Ancient Athens brought to life in a guidebook

Another illustrated guide to ancient Athens hardly seems necessary in this year of celebrating the city. Yet there is always something else to emphasize, some connection to draw, some combination of elements that brings antiquity to life in ways that others don’t. Such is the case with Lolita Georgiou’s «Polis: The City of Athens – A Journey into the Past» (Patakis 2004), the third edition of a book first published in 1993. Rather than taking a scholarly or journalistic approach, she applies her experiences as a tour guide to a city she clearly has a soft spot for and a wealth of knowledge about. She aims to «bring in disparate elements from various sources as part of the charm of narrative, lending the dimension of myth to the story,» and succeeds well despite (apparently) writing in her second language. «Let us try and bring to mind a picture of Athens as the ancients might have known it, drenched in diaphanous light, its arid mountains protecting it from the north winds and harsh weather, with the beauty of the Acropolis thrown into relief by the sun and the delightfully modest houses at the foot of the great rock» reads her ambitious opening, indicating the guide’s informed and occasionally lyrical style. She discusses the nature of the polis (city), religion, lyric discourse, and the state, with extended sub-sections on the Acropolis and the Athens Agora. She focuses on Athenian life, with archaeological descriptions woven around it, along with plenty of illustrations and photographs. Just as diving into the middle of a guided tour has its pitfalls, this book is not always easily accessible by random access. Descriptions are detailed, paragraphs get long, and ancient artistic terms are dropped liberally into the text, often unitalicized. A paragraph on Page 59 refers to architraves, metopes, triglyphs, guttae, and regulae, which could throw casual readers for a loop. Discussions on the role of women, the use of currency, voting, and playwrights are all interesting; Euripides, for example, «appears to have been a difficult person (who) throughout his entire life remained a solitary, uncompromising scholar» who was exiled from Athens after «The Trojan Women» debuted. Sophocles never left the city at all. The illustrations are attractive and generally well labeled and the maps useful, though with Greek lettering. The text is compact but allows generous margins for color plates. This knowledgeable and discursive guide will fill many gaps, especially for non-specialists with some background.

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