When I was visiting a local independent bookstore for my anniversary, I saw a book that described Athens as "the greatest civilization that ever existed" on its cover. Seriously?

A šŸ§µ full of indignant rage to follow.
2/ First of all, calling "Athens" a civilization instead of referring to Classical Greece as a whole is certainly a choice. Generally when we talk about civilizations, we use a grouping big enough to encompass the whole language / record-keeping format / political system.
3/ In the context of Greece Athens is ... not that unique. I'm not an expert but "city-state with varying degrees of democracy that speaks a Greek dialect and gets into wars with nearby polities with roughly the same culture" is not what I would call a whole-ass civilization.
4/ Ignoring that, it is certainly a choice to say that Athens was the "greatest" civilization given their penchant for slavery, the way they treated women, the relative ease with which they were conquered, and the shortness (and sketchiness) of their "Golden Age."
5/ I am not an expert on Classical Greece, but even from the cursory overview I do as part of my "world history" curriculum, I can't help but notice that the "Athenian Golden Age" lasted exactly as long as one guy's rule... and while yes Pericles fostered the arts, he also...
6/ Pericles presided over Athens during the not-so-great Peloponnese War, until his children died of plague that I genuinely believe to have occurred at least in part because of poor tactical choices made. Pericles died a year later. Athens lost the war.
7/ There's an argument that a basic element of Pericles' legacy ā€” which is to say the Athenian "golden age" ā€” is Athenian imperialism, which is not true democracy by any stretch of the imagination, and led to the Delian League, which was pretty terrible for everyone but Athens.
8/ But even if we say that Pericles was the greatest exemplar of what it means to be a good statesman, it's not like his era represents the whole of Athenian history. Ok, it's one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe, but the Arabic city of Damascus is THE oldest.
9/ Damascus is considered holy in Islam. While it was caught between Egypt & the Hittites for awhile, it came to prominence during the Aramaic kingdom era. I'm not saying Damascus was the "greatest civilization" I'm just saying it's worth comparing with Athens.
10/ How can someone declare a city-state to be "the greatest civilization ever" without even glancing at China ā€” which beat Mediterranean Europe to gunpowder, bureaucracy, printed text, etc. has been an economic powerhouse for millennia & created a rich philosophical tradition.
11/ It's not like Athens invented the phonetic alphabet (Phoenicia!) or Arabic numbers or distillation or whatever, and as far as Empires go, they got whupped on by Persia pretty regularly, which led to the Macedonians (not the Athenians!) uniting Greece.
12/ Aaaargh. Anyway I'm not trying to get into an "East vs. West" or "China is better than Greece" thing because I honestly think that open-endedly declaring ANY civilization "the best" is stupid and dangerous, I'm just still really salty about that book cover.
13/ BTW, if you enjoyed this rant, you can subscribe to my newsletter, where I share what I learn about biology & history each week. For example, did you know that Athenian women were banned from owning more than 3 traveling dresses? Pretty "great," eh?


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