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Pericles the Athenian by Rex Warner

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Edited by Keith Currie, Sunday, 23 May 2021, 19:34

The lost book of Athens

Herodotus finishes his History with Greek victory over the Persians in 478 BC; Thucydides begins his with the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BC. In between lies the rise of the Athenian democracy to power and dominion, the strategies of Themistocles, the campaigns of Cimon, and the leadership of Pericles. It was the great ancient historian Sir Moses Finley who remarked that no surviving literature from the time actually extolled the triumph of the Athenian democracy. Rex Warner attempts to fill the gap and complete the task with this very clever novel.

The narrative is written as the biography of Pericles as presented by his close friend and ally, the philosopher and scientist Anaxagoras, shortly after Pericles’ death in the early stages of the Peloponnesian War. Anaxagoras who was known for his idea that the world is governed by Intelligence gives a keenly argued and rational account of why Pericles and the Athenian democracy were the most important developments in Greek history. He presents arguments for and against the actions and policies of Pericles throughout his career and shows how Pericles fashioned and framed the great age of Athens by word and personal example. This is an encomium, but one which depends on logical and rational discussion, and consequently, for anyone interested in the period, it is a highly seductive text.

The written style is wholly in role – that is that of a Fifth Century philosopher, not unlike the apparently objective and measured style of Thucydides, replete with quotation and aphorism. This is both strength and weakness of the novel – it is often difficult to remember that it is a novel, and not an authentic document rediscovered from the time. It lacks sensation, much dialogue, a plot which goes beyond the strictly historical. It has little good to say about Sparta, Athens’ great enemy, nor is that to be expected; but Anaxagoras does underplay, I think, Spartan cunning and shrewdness, even if his central argument about the negativity of Spartan society must be accepted. There is some amusing criticism of the philosophical ideas of others, especially Pythagoras. The novel presents an appeal ultimately to the good in mankind, the avoidance of extremism and intolerance, the primacy of liberty and freedom, the triumph of the mind.

Rex Warner’s great translation of Thucydides remains one of my favourite books; this is an excellent (fictional) companion volume.

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