Review by: Steven Saylor, Author of Roma Sub Rosa series - February 26, 2010
"An indie rock release from Austin, Texas, relating the history of the Peloponnesian War? You'll believe it when you hear it. Athens v. Sparta-about the conflict the historian Thuycidides called "a great war, more worthy of recounting than any that preceded it"-features songs like "The Oligarchic Coup" and "The Sicilian Disaster." The combination of grim narration, ethereal music and trenchant lyrics is spellbinding." - Steven Saylor, Author of Roma Sub Rosa series
Review by: Terry Smart, Professor of History, Trinity University - February 26, 2010
"In a little less than an hour, this new CD offers an engaging and historically sound account of the major events of the Peloponnesian War and introduces Pericles, Lysander, and other figures in Greek history. In the style of a Greek drama, the narrator presents the story, drawing on the written words of Thucydides and Xenophon, while a singer takes the role of the chorus, highlighting the action with contemporary music and language. I commend the script as a substitute for any textbook narrative, in part because it relates events of the Peloponnesian War to issues in present-day politics and war familiar to students. The original music composed for this production provides an effective background for the spoken word and heightens the tragedy of the war. I regret that this CD was not available years ago when I first began teaching Western Civilization courses! I would have made use of it every semester."- Terry L. Smart, Ph.D., Professor of History, Trinity University
Review by: Chris Parker, San Antonio Current - February 26, 2010
"A combination pop-opera, Greek drama, modern allegory, and historical CliffsNotes created by Trinity University history grad and musician Charlie Roadman, the album resonates on several levels and is likely unlike anything you've ever heard. It details how Athens' cultural hubris, faltering democracy, self-serving oligarchs, indifference to its allies, and ill-considered military adventurism resulted in a war doomed by poor prosecution and overextended forces." - Chris Parker, San Antonio Current
Review: The Onion - February 26, 2010
The Peloponnesian War has already spawned scores of historical texts and dry documentaries, but leave it to Austin's Charlie Roadman (F For Fake) to try setting it to music. The lawyer by day/rocker by night delves deep into Thucydides' classic story on his new Athens Vs. Sparta, teasing out its finer details by pitting the established text (narrated by Hyde Park Theatre Artistic Director Ken Webster) against his own lyrical interludes, which are more concerned with feelings than facts. It all works surprisingly well thanks to vocalist Kevin Higginbotham's ear for gorgeous melody, adding an undercurrent of pathos to a story that was previously all about dudes pummeling the shit out of each other."
- The Onion
Review by: Timothy Moore, The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Classics, - February 26, 2010
"I am very impressed. The CD is both historically accurate and musically very interesting. I enjoyed it immensely. Charlie's talk about the making of the album and the live performance by Athens v. Sparta made an outstanding contribution to the 2009 annual meeting of the Texas Classical Association"- Timothy J. Moore, Department of Classics, The University of Texas at Austin
Review by: Allan Kownslar, Trinity University, San Antonio - February 26, 2010
"Athens v. Sparta is most suitable for use in the classroom, especially when either secondary or college-level students study the history of Greece. And what a way to study history anyway! I only hope more teachers learn about the composition and try it in their classes." - Dr. Allan Kownslar, Professor of History, Trinity University, San Antonio
Review by: Tim O'Sullivan, Trinity University, San Antonio - February 26, 2010
"Here at Trinity, we read Thucydides every year in our "Great Books" course for first year students, and he can be a difficult sell, coming right after the more immediately accessible Iliad and Oresteia. Not so this year -- students were excited to have a performance by Athens v. Sparta tied in with the reading, and many of the students clearly brought their friends along for the show. And they were treated to an incredible performance; the show was very well received, by students, faculty, and community members alike. I would recommend the show to any students interested in ancient history or political science -- or to students who just like good music!" - Tim O'Sullivan, Professor of Classics, Trinity University, San Antonio
Review by: Jennie Luongo, St. Andrew's Upper School - February 26, 2010
Athens v. Sparta, written by Charlie Roadman, not only captures the history of the Peloponnesian Wars, but truly brings the work of Thucydides to life. The musical setting provides an opportunity for a new look at this part of ancient history, forcing the listeners see it in a modern light. The performance was the perfect Friday night entertainment for the group at the Texas Classical Association's Annual Fall Conference. Conferees universally praised the performance. The band definitely made Classics cool!
