Review by Roger Smith: Wimbledon BookFest
The 2018 Wimbledon BookFest, currently in full swing, delivers many gems for avid readers wanting to know more. On a sunny Sunday afternoon at the main festival site on Wimbledon Common, a large queue formed at The Big Tent for a talk by journalist and historian Max Hastings about his book about the Vietnam War. But at around the same time there was a good turnout in the charmingly decorated William Morris Tent for a talk by historian Robin Waterfield about his new book, “Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece.”
Thanking the audience for their interest, Waterfield said authors tended to be “narcissistic” and loved the opportunity such occasions gave for responses from readers. Accordingly, he devoted more time than some others might to taking questions, which helped make for an engaging experience.
Waterfield explained that his ambition was to provide a comprehensive new history of ancient Greece, taking into account some significant changes in perception in the past few decades. With a wry smile, he noted some audience members might recall a previous comprehensive history, “The Glory That Was Greece.”
He made the case that it was time for a new and more critical attempt. Waterfield has a point when you consider that “The Glory That Was Greece” by JC Stobart first was published in 1911 and that the authoritative “A History of Greece” by JB Bury first was published in 1900, later to be revised significantly in 1951 by Russell Meiggs. Both books have been through many later revisions to take account of new findings and perspectives but Waterfield’s desire to take on the huge challenge of an original comprehensive history is understandable.
His book covers a period of 700 years, from the emergence of the Greeks around 750 BC to the fall of Greco-Macedonian kingdoms in 30 BC, focusing on the three strands in the title: creators, conquerors, and citizens.
In his talk, Waterfield eschewed the sometimes unquestioning adulation of some earlier historians for classical Greek civilisation and underlined the fact the Greek city states were imperialist, had sometimes committed genocide, and used slavery.
However, he said they had been responsible for the invention of thinking – in the sense of rational thought – in the West. He paid tribute to the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander for one of the first uses of prose rather than poetry to express his views in a form more suited to argument.
Waterfield (pictured left) accounted such developments to Greek expansion across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, with new ideas flourishing along with trade.
But he noted expansion and colonisation sometimes brought war with people already settled in the desired locations. Their defeat by the Greeks helped promote Greek notions of supremacism.
Waterfield highlighted the fact war between Greek city states was very common – a form of civil war, given underlying cultural unity.
Turning to politics, Waterfield explained the focus naturally fell upon Athenian democracy because so much more was known about Athens as “the place to be” at the height of its powers.
His passion was evident when talking about the Pnyx, the place where Athenian citizens would gather in exercising direct democracy. He said visitors to Athens always went to the Acropolis but few visited the Pnyx, which seemed to be left mainly to dog walkers. But here, he said, you could see the actual spot where Demosthenes spoke to the crowd from the steps of the speakers’ platform – and what a great sensation that was.
If Waterfield’s combination of in-depth knowledge and passion for his subject is carried over into his book, it should make for good reading as well as reference.
Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece by Robin Waterfield
Oxford University Press, £25
Wimbledon BookFest runs until October 14. Tickets are on sale at www.wimbledonbookfest.org.
October 8, 2018