The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s four major plays all feature characters who come to realize that they’ve wasted their lives and have not found happiness. These various characters are stuck in a rut, unable to change and adapt to the times. They are plagued by the hard truth that it is now too late. The plays share many of the same themes as his short stories, but whereas the form of the short story required him to focus heavily on a few set of characters and usually interpersonal romantic relationship, the form and structure of drama, with its many characters who have speaking parts, allows him to explore other types of relationship besides romantic ones.

The Seagull is a play about Konstantin Treplyov who lives in the shadow of his mother, a once famous actress. Konstantin aspires to be a renowned writer and finds himself envying Boris Trigorin, an already established writer, who is visiting his uncle’s estate because he is persuing an affair with the mother. While on the estate Trigorin begins a second affair with the son’s current love affair, a young countrygirl named Nina, who aspires to be an actress. Living the shadows of others accomplishments, losing his girlfriend to the writer he envies, and struggling to find his own artistic voice leads to suicide. This is about a boy struggling to find his place in the world. However, Nina’s struggle to fulfill her dream and become an actress parallels Treplyov’s struggle to become a writer. Everyone struggles to achieve the dream. Meanwhile the mother struggles with letting go of the past and being the parent she ought to be with her obviously mentally ill (depressed?) child. The mother seems to genuinely love her son, but she loves her lifestyle, fame, and vanity more. The play gives the impression that she persues her affair with Trigorin because it puffs up her ego and makes her feel young, beautiful. and famous like in her old acting days.


Uncle Vanya is about a man called Uncle Vanya who has given up a large portion of his life and financial security managing an estate in order to pay for the lifestyle of his brother-in-law who was a professor at a university. Now that the professor has aged, become sickley, and is living with a wife far too young for him, Uncle Vanya has come to the realization that all this sacrifice was for nothing. The professor’s scholarly work and ideas were frivolous and he is a selfish man who doesn’t appreciate the sacrifice of others. Uncle Vanya resents the life he has given up for him. He is especially concerned for Yelena, the young wife, who has her whole life ahead of her, but has given it up to the idea of remaining loyal to her aged husband. There are hints that Vanya secretly loves her, but it his concern can also be fueled by his desire to keep Yelena from the same fate of sacrificing her youth in order to support the professor. In other words, Vanya sees himself and his greatest mistake in her. It is really a depressing story in many ways; Uncle Vanya suffers terribly over the fact that he never lived his life because he sacrificed for the good of another whose work amounted to nothing useful. It’s a play about sacrificing our life to a delusion.

The Three Sisters is a play about three sisters and a brother living together after the death of their father and how their lives revolve around a group of army officers. They lonng to return to the city-life of Moscow where they spent their youth, but never manage to return. The brother marries a woman who is cruel to the servants and who cheats on her husband behind his back with a local town official, while the brother gives up his dreams of becoming a professor at a university. Instead he joins the local town council with the very man cheating on his wife and sinks into heavy debts from gambling. One of the sisters, Irina, chooses to marry one of the officers after he leaves the army, although she does not love him. She does believe she could have a good life with him despite the lack of love. However, he dies in a duel with another officier who loves her as well and vows to fight any rivals. This was my least favorite of the four plays.


The Cherry Orchard is about a noblewoman in severe debt who must do something to save her estate, but she is incapable of changing her frivolous ways. She continues handing out money to anyone who asks, holding parties she cannot afford, and is unwilling to chop down her prized cherry orchard in order to make vacation housing that would bring in enough money that would allow her to keep her property. This solution is offered by a local businessman and the son of a former serf who once worked on the same estate. So when the time comes for the auction to buy the property he is the one who ends up buying it and carrying out the plan. It shows the fuility of being unable to change one’s habits and ways in the face of a crisis. The cherry orchard that the noblewoman wanted to save will be cut down anyway. Many of the characters in the play are elderly nobility who cannot move beyond the past and reminisce about the glory days when the peasants were serfs who served them. The noblewoman who owned the estate suffers from a personal tragedy in the past that haunts her: the death of her son. The cherry orchard represents different things to different characters: a beautiful aesthetic object that should never change, a potential source of profit, and a connection to a lost past where nobles ruled and peasants served. It is a drama about the dangers of being unable to adapt to life’s changes.




2017 In Review

Another year, another list of books. I had illusions of grandeur thinking I could get back to 50 books per a year with a two year old, a full-time job, and all while studying Spanish and math. However, unsurprisingly, I only made it to the 20 books per a year range (around half of what I hoped). So the list of books read during 2017:

  1. Pensees by Blaise Pascal
  2. On Liberty by John Stuart Mill
  3. Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
  4. The Woman in White
  5. Piers Plowman by William Langland.
  6. The Lais of Marie de France
  7. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
  8. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine d Pizan
  9. Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
  10. Selected Poetry by Alexander Pope.
  11. The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley
  12. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life
  13. Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine
  14. A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture by Stanley Mayer Burstein, Walter Donlan, Sarah B. Pomeroy
  15. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  16. The Man of Feeling by Henry MacKenzie
  17. Took: a Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn
  18. Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent
  19. She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
  20. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  21. Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
  22. Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes

I spent the entire summer reading Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. It is one of the longest works in the English language. I made it to book 5 out of 9 when I quit. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I did enjoy parts of it, but there were sections that I found dreadfully boring, repetitive, and it was way too long. I’ve read some long novels before that have kept me riveted, but this wasn’t one of them.  So I’m not sure if I should count it or not.

Meanwhile, one of my goals this past year was to improve my math skills. I worked my way through a high school level Geometry Textbook and continued reviewing algebra, while starting on early topics of Calculus. However, then I got interested in trying to learn Spanish again and I found balancing everything too difficult. So math over the last four months has disappeared from my daily routine. I’m not thrilled about this, but I’m not sure where I can get the time and energy to do both a second language and math, while keeping up with my normal reading.

I hope to read at least 30 books this coming year (more reasonable than 50 books), keep working on improving Spanish and maybe get to the B-levels (based on the European framework) or be at least conversationally fluent by the end of the year, and maybe find some time to incorporate the math I already learned so I don’t lose what I did?


Lady with Lapdog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. David Magarshack)

Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 and died in 1904. He is considered one of the greatest short story writers and dramatists in the history of literature. In a letter addressed to Chekhov, fellow Russian writer Gorky commented: “You are doing a great thing with your stories, arousing in people a feeling of disgust with their sleepy, half-dead existence . . . (as cited in Magarshack, 1964, p. 14).“ In these words, Gorky captures the essence of Chekhov’s short fiction, which often features characters coming to the realization that they’ve taken their lives for granted. These characters learn that what they thought was true about the world and the state of their lives is really false. Chekhov’s characters are often depicted over the course of twenty pages with as much depth and richness as many talented novelists manage to achieve over the course of hundreds of pages in a novel. Chekhov seems to pick the perfect words to paint a scene and breathe life into his characters; he is the great master of linguistic economy, saying a lot with so little.

