Socrates. Plato. Achilles. Medea. Marathon. Thermopylae. The Olympics.
I would expect that most readers would at least recognise the names listed above. All, of course, have come down to us in various forms from Ancient Greece, that strange collection of bickering city-states that existed on the Greek peninsula in the last millennium before the birth of Christ. It never ceases to amaze me how weighty a presence this civilisation has had throughout history, and how it still has such resonance in Western culture today. Whether from half-forgotten school textbooks through to novels, fashion or blockbuster movies, most people in the West (and I am sure many in the rest of the world) have some recognition of Ancient Greece, no matter how fleeting.
Indeed, I would say that philhellenism – ‘Love of Greece or Greek culture’ – is still quite strong, if nowhere near the level of slavish devotion that became prevalent in the 1800s. The Classics still form an important department of many universities, and books are continually churned out each year on the subject of the Ancient world, Greece included. Hollywood continues to have a notable ‘sword-and-sandals’ industry, with the Ancient Greeks getting as much attention as their Roman counterparts (though Hollywood usually can’t tell the difference anyway). In some ways, it is not surprising – the Ancient Greeks left us a host of great characters, fantastic monsters and bitchy Gods that can be made into wonderful cinematic experiences. Nevertheless, I wonder what they would have said if told that people would be crunching popcorn watching movies about them and their legends, over two millennia after their deaths?
Ancient history nut that I am, I’ve always loved the Ancient Greeks. Growing up, I devoured books about them, and one of my favourite video games was Age of Mythology, loosely based on the myths of the ancient world – I always played as the Greeks, of course. While I regularly go through phases in my historical interests, the Ancient Greek trend has never died away. To my regret I never had the opportunity to study the Greek language at school (I learned a smattering later), though I did read some of the Classics in translation at A-Level. Throughout it all, I never lost my love of Ancient Greek civilisation; while I did occasionally flirt with Ancient Rome, I think that I was always more a Hellene than a Roman.
Why do we still admire the Ancient Greeks? I think it is partly because they are associated with the beginnings of what we call Western culture. Much of Western philosophy, art, literature and science has its roots in the Ancient Greek world, as does what is perhaps (for better or worse) the world’s most-hallowed political system: democracy. I think many have (or have had) a view of Ancient Greece – and Athens especially – of being a land of high civilisation, in which chiton-clad philosophers met in the Agora to discuss ethics and science while upstanding citizens rationally debated and voted on public policy in the Assembly.
Of course, many scholars of ancient history and the Classics (of which I am certainly not) will run to tell you how misplaced this view can be. The Greeks were not a civilisation of demi-god democratic philosophers, but human beings, with all the faults and failings that we have today. Much of what we think we know about the Greeks is contradictory and highly-propagandised, and we would shudder today at many of their cultural practices. Even our view of their ‘virtues’ can be deceiving. Ancient Greek democracy, for instance, was in fact rarely practiced outside Athens (its birthplace) for any great period of time, and indeed it was vicious, populistic and often quite vile – I’ve been told that the word Demokratia has connotations of ‘mob-rule’, and undoubtedly that is what it often what looked like in Athens even at the height of the Golden Age. Indeed, rather than Athens being a ‘democracy of philosophers’, many of the greatest Greek philosophers hated the concept – Socrates was sentenced to death by popular vote. Furthermore, it was only democratic as long as you were a citizen – i.e. not a foreigner, slave, or female; indeed, for women Ancient Athens was more akin to modern-day Saudi Arabia than it was to a bastion of liberating democracy.
And then of course, you have all the other unpleasant elements of Ancient Greek culture. The slavery. The xenophobia. The somewhat-uncomfortable spectacle of pederasty. If you want, you can spin Ancient Greece as a hellish society of oppression, suspicion and brutality; as much as I try to be as neutral and objective as possible about historical cultural practices, it can be hard sometimes when faced with certain aspects of Ancient Greek culture.
However, for me, this disjunct actually makes the Ancient Greeks more interesting; the recognisably-modern elements and the sheer weirdness mix together to make a fascinating world. I love that that the Ancient Athenians were religiously-devout enough to enact the death sentence on those who defaced statues of the Gods, yet were happy to mock their deities as stock characters in their Comedies (reading Aristophanes is an excellent way of disabusing any notion of Athens as always being a noble democracy of philosopher-citizens). I find it intriguing that a civilisation associated with so much advanced thinking on the state of the world and metaphysics also had possibly the strangest and most wild mythology imaginable, full of incest, fratricide and rapist swans (yes, really). I adore the fact that one of the most notable contemporary historians of the period – Herodotus – writes so lucidly on changing landscapes in one passage, and then talks about man-killing, gold-digging giant ants in another, without so much as a blink.
The Ancient Greeks were weird and wonderful; so much to admire, and so much to shudder at, like many historical cultures. This strange, sordid reality – what we can glean of it – is to me so much more interesting than the myth of the eternal uber-civilisation that has come down to us from the 19th Century. My love of the Ancient Hellenes has not been curbed by my growing understanding of their strangeness; indeed, I cannot help but love them even more for it. They remain for me one of the most fascinating cultures of the Ancient World.
Am I alone on the blogosphere in my fascination with the Ancient Hellenes? What does Ancient Greece mean to you?