The dark side of 'democracy's birthplace' - revisiting Ancient Athens

6 June 2011

Ancient Athens was also a brutal and violent place.
Ancient Athens was also a brutal and violent place.

We like to imagine the Athenians as devoted to freedom and the spirit of reason. Certainly there is much to praise about Athens, but the city could also be violent, irrational, xenophobic, misogynist, and brutally imperialist.

On Tuesday 7 June in a Sydney Ideas talk, Dr Alastair Blanshard from the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney will explore the myths we tell ourselves about ancient Athens.

Dr Blanshard explains that a starting point for his talk is the reflection of the fifth-century BC Greek historian Thucydides. He tried to imagine a world where all memory of Athens had faded and only the ruins of its civilisation remained.

"What a grand impression future viewers would have of the city, Thucydides thought, and how wrong they would be," Professor Blanshard said.

"So was Thucydides right? Is our impression of the legacy of Athenian culture an accurate one? I will be exploring both sides of the Athenian story including the darker side of the legacy.

"Athens was a city that was never supposed to succeed. It's the classic example of the late developer. If you had told anyone in the sixth-century BC that Athens would become the most important and powerful city in the Greek world, they would have laughed their heads off. Yet through a combination of luck and good management, Athens manages to pull it off.

"This success came at a price. In order to create all those triumphs that we now associate with Greek culture - democracy, drama, the Parthenon, revolutions in philosophy - Athens turned into a cold, calculating machine. It was so keen on giving benefits to its citizens that it became deaf to the complaints of those who fell outside its citizen group. Foreigners, women, and allies all suffered under the Athenian yoke. And ultimately, it was this indifference that lead to the downfall of the city. It's a message that I think has a lot of contemporary resonance to Australia today as we jealously guard the benefits of the mining boom and our tremendous prosperity while those in our region enjoy less favourable circumstances."

After studying at the University of Queensland, Dr Alastair Blanshard was awarded a Packer scholarship to Cambridge where he undertook a PhD. He has taught at Oxford University and the University of Reading. He has held visiting fellowships at the Centre for Hellenic Studies in Washington, Cambridge University, and the University of Cincinnati.

Dr Alastair Blanshard's expertise lies in assessing the impact of the classical world on the modern. He is the author of books on the image of the Greek hero Hercules in western culture Hercules: A Heroic Life ( 2005) and the afterlife of Greco-Roman erotica Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity (2010) as well as a number of articles on ancient gender and sexuality.

This event is a Sydney Humanities Salon co-presentation and continuation of a series of talks on cities.

Event details

What: Cities - Athens, Gift of Athena, a Sydney Ideas talk

When: 6pm, Tuesday 7 June

Where: Foyer, New Law Building, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions 

Cost: Free, no registration required

Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 9351 4312, 0419 278 715,