In “Grief” a drunk who habitually beats his wife travels in a terrible blizzard to bring his sick and dying spouse to the doctor. Along the way he reflects on his wasted life, his unhappy marriage, and considers how his life has seemed like one big fog of drunkenness since the day he was married. He remembers the day of his marriage when the future had seemed so full of hope and promise. He realizes that he has wasted his life in an intoxicated stupor. This is a story about regret, about a wasted life spent in drunkenness, and the character realizing he could’ve lived a much happier and more fruitful life had he made different choices, but only when it is too late to actually change anything.


“Agafya” is surprising in that the eponymous character doesn’t appear until halfway through the story. The beginning describes a handsome well-built intelligent young man named Savka whose major flaw is that he is lazy. The women of the village provide him with food in order to sleep with him. For his part, he loathes their loose morals and hypocrisy, as many of them are cheating on their husbands, although he sleeps with them anyway. Agafya then arrives halfway through the story. She is a woman married to a middle-class clerk who works out of town and has come to sleep with Savka, while her husband is away at work. She wants to do the deed before her husband arrives home on the train in order to remain undetected. Savka takes his time, unhurried, causing her to panic over the fact that the train will arrive soon and her husband, along with the entire village, will discover that she slept with Savka. She could, of course, just leave without sleeping with him. Although she becomes desperate as he continues to delay, her desire for Savka outweighs her fear over the social repercussions and her reputation. The village criticizes Savka for his laziness and thus not meeting their expected social standards, but each of these women who cheats on their husband with Savka shows the illusion of these social standards and the hypocrisy of these individuals who espouse them. These hard-working middle-class people live in a façade, claiming to live happy family lives as their wives cheat on them while the men work.


In “Misfortune” a married woman named Sophia Petrovna rendezvouses with a hopeful lover who is trying to convince her to cheat on her husband. She tries to convince him with various platitudes about the virtues of married life in order to get him to stop propositioning her. His response is that he wishes he could stop, but his desire keeps overpowering his rational thoughts and he can’t stop thinking about her. He rebukes her, claiming that if she really felt nothing she would not keeping meeting him like this only to return again and again. As she heads home to her husband, she considers this point about their continual meetings and comes to realize that she is unhappy with her husband. The story then hints that she goes back out to meet him in order to begin an adulterous affair. However, as she leaves she feels disgusted with her own hypocrisy and lack of virtue. This is another story about the hypocrisy of our inner desires in comparison to social expectations and the superficial contentment of middle-class lifestyle. Often a person thinks they want one thing, but it only takes one unexpected event to reveal to them that they want something else in their lives and never realized it.


“A Boring Story” is the tale of an old professor who is one of the most famous scientists in his country slowly dying from a disease and the changes to his life that occurred due to his fame. This story contrasts well with “Grief.” Whereas in “Grief” the main character lived a lowly and miserable life as a drunk, the professor in this story is as successful as one can get, celebrated in his profession, feeling an intense passion for his wife in their younger days, and originally having an extremely happy family life. In his early days, home was his sanctuary. However, time and fame has changed all that as success completely changed his life. Now in his old age and on the verge of death from disease, nothing gives him pleasure anymore. He wonders when his wife got so fat and the passion disappeared from their relationship, he no longer enjoys dinner at his table (where the simple meals that he enjoyed of earlier times have been replaced by more sumptuous fare), and even science that he has spent his life studying no longer gives him hope for the future.  The story shows that even a life that seems filled with success and everything a person could desire can also be full of regrets and unhappiness. The coming of death makes all that once seemed meaningful and important suddenly meaningless. It also contain a sub-plot about an adopted daughter who has a life of regret as well after a failed theater career and a betrayal by her lover. She turns to the old professor, a father figure to her, for guidance in order to figure out what she should do with her life, but when she finally opens up to him for help it is when he has sunk to his lowest and has lost all meaning in life and accepted that he will soon die. For this reason he is unable to offer her the guidance she seeks. The story seems to imply that no matter how happy or successful we are, we all must die alone.


“The Grasshopper” is about a newlywed couple who form an unlikely pair. Olga is a highly cultured socialite with friends who are famous writers and singers; she believes the most important people in society are artists. The husband Dymov is a hardworking doctor and also a devoted husband, hosting grand parties with these famous people to keep his wife happy. Although she respects her husband as a person, she finds his boring job as a doctor rather plebeian in comparison to her famous artistic friends. Eventually Olga cheats on her husband with a morally bankrupt (but passionate) artist and Dymov ends up dying from not taking proper precautions when treating a patients for a serious illness. It is implied he did so due to feeling depressed over his wife’s infidelity. Only on his deathbed does Olga come to realize her husband’s greatest. After listening to the other doctors speak about his unrealized potential, she comes to understand that her husband was an extremely talented medical scientist who was on his way to being a famous name in the country before his life was cut short and realizes such a person is more important than all the writers, artists, and singers put together. This is another story where the character only realizes what they had after it is gone.


“Ward 6” begins by detailing the life of the inmates of a psych ward attached to a dysfunctional provincial hospital. It is a place of misery and poorly run. The apathetic doctor in charge of the place Dr. Ragin is responsible for all this misery by doing nothing to fix it. Most days he doesn’t even bother to visit the hospital. One day he decides to break his normal daily routine of reading literature and philosophy to visit the psych ward where he meets a young former student named Gromov who is now an inmate there. Dr. Ragin starts to take real pleasure in their conversations when he comes to realize Gromov is the only truly educated man in the entire countryside. They talk about deep philosophical issues in which the doctor advocates the ideas of the Stoics, claiming if a person really thinks about it there is no difference between being locked up in a psych ward versus freedom to do whatever one likes outside it. It’s merely a state of mind. Gromov counters that it is obvious the doctor has never suffered any real hardships and that’s why such a philosophy like the Stoics advocates seem good to him. Eventually the ambitious assistant doctor overhears Dr. Ragin’s deep conversations with this madman and manages to convince everyone in town, including the important political figures that Dr. Ragin has gone mad himself and that can be the only explanation for why he would spent so much of his time conversing with an insane individual in a psych ward. This leads to a tragic spiral where Dr. Ragin loses his position at the hospital, all his money, and eventually ends up in the psych ward himself. There he suffers both physical beatings from the former attendant that once worked for him and psychologically over his situation, which shows the shortcomings of all his previous philosophical rants. Stoic philosophy proves useless in the face of real tragedy and the evils of societal institutions, while its often these justifications that perpetuate such flawed systems.


