Democracy from the Ashes: On David Stuttard’s “Phoenix”

ATHENS’S GOLDEN AGE stands apart as one of the most generative for human creativity. However compromised in modern eyes by everything from their consideration of non-Greeks as “barbarians” to the exclusion of whole categories of human beings (women and slaves) from citizenship, ancient Athens laid vital foundation stones — in both senses — for more fully democratic practices. It was an intellectual powerhouse, as even the most abridged roll call of its luminaries suggests: tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides; comic playwright Aristophanes; philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; architect Hippodamus of Miletus; orator and statesman Demosthenes; historians Herodotus and Thucydides; physician Hippocrates; sculptor Phidias; and many more. It was the era of Pericles, often considered the embodiment of democracy, and lesser-known figures like Cimon (c. 510-450 BC), also a general and politician.

David Stuttard’s book Phoenix: A Father, A Son, and the Rise of Athens reminds us that even up until the first couple of decades of the momentous fifth century BC, it was not a given that Athens would endure in cultural memory to this degree. It was not even a given that it would endure at all. It began as just one of hundreds of tiny city-states (poleis), one among many. Like other polities at the time, Athens had to defend its very existence, most notably against the Persian Empire, in what came to be known as the Greco-Persian Wars, and against Sparta — in the Peloponnesian War. These tales are the stuff of myth and history, with characters and their exploits, ideas, and systems of government a towering presence in Western and, indeed, world history.

It is this history and mythology that is the world of Phoenix. In retelling it from a new perspective, Stuttard asks whether some of what we consider history is actually myth. The chronic problem for classicists — the missing sources from that long-ago era — requires his version to rely on speculation and interpretation, like previous versions, and on careful work of reconstruction, cross-checking for validation of whatever can be validated, and humble acceptance of what cannot be known. Still, however partial, Stuttard’s interpretation is worth taking into consideration for what it might revise about our sense of past events as well as our present quandaries. Even if Phoenix were merely a retelling of a familiar tale, its well-hewn narrative would still have much appeal. The story is epic. But it does more by giving us an interpretation we should consider, both as a warning and a source of hope.

Phoenix begins with an arresting scene. It is 480 BC, and Athens faces impending destruction by the vast forces of the Persian Empire. Rather than equipping himself and his men for battle, the head of a group of elite cavalrymen leads a procession on foot to the Temple of Athena Polias (Athena Who Protects the City), where he lays down his horse’s bridle. Stuttard’s book provides, through chapters detailing events of the decades before and after the scene, an elaborate backstory of this symbolic act and an interpretation of it as uniquely revealing about one of the most pivotal periods in history.

In the crisis of the impending Persian attack, Apollo’s oracle at Delphi had spoken in characteristically ambiguous fashion, causing paralysis to take hold amidst the fear. The oracle confirmed the apprehensions that Athens would fall, then added a mysterious message of hope: if Athenians would trust in their “wooden wall,” it could save them. What on earth did that mean? Some thought it referred to the stockade around the Acropolis, others to the newly built fleet of triremes, made largely of wood. The difference of interpretation implicated class interest: some of the wealthy aristocrats feared a navy of 34,000 members of the urban poor as yet another of a recent series of moves toward democracy. The cavalry leader who relinquished his bridle was Cimon, the son of the general Miltiades, heroic leader of the Greek victory over the Persians just a decade before, at the Battle of Marathon. Though he was a member of the conservative elite, Cimon’s action at a key moment broke the stalemate, and Athens prepared for a naval battle.

Many know the year 480 BC for the Battle of Thermopylae, thanks in part to blockbuster films such as Zack Snyder’s 300. In that land battle, an alliance of Greeks, headed by King Leonidas I of Sparta, had held a mountain pass to delay simultaneous army invasion of mainland Greece and naval attack in the Battle of Artemisium by the Persian Empire under King Xerxes I. Overcome on both land and sea, the Greeks nevertheless decided to engage the Persian navy near the island of Salamis, where much of the Athenian population had been evacuated in anticipation of the sack of Athens, which duly occurred. This was a fateful decision. Though vastly outnumbered, the Greek navy defeated the Persians in the Battle of Salamis, and the following year, the Greek triumph in the Battles of Plataea and Mycale ended the (second) Persian invasion. Barring this triumph, Athens’ Golden Age would have been unimaginable.

