The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western Worldby Charles Freeman, Buxhall Vale
Charles Freeman's The Greek Achievement traces the entire course of ancient Greek history across thousands of yearsfrom the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations of the Bronze Age through the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. This brilliant account celebrates the incredible range of Greek achievement: the architectural marvels/b>/b>
Charles Freeman's The Greek Achievement traces the entire course of ancient Greek history across thousands of yearsfrom the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations of the Bronze Age through the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. This brilliant account celebrates the incredible range of Greek achievement: the architectural marvels of the Athenian Acropolis; the birth of drama and the timeless tragedies of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles; Homer's epics; the philosophical revolutions of Plato and Aristotle; and the conquests of Alexander the Great. Lavishly illustrated with photographs and maps, The Greek Achievement paints a sweeping panorama of the ancient Greeks' world and provides a rich, contemporary overview of their enduring contribution to world civilization.
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Read an Excerpt
Recreating the World of Ancient Greece
If there is one icon (Greek eikon, an image or likeness) that stands for ancient Greece and its leading city-state of the fifth century B.C., Athens, it is the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena, as maiden, parthenos, which rises in splendor on the Acropolis of Athens. Millions of visitors to Greece each year toil upwards through the summer heat of Athens to offer it the appropriate homage. It is seen as standing for purity, beauty, and even a form of moral and intellectual integrity. It is proclaimed as the crowning achievement of the society which founded Western civilization.
The period of Greek history, the classical period, in which the Parthenon was built has also been given iconic status. Athens was basking in the glory of having defeated two invasions by the largest empire, the Persian, the world had yet seen. It was exulted as the defender of freedom against the forces of tyranny. "If to die well be the chief part of virtue, fortune granted this to us above all others; for striving to endure Greece with freedom we lie here possessed of praise that grows not old," wrote the poet Simonides. "Our city is an education to Greece ... Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now," enthused her statesman Pericles, the man responsible for building the Parthenon, in 431 B.C. The city was run democratically with every citizen having the right to speak in its Assembly. This too was a city where there was fine pottery and stunning sculpture, stimulating theater and greatphilosophers. A popular image of Athens has survived in which the marble is always shining, the streets are clean, and there is a lot of time for passionate philosophical discussions about art, theater, or the meaning of life.
There is, however, another picture of ancient Athens. The historian Thucydides prided himself on his careful reconstruction of the events of the Peloponnesian War, the great struggle between Athens and Sparta in the late fifth century B.C. The year is 430 B.C., only two years after the completion of the Parthenon. The farmers of Attica have crowded into the city to escape from Spartan raids but plague has broken out in the city. Thucydides goes on:
There were no houses for the newcomers, and living as they did during the hot season in badly ventilated huts, they died like flies. The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of dead bodies of people who had died inside them. For the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or of law ... As for the gods, it seemed the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offences against human law, no one expected to be brought to trial or punished ... All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganised, and they buried the dead as best they could.
(Translation: Rex Warner)
So Athens was not always a resplendent city. Thucydides was describing, of course, a natural disaster, unavoidable in an age where understanding of disease was limited but there are many, more ominous passages in his work. He continues with the war and for the year 416 B.C. he tells the story of the Aegean island of Melos, one of the Cyclades. Melos was one of Sparta's colonies but had remained neutral in the war at least until, according to Thucydides, "the Athenians laid waste to the Melians' land and made them their enemies." Now Athenian representatives were sent to the island to encourage surrender and subservience to Athens. The Athenians were met by representatives of the Melians and a debate took place. When the Melians pleaded the right to neutrality and warned the Athenians of the effect on Athens' image if the Athenians subdued them, they were met with an unyielding and brutal response. "`If we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects [of the Athenian empire] would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.'" The plucky Melians argued on and concluded in words that the Athenians themselves would surely have used if they had been confronted by Persian envoys, "`Our decision, Athenians, is just the same as it was at first. We are not prepared to give up in a short moment the liberty which our city has enjoyed from its foundation for 700 years.'" "Siege operations were now carried on vigorously," records Thucydides, "and the Melians surrendered unconditionally to the Athenians who put to death all the men of military age whom they took, and sold the women and children as slaves."
Thucydides destroys any illusions one might have that nobility was inherent in the Greek character. Whatever the achievements of the Greeks might have been, and as will be seen in this book they were considerable, they developed against the backdrop of a real world, one in which human beings were degraded by disease and where brutality was an everyday part of life. It certainly can be argued that the Melian atrocity was an inevitable result of the strain of war, but war was endemic in Greek society and there was hardly a year in the fifth century that Athens was not fighting someone somewhere. Other cities were subdued as Athens constructed an empire in the century. One of them, Mytilene, reduced after a revolt, was subject to a decree by Athens' democratic Assembly that it, too, should have all its male citizens killed and its women and children enslaved, though this was rescinded at the last moment and only those specifically guilty of revolt were actually executed. Even so these numbered one thousand. Athens was a city too that depended on the labor of possibly as many as one hundred thousand slaves, many of them uprooted from their native cultures in the lands neighboring Greece. Yet, it is remarkable that there are still books available on Greece where slavery is hardly mentioned. J. B. Bury's History of Greece, first published in 1900 but now in a fourth edition, which has been reprinted several times in the 1980s and 1990s, has only six references to slavery in the index to its five hundred pages.