In “Ariadne” a young Russian landowner on a steamer makes a new acquaintance and philosophizes about the nature of women and the obsession Russians have with them. He then tells the stranger about his most recent love affair with an impoverished noblewomen whose beauty and charms allow her to manipulate any man she wants. The story addresses the ideas of women’s liberation as a misguided extension of female manipulation. It takes a misogynist stance that women are manipulative towards men and see men only as potential husbands and lovers. At the same time, it also suggests the solution to this problem is broadening the education of women so that they receive an education similar to a male’s. It is also the personal story of a young man who goes from infatuation and naïveté to heartbreak when he discover his love interest is sleeping with another man to eventually becoming her lover himself and coming to realize over time how he is being manipulated by sacrificing his monetary comfort, personal morals, and property in order to fulfill her expensive tastes. It makes an interesting parallel with “Lady with Lapdog” because that story is about a seduction in which the adulterous affair makes both participants realize how stifled they feel in their marriages, while in “Ariadne” it is the affair that comes to feel stifling and the young Russian landowner wishes he can find some way to escape it.


“Ionych” is about a country doctor named Ionych who falls in love with Kitty Turkin, a young lady from a prominent family in town known for giving lavish literary and artistic entertainments. At these parties, the wife reads portions of her mediocre novels, Kitty plays the piano, the son acts out dramatic scenes, and the father tells jokes, witticisms, and provides hospitality. Kitty rejects Ionych’s marriage proposal because she believes she is destined to become a talented pianist and artist. In reaction to this rejection, Ionych gives up any real possibility at happiness, throwing himself into his work, putting on a ton of weight, and acquiring lots of money and property. Later, he meets Kitty again who is now interested in him romantically because she has become disillusioned with her dreams of being a famous artist and pianist after she meets many other girls her age who are as equally talented in the conservatory and she comes to realize that she is nothing special in terms of talent. However, Ionych doesn’t renew his proposal and chooses never to see Kitty again. He grows richer and fatter, turning into a grumpy old man driven by his greed. At first the Turkin’s lifestyle seems enchanting to Ionych, but after being rejected when he returns years later he comes to see how trite, mediocre, and insufferable is all their artistic pretensions and how mediocre they all are. Ionych acquires lots of money, but is miserable and unhappy.

“The Darling” is the story of a passionate woman who cannot function without a man or husband in her life. She marries two different men and takes on a lover after each previous one dies. In the end, she also starts to take care of her lover’s child as an overbearing mother figure, even though she isn’t related to him at all. All her opinions and views shift to match the opinions of her current partner, despite the fact that they may contradict the opinions that she held previously. She has no real idea or opinion of her own. It is her love interests that give her meaning and purpose in life. She has no individuality or autonomy without a love interest or role in relation to a male figure to guide her.

“Lady with Lapdog” is the story of a serial womanizer and adulterer who seduces a young woman with a lapdog who is vacationing in Yalta away from her husband. Unlike his previous love affairs, he falls in love with her, and their affair makes them realize how unhappy they are in their married lives. They both crave something more and find it in the affair, yet the expectations of society prevents them from being able to be with each other full time.

The Vicar of Wakefield and She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith.

The Vicar of Wakefield tells the story of the growing misfortunes of a vicar and his family. Initially, the vicar is relatively wealthy and has few material worries, concentrating his effort on preaching scripture and instilling virtue in his children, but then their financial manager flees with most of the vicar’s money. This setback forces them to move to a new neighborhood, pick up farming and engage in manual labor, while leaving the vicar’s daughters prey to a local gentry named Mr. Thornhill, notorious for seducing women. As the book progresses the vicar falls further into degradation as his moral inflexibility and virtuous consistency pits him against the selfish and lustful Mr. Thornhill.

Many books of the 18th century featured young ladies seduced by lascivious men of the upper class. Not only is this an important plot point in The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), but it also serves as key parts of the plot of Henry Fieldings’ Tom Jones (1749) and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748).  Like Clarissa, Goldsmith shows how poverty leaves one vulnerable to seduction and the possibility of a marriage to a different man leads the vicar’s daughters to secretly flee with her seducer, but different than Richardson’s novel the vicar never truly abandons his daughter.

Not only does The Vicar of Wakefield have much in common with the themes and plots of other major 18th century novel, but it’s story of a religious man losing all his material wealth suggests the work is loosely patterned on the biblical story of Job. Like Job, the vicar maintains his strong moral fortitude and religious ideals despite the misfortunes life throws at him. At his very worst he ends up prison, but even there he preaches that someday all misfortunes in this world will right themselves in the next. No tragedy seems capable of shaking his faith.

“[M]y son, observe this bed of straw and unsheltering roof, those mouldering walls and humid floor, my wretched body thus disabled by fire and my children weeping round me for bread; you have come home, my child, to all this; yet here, even here, you see a man that would not for a thousand worlds exchange situations. O, my children, if you could but learn to commune with your own hearts and know what noble company you make them, you would little regard the elegance and splendours of the worthless (117).”

The vicar realizes his true happiness is the virtue found in his own heart and his family. He has developed a strong moral code that is not dependent on his social status in the world and based on his Christian beliefs. After the Vicar is thrown in prison for castigating Mr. Thornhill for kidnapping and seducing his daughter, he gives a powerful sermon about righteous men and wicked men. It is in this sermon that the reader sees the moral core of the story, the true reason that the vicar never deviates from his moral path; his belief in the afterlife and that happiness is to be in the next world allows him to accept the misfortunes of this world. Likewise, the happiness he finds in his family is far superior to any material riches. The book then has material message to go along what can seem like a spiritual one: our source of right and wrong adheres in us (no matter what happens in the outside world) and true happiness is to be found in family life, not material riches.


She Stoops to Conquer is a play strongly based on the comedy of errors trope. A young gentleman named Marlow travels with his friend, Hasting, to the old-fashioned house of Mr. Hardcastle over the prospect that he might marry his daughter.  Unfortunately, while a lady’s man with lower class women, Marlow suffers from anxiety around women of his own class. Mr. Hardcastle’s son, Tony Lumpkin, tricks them into believing their home is really an inn, which leads them to treat Mr. Hardcastle appropriately thinking he is an innkeeper rather than an upper class gentry. Mr. Hardcastle’s daughter decides to play her own trick and pretend to be a lower class serving girl to trick Marlow out of his shyness. There is an additional sub-plot in which Hasting tries to run off with Constance Neville, a niece of the family, that Mr. Hardcastle’s wife wants to marry off to her son, Tony, but who wants nothing to do with her. In order to get married, however, Constance wants her inheritance of jewels that Mrs. Hardcastle is keeping safe. The play is genuinely funny and entertaining with most of the comedy stemming from the mix-up identities.

