Book Review – A History of Ancient Greece in 50 Lives by David Stuttard
Reviewed by Sandra Alvarez
Are you looking for something that's a bit more solid than a 'beach read', but not "War and Peace"? If you're a fan of ancient Greece, or new to it and curious about its history, then this book is that third bowl of porridge.
A History of Ancient Greece in 50 Lives by David Stuttard covers over 600 years of ancient Greek history in 288 pages. An astonishing feat, considering you could easily fill five times as many pages with ancient Greece's greatest achievements and catastrophes. To his credit, Stuttard pulls this off rather well with his thoughtful selection of the most important personalities in its storied past and by providing a good mix of exciting tales and historical fact. The book covers ancient Greece's literary beginnings with Homer and concludes with its physical demise in the second century BC as it was swallowed up by the Roman Empire.
A History of Ancient Greece in 50 Lives is not what you initially assume it would be – a loosely curated collection of 50 stand alone biographies. It's a careful selection of neatly interwoven tales with each life story building on the next. In every chapter, Stuttard highlights the main players in bold text to signal their appearance in the preceding or following stories so that the reader can easily link them. This is an aspect of the book that I liked – the layout. It's not set up in the traditional, plodding, chronological way of most books about ancient Greek history, but in chronologically-themed 'Ages' to help demarcate the important points in a centuries long historical account. Stuttard demonstrates how each figure was a product of their particular age and how they were woven into the fabric of ancient Greek culture. The overarching themes of the book are the development of ancient Greek historiography and biography, because, biographies were often used to 'drive home moral points and demonstrate vices and virtues through the telling of a person's life' (p.22)
"Spin is not a modern phenomenon"
I also liked that Stuttard discussed the unreliability of ancient Greek narrators. These biographies were often dramatized for effect, grossly exaggerated or in some cases, entirely made up. However, this doesn't detract from their retelling. Even if a story is wildly exaggerated and the sources are suspect, Stuttard argues that there is value in understanding why these stories were written – be it political gain, to fill in knowledge gaps, or to reveal a hidden truth (p.12). They tell us something about ancient Greek society and culture.
The book's first life story begins with Peisistratus (604–528), the Tyrannos of Athens, in The Age of Tyrants, and discusses the how early Greek rulers, "well understood the propagandist power of myth as history" (p. 53). The idea of linking a heroic past to a mythological or legendary biography. Other sections (I've only listed a few here) include Greece in Peril, the Age of Pericles, World War, and end on In the Shadow of Rome with the final biography on the historian Polybius (200–118).
There are dry moments, however, they were few and far between and did not detract from the book. I enjoyed how the biographies were put together and Stuttard's overall writing style and sense of humour – he definitely had me chuckling in a few places. He also provides a few maps, and a useful glossary and timeline in the back of the book for reference. There are also some beautiful colour plates of Ancient Greek sculptures, mosaics, and frescoes relating to the biographies.
I wanted to read a book that took a different angle in its exploration of ancient Greek history – a new way to connect its stories, places, and important figures. This book succeeded in that regard. So, if you're looking for a concise but brief history of ancient Greece, then A History of Ancient Greece in 50 Lives is for you.
Happy summer reading!