Why has this sanitized picture of ancient Greece survived? The answer lies partly in the superb public relations image Pericles created for Athens in the speech he made in honor of the city's war dead in 431-430 B.C., but there had to be other forces that sustained the Periclean image of Athens and they are rooted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries A.D. Of course the Greeks had not been totally forgotten before then. Certainly the actual land of Greece had been cut off from western Europe after the fifth century A.D. as a result of the fall of the Roman empire in the west, the emergence of the Byzantine empire, and then the absorption of Greece into the Ottoman empire in the fifteenth century, but the philosopher Aristotle had enjoyed canonical status right through the Middle Ages and beyond (although, in an age which had forgotten Greek, through Latin translations of Arabic versions). A professorship in Greek had been founded in Florence in 1360 and the first printed copies of Homer's epics appeared in 1488, also in Florence. The works of the Greek historian Plutarch, which contrasted the achievements of selected Greek and Roman heroes, were highly influential in the sixteenth century. The mathematical breakthroughs of Archimedes had been essential inspirations for the mathematicians of the seventeenth century.
However, it needed something more to restore Greece to the European consciousness. By the end of the eighteenth century, travelers were returning to mainland Greece, then still ruled by the Ottomans. In 1762, a Scotsman, James Stuart, and an Englishman, Nicholas Revett, who had traveled to Greece together in the 1750s, published a scholarly and illustrated account of their travels (with other volumes to come in later years). It caused a sensation. For the first time, Greek temples portrayed in their original settings could be enjoyed by the armchair traveler. The influence of Stuart and Revett was particularly strong in classical architecture where Greek columns and pediments came to replace the heavier Roman style (as in several public buildings in Edinburgh, now dubbed "the Athens of the north"), but other enthusiasms were aroused. Greece became a place for the more adventuresome to explore (just as in the twentieth century exotic and remote locations suddenly become fashionable). One scholar, Robert Wood, wandered around Greece with his copy of Homer searching, as others have done ever since, for the original sites of the places described in the epics. His essay on Homer raced through several editions and was a major influence on German scholars.
Paradoxically, however, the most powerful influence was a man who never visited Greece, never saw original Greek art, and yet who revolutionized the history of taste by elevating Greek art to the height of perfection. Johann Winckelmann, born in Germany, was a poor, self-educated student of Greek literature who, after a conversion to Catholicism, found himself Librarian and Keeper of Antiquities in the Vatican. Rome was his base and it was here that he came across copies of Greek art which he used as sources for his History of Ancient Art published in 1764. For Winckelmann there were peak moments in history, the highest points of cycles that saw the birth, flowering, and then the inevitable decay of civilizations. For Greece the high point was the fifth century, the classical period. (The word classical originates with the Latin "belonging to the highest class of citizens" but was used by some Roman writers to describe those earlier writers and sculptors whose work was considered especially authoritative. It was adopted by later Europeans to describe periods of history that appeared to have achieved cultural excellence and, in general terms, for Roman and Greek architecture and the study of their literature and civilization.) Here the combination of a perfect climate and an enthusiasm for freedom provided "the peak." It was not just Winckelmann's elevation of the classical period that was important, it was his idealization of Greek art. His particular enthusiasm was for the apparent purity of classical Greek sculpture, what he described as "its noble simplicity and calm grandeur."
Winckelmann was not the first to enjoy Greek sculpture, but he could write effectively and his enthusiasm proved infectious. This is how he describes the Apollo Belvedere (actually a Roman copy of a late fourth-century Greek bronze original, then as now in the Vatican Museum). It is a description affected perhaps by Winckelmann's homosexuality:
This statue surpasses all other representations of the god, just as Homer's description surpasses those attempted by all other poets ... An eternal spring time, like that which reigns in the happy fields of Elysium, clothes his body with the charms of youth and softly shines on the proud structure of his limbs ... This body, marked by no vein, moved by no nerve, is animated by a celestial spirit which courses like a sweet vapour through every part ... Like the soft tendrils of the vine his beautiful hair flows round his head, as if gently brushed by the breath of the zephyr. It seems to be perfumed by the essence of the gods ... In the presence of this miracle of art I forget the whole universe and my soul acquires a loftiness appropriate to its dignity. From admiration I pass to ecstasy, I feel my breasts dilate and rise as if I were filled with the spirit of prophecy ... I am transported to Delos and the sacred groves of Lyciaplaces Apollo honoured with his presence ...