The Man of Feeling by Henry Mackenzie

Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie is not a household name for most readers. His most famous work, The Man of Feeling, fits into the tradition of sentimental novels. The novel opens with a hunting trip where a curates hands over to his hunting partner an account of a sentimental youth named Harley. The narrator then reads through and reports the surviving chapters of Harley’s memoir. It unfolds as a series of episodic adventures from Harley’s youth describing the intense feelings various incidents produced in him. He tells of his early education and guardians, his adventures in London trying to save a hapless prostitute on the brink of death, his experiences visiting a psych ward, his meeting with an old impoverished farmer from his youth drafted into the army after a stroke of financial bad luck, and the struggle to deal with clandestine feelings for his neighbor’s daughter, and his eventual death.  There is even a random episode about a completely different sentimental youth named Sedley and his adventures assisting a sick and impoverished man brought low by local aristocrats during his grand tour of Europe.

It’s difficult to decide if this novel should be understood as a serious dramatic attempt to depict a sentimental character too good for this world or a satire poking fun at his melodramatic antics. Later editions of the work included an “index of tears,” documenting every paroxysm of sadness expressed by the characters. The novel shows a character shocked, and sometimes even duped, by the seedy side of the world. He shows no acumen with finances and is unable to display the least duplicity in order to gain the inheritance of an aunt. The man is genuine in his feelings. The various episodes of fallen personages lead to his intense emotions, and, indeed, in a serious novel and in the real world such events should elicit our pity, yet the reactions are a bit too strong and too frequent. Mackenzie seems to be poking fun at his character, yet it also important to note that these strong emotional reactions often lead Harley to help the suffering person. I think our author is poking fun at extreme sentimentalism, while recognizing that the world really does possess sordid qualities that should evoke our pity. It is too easy to go the other direction and be a man of the world, ignoring others pain and engaging in shady business practices. The novel suggests we must not wallow in sentimentalism, otherwise we might end up ridiculous and unable to function practically in a sometimes cruel world. Harley helps people, but he fails to express his feelings to his love interest until he is on his deathbed and never proposes marriage. He fails to achieve any of his pecuniary goals at the beginning of the novel, not being a man of politics or social graces willing to dissemble for gain. At the same time we should not forget our feelings entirely for our fellow humans and their plight, and remember to empathize and help them.  We need to be able to practically advocate for ourselves and our interests, while still caring for other people and their interests.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You, the reader, purchases Italo Calvino’s newest book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Reader soon discovers a problem; the book only has the beginning of the story and then breaks off right at a moment of suspense. The Reader returns to the bookstore to exchange his defective copy. There the reader meets the Other Reader, a girl named Ludmilla, a veracious reader who remembers the details of most of the books she has ever read and who has also come to return a defective copy of Italo Calvino’s new work. The Reader and the Other Reader exchange phone numbers and agree to discuss the book after they both finish. Unfortunately the replacement copy turns out to be a different story, which also ends shortly after the beginning at a moment of great suspense. The Reader calls up the Other Reader to discover she has the same problem. As they try to solve the mystery, they encounter yet more stories that begin, but never end. They journey into the corridors of universities where professors defend their esoteric subjects and obscure books, where feminist study groups rip apart books in discussions while only having read a fraction of the book, where chaotic publishing houses face an onslaught of writers and other shady literary figures, where internationally renowned authors struggle to overcome writer’s block, and even to South America where revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries infiltrate each other’s organizations and falseness pervades everything in society, all while hunting down a mysterious translator named Ermes Marana who wants to fill the world with fake bastardized copies of books and who has some kind of past relationship with Ludmilla. While trying to solve the mystery, the Reader tries to understand his new budding relationship with Ludmilla in the hopes of beginning a romantic relationship with her.

Like other books in the Postmodern tradition such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, there is a conspiracy-type of mystery at the heart of the novel, and the attempt to unravel this mystery not only creates a strong sense of confusion and chaos, but also raises questions about our identity and the character’s identities. As a metafiction, it is a fictional story that directly comments on the nature of reading and authorship. The novel employs the unusual second person perspective in order to address the reader directly and force the actual reader to identify with the Reader-character in the story. This is a metafictional trick to make us aware of the fact that the fictional reader is both like us and not like us at the same time.

The Reader as character is an Everyman figure who stands in for readers in general. This Every Reader represents the general desire of the average reader: to get to the end and solve the mystery underlying the main problem of the story. Traditional reading involves a story beginning with some sort of problem that causes the character to attempt to solve it, reaching an ending in which they either fix the problem, are changed by it, or both. Like the Reader character we, too, experience the frustration of ten separate stories that have beginnings, but no ends. Calvino tempts us to feel disappointed along with the reader since we never get to hear how these stories finish. However, unlike the Reader-Character we can see the real story is the frame narrative around the individual unfinished tales. The problem of the novel that draws the actual reader in is the Reader-character’s attempt to solve the mystery of the unfinished novels and his pursuit of Ludmilla as a love interest. These unfinished stories are themselves a means to an end, a trope that allows us to experience the real story. Instead of thinking of them as unfinished stories, we should instead treat them as clues in a mystery. The real story then is about how the reader character tries to solve the mystery of the unfinished novel and whether he can build a relationship with Ludmilla.

The identification with the Every Reader, emphasized through the second person perspective, is a fictional trick that urges us to consider the boundaries between fiction and reality. The perspective of the novel might encourage us to identify with the reader, but we are also not like this character. It is only a character, not us. The Every Reader captures a generalized version of a reader—in other words, it might capture what we want out of reading—but at the same time it lacks all our individualities as flesh-and-blood people. I have a daughter and I think I’m a pretty good father, I have a wife who I love, and I have a job as a librarian in a school. The Reader Character has none of these specific qualities or background. This reader character is not really me. So it is important to remember then that although the narrative tries to get us to identify with the Every Reader, this figure in the text is still a character at the end of the day; it only captures the real us to a point. By doing this the novel is warning against identifying too closely with a character in any book and forgetting they are products of the imagination. They might seem real, but they are just words on a page. We might see aspects of ourselves in them, but they are still very different from us and often in very different social circumstances. We might see people similar to ones we know, but if you think about it more they almost certainly are differences between the real person and the character on the page that reminds you of them. This point is addressed further in the relationship between the two readers. The reader is constantly trying to figure out Ludmilla. Is she interested in him? Why is she always late for their meetings? When we actually think about it, the reader character barely knows Ludmilla. He struggles to understand her and wonders if she is truly interested in him. Here, the novel is addressing the difficult question about how well we ever know anybody. How much do we truly understand the inner workings of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our friends? How much as readers do we understand what motivates Ludmilla? If the reader doesn’t know much about her and we only see the world through his eyes, how can we know much about her?

