When Isocrates died in 339 BC, his dream of a united Greece under a single ruler who would bring Greek civilization to the world and defeat Persia, Greece’s historical foreign other, was soon to become a reality. This is where Michael Scott, a now eminent British popular classicist and television history producer, began his first book on Greek history. From Democrats to Kings, a splendid little history covering the end of the Peloponnesian War to the campaigns of Alexander the Great, covers an important century of Greek history that is usually a blind spot for most classical enthusiasts.
Why is this Greek Dark Age between the sublime of Athens and the rise of Alexander the Great so shunned when, in fact, it was hardly dark, intimately exciting and exhilarating, and such a pivotal moment in ancient Western history? Scott doesn’t have an answer. But he does offer a solution: From Democrats to Kings.
It is true that this period of roughly 400 BC to 340 BC, seventy years of “darkness,” doesn’t possess the same gravitas of classical Athens (pre-Peloponnesian War) or the age of Hellenism (Alexander the Great and his successors, the diadochi). The writers of this era aren’t the literary greats like Aeschylus or Sophocles. The writers of this era aren’t even the eminent historians of classical lore: Herodotus and Thucydides. If there are any writers in this era that are known they are Plato and Aristotle, and maybe Xenophon. And Xenophon tends only to be known by classicists or serious lay classical readers.
While there is a limited number of prominent writes, most of whom are philosophers and not literati or historians, another problem in this era is that the histories of this tumultuous era of Greek history wrote long after the fact: Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch. And Diodorus and Plutarch are monumental writers. Diodorus’s gargantuan Library of History is too daunting for even lay enthusiasts to tackle. Thus, it is the sole domain of professional classicists despite being fully translated in English. Likewise, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Moralia, which deal with figures of this era, is another monumental read for people pressed for time. And when we want to read Plutarch, we want to read about Pericles and Alexander, not Demosthenes or Dion.
Michael Scott’s book fills a crucial epoch of Greek history and makes it accessible and readable for the common public. Furthermore, Scott wants to address the usual belief that after Athens’s defeat in the Peloponnesian War Greek democracy disappeared until the 21st century. Wrong. Not just wrong. Historically wrong.
While it is true that the Tyranny of the 30 was imposed on Athens after her defeat, radical democratic revolutionaries threw out the tyrants and reactively imposed an even more radical form of democracy in the aftermath of Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta. Athens was still a beacon of democracy during her so-called dark age. And not just that. The true golden age of Athenian democracy, according to Scott, occurs in this little study and little-known period. The rule of law, court procedure, and the records of assembly debates, all reached their apogee between the restored democracy after the Peloponnesian War and the subjugation of Greece under the Macedonian Empire.
Scott’s book mostly covers a litany of historical men: Dionysius II, Dion, Pelopidas, Epaminondas, Demosthenes, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great, and so on. Some names are undoubtedly familiar to readers. Some names are brand new. But Scott gives a panoramic tour through a list of once famous Greeks, even 500 years after the deaths, through which we learn about the dynamics of Greece in this volatile period between Sparta’s defeat of Athens and Macedon’s defeat of Athens.
At face value, it seems that Athens wasn’t defeated by Sparta after the Peloponnesian War. True, Athens was humbled by Sparta. Her walls were torn down. Her fleet destroyed. Her army in ruins. Her democracy vanished. But it wasn’t long after Athens’s defeat that all was seemingly restored. So much so that Athens became a central player in Greek politics and in the international scene, rebuilding her empire, securing alliances, and thwarting Spartan, then Theban, hegemony.
Athens is the undisputed center of Scott’s history, but Thebes gets its due in this book. Thebes, having defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra (371 BC), became the de facto Greek hegemon, supplanting Sparta who had supplanted Athens. Yet Athens wasn’t on the periphery. On the contrary, she was still intimately involved in the shifting winds of Greek politics and, by 340 BC, had recovered from her defeat. The Theban-Athenian dynamic is explored in sufficient detail for those without much knowledge on the subject and adds a liveliness to the political scheming and realpolitik of the era.
Scott highlights, through this dynamic, how confederation and democracy was still very much the norm despite the popular perception of democracy’s defeat by the Spartans. That perception is just that, a false perception. Democracy was still alive and kicking even when the pikes of Macedon came swinging south and swept away Greek democracy at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC). Yet even this battle showed the vitality of Greek democracy under the stewardship of Thebes and Athens. It seemed, when the two armies lined up, to be a fair fight.
From Sicily to Athens; Thebes to Sparta; Macedon to Persia; Michael Scott provided an indispensable short read on this oft forgotten moment of Greek history. Did democracy have to vanish? Was empire inevitable? Perhaps not. But Scott’s epilogue remains hauntingly relevant for today.
The 70 years between the end of the Peloponnesian War and the rise of Alexander the Great was marked by intense democratic politics which also left Greece deeply divided and fighting among one another. Democratic peace theory? Nope. Greek democracy seemed to propel infighting and wars. After all, during the high watermark of Greek democracy—almost a century from 430 BC-330 BC—was filled with war, war, and more war as Scott makes clear. What brought order, peace, and cosmopolitanism? It wasn’t democracy but hegemonic imperialism.
This returns us to Isocrates and Diogenes. The Greek philosophers, those stewards of global cosmopolitanism, were all enemies of democracy. They spoke glowingly of singular, autocratic, rule. Why? Because imperial rule seemed to facilitate peace and cosmopolitanism. When Diogenes was asked what citizenship he held, he famously answered, “I am cosmopolites.” (I am a citizen of the world; a startling answer in an age when Greeks took extensive pride in their particular citizenship.) The emergence of cosmopolitanism wasn’t during the age of Greek democracy but the age of Greek imperialism. Seems like Hegel was right after all. We learn from history that we don’t learn from history.
From Democrats to Kings
By Michael Scott
Abrams, 2010; 320pp.