I also thoroughly enjoyed Charlie's talk at the conference about his journey to translate Thucydides' work into a modern rock opera. His remarks offered insight on the enduring power of the Classics. Charlie is an excellent, thought-provoking speaker whose life experiences brought a different perspective to the conference. - Jennie Luongo, Latin Department Chair/College Counselor, St. Andrew's Upper School
Review: Executive Pagan Blog - February 26, 2010
You can hear the whole thing at the link, with an option to download or buy a copy - it's well worth a listen. - Executive Pagan Blog
Review: San Antonio Current - April 15, 2009
Ancient Greece reflects modern politics on Charlie Roadman's war record
Our cities grow in size, our awareness of the world around us increases, technology steadily advances, but some things remain immutable, chief among them human nature. The cliché says those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it, but perhaps it's less a problem of knowledge than our own inherent failings and short-sightedness. Though airwaves abound with cop reality shows and courtroom dramas, crime abides. Ancient religious teachings continue to be used as justifications for violence. And, despite the many fruitless wars revisited in texts dating back thousands of years, we still plunge into quagmires with logic-defying frequency, suggesting rationality has nothing to do with it at all.
These are a few of the insights gleaned from Athens v. Sparta, a fascinating 15-track musical condensation of the Peloponnesian War based on Thucydides and Xenophon's recounting of the conflict. A combination pop-opera, Greek drama, modern allegory, and historical CliffsNotes created by Trinity University history grad and musician Charlie Roadman, the album resonates on several levels and is likely unlike anything you've ever heard. It details how Athens' cultural hubris, faltering democracy, self-serving oligarchs, indifference to its allies, and ill-considered military adventurism resulted in a war doomed by poor prosecution and overextended forces.
"The story's about passions being inflamed and then some bad ideas that come from that. So, yeah, it's pretty relevant," says Roadman, who works as a criminal-defense attorney in Austin. "Things just jump off the page in Thucydides because you relate to them. There's a lot about it that people respond to because we've just witnessed eight years of [war], but it wasn't deliberate. It's just that the irony of things really makes for good lyrics."
The album intersperses narration from Thucydides' text, read by Ken Webster, creative director of Austin's Hyde Park Theatre, with singing by Kevin Higginbotham and atmospheric backdrops painted with guitar strums, effervescing loops, skittering beats, and shimmery washes of melody that melt easily into the woodwork. Roadman fashioned the music from the contributions of 19 musicians who call either Austin or San Antonio home. He describes it as "downtempo pop," and it isn't far removed for electronic chill-out music, giving the 2,400-year-old history lesson a ghostly futuristic sheen.
As the conflict winds chronologically through its 27-year course, the modern-day resonance is striking. In "Civil War in Corcyra: Stasis," Webster explains that as revolution spread, the meanings of commonly accepted words were changed to suit opportunistic politicians. "Reckless audacity was declared courage. Exhibiting foresight and caution meant you were a coward and deceitful. The ability to see all sides of a question meant that you were unable to act on any. Plotting against your opponents was a justifiable means of self-defense. Party membership and loyalty came to be regarded as the highest virtues," Webster intones in his measured but forceful delivery.
In "Nicias Warns the Athenians Again," when Athens considers attacking the island of Sicily even as the war with Sparta rages, general and politician Nicias counsels against it, citing the size of the country and its distance from home. "It is folly to go against men who could not be kept under, even if conquered," goes the passage. "The Helenes in Sicily would fear us most if we never went there at all, and next to this, if after displaying our power, we went away again as soon as possible." The expedition ended in utter failure. Later, as the war turns decidedly against the Athenians, those who sounded the drumbeat in the beginning backtrack, brazenly declaring themselves lifetime pacifists.
"While Charlie was focused on being true to the text, when you listen to the record and look at the passages, it's clearly about the disintegration of democracy, and people exploiting loopholes in democracy to become brutish and violent. There's a lot of parallels there, and I think as people listen to the record they tune into that, because it's such an uncertain time for our own democracy," says Higginbotham, who's been playing with Roadman in bands such as F4Fake since they were both
The album's genesis goes back to 1991, when Roadman and Buttercup singer Erik Sanden were assigned Thucydides and Xenophon's couple-thousand-page tome, and blew off reading it until three days before the final. Justifiably concerned, they crammed by reading alternate chapters then recounting the events to each other, effectively halving the assignment. The story stuck with them, and eight years ago Sanden bought Roadman the definitive edition of the text, The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert Strassler.
This encouraged Roadman to write a song about Pericles' funeral oration, a rabble-rousing rant that provoked the Athenians into war, reminding them of their glorious history and suggesting that "judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom, and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war." It was still more a lark than obsession at this point. "I was just writing songs about whatever amused me, history, news, or National Geographic," Roadman says.