The novel offers other views about the purpose of reading. Ludmilla is the ideal reader. Ludmilla wants a pure and organic reading experience. She doesn’t want to know how books are made, revised, cut, changed, etc. She doesn’t desire books to comment on the deeper social world. She wants the final product, the book itself, to read for reading’s sake.

“For this woman . . . reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say (239).”

Reading for Ludmilla is a losing of one’s identity. We temporarily explore other worlds, other people’s experiences, other people who are not necessarily like us, and who have had different experiences from us. Reading for her seems to be about experiencing the world anew through the imagination. If there is deeper meaning to be found in literature it is the way it erases us as individuals and our petty concerns, and lets us experience the lives, worlds, and problems of others. The point for Ludmilla is the experience itself.

Some readers turn to books not to lose their identity and preconceptions, but to confirm and reaffirm their identity and political commitments. This is the case with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, who is presented as a typical left-wing university student. She states at various points in the novel that the purpose of books is not so much to read them as to analyze them for clandestine social impulses and political points. She doesn’t enjoy reading books, but rather the point for her is dissecting and discussing books. She reads books already knowing what she is looking for and then finds it.
Our third model is Ermes Marana, the main antagonist who is behind the forgeries that forms the core problem of the novel. He also has ideas about the nature of books and readers.

“As for him, he wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood (239).”

Unlike Ludmilla who views books as an escape into imagination, which may have the potential to change the way we view the world through new experiences different from our own lives and Lotaria who views books as social products to be critiqued and dissected, and thus are reflections of a certain social order that exists in the world, Ermes Marana believes that fiction is artifice. The world is meaningless, but stories give the illusion of meaning. His character who assumes multiple identities, fake credentials, and travels throughout the world on false pretenses embodies this understanding of reality. We never really learn who this man is in any definitive form. In a way, the character Ermes Marana is nothing but a series of artifices and false personas. Reading for him is about creating a variety of false meanings about the world to cover its meaninglessness. Is reading about the experience of exploring ideas, places, people, and worlds different and unknown to us that helps us open our mind to new experiences in the real world? Is reading about the pleasure of getting to the end of the story and feeling the comfort at the resolution of a problem? Is reading about challenging the status quo and an important political tool for change? Or is reading an act in which people fool themselves into creating false meaning and identity for their lives in a meaningless world? One might also see a hidden metaphor for life itself. Life is a series of stories and different people have different readings of other people’s lives. Ideal stories might always have an ending that resolves everything, but real life often doesn’t work that way and different narratives in our life don’t always have conclusions. Life often is a series of bumps and half-finished narratives, which we then replace with different narratives that matter more to us.

A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture by Sarah Pomeroy, Stanley Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Roberts, and David Tandy

Some people loathe textbooks. A textbook tends to be good for gaining a broad overview of a subject and good ones tend to be more accurate than mass market popular histories, but they usually lack depth and vitality. They are best used when one wants to get a grasp of the larger picture of a subject. This textbook delivers in that regard, but like most textbooks wasn’t the most engaging read. The post was tricky to write because I was trying to capture the most important aspects of Ancient Greece history that I learned from the book from an already “brief history” on the topic, condensing hundreds of pages into a post just short of 5000 words.

    Bronze Age Greece

Humans first arrived in Greece over 40,000 years ago. Obsidian found at Francthi Cave reveals that by 10,000 BC these early humans could cross the seas to acquire volcanic materials from the nearby island of Melos. As villages grew in size and complexity, local men obtained leadership roles as chieftains and over time these chieftains consolidated power to become hereditary kings, which led to the two major Bronze Age cultures in Greece.

By 2000 BC, the first of these major civilizations had developed on the island of Crete. Today we call this civilization Minoan after the myths about King Minos. Although we aren’t sure if the Minoans were one single unified society, we do know that they built monumental maze-like royal palaces at many different sites on Crete. The most famous and biggest of these palaces was at Knossos. These palaces all had the same basic design with a central courtyard surrounded by administrative buildings on one side and private chambers on the other. The palaces were decorated with beautiful frescos of plants, animals, and youthful human figures, which indicates a strong aesthetic appreciation of nature. Behind the administrative buildings there was vast rooms to store grains in large jars called pithoi. These palaces served as the administrative, political, economic, and religious centers of the town. They were at the heart of a redistributive economy in which farmers who lived in more modest homes in the area outside the palace and surrounding villages sent their grain and other produce to the palace to be stored and redistributed back to the population as needed. Surplus was traded with other societies across the Mediterranean, while the Minoan upper-class received rare metals and luxury items in return. Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoans worshipped on mountain tops, caves, and house sanctuaries, while the palace also seems to have played an important role in religious rituals. Some writing survives in the form of Linear A, which has remained largely untranslated, and is presumed to deal with mostly economic matters. Unfortunately, this means there is no literary evidence from this time period, making it difficult to interpret important cultural aspects.

The other major Bronze Age culture was the Mycenaens. Around 2100 – 1600 BCE, the Greek mainland may have experienced an invasion by speakers of an Indo-European language that would form the basis of early Greek. Some of the evidence for this is the sudden appearance of pottery work similar in style to the type of pottery found in Anatolia (associated with Indo-European speaker migrations), the sudden appearance of Greek on the mainland in written records with its linguistic links to other Indo-European languages, and the sudden appearance of destruction sites in Southern and Central Greece at thriving towns such as at Lerna in Argolis.

Heinrich Schliemann was the pioneering excavator at Mycenae. During his excavations he found elaborate shaft graves of Mycenaean royalty, one of which contained the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. Subsequent archeological work, however, has shown that the golden mask predates by 300 years the supposed events of the Trojan War. The Mycenaeans would bury their leaders in deep shaft graves surrounded by rich burial offerings such as ceremonial swords, fancy drinking vessels, and other elaborate gold work. Archeologist have found a lot of gold objects at Mycenae, but mainland Greece is not rich in gold, which suggests that it was brought in from elsewhere. This piece of evidence shows that Mycenae was a major power in the larger Mediterranean trading network. Unlike Crete, Mycenae had huge stone walls around their palaces, which Greeks of the classical period thought were built by the cyclops. These vast walls, chariot grave stones, and the ceremonial swords buried with the dead leaders suggest that Mycenaean society was controlled by an elite class of warrior-kings. The palaces functioned much like Minoan palaces, revealing Cretan cultural influence on Mycenae. However, this influence didn’t last forever.

