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A History of Ancient Greece in Fifty Lives

Thames and Hudson

HB, 76 illustrations, 53 in colour  

The political leaders, writers and philosophers of ancient Greece turned a small group of city states into a pan-Mediterranean civilization, whose legacy can be found everywhere today. But who were these people, what do we know of their lives and how did they interact with one another?

In this original new approach to telling the history of Greece, David Stuttard weaves together the lives of the movers and shakers of the Greek world into a continuous narrative, from the early tyrant rulers Peisistratus and Polycrates, through the stirrings of democracy under Cleisthenes to the emergence of Macedon under Philip II and Alexander the Great and the eventual decline of the Greek world with the rise of Rome.

Moving from Sicily to Afghanistan, and from Macedonia to Alexandria, delving into the worlds of mathematics and geography, rhetoric and historiography, painting and sculpture; exploring the accounts of historians and mystics, poets and dramatists, political commentators and philosophers, this book creates a vivid picture of life in all arenas of the ancient Greek world.

As well as the most famous politicians and writers, including the Athenian statesman Pericles, the Spartan general Leonidas, the philosopher Plato and the scientist Archimedes, in these pages the reader will meet less well-known figures such as Milo, the Olympic wrestler who led his home town in a time of crisis; Aspasia, the brilliant female intellectual, who taught rhetoric to Socrates; Zeuxis, the painter who invented trompe l’oeil; and Epaminondas, the Theban who taught tactics to Philip of Macedon and so destroyed his own city.

Reviews and Comments

A few great men operating in isolation – too often this is the way ancient Greece is described to us. Stuttard puts the very greatest into their historical, political and cultural contexts and coaxes some of the lesser known centre stage. Compelling, sympathetic, revelatory and charismatic – a vital volume.

Bettany Hughes

Rather than pen yet another straightforward history of ancient Greece, Stuttard (Parthenon: Power and Politics on the Acropolis) explores the civilization through brief biographies of 50 significant historical figures—politicians, philosophers, writers, and artists—in rough chronological order from around 700 BCE to 100 BCE. He does well in covering major biographical points about Herodotus, Pythagoras, and Socrates, but the real power of the book is the author’s ability to convey the context of the subjects’ lives and the interconnected effect of their actions on their society and one another. Valuable, too, is the secondary theme of the development of the historical and biographical record; Stuttard is mindful of the biased, dubious, or fantastical nature of certain sources but presents their accounts with an eye toward exploring how the Greeks’ approach to historiography gradually shifted. Verdict A highly enjoyable and accessible volume. For readers new to Greek history, it provides an excellent overview of significant events and personages, while those familiar with its subjects might find that the presentation results in an interesting perspective.

Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia,

Library Journal

There is nothing current in the market, as far as I know, that takes this portmanteau approach to Greek history.... But what Stuttard has done is far cleverer than package fifty lives. This is a chronological narrative history of Greece, within which these lives are milestones.... There should surely be a copy in every school library, as there should be in the Christmas stocking of everyone, young and old alike, with enquiring minds and an appreciation of quality. This book will give great pleasure to all who dip into its riches.

Adrian Spooner

Classics for All Website

Een schitterend boek, en dat niet alleen voor liefhebbers van geschiedenis of de Griekse oudheid. Dit boek fascineerde me van het begin tot het eind. Ik ben altijd lichtjes geïnteresseerd geweest in de Griekse oudheid, vooral in de filosofen uit die tijd, en dit boek heeft mijn interesse omgezet in een passie. In klare taal, met voldoende details en diepgang, passeren er grote en bekende, maar ook minder bekende Grieken de revue.

Het is zo'n boek dat je in je collectie moet hebben, een naslagwerk dat je regelmatig weer eens wilt oppakken om je geheugen op te frissen. Ook de afbeeldingen en foto's zijn subliem en maken het allemaal nog meer intrigerend en duidelijk. De Griekse oudheid is een veelbetekende tijd en de auteur heeft deze perfect neergezet, door de chronologische verhalen komt alles helemaal tot zijn recht. Het leest als een spannend fictieboek met boeiende personages. Informatief en meeslepend, een sterke aanrader!


    As fault lines widened and the successors sought to strengthen their claims, Ptolemy encouraged rumours that he was Philip II’s illegitimate son, Alexander’s half-brother. But he was determined to enhance his status even further. In 321 he learned of Perdiccas’ intention to repatriate Alexander’s embalmed remains to Macedon. Claiming that Alexander had wished to be buried at the oracle of Zeus Ammon, he dispatched a crack cavalry division to intercept the royal catafalque in Syria. They found the body lying on a bed of spices, the golden coffin draped in purple, laid in a golden shrine with ornate columns and adorned with winged Victories and sculptures showing Alexander’s triumphs, the glittering bier pulled by sixty-four mules, each with a golden bell around its neck. Before Perdiccas could stop them Ptolemy’s men had seized the body and were galloping back to Egypt and to Memphis. The next year Perdiccas, still seething, ordered his troops across the Nile, but the crossing was disastrous and in the ensuing chaos he was assassinated. Offered the role of regent in his stead, Ptolemy refused. It was a wise decision.

In the brutal years which followed, Alexander’s erstwhile empire boiled. As giant bubbles of conflict seethed and burst throughout all Asia and Greece, first one pretender then another, driven by power-hungry paranoia, led his troops to battle. From Megalopolis to Babylon and beyond, phalanxes clashed, cavalry charged and elephants lumbered through the carnage, increasingly sophisticated siege engines battered city walls, and in ruling families children, siblings, partners and parents found ever more exquisite ways to kill each other. The prize which most of the successors sought was total power. Ptolemy, however, though not averse to foreign intervention, was for the most part content with ruling Egypt and the wealthy buffer zones around it. Generally he remained aloof, watching for weaknesses and judiciously exploiting opportunities to consolidate his position and annex new lands, until Cyrene and Cyprus, Phoenicia and Palestine, all rich in resources, were under his rule.