The Story of Civilization, Vol. II: The Life of Greece by Will Durant

From the shadows of myth and legend, to the honor of Sparta, to the glory of Athens, to the triumph of Alexander and beyond, the story of Western civilization begins.  Having built the foundation with his impressive survey of the East, Will Durant starts us off on a far more intricate survey of the West with the jewel of ancient civilization: Greece.

As with Volume I, this volume is divided into five books.  Book I deals with prehistoric Crete, the city of Troy, and the Heroic Age as defined by Homer’s epics.  Book II, The Rise of Greece, details the differences between Sparta, Athens, and other great city-states in the expansion of the realm, zooming in on all manner of politics, religion, the arts, and great battles against Persia from Marathon to Salamis.  Book III, The Golden Age, heralds the rise of Athenian Democracy, the development of philosophy and mathematics, and the literature that arose from this era, ending with the death of Socrates.  Book IV, The Decline and Fall of Greek Freedom, deals with the Spartan Empire, the Second Athenian Empire, and the rise of Macedonia, using the philosophers and their teachings as touchstones through Plato and Aristotle, culminating in the rise and fall of Alexander.  Book V, The Hellenistic Dispersion, covers the fracturing of Alexander’s empire and the resulting power struggles, the Jewish people, the height of Greek science, the surrender of philosophy, and the coming of Rome as both liberator and conqueror.

This is easily the most concise yet detailed survey of Ancient Greece I’ve ever read, made easier to read by the focus upon narrative rather than cold facts… most important when all of the popular names of that era are used time and again every two or three generations.  The title of the book is The Life of Greece.  For me, this very idea exemplifies the difference between this book and most others that canvas this era.  It brings this history and those involved to life.  Ancient Greek history is usually broken up across eras, and across subject matter.  Some books will cover just Marathon or Salamis.  Some books will cover just Athenian politics or Spartan martial training.  Some books will cover just the philosophers.  And of course, there are whole libraries devoted to that wunderkind of history, Alexander, of whom it’s said that his story is so full that it ruins people for all fiction.  Most of those books will not discuss how the threads of art, science, philosophy, politics, and war interweave, nor will they say why these things developed.  Most do not understand, or elaborate upon, the idea that Greece is far more than a civilization.  It is, in fact, many civilizations, strung together through common fortune, forged in the fires of destiny.  To discover the how and why of any of this story is what makes this book such a treasure.  For example, do you know who sculpted the statue of Athena inside the Parthenon, of what materials it was made, and what happened to the artist when some of those materials went missing?  Do you know why it was suggested to anyone wishing to propose an amendment to Athenian law that they should show up to council with a rope around their neck?  Why did Socrates drink the hemlock?  Who was Homer, and did he really compose The Iliad and The Odyssey?  How did the Greeks define the difference between freedom and liberty, and which was more important to them?  Was Alexander’s vision that of world peace or world domination?  What exactly were the qualities of heroism to the ancient Greeks?  Why are the Greek playwrights considered to be more modern than their successors in the Middle Ages?  These are just a taste of the seemingly infinite number of stories found within this book.

It’s common to romanticize it all too.  Certainly this has been done by other Greeks since before Rome conquered everything, and we’ve carried on that tradition through the Renaissance and well past the Age of Enlightenment.  As Durant points out, it’s easy to see only the greatness when all that remains are testaments to what that might have been.  This book exposes everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly, painting a fully-formed presentation of a world that provides the bedrock for all of Western civilization.  To understand Greece is to understand our own world.  Indeed, Aristotle outlined everything both right and wrong about our systems of government.  Our doctors swear by the Hippocratic oath.  Our courthouses feature Themis, goddess of judgment.  The science, art, philosophy, architecture, poetry, and even elements of the great mystery schools… all of it persists in one form or another to this day.  It’s incredible to consider that our entire Western way of life may have been wiped away in a heartbeat had history afforded Xerxes the victory and dominion he sought.  Certainly every would-be dictator in history since has had Alexander envy.  Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte are but two examples who put Alexander on a pedestal.  The influence of Greek thought and action is undeniable.  It’s an idea we all understand on some level, but the depth and breadth of it is seemingly too elusive for all but the most dedicated scholar.  If you feel like this, as I often have, and want to avail yourself of deeper understanding without feeling talked down to, this book is for you.  Like all of the books in this series, it’s still a hefty rodent killer of a tome best digested in bite-sized sections to keep it from jumbling together, but every moment of it lends an extra candle to illuminate the otherwise dark wonder of our ancient forebears.

The next book, naturally, deals with the glory of Rome.  I’ll start on that in the next week or two, after a couple of lighter palette cleansers.  It’ll be fascinating to compare and contrast the rise and fall of these great civilizations.

5 stars