Around 1700 BC, the palaces at Crete were destroyed. A second destruction followed around 1450 BC – 1375 BC. Knossos was burned and looted, which corresponded with the rise of Mycenae on the mainland and the appearance of Linear B tablets, an early form of Ancient Greek. Excavations at many archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean reveal an abundance of pottery in the Minoan style in the early Bronze Age, but if you excavate many of those sites 200 years later the pottery is Mycenaean in style, suggesting Mycenaean got a stronger control of the Aegean trade and eclipsed Minoan culture. The destruction layers as well as the sudden appearance of Linear B on Crete after these destruction levels suggest that the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans.

There are many theories about why the Mycenaean culture collapsed. Some believe the volcanic explosion at the island of Thera was the cause, while other theories involve Dorian invasions, speakers of a Greek dialect, and sometimes identified with the sons of the Herakles, returning to take back their land. Modern historians now believe Mycenaean culture experienced a total systems collapse. Shortage of food may have led to lower classes uprising against the warrior class or simply abandoning the town centers. Around this time Egyptians record invasions by sea peoples, which list names that may be Egyptian for the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks in the Iliad). Likewise, around this time the Philistines settled in Palestine and the earliest Philistine archaeological layers have Mycenaean pottery, and it was also at this time that the Hittite Empire disintegrated from invasions. There is some archaeological evidence that the Trojan War may have happened. However, one shouldn’t confuse The Iliad, a poetic and mythical presentation of a part of these events, which may have an historical kernel, with real history.

A “dark age” followed the fall of the Mycenaean culture. People abandoned society and ran to the hills. Many perhaps becoming itinerant herdsmen. No longer was Greek life centered on kings and palace culture, but chieftains arose again, controlling a single house with few smaller houses of retainers around him. However, historians now think the decay wasn’t uniform. Excavations at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea show evidence of a wealthy town. Archaeologists have discovered an elaborate burial shaft there where they found the body of a warrior and his wife with horses sacrificed to him, weapons, and other items revealing wealth. Towards the end of this period, a Protogeometric style of pottery appears and transforms into the Geometric style around 900 – 700 B. C. This style features new shapes with circles and semicircle patterns being replaced with angular patterns such as the “meander pattern,” zigzags, triangles, and crosshatches. Although there was no written records, this period also saw the rise of oral poets. These poets would travel around Greece, telling stories about heroes and the cycles of myths. These skilled storytellers would incorporate changes every time they told a particular story in order to appeal to the local lords and accommodate local tastes. It was in these oral stories that we have the origin of Homer’s epics that would serve as a cultural document for all the Greeks.

    Classical Greece

Classic Greece and the City-States begin in the 8th century through a process called Synoecism. Households turn into small villages, which turn into towns, and eventually into City-States. Synoecism involved various smaller communities uniting together into a single political entity usually centered on a single major city. The City-States, however, included all the surrounding territory around the city walls and sometimes smaller nearby towns and islands. Initially most City-States were controlled by an elite aristocracy who had also taken control of the best land during the Dark Ages. Unlike in the Dark Ages where the rule of individual towns or villages was usually held by a single aristocratic household, the City-States saw these aristocrats sharing power and administrative roles. Unfortunately this led to endemic class strife and aristocratic feuding between families known as stasis, which became a dominant feature of many City-States throughout the Classical Age.

This period also featured an extensive colonization effort by these new City-States in which members would set out an expedition to found a new City-State on a different piece of land. Each of these colonies was initially sponsored by their parent city-state and received a foundation charter with divine approval from an oracle. If the colony was successful, any members who left the mother city-state for the colony would renounce their citizenship and become citizens of the new colony. One explanation of the extensive colonization that followed the formation of City-States was that founding new colonies served as an outlet for surplus population, food shortages, and aristocratic feuding. Greece is a relatively rocky infertile land and much of the good farming areas were controlled by the aristocracy. The creation of new colonies helped control overpopulation, send away troublesome members of aristocratic families prone to feuds, and giving an opportunity for younger siblings who would inherit only minor property from their parents to acquire new fertile land and potential new wealth.
This period also witnesses the reappearance of written language. It is during this time that the Homeric poems are written down. The epic poems of Homer were the closest equivalent the Greeks had to a sacred text. They formed the basis for their code of moral behavior. It was a code that encouraged excellence in character, which posited that the worst thing that could befall a person was to be seen as inferior. It was a code that celebrated valor in battle. It was the basis of what all Greek men thought they should be and how they ought to act, their ideal. In order to write these epics, the Greeks had adopted Phoenician letters for their writing system, which they likely encountered during colonization. Unlike the heroes in Homer’s epics, the military structure changed from a loose formation of single warrior aristocratic elites to hoplite warfare. These hoplite soldiers would dress in helmets, breastplates, and grieves constructed of bronze and would stand shoulder to shoulder in a formation of multiple ranks that stood one right behind the other. These soldiers were equipped with a long spear for jabbing and a short sword for close combat, while carrying a large shield called a hoplon, which was big enough to protect the man on the left of the holder. The goal was to push forward and break the enemy’s ranks.

The class tensions that pitted the oligarchic-ruled city-states against the middle-class hoplite farmers, and the poor culminated in 670 – 500 BC in the “age of tyrants.” In many city-states, individuals, usually of the aristocratic class, but often marginalized members or those not part of the elite groups within that class, seized power for themselves with the help of the other classes. The tyrants supported the poor by redistributing portions of aristocratic lands and sponsoring laws to curtail aristocratic privileges. The tyrants also spent money on civic projects such as temples, fortifications, and improved infrastructure. They decorated these projects with lavish paintings of mythological scenes, and the sculptors of this period borrowed artistic forms from the Egyptians to carve stone and bronze statues. It was during the reign of Cypselus, the tyrant of Corinth, that the city-state invented the “black figure” technique of pottery, which became one of Corinth’s major exports. As other city-states started copying this innovative style, the Athenians invented the “red figure” style of pottery around 530 BC. When Peisistratus made himself tyrant of Athens in in 560 BC he had silver coins with the image of Athena and owl minted, which later developed into one of the strongest currencies in the Aegean. He also instituted the rebuilding of the temple to Athena on the Acropolis and founded the festival of Dionysia in honor of the deity of the same name, which would be the festival in the 5th century that featured Greek tragedies as part of its celebration. The tyrants also supported the writing of lyric poetry.