Winckelmann's enthusiasm caught the mood of Romanticism then sweeping Europe. The German poet Goethe was right when he said "we learn nothing by reading Winckelmann, but we become something." Winckelmann affected a whole generation of Romantics, particularly in his own country, who adopted Greece as their own inspiration. As the Romantic philosopher Johann Herder put it, "In the history of mankind Greece will eternally remain the place where mankind experienced its fairest youth and bridal beauty ... noble youth with fair anointed limbs, favourite of all the graces, beloved of all the Muses, victor in Olympia and all the other games, spirit and body together, one single flower in bloom."
This was certainly a sanitized version of the original Greece and one could be forgiven for believing that ordinary human beings did not exist in ancient Greece at all. Nevertheless, the Greeks were appropriated as the forerunners of European civilization, especially in Prussia, the leading German state, where some inspiration was needed to revive the state after its humiliation at the hands of Napoleon (at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt, 1806). "In the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and produce," remarked the scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt, who became Education Minister in Prussia after Prussia's defeat. It was Humboldt more than anyone who was responsible for installing the study of Greece as the core of the curriculum in the Gymnasien, the only schools which prepared students for entrance to Universities and the professions.
The content of Greek studies was not so much its history or art as its surviving texts. There was already a revered tradition dating back to the fourteenth-century Italian scholar Petrarch of collecting ancient texts, collating different versions of them, and analyzing their structure and language. Petrarch was convinced that his age was a dark one in comparison to that of Rome and he elevated Roman literature over that of his own day. (There were some Greek texts among his collection but Petrarch could not read them.) In the centuries that followed, the surviving manuscripts (many of them eighth- or ninth-century copies of original versions) were minutely analyzed and an introduction to Latin authors, Livy and Virgil, in particular, became the core of the European school curriculum. However, philology, the interpretation and analysis of ancient texts, was as much concerned with the biblical as with the Latin or Greek survivals. It was the German scholar Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) who insisted on making a distinction between the Bible and other ancient sources. His enthusiasm was for the latter and he went further to argue that among the ancient cultures, the Greeks reigned supreme; only the Greeks, he argued, showed the qualities "of true humanness." Studying the Greeks was seen to be a serious business. Students had to immerse themselves not only in the texts but in every other aspect of Greek society so that they could understand the content and detail of what they had read. There was a moral purpose involved. Through mastering the ancient authors, Wolf argued, one could not only penetrate the secret of the greatness of the Greeks but absorb self-discipline, idealism, even nobility of character. It was Wolf who persuaded Humboldt that text analysis should be at the center of Greek studies and this became the core of the Gymnasium curriculum. The Germans were to remain at the forefront of Greek scholarship during the nineteenth century although much of their work was pedantic and obscure. The spirit of Romanticism died in the dusty classrooms of the Gymnasien and studies of university professors. However, their influence on the rest of Europe, and, in particular, the development of classical studies in the United States was profound.
Meanwhile there was a somewhat unseemly scramble to acquire Greek antiquities for the national museums of Europe. Each nation wanted to show its own commitment to Greece and its status as an heir to the Greeks by having original works under its own control. A shipment of statues from the temple of Aphaea on the island of Aigina was pursued around the Mediterranean by French, English, and Bavarian agents in 1812. (The Bavarians won and the sculptures are still in Munich.) The British Museum acquired one of the greatest of prizes, the sculptures of the Parthenon, by purchasing them from Lord Elgin who had appropriated them on the Acropolis and shipped them to England. The French acquired the celebrated Venus of Milo (a statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite from the island of Melos) in 1820 and carried off further sculptures from Olympia in 1829.
Now, however, the real world intruded. In 1821 the Greeks launched their War of Independence against the Ottoman empire. Some three hundred Germans went to fight alongside other Romantics such as the English Lord Byron who actually died (of a fever) in Greece in 1824. (Byron remains venerated in Greece with streets, and even babies, still named after him.) The war, although ultimately successful, was a messy affair and many of the more idealistic volunteers were deeply disillusioned by its brutality. It also presented the European nations with the tricky problem of how to treat the supposed heirs of the founding civilization of Europe now that they were once again an independent nation. In the end they were largely airbrushed out of the European consciousness. A Bavarian king and German administrators were foisted on them and there was even a theory that the inhabitants of Greece were no more than descendants of Slavs who had migrated there in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. This was deeply humiliating. It is little wonder that when a Greek shepherd, Spiro Louis, untrained as an athlete, won the first Marathon of the revived Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, he became an enduring national hero. He had shown the gathered potentates of Europe that in the one race that really mattered the Greeks were still the best.
