This book, which covers one of the most remarkable eras in the history of mankind, attempts to be both scholarly and literary/popular. Unfortunately, while the content of it is utterly fascinating, the way it is written - or translated - leaves much to be desired: the style is flat and dull, frequently unclear, and simply a chore to plod through.
That being said, it covers the flowering of Athens as an imperialist democracy after the defeat of the Persian invasion that briefly united Greece. In the wake of the peace that followed, Athens used the Delian League to create an empire, drawing enormous wealth into the city state and dominating innumerable smaller states, eventually threatening the hegemony of the Spartans in the Pelopponesus. By developing a naval empire, the Athenians needed to enlist the loyalty of lower classes to man the boats and serve as hoplites, which encouraged the development of direct democracy.
Meier meticulously covers the details of these developments in a masterful synthesis of scholarship - it is a kind of updating of the Kulturgeschichte of Burckhart and is very valuable. THe reader is treated to the unique characteristics of Athens as well: it was in an era before there were "specialists" and so everyone was expected to participate in the city's governance, sometimes by elections and sometimes by lot; for historical reasons, Greece had lacked heredity kingships (and empires) to fall back on, preferring instead to guard the independence of smaller and more directly governable city states.
What was particularly interesting was Meier's portrayal of the excitment - the sense that all boundaries were crumbling - that permeated Athens of this period. In this he is certainly correct: we see the rise of Perikles, the great Greek trajedians, the beginning of modern philosophy, the flowering of artistic realism, and new forms of architecture. Meier views all of these developments as of a living organism, mixing political history with art criticism and long interpretations of the contemporary events that the dramas may have been referring to. In spite of these achievements, Meier also studies the fatal flaws and contradictions of this democratic experiment, in Athens' need to subjugate others in the name of democracy, the tendency of the citizens to indulge in excess and sudden blame, and the rise of demagogues. Thus, the portrait of the city is very well rounded. From that point, Meier moves to more military history, chronicalling the catastrophies of the Peloponessian War in painful detail. It is here, really, that the notion of the West and Europe were born.
However, it is amazing to me that the book is so poorly edited. The prose is leaden and utterly lacking in style, as in so much of the academic tradition. But the content is so interesting and compelling that it kept my interest through 600 pages. Indeed, I want to read more on the period.