The 6th century also featured the first philosophers known as the pre-socratics who speculated about the ultimate nature of the universe. Although the city-states were divided politically, there were panhellenic institutions such as certain sacred sites like the oracle of the Apollo at Delphi and the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared by all Greeks. Athletic competitions brought the various Greek city-states together to compete at the Olympics; its popularity spawned similar contests at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, along with many other less notable ones. The main events at the Olympics were foot races, pankration (a mix of boxing and wrestling), and the pentathlon (five events that included: a short foot race, javelin, discuss throws, the long jump, and wrestling).

    Sparta and Athens

The two most famous city-states were Sparta and Athens. Prior to the 6th century Sparta was a typical Greek city-state, not much different than its neighbors with sophisticated artwork in pottery and poetry and celebrated female choruses. Somewhere in the 8th to 7th century, they engaged in warfare with their neighbors in Messenia, which forever changed the social and political destiny of Sparta. Unlike most Greek warfare where the combatants fought, one side fled, and usually some sort of agreement was hashed out after the fact, around 650 – 600 B. C., the Spartans enslaved the Messenians and took their land. The Messenians were reduced to the lowly status of helots, a social class somewhere between a slave and a medieval serf, and had to work the land they once owned, but which was now owned and controlled by a Spartan overlord. They were beaten once a year and forced to wear ridiculous clothes to illustrate their inferiority to the Spartans. Unlike a traditional slave in other Greek city-states, they were communal property and couldn’t be sold by individual owners. This event led Sparta to drastically change their society into a rigidly military-oriented one, which legend says was handed down to them by the fabled Lycurgus. The impetus for this change was having a helot population of Messenians who greatly outnumbered the Spartans. In order to maintain control, they had to rearrange society along militaristic lines. Spartans were taken as children at a young age to be educated in the military arts. Up until the age of thirty they lived in mess halls with their comrades away from their wives. They had to provide a certain proportion of food and drink to their mess halls from their property; if they failed to do this, they could lose their status at the top of society. The government was controlled by two hereditary kings who each had equal authority. While one led troops out in the field, the other would stay at home and run domestic affairs. The kings had military authority, performed religious services, and judicial powers. There was also a council of elders composed on twenty-eight men over the age of sixty who served for life. Any societal change to law had to be debated first by the council of elders before it went to the assembly and the council could overrule the assembly’s decisions by dismissing it. It could also judge criminal court cases. Another important office was the five Ephors who had the power to depose the kings, monitor his activities, and two of these Ephors always accompanied a king on military campaigns. As a check to their own power, Ephors only served one year and could not be reelected to the position. They were also in charge of a secret police, which consisted of young men who went out for a year to spy on the helots and could kill any helot with impunity caught fomenting rebellion or not on their assigned land. Unlike the Athenian assembly, the Spartan Assembly didn’t get the opportunity to discuss a new law, but they did vote on them. Through much of Western culture, Sparta was seen in an idealistic light. Plato, for example, adopts many of their ideas of eugenics and communal life for his Republic. The Greeks viewed it as a society of good order and harmony. In reality, it was a coercive and rigidly conservative society. This intense military life came at a cost; the sudden disappearance of pottery and artistic achievements and other important hallmarks of culture disappears shortly after these major societal changes.

Like most city-states, early Athens was governed by aristocrats. A series of legal reformers and important political leaders instituted the democratic reforms moderns associate with the city-state. In 620 BC, Draco (from whom we get the word “Draconian”) published his laws, the most important of which transformed homicide from a personal act that had to be avenged by the victim’s family to a trail run by a state magistrate. This law transferred the authority from the family in making laws and enacting justice to the state. Solon’s laws in the 590s addressed economic equality and the growing problem of debt slavery. No longer could poor sharecroppers be enslaved or have their property confiscated for being unable to pay back a loan. He revised the political representation system so that the middle-class could now hold lower offices in the government and the poorer classes could participate in the assembly, although slaves, resident aliens, and women were still excluded from participation. His most radical reform was that any citizen who believed a crime had been committed could bring forth an indictment against an individual; originally only the victim or the victim’s family could do so. This transformed justice from a personal and private matter to a societal matter.

    The Persian Wars

In the East, the Persian Empire arose in the 7th century and became a major world power. When Cyrus II conquered Lydia and defeated King Croesus he also captured the Greek city-states of Ionia that had begun as colonies. He placed puppet tyrants in charge of these city-states, which the Greeks resented. Eventually one of these tyrants, Aristagoras resigned his tyranny and led a rebellion that freed the city-states. However, six years into the rebellion the Ionian revolt was put down in a naval battle. The city of Miletus (a major cultural center where pre-socratic philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes had all lived and thrived) was destroyed, while the Persian King, Darius, desire for revenge for the destruction of Sardis led him to invade the Greek mainland. Many city-states such as Argos and Thebes submitted to Persian rule, believing they stood no chance against such a mighty empire, but the Athenians and Spartans held strong. The Persians had success at Eretria, burning the temples and exiling its people, but at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a major victory against the Persians. Although they were outnumbered, they were more heavily armored than the Persians and they surprised them. The Persian king Xerxes continued his father’s war. In 481, thirty-one Greek states met and formed the Hellenic League. The Athenians abandoned Attica and waited out the war on the island of Salamis. King Leonidas of Sparta brought seven thousand men to Thermopylae, but eventually dismissed the bulk of his forces, keeping only three hundred Spartans and a contingent of Thebans and Thespians to defend the pass. Although the Greeks were eventually defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae, they took an enormous amount of Persian troops with them, including many of the elite “Immortals,” the personal guard of the Persian king. The Battle of Salamis was a major naval victory against the Persians in which the Persians lost over two hundred ships. In 479, the Greeks assembled a massive army that defeated the Persian ground forces at Plataea and the naval ships liberated the Ionian city-states during the Battle of Mycale.