The forces of philhellenism (love of ancient Greece) also influenced the way that the Acropolis was recreated when it came under the control of the new, largely German, administrators of Greece. On the rocky but leveled hilltop the surviving fifth-century buildings of Pericles nestled within a mass of medieval Byzantine structures, a Frankish tower, later Ottoman defenses, and a mosque. These the new administrators, many of whom were imbued with the enthusiasms of Winckelmann, decided to remove. They were supported by the Greeks who wished to forget the long years of servitude to the Ottomans and who even saw the Christian Byzantine period as inferior to the original glories of Greece. In the 1830s and 1840s all the later buildings of the Acropolis were demolished, often without any proper records being kept of how they had looked. In their place the four major buildings of the fifth-century Acropolis, the Parthenon, the Erechtheum, the Propyiaea, and the temple to Athena Nike were highlighted, the last having to be reconstructed from surviving fragments on its original site. But was this anything like the ancient Acropolis? Certainly not. The site was originally crammed with statues of gods and goddesses, votive offerings and portraits. The white marble and the emptiness between the surviving buildings that characterize the site today were never there in the fifth century. The sculptures, including those of the Parthenon frieze, had originally been painted, as purists are often horrified to learn. The "new" Acropolis, and the one, though further restored, which is seen today, reflect as much the ideals of the nineteenth century as those of the fifth century B.C.
This passion for whiteness in Greek sculpture was responsible for one of the most bizarre stories in museum history. In 1928 a millionaire picture dealer, Sir Joseph, later Lord, Duveen, had agreed to finance a new gallery for the Elgin marbles, the sculptures of the Parthenon frieze that had been bought from Lord Elgin by the British Museum in 1816. His influence became so great that he and workmen under his control were allowed direct access to the sculptures as they were stored waiting for their new home. In September 1938 the director of the museum discovered on a bench three of the Parthenon sculptures, whose surfaces appeared to have been scraped down. Although the work was stopped immediately the damage had been done to these and others of the marbles. As one of the masons later confirmed he had been asked by Lord Duveen to make the sculptures as white as possible, removing the surface of the marble when necessary. (A full account of this extraordinary story is to be found in the third edition of William St. Clair, Lord Elgin and the Marbles [Oxford, 1998].)
Germany was not the only country to enshrine the study of ancient Greece within its school curriculum. It was part of a general European movement, which spread also to the United States. There were good reasons for this. The nineteenth century saw the old landed hierarchies threatened by new economic forces (arising from industrialization and international trade} and social and political change. The study of Greek was difficult and required dedication and so it was an ideal subject for those who wished to preserve high standards in education. It had the advantage of having no useful function (in contrast to, say, science, mathematics, or modern languages} so it served the purposes of continuing the isolation of an upper class, whose members did not have to earn a living, from the rest of the community who did. It is impossible to disentangle the institution of Greek studies in the English public schools from the determination to maintain the British class system. The Greeks provided, through Plato's Republic, for instance, a model for a leisured ruling class whose right to rule depended on a specialized education denied to the majority who were not considered worthy of it. Of course, not all of those who turned up at an English public school were able to master Greek but for these the Greek ideal of achieving glory through competition in games was adapted for the soggy school playing fields of Britain. If the competitive but essentially amateur enthusiasm for sports was believed to have ennobled the Greeks, so might it ennoble young British gentlemen.
The main Greek texts adopted for study, Homer, Thucydides, Plato's Republic, and Aristotle's Ethics, were used to reinforce the ideals of nobility, self-sacrifice, and dedication to others which the public schools claimed was their purpose. Selections had to be made to meet this purpose. While Athens could be seen as the parent of democracy, and hence unsettling for those who feared its emergence in nineteenth-century Europe, there had always been Greeks who ridiculed democracy, in particular Plato in his Republic. This was one text, therefore, which was singled out for study. The eighth book of the Republic, which contained Plato's bitterest attack on democracy, was said by the historian Macaulay to be unsurpassed in Greek philosophy for its profundity, ingenuity, and eloquence. (It is interesting to note, however, the most popular history of ancient Greece, that by George Grote, published between 1846 and 1856, championed Athenian democracy, although Grote presented the Athenian Assembly as if it were like the Victorian House of Commons and ignored slavery.) Even the Spartans, whose system was essentially totalitarian, had their advocates. Their harsh social system was often seen as a forerunner of the rigor of an English public-school education, with its emphasis on training in hardiness. The awkward features of Greek society were distorted or ignored (as Grote ignored Athenian slavery). How could Greek homosexuality be dealt with? The widow of the poet Shelley was advised that his translations of Plato's Symposium, which deals with homosexual experience, could only be published if references to homosexuality were erased. Thus lover should be translated as "friend," men as "human beings," youths as "young people."
