Paul Cartledge – Ancient historian and academic

Paul Cartledge is the inaugural A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Clare College. He is also Hellenic Parliament Global Distinguished Professor in the History and Theory of Democracy at New York University. He has written and edited over 20 books, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. He is an honorary citizen of modern Sparta and holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor awarded by the President of Greece.

Book Reviews

An unusual approach is taken here by Cartledge. A companion volume to a PBS TV series, the book doesn’t offer a chronologically anchored narrative of the ancient Greek city states. Rather, the book’s 15 chapters focus on the lives of individuals, some well-known to us from history, literature and art: Sappho, Pericles, Socrates, Alexander the Great.
Cartledge’s main achievement is bringing to our attention others who have been familiar mostly to scholars: Artemisia (a woman who fought on the Persian side in the Persian Wars), Pasion (a money-changer), Neaera (a courtesan).
Cartledge personalises ancient Greek history by using this biographical material to introduce the reader to broader aspects of life in ancient Greece. The focus is primarily social-historical, but the book also connects with such grand military/political events as the Peloponnesian War and the conquests of Alexander the Great.
Easy to read and even jaunty in style, this volume also provides an abbreviated time line, a necessary aid for those unfamiliar with the chronology of Greek history, as well as a thoughtful introduction and suggestions for further reading.

ANCIENT GREECE: A History in Eleven Cities
Cartledge has created an intriguing overview of Greek history by providing synopses of 11 key city-states, each representing a different facet of Greek life and culture, such as politics, gender, and philosophy. Beginning with the earliest example of the successful polis, proto-Greek Cnossos on the island of Crete, and continuing through the near-mythical city of Mycenae; Argos; doomed Miletus; Massalia (present-day Marseilles), the first of the great Greek “colonies”; and through to the rise of laconic Sparta, it is easy to trace the development of Greek civilization.
Classical Greece is examined in the descriptions of Athens, Syracuse, and Thebes. The description of Hellenic Alexandria is symbolic of the transition of the classical period into the Hellenistic age.
A final discussion of the polis of Byzantion notes the decline of city-state independence.

In this erudite and highly technical history, Cartledge revisits the roots of democracy to understand how ancient Greeks understood and practiced it. Fundamentally distinct from democratic theories espoused today, the Greeks’ notion of democracy emphasised the “rule of the poor” over the rich, creating a political system that was, to its detractors, little more than mob rule.
As Cartledge moves through the history of this largely (but not solely) Athenian institution, he finds it constantly under threat from internal and external forces seeking to either pervert democracy or supplant it with oligarchy. Such turbulence means that there is no singular Greek democracy of which to speak, and Cartledge runs through a number of versions as they were implemented and practiced. In comparing these differing species to one another and, in the final chapters, to the democratic systems birthed in the early modern era Cartledge teases out what is essential and what is adaptive about ancient democracy. Piecing together a cogent narrative from a series of largely incomplete, inaccurate, or contradictory sources many of them secondhand is very difficult, but Cartledge nevertheless manages to bring ancient democracy to life, warts and all.

Alexander’s brilliant military campaigns in the fourth century B.C. spread not only his reputation as a heroic and ingenious leader but also the culture of ancient Greece throughout the known world.
With his usual riveting storytelling, Cartledge, narrates Alexander’s life and rise to power. Cartledge takes issue with those who contend that Alexander’s greatest contribution was to spread Hellenism. He argues instead that Alexander, while sincerely attached to Hellenism, was more concerned with the glory his conquests brought him.
Cartledge provides detailed chronicles of Alexander’s battles with the Persians, the Tyrians and the Babylonians as he demonstrates the young king’s military genius and hunger for success in war. According to Cartledge, Alexander’s love of hunting game offers the key to his life and reign. It led him, for example, to successfully adapt for military battles many hunting strategies, such as the surprise attack, a uniquely Alexandrine contribution.
A number of appendixes, including a glossary and an extensive bibliography, enhance the book. Cartledge’s knack for bringing history to life makes for an absorbing new biography of the legendary Greek leader.

Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past
There is really no need for any special justification, let alone apology for a new history of Alexander; he is one of those very few iconic figures who remade the world and constantly inspire us to remake our own worlds.
Born in 356 B.C. in Macedonia, present day Thessaloniki, Alexander led the army of his father, King Philip, conquering mainland Greece at the age of eighteen. Two years later, he was himself crowned king. Within the next twelve years Alexander conquered almost the entire known world, pushing the limits of Greek and Macedonian power to astonishing levels.
Under his leadership, the Greeks defeated the Persians three times, including the world-shattering battle of Gaugamela at which 1 million Persians took to the field against his army. At the age of only 26 Alexander had made himself master of the once mighty Persian Empire and by the time of his death in 323 he was being worshipped as a god by the Greeks, both at Babylon, where he died, and further west, among the Greek cities of the Asiatic seaboard. Meticulously researched, vividly written and bringing to bear a lifetime’s scholarship, this is an outstanding biography of one of the most remarkable rulers in history.

