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The Ancient World: Book Review

Most people do not question their citizenship due to clearly defined laws and practices as well as lineage. For example, an infant born on American soil is American, no matter the home country of its parents; it is the same in many parts of the world. Yet in ancient Greece, it wasn't so simple. Lape seeks to demonstrate how the Athenians defined race and citizenship in its own democratic fashion. Her work is aimed at scholars and due to the complicated way she explains the difference between race and citizen amongst other terms, upper level scholars concerned with ancient politics and how they still operate in today's democracy would be able to decipher the deeper meanings of the book.

Ancient World Book

In arguing that the ethnic-nationalism identity was critically important in 5th century Athens, Lape seeks to delve deeper into the meanings behind the changing of laws determining citizenship, such as the passage of the Periclean citizenship law in 450/0 B.C.E. declaring that both parents must be Athenian instead of just one in order for an individual to be declared a citizen. Her narrative winds through the mythology of the time and intertwines the gods with mortals, as was the thinking of the ancient Athenians. Lape clearly demonstrates how Athens' rise to power made it critical to have a reliable system of citizenship identification due to the presence of slaves, the continual battles and prisoners taken from them as well as dealing with homicide; for a non-Athenian to kill an Athenian meant a different means of justice than an Athenian killing an Athenian. Homicide was not forbidden as we know it today, but it was a serious crime and one's citizenry would determine the punishment under Athenian law.

In some ways it seems that Lape is assuming rather than proving. With little to go on in terms of solid records of the time period, I have the impression that she is proposing a theory rather than writing a true historical account.

Surviving documents and stories from 5th century Athens gives compelling evidence to the importance of citizenship especially in politics and theater. Seeing as how the current concern over Barack Obama's citizenship and religion has right-wing Republicans scrambling, ancient Athens also deemed it critical that their governing body was composed solely of Athenians, hence proof of citizenship was critical as well as mastery of Attic Greek. To be born an Athenian was seen to endow an individual with certain traits largely invented by the Athenians and for such an accomplished people it seems rather unlikely that their expectations would be unfounded, yet the lineage factor plays very strongly and dovetails with what we understand of the great Athenians today. The emphasis on individual characteristics being Athenian is difficult to take seriously (for example, the presumption that a true Athenian would not commit an act of hubris or engage in frivolous prosecution). That one's actions or characteristics automatically identify them as foreign-born is rather ludicrous. It does appear that the Athenians were racist in that regard, and upon further inspection it isn't so difficult to imagine since racial profiling is so prevalent in the 21st century. Yet, Lape argues that court cases from the period cannot be reliable sources of how the citizenry in general regarded each other. However, an insult was to be deemed a non-Athenian, and Lape demonstrates this through the comedic poets of the time (the ancient editorialists) who portray enemies as being of low-born traits and therefore non-Athenian. Another way of pointing out a person's heritage was not through a first name and Athenian family name, but by a first name and their occupation (such as "so-and-so the Lamp Maker"). This societal insult gives credence to the Athenians' sense of superiority.

What is refreshing and eye-opening is the comedy writers' role in public opinion regarding politicians; a parallel can be drawn between today's media opinion polls and the opinions of ancient Athens' comedic poets. Lape points out that the shift in political power from aristocracy to wealthy merchants gave rise to ever more scrutiny and criticism from the comedic poets, yet Athens then became more democratic because of allowing businessmen to hold political offices.

Lape offers analysis regarding the motivations of the comedic poets since they held enormous power over politicians; since art in any form is open to conjecture, her analysis of motivation for criticizing or even lambasting a politician offers a different interpretation rather than proof. Her method of interpreting seems to fit with history though, and this is strongly to her credit as she argues with other scholars over the Athenian political system and its continual emphasis in citizenship and status. For example, the comedic poets could reduce a powerful politician into a slave with a few deft strokes of the quill. This illustrates a talented and imaginative group of writers, whose sharp eyes took note of how well Attic Greek was spoken by its key people. This again emphasizes that mastery of the language was a component of true Athenian lineage and education.

In challenging Athenian historians Herodotus and Thucydides, Lape accuses Herodotus of being too sterile and lays the ground in previous chapters for the reader to come to grips with the holes historians leave when they strictly document only the acts of a society. Lape points out that some of the major historians completely omit any of the aforementioned embellishments produced by the comedic poets, leaving out the humanistic element of Athenian history that could assist modern scholars with a more holistic view of this great and complicated culture. However, in pointing out that Thucydides does in fact bring out the individualistic and societal foibles of the Athenians, Lape argues that rather than writing in a disparaging way about them, he puts the Athenians in the category of being like anyone else; self-serving, individually motivated and humanly flawed. This encourages the reader to further investigate not only the comedic poets but these two historians as well, to further understand Athenian society and the markings of Western racism. The decline of Athens, however, is pointed out by some historians as being caused by a weakening of true Athenians and an influx of immigrants. Lape points out that the imperialistic attitude still prevails regarding Athenians and nobility.

Lape's book begins as a rather intimidating account of what constituted Athenian citizenry in the beginning chapters, but sticking with it, the confusion is clarified once she presents further explanations of her interpretation of Athenian societal thought. The book is richly referenced and well organized. There is a compelling argument that assists the reader in understanding the roots of racism and how when a society rises economically, values and expectations change. That Athens was still a metropolis engaged with mythology gives a glimmer of perspective in terms of modern monarchy and an understanding of the framework of social levels as well as social injustices. She successfully presents the ancient Athenian mind on several levels and brings it to life in her portrayal of the period, avoiding the glittering praises that were perhaps partially undeserved for Athens.