Lesbian relationships caused the same problems. The poems of Sappho, with their frank assertions of physical attractions between Sappho and the maidens surrounding her, proved particularly difficult to handle. One German scholar did his best to resolve the issue when he suggested that "no educated Greek would have thought these were beautiful love poems if something monstrous and disgusting had been going on in them." An English classicist assured his readers that "she (Sappho) preferred conscious rectitude to every other source of human enjoyment." The fact that Greeks enjoyed a range of bisexual attachments without guilt was incompatible with their adoption as exemplars for schoolboys and so the truth was doctored. The same was done with the examination system to ensure that the high status of Greek was recognized. While candidates for the British civil service, including the Foreign Office, could be awarded a maximum of 350 points for each of the German and French papers, there were no fewer than a total of 700 for the Greek papers.
In so far as the Greeks were presented as an isolated race of genius who laid the foundations of European civilization, they could be used to support the idea of superior cultures based on racial purity. While the Romans would provide the model for the practical administration of an empire, the Greeks helped provide the ideology for imperialism. In the first volume of his Black Athena Martin Bernal has argued that the image of the Greeks was deliberately shaped to provide a rationale for European racism. This may be an overstatement of the case but there is no doubt that scholars such as the influential German Karl Muller (A Handbook of the Archaeology of Art, 1830} did stress, as Winckelmann had done, that Greek art had reached a pinnacle because of the superior qualities of the Greeks as a people. In this case, argued Muller, the secret lay in "their spiritual harmony." Such views did not actually create racism but they became part of the milieu in which it was ideologically possible to sustain it.
If mastery of the texts remained the core of Greek studies a potentially new and threatening Greek world was provided by archaeology. In the 1870s it was seen just how powerful a force the discipline might prove when a complete amateur, the German businessman Heinrich Schliemann, dug up the citadels of Troy and Mycenae. At Troy he claimed to have found the evidence of the Trojan War, at Mycenae the remains of King Agamemnon who had led the Greek invading forces. (The story of Schliemann is told in Chapter Two.) Archaeology could possibly confirm, but, equally, destroy the traditional picture of Greece, here by adding the hitherto unknown Mycenaean civilization to Greek history. Were the Mycenaeans really Greek and if so where did they fit in the cycles of history? Worst of all, archaeology threatened to bring out into the open a society of ordinary human beings (although Schliemann himself was obsessed with the discovery of "heroic" Greece). As Ian Morris has shown in an important essay "Archaeologies of Greece," the archaeology of Greece was clearly a discipline which had to be controlled by the scholars. As a subject in its own right classical archeology was given an inferior status as against textual analysis and it was not until 1890 that one could study it at Oxford University and then only as an option. The content of classical archaeology seemed designed to keep the human side of Greek life well concealed. It focused on the excavations of great buildings, predominantly temples and sanctuaries. In the later nineteenth century there were major excavations of Olympia, Delphi, and when it became harder to export finds from Greece itself, the Hellenistic city of Pergamum in Asia Minor. One hundred thirty slabs of sculpture from the famous Pergamum frieze and 462 crates of other material, a total of 350 tons in all, were shipped to Berlin in 1880 alone. The finds from these sites were described by scholars in meticulous detail but as aesthetic objects rather than human creations. Also within this tradition was the work of Sir John Beazley (1885-1970, professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford between 1925 and 1956). Beazley examined a vast number of Greek pots, analyzed their styles and produced groups and schools by painters and dates. It was a towering achievement but one that completely isolated the pots from the society which made them.
It would be wrong to see Greek studies in the nineteenth and twentieth century as ossified. The sheer weight of intellectual pressure placed on the Greeks, and the continual interaction between different approaches as a variety of political and cultural movements drew inspiration from Greece saw to that. There were important new interpretations. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, lecturing in 1872, placed his emphasis on the political achievements of the Greeks and also on the degree to which Greek society was competitive, not as serene and harmonious, as many depicted it. In his Birth of Tragedy (1872) the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche shocked his contemporaries by insisting on the importance of the forces of unreason, typified by Dionysus and early tragedy, in Greek society. The rationalist approach of such philosophers as Socrates and his followers, argued Nietzsche, marked not the pinnacle of the Greek achievement but the moment when it lost its true essence. An interest in anthropology rather than archaeology drew scholars such as the English Jane Harrison toward similar themes. By exploring the mythology of Greece she uncovered a very different spiritual world from that of the Olympian gods which had dominated studies in Greek religion. If one looked at the cult worship of Greece, she argued in 1890, "one would find a classical world peopled, not by the stately and plastic forms of Zeus, Hera, Artemis, Apollo, Athena, and Hephaestus, but by a motley gathering of demigods and deified saints, household gods and tribal gods." This was a world where powerful forces, both benevolent and malevolent, contended with each other, a far cry from the ordered society of Greeks so beloved by other scholars. Even so, the fascination with myth still left Greek myth as privileged among other mythologies, those of the ancient Near East or Egypt, for instance. In the 1890s Sigmund Freud was even to argue that one myth, that of Oedipus who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, represented unconscious impulses to be found in every society.
