Athens: City of Wisdom by Bruce Clark - review by Sara Wheeler

Sara Wheeler

From Alcibiades to Airbnb

Athens: City of Wisdom


Head of Zeus 614pp £25

The year I lived in Athens was among the happiest of my life. The history of the stones was familiar to all of us – or so I thought, until Bruce Clark’s enchantingly readable history revealed how little I knew and, perhaps more importantly, how little I knew of the ways it all fits together. Clark is a Greek speaker who lived in Athens as a young foreign correspondent; now he writes on culture and religion for The Economist. In this new book, twenty-one chronological chapters carry the reader from Athens’s first appearance in the records around 800 BC right up to the present. Each chapter covers a period in the city’s history. Some are relatively brief (‘The Darkest Decade’ concentrates on the years 1940–50), some longer (‘Other People’s Empires’ covers 239 BC to AD 137), while chapter ten explores the entire ‘shadowy half-millennium’ that marked ‘the twilight of the polytheistic age’. When times are quiet in Athens, Clark shows us the world moving behind, as a backdrop.

The book charts the rise of the city-state, Persia’s emergence, the precarious conditions of early democracy, the ‘dance of death’ with Macedonia, various barbarians at the gate – and much more. Over six hundred pages, Clark stresses Athenian resilience, notably during the hated Tourkokratia, or Turkish rule, that

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