“…when we think of ‘Greeks’, what comes to mind first is likely to be the artistic and scientific achievements of a group of city-states led by Athens and Sparta around two and a half thousand years ago.”
From the preface to The Greeks by Roderick Beaton
Offhand, I’m more likely to think about a Greek restaurant (or yogurt) and yet I read The Greeks because I wanted to know more about what led to the Athenian golden age. How the confluence of artistic creativity and rational thinking materialized in temples that inspired countless buildings, in plays that are still taught in high-schools, and in concepts that became part of our everyday vocabulary? Greek Classical Age has boggled people’s minds at various periods. How could so many achievements culminate in a small area in a relatively short span of time? Why did the ancient Greeks’ influence continue to spread even after the transition to monotheism? What caused it to make such a lasting impact over people physically and chronologically removed from the original city-states?
The Greeks addresses these questions, starting with Mycenaean civilization, “the dark ages” that ensued, the emergence and the heyday of ancient Greek civilization (from about 800 BCE when the Greek alphabet was adapted, to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE) and what came after, up to the twenty first century. Apparently, The Greeks is the first book to condense three and a half thousands years of Greek-speakers history into a single volume. Its scope is enormous – historical figures (rulers, artists, writers, philosophers…), innovations, wars and major geopolitical events that shaped the Greek world. The “biography” of Greek culture it mostly told in a chronological order, with emphasis on processes that led to or were a result of world-changing events. A few examples:
Fortification built around citadels in Mycenaean Greece used massive stones “that latter generations could not believe they had been raised into position by human beings at all but must have been the work of mythical one-eyed giants, called Cyclopes.”
Tiryns – Cyclopean masonry
The language of the Iliad and Odyssey mixes elements taken from dialects spoken in the eight century BCE in different parts of Greek-speaking world and traces of earlier forms of Greek that go back to Mycenaean times. “By the 540s BCE, the poems had already become so central to public life in Athens that the city’s ruler, Pisistratus, decreed that a definitive, authorized version should be made…
Three centuries later, scholars in Alexandria in the service of the Greek dynasty, the Ptolemies, took it upon themselves to collate all the manuscript versions of the poems they could lay their hands on. They stripped out all the bogus, redundant lines that had crept through successive retelling and copying. The result was the model texts that would ever afterwards be copied with great accuracy right down to invention of printing in the fifteen century.”
By the sixth century BCE, the belief in Olympian gods was widespread throughout Greek settlements, where private and public ritual were obligatory part of everyday life. The Greek philosopher and poet Xenophanes however argued that “there is one god, greatest among gods and men, similar to mortal neither in shape nor in thought.” Xenophanes attributed the traditional portrayal of the gods to human tendency to suppose that the immortals look like people. “If cows, horses, or lions could draw shapes, he posited, they would draw their gods in the shape of cows, horses, or lions.”
The Greek word drama means action. Men played all the parts, from powerful goddesses to the comic role of Lysistrata who organized Athenian women to withhold sex from their menfolk to force the men to conclude the war between city-states.
After the Golden Age came the inevitable fall, the conquest by Rome, then the rise of Christianity. The story of the Greeks continues to alternate between good and bad times, the first culminating with Justinian I and the building of Hagia Sophia , then again came disintegration and miseries, some brought about by foreign conquerors and other self-inflicted.
Southwestern entrance mosaic of the former basilica Hagia Sophia of Constantinople
(presently Istanbul, Turkey). The Virgin Mary is standing in the middle, holding the Child Christ on her lap. On her right side stands emperor Justinian I, offering a model of the Hagia Sophia. On her left, emperor Constantine I, presenting a model of the city.
For me, the second part of the book was less interesting, even though it gave a context to how the achievements of ancient Greeks survived and became a bedrock of modern Western civilization at times when the art and the knowledge of other pagan societies were lost. Compared to the glorious past, Greeks’ artistic and scientific contributions after the collapse of Byzantine Empire were a bit of a letdown. There were acclaimed individuals like El Greco (a nickname for Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos, a Greek painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance), but considering that many Greeks migrated to the great commercial centers of Europe in the late seventeen and eighteen centuries, it’s surprising how little they influenced Neoclassicism in the arts and the Enlightenment in philosophy and the sciences. Even the Greek Revival that peaked in the early nineteen century was influenced not by contemporary Greeks but antiquarians and travelers from western Europe fascinated with the traces of ancient Greek civilization they glimpsed in the Ottoman Empire. Of these, the most notorious was Lord Elgin, who “removed about half of the sculpted blocks that make up the frieze of the Parthenon” and the most famous was Lord Byron, whose poems brought Greek culture to the minds of his many admirers.
The British Museum in London
The Parthenon in Athens
I recommend the book to readers who want to know more about Greek history and have the time and the inclination to tackle the plethora of events, names and places they are most likely to forget.
PS. The Greeks emphasizes the importance of the Geek language and often mentions the Greek origin of many familiar words (for example, the word nostalgia comes from longing for nostos, the Homeric word for homecoming). Reading these attributions reminded me the father-character in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who always pointed at words that came from the Greek language. I recommend this romantic comedy for its hilarious portrayal of the clash of cultures encountered by second generation Greeks in America.