Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

The Culture of Freedom

A Cultural History of Early Hellenistic Athens

Prof. Dr. Nino Luraghi


In Athens, the period that goes from the death of Alexander the Great and the Hellenic War of 322–321 to the Chremonidean War of 268–261 was one of astonishing cultural creativity. Besides the powerful flourishing of the Attic New Comedy, the most distinguished historians of the age operated in Athens, while philosophical schools that mostly grew from the Socratic stock explored in radically new ways the place of human beings in the universe and the limits of human knowledge. These are the years of Epicurus and Zeno, of Theophrastus and Arcesilaus. The Stoic theorization of the freedom of the wise man, often seen as an expression of Hellenistic cosmopolitanism, actually originated in a polis, one which at that time was engaged in a desperate defense of its political and ideological traditions against massively unfavorable odds.

In the last decades of the last century, largely thanks to the work of Christian Habicht and of a small group of epigraphers, the highly intricate political history of Hellenistic Athens has been explored in depth, and today our knowledge of it has become vastly more precise and detailed than it was when William Scott Ferguson wrote the first modern narrative of Hellenistic Athens in 1911. Something, however, has fallen by the wayside. Ferguson alerted scholars to the amazing cultural vitality of Athens during the early Hellenistic period, and also to the sharp turning point represented by the defeat at the hands of Antigonus Gonatas in the Chremonidean War. The end of New Comedy and the death of the last of the local historians of Athens at the end of the war can be taken as symbols of a broader phenomenon. With the central years of the third century, it became clear that Athens was not the cultural center of the Greek world any more. Almost half a century after Ferguson Arnaldo Momigliano, investigating the ‘discovery of Rome’ by the Sicilian Greek historian Timaeus, who wrote his history of the Western Greeks in Athens between the last years of the fourth century BCE and the first decades of the third, remarked that Athens in those years was a beacon of political and intellectual freedom. This nexus of political freedom and vibrant cultural creativity is what recent work on the political history of Hellenistic Athens has somewhat overlooked, while at the same time scholarship on philosophy and literature has largely overlooked or even denied connections with the Athenian political context. The relation between freedom and cultural creativity is a key notion that Greek culture bequeathed to the European cultural tradition. And yet, most general narratives of Hellenistic culture and philosophy like to connect new developments such as Epicureanism and Stoicism to the new cosmopolitan intellectual world created by Alexander’s conquests, rather than exploring their roots in the ideology and self-perception of a community of citizens striving to stand their ground in front of the overwhelming power of vast royal armies and navies.

Since spearheading the revolt against Macedon in 322, the Athenians kept fighting uphill battles against enemies who could muster with little effort armies that vastly outnumbered their manpower. They scrambled to defend their territory, reorganizing their system of forts and their mobile forces, and often ended up with royal garrisons in various points of Attica. In this struggle, they were clearly sustained by a clear and strong sense of their identity, based on their collective memory, i.e. on their own vision of their past. The memory of the Persian Wars was for the Athenians a manifest destiny of sorts, that demanded of them to be ready to take the lead of any coalition of Greeks that rose against whoever tried to conculcate Greek freedom. Decrees passed by the Athenian assembly on the eve of the Hellenic War and of the Chremonidean War are explicit on this. At the same time, Athenian politicians, branded as demagogues by a historical tradition penned by the winners, fired up the citizens reminding them that, while all Greeks shared a common nature – i.e. were superior to other human beings – only the Athenians knew the way to heaven: qua Athenians, they knew how to achieve immortality fighting for freedom.  

A political history of Hellenistic Athens that does not engage with broader cultural trends can tell us what happened when, but it will never be able to help us understand the cultural logic that governed the historical actors. The Athenians’ passion for freedom, their stubborn attachment to democracy, must be investigated in the framework of a cultural history of early Hellenistic Athens, and in turn, the cultural history of early Hellenistic Athens urgently needs to be put back into the political context in which it belongs. This is the purpose of the present project.