    The Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian War

The aftermath of the Persian Wars led to the founding of the Delian League. In 477 BC Athens and other Greek city-states met at Delos to unite in their fight against the Persians. Originally Sparta led the league, but dissatisfaction with Pausanias who served as commander of the league opened the door for Athenian leadership. The members of the league contributed either ships or monetary payments in which Athens held military command. However, when the island of Naxos attempted to leave the league, the Athenians and allies invaded and confiscated their ships, forcing the Naxians to continue making payments to the league. A similar fate happened to the Thracians when the island of Thasos rebelled against the league in 465 BC. The Athenians refusal to let any members leave and transformation of ships to money as payment for membership signaled the change from a temporarily alliance to the roots of an Athenian Empire based in the city-state’s superior naval power. At home, Athenains disagreed whether they should ally themselves with the Spartans. Cimon wanted to honor the alliance between Athens and Sparta. Cimon led a force of Athenians to Sparta to assist them against some rebelling helots who had taken advantage of the chaos brought on by a massive earthquake that occurred in 460 BC in the region. However, the conservative Spartans dismissed the Athenians, perhaps disturbed by their democratic notion so at odds with the Spartan mentality, which caused a breakdown of this alliance. Athens allied themselves with Argos, and Cimon was ostracized from the city. Cimon’s political rival, Ephialtes instituted democratic politic reforms, especially weakening the traditional Council of the Areopagus.

The early 5th century was a fecund period in art and literature. Simonides and Pindar developed epinician odes (poems about athletic victory). There was a transformation in the visual arts from stylistic archaic art inspired by Egypt to one that featured more action and naturalistic forms. It was this period that saw the birth of tragedy. The three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote their plays during this time. Aeschylus created an innovation by adding a second actor with a speaking role that enhanced the dramatic quality of Ancient Greek plays. Greek drama came in sets of four plays per day during the festival of Dionysus in March. Over the course of the festival, the audience would watch a new set of four plays each day and eventually vote on one playwright to win a prize for the best set of work. From Aeschylus we have the only surviving Greek trilogy intact, The Oresteia, which has three plays that are thematically linked.

The Peloponnesian War was a series of three separate wars stretching from 460 to 404. The famous leader, Pericles convinced the countryside farmers to take refuge in the city with the hopes that the enemy’s ground forces would tire of attacking unoccupied villages and ask for peace, which is a good strategy for a short-term war. Unfortunately a devastating plague broke out in the city in 430 BC, which took Pericles’ life. This left a political hole that allowed the rise of demagogues like Cleon, a tanner, whose success in business and anti-aristocratic attitudes brought him to power. As the fighting ensued, Sparta sent soldiers to the Island of Sphacteria in response to a fortress the Athenians were building at Pylos. An Athenian naval victory left these Spartan soldiers stranded and captive to Athens. Not wishing to lose any men, the Spartans sought an armistice that would have ended the war, but Athenian overconfidence and advantage prevented them from accepting. In 424, the Spartans had renewed success in the war with the rise of Brasidas, charismatic military leader. He persuaded Acanthus, Stagirus, and Argilus to revolt, but his most important achievement was bringing over Amphipolis, which was an important Athenian territory that protected their grain shipments. Cleon and Brasidas died in the Battle of Amphipolis. Shortly after, the Spartans and Athenians signed the Peace of Nicias (named after the Athenian negotiator of same name) and Aristophanes, a major comic playwright, wrote his play Peace. The terms of the treaty not only brought a temporary end to the fighting, but mostly maintained the status quo. Although Sparta wanted to sign it, most of its major allies—Corinth, Megara, and Boeotia—refused to sign.

The Athenians had their own members of society who wanted a return to war. Alcibiades, a student of Socrates and a flamboyant handsome aristocrat, wanted to rekindle the war in order to make a name for himself. He convinced the Athenians to invade Sicily in 415. The Athenians sent a huge navy and military force. On the way there, Alcibiades changed sides to Sparta in order to avoid trial at Athens for a sacrilegious prank that many Athenians blamed on him, although he may not have been responsible, involving the dismembering of herms outside Athenian homes (statues in front that bore Hermes face and phallus). Alcibiades convinced the Spartans that Athens was planning to conquer Sicily and Italy. Sparta reentered the war, and after underestimating Sicilian forces, Athens lost a bulk of their military forces, while gaining nothing for their troubles. Sparta defeated Athens eight years later. Although a huge loss, the war oscillated over the next few years with Athens looking like it would achieve victory only for Sparta to come back, then Athens, then Sparta. Finally the war ended at the Battle at Aegospotami, which was won by Lysander of Sparta who cut off Athens from their major source of grain and captured many ships. Thebans, Corinthians, and Spartan allies wanted to punish Athens by destroying the city, killing all the males, and selling the women and children into slavery (like the Athenians did the Melos earlier in the war), but Sparta spared Athens out of respect for their service to Greece’s earlier wars with Persia.
The Peloponnesian war drained city-states of resources and dwindled trade. This deadly war caused Greeks to rethink some of their treasured values and unsurprisingly this was the time of Socrates and the sophists who questioned traditional values, including at times, the system of democracy itself. Statis (class warfare) continued to plague most of the city-states and oligarchic forces vied with democratic forces for control, while Sparta often interfered in many city-states affairs and propped up pro-Spartan aristocrats.

    The Macedonians: Philip II and Alexander the Great

Persistent warfare and the city-states inability to unite left an opening for Philip II and the Macedonians. Although the Macedonians spoke a dialect of Greek, the Greeks considered them barbarians. Macedonian kings practiced polygamy, drank unmixed wine, and had tumulus burial rather than cremation and internment. Macedonian culture was not focused on city-states, but rural lands beholden to nobility. Born in 382 BC, Philip II stabilized Macedon by defeating neighboring enemies and dynastic rivals by introducing new military tactics. These tactics followed the principles of hoplite phalanx formation, but armed troops with long pikes that they could use to strike down enemies from a distance. When opposing armies would try to adjust to these tactics, Philip employed a reserve cavalry force to attack the confused forces. Philip not only united Macedon and his neighbors, but extended his influence over Greece. It was the Battle of Chaeronea in Boetia that established his dominance over Greece. Despite his military success, Philip was assassinated at Aegae in 336 by a member of his bodyguard who had grievances over his treatment at the hands of Philip’s 7th wife Cleopatra and her family. The marriage to Cleopatra also threatened Alexander’s position as heir.

Nevertheless, Alexander did ascend to the throne and became a great military leader who defeated the Persian Empire in a series of campaigns. The Battle of Granicus (334 BC) won him Anatolia from Persia, while the Battle of Issus (333 BC) destroyed the main forces of Persia and forced Darius III to flee. Alexander’s success and pursuit of Darius III led Darius’ own generals to assassinate him. Alexander in his victory over Persia also destroyed Persepolis, the spiritual heart of the Persian Empire. Alexander’s legendary military prowess could easily be described as recklessness and in many battles he was only seconds away from being killed. At various points of his campaign his own soldiers mutinied, resenting their extensive time away from Macedon and the growing importance of former Persian citizens in Alexander’s army. Alexander died 323 BC likely from a disease contracted from wounds gained on the battlefield.