proximate memory, the nephew of Miltiades III (the Elder), tyrant of the Thracian Chersonese. He was the hero of the Battle of Marathon in 490. One year later, however, he died in jail, painfully, after being charged with treason in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to take the island of Paros, which had fought on the side of the Persians.

One titular phoenix is Athens itself—both in 480, before Salamis, when the Persians had left the city in ruins and leveled the shrines on the Acropolis, and again three and more decades later, when Pericles began his ambitious building program.

More remarkable still is the story of the genial and astonishingly resilient Cimon: second son of Miltiades, by his second wife, the Thracian princess Hegesipyle; younger half-brother of the heir apparent Metiochus, whose capture by the Phoenicians and disappearance from the Athenian scene to became an honorary Persian in the court of Darius the Great gave Cimon a path to prominence; and brother-in-law of the wealthy Callias, who paid off the heavy fine Miltiades had left to Cimon on his death and as a result was given Cimon’s sister Elpinice’s hand in marriage. Cimon, whom Stuttard portrays with exceptional sympathy, fought at Salamis and experienced over the course of his life a remarkable series of ups and downs in his interactions with both Persians and Spartans. These included a brilliantly orchestrated decisive victory against the Persians at the Eurymedon in 466; exile in 461 as a result of Spartan sympathies and a failed attempt to provide Athenian aid during a helot uprising; return in 451, when he helped achieve a temporary peace between Athens and Sparta; and death the following year in Cyprus, to which he had brought an army against the Persian stronghold of Citium and where his men, not knowing that he had died, were victorious at an entirely different place called Salamis.

One might think Stuttard’s titular phoenix a reference to Cimon’s ultimate success in the chutes and ladders of his and his father’s often outrageous fortune. At some level, I believe Stuttard does intend this, but in fact I counted only three uses of the word “phoenix” in the book and none of them is about Cimon as such. Instead, Stuttard explicitly speaks of two things as the mythical self-regenerating bird. One is “the memory” of Miltiades and Cimon today, which he hopes to resurrect. As he writes at the end of the introduction, Cimon may now lie in “relative obscurity,” but

the role he and his father played in both Athenian and wider history was pivotal, as this book aims to show. Now, two and a half millennia since he made his crucial dedication [of a bridle] in the Temple of Athena Polias [on the Acropolis, prior to the Battle of Salamis], the memory of Cimon—charismatic and incisive, handsome and personable, far-sighted, energetic, generous yet capable when need be of strategic ruthlessness—and of Miltiades, his father, deserves to rise again like a phoenix soaring, shaking off the ashes from its outstretched wings.

The other phoenix is Athens itself—both in 480, before Salamis, when the Persians had left the city in ruins and leveled the shrines on the Acropolis, and again three and more decades later, when Pericles, with the help of the great sculptor Pheidias, began his ambitious building program, the glories of which were the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and other new structures on the Acropolis. It is worth quoting at length Stuttard’s description of Athens and the Athenians in 480:

[A]s Themistocles had pointed out the year before, Athens was not simply a place; it was its people, for its people were its heart, its soul. . . . [The people] were ready to rebuild, to shape a new beginning, to create a new identity. It was, they knew, their pluck, their energy, their democratic constitution that had made them great before. Now it could make them great again. The past eighteen months had proved there was no force on earth that they could not withstand. They had seen off the greatest empire the world had ever known. What could they not do now? The city might be lying in ruins, but Athens would live once more. Like the mythical bird, the phoenix, that died in flames and rose again, fresh, energetic, young, Athens would rise again, inspired by a new breed of leaders, their courage forged in hellfires at Plataea and Mycale, Salamis and Artemisium; and at the forefront of them all would be the still-young man who had inspired his people to make the hard decisions that would win the war, who consecrated his warhorse’s bridle to Athena, who urged his fellow citizens to fight at sea, the young man who in just a year, appointed general, would spearhead Athens’ new renaissance: Cimon.

How readers will react to such prose may depend on their nationality. Stuttard himself is British, whereas I have an American perspective. For my part, it is difficult to imagine how someone living in the United States in 2021 could not dream of who may come forth to provide the decisive rescue of our greatly troubled country, so rattled by more than a year of riots on the Far Left and the storming of the Capitol by the Far Right this past January. You do not need to have a positive view of Donald Trump to hope that there is something to the idea of making America great again—or greater than it has been, at any rate—through pluck and energy and devotion to the Constitution.

Stuttard’s Phoenix is in effect the “prequel” to his 2018 book Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, also published by Harvard. Both books are delightful; neither is authoritative. Stuttard’s desire to spin purple yarns out of the incomplete—not to say often flimsy or biased—information that has come down to us from Thucydides, Plutarch, and others suggests that his accounts of the rise and fall of Athens are unlikely to satisfy hardcore academic historians, even with about fifty pages of endnotes in each work. For the rest of us, however, they should do nicely. Yes, I wish he wrote shorter paragraphs. Yes, I admit that more than once I—not a historian but still a classicist, so not exactly a tyro—lost the plot: Stuttard does not always present events chronologically, and there are an awful lot of characters whose allegiances and actions are not straightforward. But as examples of plausible novelistic history, Phoenix and Nemesis are hard to beat.