A watershed in Greek studies came with the First World War. Many young men brought up on the classics went off into battle as if they were Homeric heroes sure of finding glory. Their own disillusionment, in the British case in the mud of Flanders or in the Gallipoli campaign near the ancient site of Troy itself, merged with a disillusionment with authority in general. It was not so much Greece itself that was rejected immediately after the war as the ideologies, class-ridden education, imperialism, canons of perfect art, which had helped sustain a distorted image of Greece. There was a major reaction. In his influential The Decline of the West, published (in German) in July 1918 just before the war ended, the historian Oswald Spengler challenged the whole idea that world history should be centered on the achievements of the civilization of Greece. He questioned the greatness of Socrates, Thucydides, and even Plato. ("In Plato we fail to observe any conscious evolution of doctrine; his separate works are merely treatises written from very different standpoints which he took up from time to time, and it gave him no concern whether and how they hung together.") The Greeks were even criticized for "losing" most of the plays of Aeschylus and the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers in the Hellenistic period. In his work, on the other hand, Spengler would give no privileged place "to the classical or Western culture as against the cultures of India, Babylon, China, Egypt, the Arabs, Mexicoseparate worlds of dynamic being which in point of mass count for just as much in the general picture of history as the Classical, while frequently surpassing it in point of spiritual greatness and power." In Germany as a whole philhellenism had become so closely associated with the monarchy and German nationalism that it never recovered from the overthrow of the kaiser and German militarism at the end of the war.
By the 1930s, the influential art critic Roger Fry had set in motion "a frank attempt to dethrone Greek art altogether." The cynicism of the 1930s, an age that had more than traditional images of ancient Greece to be cynical about, was also expressed by the poet Louis MacNeice, himself a classicist. While Athens had been presented in the nineteenth century as the paternalistic ruler of an empire, much as England was believed to be, the image was now reversed in line with the times. England, said MacNeice, was like fifth-century Athens, but only in so far as it was "able to maintain free speech and a comparatively high standard of living ... on the basis of gagged and impoverished subject peoples."
In one of his poems, Autumn Journal, MacNeice expressed his disillusion more harshly:
When I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hairsplitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
For MacNeice his own frustrations with hierarchies were projected onto an ancient society, which had become inextricably tied up with the class system of the Britain of his day.
There were other forces which undermined the supremacy of Greece. In Germany, so long at the forefront of Greek scholarship, further assaults on the study of Greek were launched from two sides when the Nazis came to power in 1933. The new regime demanded a more technical school and college curriculum to meet its demands for modernization and rearmament. At the same time within the field of ancient history there was a shift toward the study of the German race and its creation, an obsession for many Nazis. (Hitler, it is interesting to note, stood against this trend; he showed some understandable enthusiasm for the Spartans.) There was a temporary revival of the traditional Gymnasium education after the war. A reaction to the excesses of Nazism and the coming of the Cold War led some German scholars to applaud the Greeks as the founders of Western democracy, but in Germany as elsewhere in Europe, traditional Greek classical education was in decline.
In the United States a classical education had never been so important as in Europe. Moreover, the rejection of traditional authority was not so profound as it was in Europe after the First World War. Perhaps for these reasons the status of the classics persisted longer. The coming of the Cold War even sponsored a revival of interest in the classics. As the scholar W. R. Connor put it (speaking of the 1950s), a study of Greece and Rome seemed well able to "create a citizen elite suited for an activist world power." The disillusionment came with the 1960s when canons of all kinds were questioned in the intellectual turmoil brought about by the Vietnam experience. The collapse of a traditional, text-based classical education in the Western world has been complete. It is astonishing to find that among one million students admitted to British universities over three years in the 1990s, only twelve of these chose a single degree course in classical Greek.
This did not mean than an interest in ancient Greece in itself disappearedin fact the opposite. Knowing something about the Greek achievement is still seen as an essential part of education (enshrined for instance in the history syllabus of the British National Curriculum). What has disappeared are two things: first, the treatment of Greek texts as if they presented an intellectual obstacle race in which a search to grasp the meaning and etymology of every word and an analysis of grammatical rarities was an end in itself, and, secondly, the ideologies which sustained a distorted and sanitized image of ancient Greece. This does not mean that Greece, any more than society, can be studied today without ideological preconceptions. The modern student is naturally drawn to Athenian democracy and repelled by Spartan totalitarianism. For many students in the nineteenth century the opposite was the case. However, there is not the same need to justify the Greeks as there was when a ruling class's survival, including its education system, even its imperialist adventures, seemed to depend on the Greeks for their legitimacy. This enables the student to stand back and assess who the Greeks actually were in a more detached way.
