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The Rise and Fall of Athens by Plutarch
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Dec 21, 2009

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Read in December, 2009

Plutarch. THE RISE AND FALL OF ATHENS. (This ed. 1967). ***. This edition was published by The Folio Society and selects the biographies of eight Greeks to illustrate the polictial history of the Athenians. Plutarch (46 – 120 AD) was born in Boetotia to a cultured and wealthy family. Although he spent most of his later life there, he studied in Athens and travelled in Italy and Egypt, building up a circle of cultivated and infuluential friends. From existing records, only about half of his work survives. These fall into two classes: the historical works and those falling into the class of Opera Moralia. To the former class belong his “Parallel Lives,” the work by which he is best known. These are biographise of 23 Greek and 23 Roman lives that are grouped together, or, better, paired off, to show the similarities between the two in each group. The lives concentrate on the moral character of each subject rather than the political events of the times. Because of this focus, a minor incident or anecdote will acquire a greater importance in the narrative than it would in a standard history or biography. The eight lives selected for this work include: Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. There is an excellent introduction by Ian Scott-Kilvert, along with copious footnotes and appendices to provide some grounding in the historical times. Unless you are a classical scholar, much of these biographies will pass over your head. What is interesting, however, is that Plutarch tries to have his subjects speak in words they were said to have uttered through other works that came down to his time. For example, Solon said...”we are told, that men abide by their agreements when neither side has anything to gain by violating them...” He goes on to tell us that: “Another law of Solon’s which is highly praised is the one forbidding anybody from speaking ill of the dead, for piety requires us to regard the dead as sacred, justice to refrain from attacking the absent, and political wisdom to prevent the perpetuation of hatreds.” You also learn tidbits of history, such as “the export of figs (from Athens) was prohibited in ancient times, and that those who exposed or informed against such exporters were called sycophants, or ‘fig-declarers.’” Little asides like this perk up your interest as you read about political in-fighting and the constant wars being fought by Athens with her neighbors. This is not an easy read, but I would recommend your dipping into it when you have a chance, especially the lives of Solon and Pericles.

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