Though I wish to read history books, I rarely get down to doing it. So, The Rise of Athens written by Anthony Everitt is one of those exceptions. This is the author who is famous for writing Cicero.
The book begins by retelling almost all the popular Greek myths and their roles in the daily life of the Greek people around 800 BC. Greek myths have strong parallels to Hindu mythology and so I found it natural to relate to this pantheon of Gods living on Mount Zeus, squabbling amongst themselves and coming down to Earth to bring hope or chaos.
The author sets the stage for the various city states that soon took shape around the rocky and coastal terrain around the Aegean Sea. We have Athens of course, but also the warring city of Sparta. The life of people of Sparta and how they brought up their warriors is especially interesting to learn about.
Athens turns out to be quite different, filled with aristocrats, scholars, noblemen, but also peasants. Starting from 600 BC we see the slow evolution into a form of direct democracy where all the non-slave male citizenry turns out to have a voice in the decision making. The author goes into extreme detail of all the leaders and aristocrats of Athens over the centuries and quotes from the various poems and literary works of that period.
Starting from 490 BC, the great Persian king Xerces and his progeny get interested in the Greek territories and they attack several times. It is this threat that brings the warring Greek city states loosely together into a league. The Greek leader Thermistocles of this period is instrumental in extracting duties from all the Greek city states to build out a huge navy. Over several battles, the Greeks are defeated on land, but Xerces is defeated at sea and pulls out.
Sparta is not able to bear the rise of Athens and the two city states pull the Greek world into a long running war. By 400 BC Sparta is defeated but Athens is later vanquished by Macedonia and heads into irrelevance later. What we are left with is the idea of democracy that Athens created and the magnificent ruins of the Parthenon temple and its surroundings.
Besides learning all this history, the book excels in providing intricate details of daily life of people of various classes and cities of that era. For example, the oracle at Delphi plays a principal role in most Greek executive decisions. Rulers consult at Delphi before making any important decisions or when stuck in a conundrum.
I also liked the intricate maps of ancient Greece, Athens and the settings for each of the battles. There is also a glossary and historical timeline at the end of the book. The center of the book has several pages of color photographs of the busts of Greek gods and Athenian leaders.
The book leaves little doubt that the author has done all the research and is well versed about the topic. But I felt that the book is way too long for the few centuries of history it covers. Just too long, too many leaders and aristocrats are introduced by name and do we need to know hundreds over hundreds of pages of everything about their particular lives? So long that towards the end I ended up skimming the book just to get to the end. If this 540-page book were to be reduced down to half its size, I would recommend it.