Ten reasons, from philosophy to the joke, for celebrating the high-achieving ancient Greeks.
WHY should we still care about the ancient Greeks? Surely these dead white males were overrated, and we should be looking further afield now? And anyhow, what made them so much more significant than the ancient kingdoms of West Africa, say, or Mesopotamia, or the Far East?
The classicist Edith Hall is an unapologetic Hellenophile, who sets out here to defend “the argumentative, inspirational, beauty-loving and hedonistic pagan Greeks”, and explain why they remain the greatest and most influential civilisation the world has ever seen. In a user-friendly but never dumbed-down approach to these questions, she gives us 10 reasons why the Greeks were uniquely high achievers.
Her first reason, and the source of all the others, is their adventurous seafaring tradition. The Greeks and their colonies, from the Crimea to Gibraltar, always looked out to sea, “like frogs around a pond”, as Plato put it. The Greek mainland is mountainous, hard to traverse and difficult to farm, but with all its headlands, inlets and islands, she tells us, Greece has a proportion of coastline to land area higher than any other country. This outward-looking spirit gave the Greeks an energetic curiosity and open-mindedness about other cultures, immortalised in The Odyssey — although Odysseus still longed to get home eventually.
We have to be careful here. The Greeks were no soppy multiculturalists, fondly regarding the other cultures around them as their equals, or even their superiors. Anyone who didn’t speak Greek was simply a “barbarian” (a word that, by pleasing irony, comes from the Sumerian barbaru, meaning “foreigner”). All great cultures have been arrogant and xenophobic, and the Greeks were no exception: they laughed a lot at funny foreigners.
Nevertheless, they were happy to take ideas, techniques and stories from others. They took their alphabet from the Phoenicians, they learnt how to mint coins from the Lydians (from modern-day Turkey), and it seems that the Babylonians knew something about Pythagoras’s theorem long before Pythagoras appeared.
Some writers, eager to downgrade the Greeks’ achievements, have tried to argue that they didn’t originate anything at all, they just stole. The English scholar Martin Bernal, most egregiously, in his 1987 work Black Athena, tried to argue that Greek culture was really Egyptian, and therefore African. A painful attempt to stretch a truth to make it please modern sensibilities, Bernal’s argument was duly shredded by scholars.
Although there are elements in Greek culture that relate to Egypt, most notably in its mythology, the Greeks’ greatest achievements were unique and without precedent. In just a couple of generations, a single city, Athens, produced the men who created the world’s first recognisable history, philosophy, tragedy, comedy, democracy (sort of —though all democracies are only sort of): ways of studying the world and understanding ourselves, which still make perfect sense to us today, in a manner that the ancient Egyptian myths of Osiris and Isis do not. Yet Athens’s population of free citizens at this time was only around 30,000 — about the same as East Grinstead.
The Venus de Milo, c100BC
Certain key traits that Hall attributes to the ancient Greeks are absolutely crucial, and quite unknown to the God-King tyrannies around them. The Greeks were “suspicious of authority, individualistic and inquiring”. Indeed one of their greatest myths is that of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus — thereby making “the origin of human progress…depend on a primeval flouting of authority”. A more rebellious reversal of the Book of Genesis is harder to imagine. But then, as the Greeks might also remind us dryly, Prometheus did have to pay a high price. They were never utopians.
The Athenians could criticise their leaders with outrageous freedom and ostracise them: expel them from the city for no given reason, just because they didn’t like them. Hall is surely right to relate this “democratic” development to the rise of comedy and satire. The Greeks produced the world’s first joke books, gave us the first example of a stand-up female comedian in mythology (Iambe), and had at least 20 different words meaning “mock” or “laugh at”. In the plays of Aristophanes, it feels like the first time a people were able to stand outside themselves and laugh, to self-criticise: one of the West’s greatest traits, regrettably absent from certain other cultures, with disastrous results for all, producing minds closed inwards, and violent antagonism outwards.
Hall is also very good on what she calls the Greeks’ “emotional honesty” or, quoting Nietzsche, “that strong, severe, hard realism”, especially regarding the darker side of human nature. They wrote that vengeance is “the most acute of all pleasures”, they knew that sex can be unbelievably destructive rather than loving, that slaves nursed murderous hatred towards their owners, that we like seeing the rich and powerful in trouble, and that we are all in fierce competition with each other. Sometimes this Greek “emotional honesty” may seem harsh, but it never seems hypocritical. They saw human nature without illusion, they were profoundly pessimistic, but still full of the love of life.
Hall’s survey is wide-ranging and often unexpected: she finds room for Minoan Crete as well as Classical Athens, for instance, and the Mycenaeans, who gave us our words for celery (serino is what Agamemnon would have called it) and cumin, which he called kumino. And she also looks forward to the brilliant achievements of the later Ptolemaic Greeks in Alexandria. Hall’s book might not have the amiable schoolmasterly tones of HDF Kitto’s 1951 classic The Greeks, or the cultivated elegance of CM Bowra’s The Greek Experience (1958), but it is still a worthy and lively introduction to one of the two groups of ancient peoples who really formed the western world. The other lot were an entirely non-European people called the Jews, who gave us virtually all our sense of justice and morality. But that’s another story, and not heard so often nowadays.
The Spartans may have been the most militaristic Greeks, but they were also said to be the wittiest, and were one of only two city-states to build a temple to the god of laughter, Gelos. Particularly famous were their one-liners. When the Persians at Thermopylae, for instance, demanded that King Leonidas and his men hand over their weapons, his reply was crisp: ‘Come and get them.’