Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Nancy Evans

Professor Evans’ new book Civic Rites: Democracy and Religion in Ancient Athens explores the origins of Western democracy by examining the government of fifth-century BCE Athens in the larger context of ancient Greece and the eastern Mediterranean.

Why did you write it? I wrote it for students and the interested public because I wanted non-specialists to understand how relevant the ancient world is. As I was writing it, I imagined my brother, who is an engineer, as the audience. He has never quite understood why I am so passionate about ancient Greece.

Matters of course. This book emerged from my courses on Plato, Greek tragedy and women and religion in the ancient world. Fifteen years of teaching and leading discussions in college classrooms have repeatedly taught me that the ancient world is good to think with. We can study the past, and then pause and reflect on our current path, and our own values.

Common themes. The ancient Mediterranean was a complex place inhabited by diverse peoples and nations who tackled problems similar to the ones we face today: power, ambition, and greed; maintaining access to the material resources necessary for growing economies; questions about the nature of justice, and appropriate ethical behavior; the changing place of religion in society; conflicts with foreign peoples too frequently regarded as aggressive barbarians; and internal tensions and heated debates about whether a democratic state could, or even should, create and sustain an empire.

Coin of the realm. It was the people of ancient Athens who fashioned the first democracy, and even coined the word from their Greek words for“people” and “power,” but the Athenians do not provide us with a model of the exemplary democratic state.  Some decisions made by the Athenians were far from admirable. But at the same time, Athenian philosophers, poets, architects and artists created works of lasting beauty, proportion and grace. Their ideas infuse the modern world we inhabit, and their symbols steal into our dreams.

Take away. I hope readers will see that the Athenians were both very much like us in some ways, and also quite different. The past is a foreign country. We can visit it, and when we return home, we have a deeper understanding of ourselves. We can see anew what is important to us in the present, and then reconsider the steps we want to take going forward.