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Literature

Bruce Clark’s Athens: City of Wisdom

August 8, 2022

In the summer, Athens can sometimes seem like little more than a travel hub where tourists and diaspora Greeks from all over the world simply change planes for connecting flights or for transfers to the port of Piraeus for cruises or ferries to the islands. For those who do spend a few days in Athens, the experience for most is usually unforgettable and for some even life-changing. The rich history and culture of Athens has long been a well-spring of inspiration for artists and writers. Countless books have been written about Athens in practically every genre, from poetry and prose to travel guides and treatises, the city offers a wealth of topics to focus on for authors of nonfiction and fiction alike.

Athens: City of Wisdom by Bruce Clark delves into 3,000 years of history of the ancient city and birthplace of Western civilization. Clark is a journalist who writes about European Affairs and Religion for The Economist. This is his first book to be published in the United States. Easy to read and well-researched, the impressive volume includes 624 pages with eight pages of color illustrations and black and white maps throughout to offer context and highlight the remarkable story of Athens.

As noted in the book’s description, “Athens presents one of the most recognizable and symbolically potent panoramas of any of the world’s cities: the pillars and pediments of the Parthenon – the temple dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom, that crowns the Acropolis – dominate a city whose name is synonymous for many with civilization itself.”

“It is hard not to feel the hand of history in such a place,” the description continues. “The birthplace of democracy, Western philosophy and theatre, Athens’ importance cannot be understated. Few cities have enjoyed a history so rich in artistic creativity and the making of ideas; or one so curiously patterned by alternating cycles of turbulence and quietness.” 

Clark vividly presents the history and cultural richness of Athens in this book, showcasing key moments from the legal reforms of the lawmaker Solon in the sixth century BC to the present day as the city struggles with the legacy of the economic crises of the 2000s. The golden age of Classical Athens, the early 19th century looting of the Parthenon sculptures, the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 are all recounted in the book along with perhaps less well-known moments and periods in Athens’ history, such as the later years of antiquity as St. Paul preached on the Areopagus and neo-Platonists re-founded the Academy that Sulla’s legions had desecrated, as well as Athens in the medieval era and during the 400 years of Ottoman rule that followed. This is a must read for all those interested in the history of Athens and the implications of the past for the present and future of the city.

This is not Clark’s first foray into history. His previous book, titled Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, was published in 2006 and is particularly relevant this year with the 100th anniversary of the Asia Minor Catastrophe. Originally from Northern Ireland, Clark offers insights into the Treaty of Lausanne and the population exchange that was “hailed as a solution to the problem of minorities who could not coexist.”

Athens: City of Wisdom by Bruce Clark is available online and in bookstores as is Twice a Stranger: The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey.

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