For Stuttard, the significance of Cimon’s decision to support a naval battle at that key moment cannot be minimized. War was then the traditional preserve of the propertied classes: citizen-soldiers paid for their own armor and weaponry. As a member of the aristocracy, Cimon’s public demonstration of making common cause with Themistocles (the populist Athenian general behind the build-up of Athens’s navy), which he accomplished by winning the support of the lower classes, was a show of unity, elevating the defense of Athens above internecine divisions.

Cimon went on to distinguish himself at the Battle of Salamis, which earned him election as one of the 10 strategoi (generals). He also went on to command the Delian League, an alliance of Greek poleis against the Persian threat, and to lead other key battles. Stuttard sees his accomplishments as key to Athens’s power and success at this time, although he was eclipsed by Pericles and others. Cimon worked closely with Sparta, even brokering a truce and urging joint Athens-Sparta hegemony. As politics became more radically democratic, populist, and anti-Spartan, and after a diplomatic blunder when he tried to help Spartans resist a revolt of their slave population and was rebuffed, Cimon was ostracized, despite his earlier stature. When Pericles, often called the “first citizen” of Athens, became Athens’s democratic leader, he had every reason to obscure Cimon’s reputation while proclaiming his own.

Stuttard argues that Cimon’s military, diplomatic, and political efforts were crucial. Even though Cimon was a conservative, his efforts were vital in enabling democratic Athens to perdure. Stuttard has produced a narrative that is absorbing in its subtle intricacy as much as its high drama. The content stands on its own in every genre of cultural imagination, from histories to poems, paintings, movies, and more. This author’s skill at unfolding a story matches his prodigious skill at description. We get all-too-vivid pictures of battle after battle — bloodshed so horrifying that it requires, and gets, thankfully, no hyperbole. We also get in-depth explanations of how things worked, from gripping army and naval maneuvers to political institutions such as ostracism, by which democratic Athens expelled an unpopular leader for 10 years. Besides adding fresh eyes and another voice, Stuttard’s overall point in revisiting and reassembling all of these moving parts is to ask us to reconsider the role of Cimon in events already familiar from previous tellings.

Stuttard’s is a fascinating interpretation with compelling support. As he admits, the sources are very scarce, so much of his retelling involves conjecture. But his admittedly plausible history suggests that we need to be cautious about our heroic tales of the heyday of democratic self-creation. The story has as much to do with suffering and resilience as it does with democracy itself.

What does it take to make some passing thought into an idea and an idea into something that endures? That query is the essence of Phoenix, which shows how tenuous democracy was, as tied as it was to the formative history of ancient Athens. In our own times, when worries about the fragility of democracy echo daily, the book helps us contemplate this question with less panic.

The tale at the heart of Phoenix is ​​indeed epic: the brutality of war; battles fought, won, lost; the endurance and heroism of not just the military commanders but the common people as well. Those who remain nameless through history are everywhere in these pages, as Stuttard describes evacuations of whole areas, returns, re-evacuations, rebuilding. The sheer repetition of battle after battle is not so much numbing (we never get over the surprise, shock, and tragedy of the deaths and losses) as heart-wrenching. The means of warfare, punishment, and torture are savage, and, while arguing for courage where he sees it, Stuttard gives an unsparing portrait of the savagery of the Greek side. It makes us consider several concepts: the fragility of democracy; the sheer human suffering and brutality of warfare; the lack of unity among the Greek poleis and the costs of that lack of unity; the mutability of alliances and stances, sometimes shifting on a dime; the options available when it comes to oppressive tyrants; the subversion of democracy by demagogues; the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of those supposedly committed to democracy; and the capacity for corruption, even of those seemingly immune from it.

Stuttard calls for a resuscitation of Cimon’s reputation, using the metaphor of a phoenix: the mythical bird that rose from the ashes of the immolation of its predecessor. Given that we are in another period when democracy itself is under siege, Phoenix has an eerie relevance more broadly to democracy itself. Imagine we were to consult the Delian oracle today, and it told us that if we trust in the phoenix, it could save us: What on earth would that mean? The one in flames, or the one yet to rise from the ashes?


Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is professor of history at Syracuse University and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. She is the author of numerous essays and books including, most recently, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living (2020), a study of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy and modern culture.

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