THE SPARTANS: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece
Legendary for their ferocious combat skills, the Spartans built a warrior culture in ancient Greece unsurpassed for its courage and military prowess. Eminent historian Cartledge provides a remarkable chronicle of Sparta’s rise and fall, from its likely origins around 1100 B.C. to the height of its fame and glory in the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and its fall in the fourth century B.C. The Spartans built their society through conquest and subjugation, ruling over their subject peoples with an iron hand and putting down revolts with devastating might.
Between 490 and 479, Sparta joined Athens in fighting the Persians in three key wars—Thermopylae, Plataea and Mycale—that contributed to the demise of Persian power and the rise of Hellenistic power on the Mediterranean. Cartledge punctuates his absorbing tale with brief, engaging biographies of the city-state’s kings from Lycurgus, the earliest Spartan leader, who brought constitutional law to the city, to Leonidas, who led the Spartans at Thermopylae.
According to Cartledge, the Spartans’ legacy to Western culture includes devotion to duty, discipline, the willingness to sacrifice individual life for the greater good of the community and the nobility of arms in a cause worth dying for.
Cartledge’s crystalline prose, his vivacious storytelling and his lucid historical insights combine here to provide a first-rate history of the Spartans, their significance to Ancient Greece and their influence on our culture.

THEBES: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
Continuously inhabited for five millennia, and at one point the most powerful city in Ancient Greece, Thebes has been overshadowed by its better-known rivals, Athens and Sparta.
According to myth, the city was founded when Kadmos sowed dragon’s teeth into the ground and warriors sprang forth, ready not only to build the fledgling city but to defend it from all-comers. It was Hercules’ birthplace and the home of the Sphinx, whose riddle Oedipus solved, winning the Theban crown and the king’s widow in marriage, little knowing that the widow was his mother, Jocasta.
The city’s history is every bit as rich as its mythic origins, from siding with the Persian invaders when their emperor, Xerxes, set out to conquer Aegean Greece, to siding with Sparta – like Thebes an oligarchy – to defeat Pericles’ democratic Athens, to being utterly destroyed on the orders of Alexander the Great.
Cartledge brings the city vividly to life, and argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements – whether politically or culturally – and thus to our own culture and civilization.

THERMOPYLAE: The Battle that Changed the World
‘Go tell the Spartans, Passerby, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie’
Thus did the poet Simonides remember the three hundred elite Spartan warriors who, led by their king, Leonidas, faced the vast, inrushing Persian army at the ‘hot gates’ of Thermopylae and fought to the death for an ideal dearer to them than life itself – the ideal of freedom.
Cartledge’s offers a compelling re-examination of this crucial moment in history, an epic clash of civilizations that helped shape the identity of Classical Greece and our own cultural heritage. ‘Our greatest living expert on Sparta tells the story of that fearsome city’s finest hour.
‘The result is a book that wonderfully demonstrates the capacity of profound scholarship to thrill, to move and to inspire’ Tom Holland, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire.

After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars
The Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. is one of world history’s unjustly neglected events. It decisively ended the threat of a Persian conquest of Greece. It involved tens of thousands of combatants, including the largest number of Greeks ever brought together in a common cause. For the Spartans, the driving force behind the Greek victory, the battle was sweet vengeance for their defeat at Thermopylae the year before. Why has this pivotal battle been so overlooked?
Cartledge masterfully reopens one of the great puzzles of ancient Greece to discover, as much as possible, what happened on the field of battle and, just as important, what happened to its memory.
Part of the answer to these questions, Cartledge argues, can be found in a little-known oath reputedly sworn by the leaders of Athens, Sparta, and several other Greek city-states prior to the battle – the Oath of Plataea. Through an analysis of this oath, Cartledge provides a wealth of insight into ancient Greek culture. He shows, for example, that when the Athenians and Spartans were not fighting the Persians they were fighting themselves, including a propaganda war for control of the memory of Greece’s defeat of the Persians. This helps explain why today we readily remember the Athenian-led victories at Marathon and Salamis but not Sparta’s victory at Plataea. Indeed, the Oath illuminates Greek anxieties over historical memory and over the Athens – Sparta rivalry, which would erupt fifty years after Plataea in the Peloponnesian War. In addition, because the Oath was ultimately a religious document, Cartledge also uses it to highlight the profound role of religion and myth in ancient Greek life.
With compelling and eye-opening detective work, After Thermopylae provides a long-overdue history of the Battle of Plataea and a rich portrait of the Greek ethos during one of the most critical periods in ancient history.

Paul Cartledge (24 March 1947) is a British Ancient historian and academic.
From 2008 to 2014 he was the A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He had previously held a personal chair in Greek History at Cambridge.

Early life
Cartledge was educated at St Paul’s School and New College, Oxford, where, with his contemporaries Robin Lane Fox and Terence Irwin, he was a student of G. E. M. de Ste. Croix. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, later promoted to MA (Oxon) by seniority, in 1969. He remained at the University of Oxford to undertake postgraduate studies, completing a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) under the supervision of Professor Sir John Boardman. His thesis focused on Spartan archaeology.

Academic career
Cartledge lectured at the New University of Ulster in 1972–73, at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1973 to 1978, and at the University of Warwick in 1978–79. In October 1979 he moved to Cambridge University where he is a fellow of Clare College.
In 2008, Cartledge was elected to the newly established A. G. Leventis Professorship of Greek Culture at Cambridge University, a position from which he retired at the end of September 2014.
Cartledge holds a visiting Global Distinguished Professorship at New York University, funded by the Greek Parliament, and sits on the European Advisory Board of Princeton University Press.
Cartledge is also a holder of the Gold Cross of the Order of Honour of Greece and an Honorary Citizen of (modern) Sparta.

Field of study

Cartledge’s field of study is Athens and Sparta in the Classical Age. He was chief historical consultant for the BBC TV series The Greeks and the Channel 4 series The Spartans, presented by Bettany Hughes.

Image: Paul Cartledge, was bestowed 19 April 2021, the award Commander, Order of Honour of the Hellenic Republic by H.E. Mr Ioannis Raptakis, Ambassador of Greece.

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