The many texts which survive, histories, poems, speeches, if only a tiny proportion of the total that were written, still provide essential material for the study of Greece, as, it is hoped, the breadth and range of those quoted in this book will show. However, these texts are no longer accorded the authority they once held when they were embedded in an elitist education system which they were used to uphold. Nor are they regarded as necessarily accurate descriptions of ancient Greece and its history. The histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, for instance, can now be seen as products of their own time, with their writers having agendas of their own. The struggle of modern scholarship is to understand these agendas and to use the texts more creatively and flexibly to penetrate the assumptions within which the Greeks viewed their world.
There has been a similar revolution in classical archaeology. Archaeology continues to provide a mass of objects to study but the collection of objects as an end in itself, in particular to provide models for admiration, has long since gone. Sir John Beazley's work on Greek vases was in itself impressive and it was certainly important in helping classify the style and schools of vase painting but the fundamental question of where all this meticulous analysis of vase paintings led was left unanswered. Modern scholarship stresses that Greek art was created not for connoisseurs to linger over (at least not until Greek sculptors began providing for the Roman market in the first century B.C.) but to be used for a purpose. A temple is not just a building to be admired for its aesthetic beauty; it is also a symbol of city power, and a mediating force between man and gods. Much of Greek pottery was provided for the symposia, the drinking parties of the Greek elites. The subjects of the vase paintings reflect the drinkers' own concerns, sometimes to portray their own activities, sometimes to highlight a favorite myth. Unraveling what these concerns might be is a major area of scholarship. Although it is impossible to recreate with much confidence exactly how the Greek used images and what they saw in particular myths, the approach itself is an exciting one and has done much to create a more penetrating and less idealistic assessment of ancient Greece. The artificial gulf between archaeologists and texts (artificial in so far as both are, or should be, concerned with the study of Greek society as a whole) has largely been bridged.
New movements in classical archaeology have also been responsible for a shift from a study of buildings to a study of the environment which sustained them. Ninety percent of Greeks made their living on the land and it was their surpluses which underpinned city life. Yet until recently virtually nothing was known about the Greeks as farmers. The rise of the field survey in which sites are discovered through the patient accumulation of pottery and other evidence as a result of systematic walking over a region has allowed maps of the different patterns of settlement to be drawn. Land use can be shown to have shifted against the background of a harsh and relatively unchanging environment. It is certainly instructive to walk over a depopulated area of modern Greece, as this author did recently on the island of Symi (one of the islands of the Dodecanese), and see the extent to which walls and enclosures, many dating from classical times, have been used and reused to sustain the same mix of crops and animals. This is the underlying pattern of Greek life and was always sustained or returned to during times of crisis.
How far scholarship has moved can be seen in two recent books, one on Greek art and one on Athenian society. Andrew Stewart is an authority on Greek sculpture and his book of that title is a highly respected survey of the whole field. In his Art, Desire and the Body in Ancient Greece (1997) he stands aside from pure aesthetic responses to sculpture to show how the Greeks used their portrayals of the human body to reflect political and social ideals. From public statues of city heroes or individuals such as Alexander to the scenes of lovemaking on fifth-century B.C. pottery, the body carries its own messages, messages designed to show the ideal citizen, the warrior-hero, or the dominance of men sexually over women. Nakedness, such a pervasive element in Greek sculpture, can be seen as a "costume" in its own right, one to be "worn" during heroic activities such as the games, the most competitive of Greek activities (outside war, where nakedness was scarcely feasible). Stewart contrasts the naked man with the clothed woman, suggesting that here the placing of clothes on representations of women symbolized male control over them. While the connotations of the presentation of a particular style of body are impossible to explore in full, Stewart challenges more traditional approaches to Greek art, those, for instance, which saw it designed by its creators to be an aesthetic experience. This is not to say that, technically and aesthetically, Greek art has nothing to say (Stewart's approach to sculpture in his major work on the subject suggests the very opposite) but here he shows how a range of other meanings can be teased out from the way it presents its subjects.
In his Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (1997) James Davidson examines a very different world, that of the elite of Athens and its pleasures. Although the traditional picture of Athens is of an austere citizenry, torn between contemplating beauty and obsessively running their state, Davidson digs through the surviving texts to recreate a world of sensual pleasures. Fish occupied a special place as a food which had no connection with the sacred rituals surrounding sacrifice. Normally sacrificial foods had to be divided equally among participants so there was little chance to gorge on them. Fish were free of such restrictions and so might be enjoyed hedonistically. Davidson goes on to explore the wide range of sexual pleasures available to the Athenian elite but he shows how the search for pleasure had to be tempered by the political and social demands of a society that was a radical democracy. The "good" citizen had to appear restrained and therefore live within conventions that defined how, when, and to what degree pleasures could be enjoyed. The wine had to be mixed with water according to understood proportions and, in a well-run symposium, the number of mixing bowls to be consumed by the participants limited. In short, Davidson draws on literary sources to describe and define the parameters within which Greek behavior was conducted. It is an excellent example of how texts can still widen our perspectives of the Athenian past.
