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the Complete Review
the complete review - history / political science

Athens on Trial

Jennifer Tolbert Roberts

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To purchase Athens on Trial

Title: Athens on Trial
Author: Jennifer Tolbert Roberts
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1994
Length: 320 pages
Availability: Athens on Trial - US
Athens on Trial - UK
Athens on Trial - Canada
  • The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought

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Our Assessment:

B+ : thorough, interesting survey

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Historical Rev. A+ 12/1995 John Wickersham
Bryn Mawr Classical Rev. A 2/1995 Eric W. Robinson
Historian . Fall/1995 Pierre Cagniart
New Statesman . 3/6/1994 Paul Cartledge
Political Studies . Fall/1995 Peter Nicholson

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "One can well believe that this volume, solid in erudition, sound in judgment, and generous in exposition, was over twenty years in the making, as the preface indicates. It deserves a place in the library of every classicist and every historian. A definitive account of Athenian democracy's reception in the European heritage, it merits posterity." - John Wickersham, American Historical Review

  • "Athens on Trial deserves praise both for its conception and its execution. (...) R.'s book is as much about the rhetorical uses to which history may be put as it is about the Athenian government's reception. The thorough, chronological approach allows the reader to observe fundamental shifts in the political and intellectual climate in different periods of European history as reflected by the opinions which surface abut Athens and Greek history. R.'s (mostly) non-judgmental approach to the material lends a sense of historical objectivity to the project, crucial lest one get sucked into the very partisanship one hopes to elucidate. Moreover, the book reads remarkably easily." - Eric W. Robinson, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

  • "Roberts's study, written in a dense but elegant prose, is likely to appeal to a broad audience of students of ancient history and political science. It is indeed an important and useful book, which is extremely well documented and argued." - Pierre Cagniart, Historian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Athenian democracy was far from ideal -- a large part of the population (women and slaves) was prevented from taking active part in it, for one -- but was nevertheless a remarkable and in many ways extraordinarily successful form of government. Democracy is all the rage now, but Jennifer Tolbert Roberts shows in her book, Athens on Trial, that far from being widely praised and held up as an example, Athenian democracy has historically generally been criticised and even condemned, at best an also-ran among competing political systems.
       This "antidemocratic tradition" goes all the way back to the times of the Greeks themselves: even at its height Athenian democracy was attacked from both without and within. Roberts' remarkable survey provides both an introduction to the "Athenian experiment" and a good overview of the reactions to it across the ages.
       Many reactions were informed by self-serving interests: from Roman concerns about being considered second-rate successors to the Greeks to the whole spectrum of ideologues defending their own systems, Athenian democracy never lacked critics. Roberts is particularly good at setting the criticism within the context of the day, even as she moves in chapter after chapter across the centuries. Shifting circumstances, and political theory (and practise), across the ages changed opinion and point of view, all well documented by Roberts.
       The negative attitudes towards Athens are astonishingly strong, widespread, and enduring, with a general about-face coming only relatively recently. Roberts tries to explain (though not excuse) these negative attitudes: from Plato through the American founding fathers and beyond there were reasons to be wary or critical of Athenian democracy (though ignorance was too often one of them). As Roberts, again and again, at least implies, however, a more open-minded consideration of the pluses and minuses would probably have often been a better course to take. (She's particularly disappointed by how few thinkers make the connexion between the incredible flowering of the arts in democratic Athens and the political system in place at the time.)
       Athens on Trial is a surprisingly engaging book: an often fascinating bit of intellectual history, discussing issues with profound implications, offering an interesting additional perspective on the past two thousand years of Western history. Roberts presents the story well, and large sections are truly gripping. There are also longueurs: this is a thorough survey, and there are pages devoted to political theory and theorists that are probably only of interest to the specialist. Overall, however, this book is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in politics or history.

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Reviews: Jennifer Tolbert Roberts: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jennifer Tolbert Roberts was born in 1947 and teaches at CCNY.

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© 2004-2010 the complete review

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