A few years later, he wrote another song based on the Peloponnesian War, "Life in the Spartan Army," and then another, and decided to dedicate an entire album to the war. Comparing it to Christo wrapping the Reichstag, he admits that, "I pretty much knew it was an absurd thing, and that's what attracted me to it. Just the absurdity of doing something I was laughing about the second I thought about it."
The scope of the effort certainly compares. Roadman would spend the next five years working on the album. First there was the problem of shrinking the history down to a chronology of less than 60 minutes of music and text without sacrificing historical accuracy or missing any of the pivotal events and themes. Then he had to make sure it was listenable.
Initially Roadman tried to compose the tracks with a live band, but found the sound problematic. It was too much like indie rock, and he wanted something "more modern, or at least not identifiable by genre." There was also the issue of making the lyrics intelligible. He approached Webster about the project and intended only to have him read an introduction, but got so carried away with the many great passages in the text that soon Webster's role became central to the project, and the music changed accordingly.
Roadman began constructing loops with the music-editing software Ableton, which allowed him to create music sequences around Webster's narration that matched the tempo of his delivery. He sliced and diced samples performed for him by his many musician friends, and slowly constructed musical sound beds for the narration and Higginbotham's singing. After sequencing the underlying song, he'd bring it back to the band to play over live.
"I'd edit with my headphones and my laptop computer for eight hours at a time. My wife barely tolerated it," Roadman chuckles. "I would just disappear and would sit there, trying to figure out how to make it sound listenable. … I don't think anyone was keen on it. I'd be really enthusiastic, and they'd look at me blankly, but I sort of took that as a compliment, like that's just how crazy of an idea it is. So the more blankly they'd look at me the more I'd go, 'Yeah I'm going to write this.'"
The effort dragged on. "You'd get the reaction, 'He's still working on that?'" Charlie's brother and drummer Jamie Roadman remembers.
Higginbotham sang and re-sang the vocal parts, attempting different intonations and deliveries to help it all mesh together. He says their friends began to refer to it as a local version of Chinese Democracy whenever he'd bring it up. "They'd be like, 'Maybe you and Axl will get that out the same time next year,'" Higginbotham recalls. Indeed, by Roadman's reckoning, he could still be working on it. There are still a few songs he didn't end up using, and hours of Webster's narration, but at some point he had to cut the cord.
The finished product impressed everyone involved, many of whom had only played on part of the album, and hence couldn't see the big picture. Roadman held an initial CD release in Austin, which sold out and concluded with a standing ovation. Webster echoes many of the participants when he says, "I didn't know there would be that kind of an audience for it."
But the response extends beyond those who saw the show or bought the disc to area history professors, such as Trinity's Allan Kownslar, who taught Roadman.
"It is quite refreshing to see a former student exploit his talents from what he also learned as part of a university's liberal-arts education to create such a work," Kownslar wrote in response to an email query. "The composition is most suitable for use in the classroom, especially when either secondary or college-level students study the history of Greece. And what a way to study history anyway! I only hope more teachers learn about the composition and try it in their classes."
This is Roadman's hope as well. He's already booked to play the Texas Classical Association Conference in Austin in October, and is considering putting together a study guide to go with the disc. He's hoping that it will engender more conference invitations. "That sort of appeals to me, because, after playing, instead of sleeping in a van we get to stay in a nice hotel," he says.
While not anxious to embark on another epic five-year project, Roadman is considering composing more historically based music, perhaps an EP focusing on a battle from the Peloponnesian War that he didn't get to cover on the album, or a piece about the 1857 Sepoy using information he learned in another class at Trinity.
"Athens v. Sparta was about history, music, literature, and, to so some degree, politics," Roadman says. "Kind of where all the major pieces of my personality intersect, which I think is why I kept going and enjoyed it so much." o
Review by: Patrick Beach, Austin-American Statesman - January 23, 2009
Funny what college does to you. Example:
Charlie Roadman and Erik Sanden (now of the band Buttercup, and not to be confused with the similarly named Erik Sandin of the punk rockers NOFX) are attending Trinity University in San Antonio in 1991. They have a class together in which they're studying Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian War - one of the great historical texts by one of the greatest historians in all of Western civilization (completed by Xenophon after the aristocrat warrior Thucydides' death) and without question one of the densest. The conflict that began as a "commotion" between Athens and Sparta spanned decades, from 431-401 B.C., involved many hundreds of battles and included about as many people as are currently hanging out on Facebook. The story is one of barbarism and atrocity, heroism, plagues, mountains of corpses, speeches, military overreaching, the suffering of the civilian populations, political skullduggery and what happens when a democracy fails to live up to its ideals. It is not, in other words, a beach read.