As the ideological cladding surrounding Greek studies fragmented, the Greeks could no longer be portrayed as a pure race who had a natural supremacy over those around them. There was no ethnic Greek race, however much the Greeks, in particular the Athenians, liked to think there was. The original population of Greece was itself a mix of natives and newcomers. Greece was accessible to the cultures of the East and drew on them for population and ideas. Its own settlers intermarried with local populations throughout the Mediterranean. A relatively coherent Greek culture based on a common language, shared religious beliefs, and experiences certainly emerged but this is not the same as a distinct racial identity. While the classical period (traditionally dated between 480 B.C., the year of the second Persian invasion, and 323 B.C., if the death of Alexander is taken as a conclusion) did see major achievements, it is hard to see it as a peak. It was dominated by war and instability. Many of the fundamental transformations of Greek culture took place in the so-called Archaic age (720 to 480 B.C.), before the Persian invasion which has been traditionally seen as the cultural watershed in Greek history. The Hellenistic age, which succeeded the classical, was not so much a period of decline, as Winckelmann and his followers would have argued, as one in which Greeks made important and often successful adaptations to new challenges. Nor, as used to be assumed by scholars, was Greek culture automatically accepted as superior and hence worthy of imitation by surrounding peoples. Research on, say, the Etruscans in the eighth to sixth centuries B.C., when they were in close contact with Greek cities and traders, and the Babylonians and Egyptians, peoples with a far longer history than the Greeks, show they were resilient to Greek contact and bypassed, used, even transformed, Greek culture for their own ends. These trends in recent scholarship are reflected in this book.
A survey of ancient Greek history has to have a starting point and an end. The starting point is relatively easy to choose. The Mycenaeans of the Bronze Age were not only the first civilization on the Greek mainland but spoke an early form of Greek. They provide a natural place to begin. The end is harder to pinpoint. Traditionally, Greek history ended with the conquests of Alexander. This reflected the old obsession with the classical period, and it led to such absurdities as the elimination of most Greek mathematics and science, astronomy, and medicine. (It is still possible to find books on ancient Greece which do not even mention Archimedes.) More recently, histories of Greece have added the Hellenistic period, from the death of Alexander to the final submission of the last Greek kingdom, that of the Ptolemies in Egypt, to the Romans in 30 B.C. It is arguable, however, that one should go further still. The Romans did shatter parts of the Greek world (one has only to think of the complete destruction of Corinth in 146 B.C. or the Roman general Sulla's plunder of Athens in 86 B.C.) but they did not destroy Greek civilization and in fact, after some hesitations, absorbed many aspects of it. This deserves to be part of the story of Greek civilization. Under Roman rule Greece itself may have been a relative backwater, but many of the Greek cities of Asia Minor enjoyed enormous prosperity and there were important new "Greek" foundations such as Constantinople. The Romans could not afford to destroy the Greek elites; they needed their support if the empire was to remain at peace. By 100 A.D. shrewd Greeks realized that their own survival depended on acquiescing in Roman rule. Open praise could lead to massive Roman patronage, and one is conscious, surveying the remains of wealthier cities in the eastern empire, of the enormous energy which was still available in the Greek world. Nor were the Greeks intellectually dead in the Roman period. One only has to look at the sophisticated work of Ptolemy in astronomy, Plotinus in philosophy, and Galen in medicine.
A more sustainable cutoff point can be seen in the coming of Christianity to the Greek world. Christianity was first given tolerance and imperial support in the early fourth century. Although the traditional culture of Greece did survive, in some areas as late as the sixth centuryand in many spheres of life Christianity and "paganism," as the rich Greek spiritual heritage was now dubbed, coexisted and even worked on each otherChristianity did eventually supplant the spiritual world of the Greeks. The Christian world, which merged into that of the Byzantine empire, though still predominantly Greek speaking, had very different concerns and loyalties to the one it had succeeded. This seems an appropriate moment to end.
But first the beginning ...
Meet the Author
In more than thirty years, Charles Freeman's travels have taken him to most of the sites mentioned in The Greek Achievement, from Aphrodisias to Olympia, from Troy to Delphi. He has dug on all three continents surrounding the Mediterranean and served as academic director on summer schools on Renaissance Italy. His books include EGYPT, GREECE AND ROME; CIVILIZATIONS OF THE ANCIENT MEDITERRANEAN; and LEGACIES OF THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS.
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