All semester long, these two students could and should have been reading the book - Roadman recalls it was probably the Penguin version. But Roadman maintained that they didn't have to tackle it until closer to finals and Sanden, being a year younger and way too trusting, said OK.
Well. As finals loomed, they basically spent 72 solid hours immersing themselves, dividing up chapters and summarizing to one another as they surely plummeted into slumber-deprived delirium and fatigue.
You'd think such a traumatic experience would lead to a lifelong aversion to anything remotely related to ancient Greece, including olives, feta and watching Greco-Roman wrestling when the Olympics come around. But the story got into Roadman's bones, and now, lo these many years later, comes a CD.
No, seriously. Around five years ago Roadman - who's now a criminal-defense lawyer in Austin and who's been in a bunch of bands over the years - decided he'd write one song about the conflict. And eventually what came out, after a gestation that threatened to last nearly as long as the war itself, was "Athens v. Sparta: A History of the Peloponnesian War," an indie rock CD with Roadman's original songs, vocals by his longtime pal Kevin Higginbotham, spoken-word narration by actor Ken Webster and the contributions of, all told, around 20 musicians from Austin and San Antonio. About 10 of those players will attempt to cram themselves onto the stage at the Cactus CafÃ© tonight, where they'll play the work in its entirety.
And now you're thinking, "Um, this sounds soooo like a terrible idea, writing pop songs about a war from antiquity" but, quite honestly, these guys have done a first-rate job. The disc is eminently listenable, the production crisp, Higginbotham's vocals outstanding and its fidelity to historical verisimilitude (although scholars still debate whether Thucydides should be read as straight-up history or literature) unimpeachable. Maybe Roadman kept this quote in mind from the man himself: "But, the bravest are surely those who have the dearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out and meet it."
Roadman first wrote just one song, "a particularly ironic one where Pericles is encouraging the Athenians to go to war."
Then he got to thinking: "If you have a dark sense of humor, there are certainly amusing parts to it," he said. "I thought a whole album about the Peloponnesian War would be pretty funny."
For his part, Higginbotham sees themes that still resonate today.
"You kind of see democracy going a little bit crazy," Higginbotham said. "There's something about that that's striking. There's this belief that democracy is foolproof. It's about when democracy becomes polluted and a bit brutish."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Kevin," said Roadman, the more cautious of the two to connect ancient Greece with today's troubled times.
But of course the musicians couldn't help but be struck by the timing. As Higginbotham, a technology consultant, put it, "We were going through eight years of a pretty undefined war."
"It was cathartic, for sure," Roadman said.
Partly because of the size of the band, tonight's performance may well be a one-time deal. There will be a short lecture on the war before the band kicks in. And Roadman has a presentation ready to go for any schools or college classes that may be interested. The CD is for sale through the usual outlets and at athensvsparta.com for anyone who missed out on Peloponnesian War knowledge or just wants a musical dose of a classic story.
And what's next for Roadman?
"I've been reading up on the Sepoy Rebellion," he says a bit sheepishly.
Ah, yes. That would be the 1857 rebellion of Indian sepoys - soldiers for the East India Trading Company - after they were issued guns that allegedly were to be greased with animal fat. Perfect for another CD.
"I think Charlie went to about six hours of classes while we were at Trinity," Higginbotham said. "And one of the classes was on Thucydides and the other was on the Sepoy Rebellion."
By Patrick Beach
Review: Austin Chronicle, Jan 22, 2009 - January 22, 2009
"Athens v. Sparta is exactly what the title suggests: a history of the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BCE. Conceived and created by Charlie Roadman of locals F for Fake, the album sets narration by Hyde Park Theatre's Ken Webster from the histories of Thucydides and Xenophon to pleasantly downbeat electronic pop. Roadman's bandmate Kevin Higginbotham plays Nate Dogg to Webster's Warren G, crooning melodic interludes that provide imagined first-person perspective on the conflict. Such a project is necessarily somewhat quixotic: Thucydides' account alone runs more than 300 pages, of which the album can cover only a fraction. So, despite Roadman's best efforts (including an attractive lyric sheet and map), a listener coming to the CD in ignorance will require further reading in order to know what the heck is going on and why. Still, incentivizing the further study of history is hardly a major flaw." - Austin Chronicle, Jan 22, 2009