The ancient Greeks have been described as perhaps the most restless, adventurous and creative people to have populated the planet. Inhabitants of a relatively small land mass they explored as far as their ships could be rowed or sailed, trading goods and ideas all over the Mediterranean. They had an uncommon gift for cultural appropriation, acquiring ideas and practices and then elevating them to a new level of effectiveness. They were surprisingly successful in their wars against invaders and would have been more so, had they always fought with a united front. Greeks spilled more Greek blood over the centuries than any of their common foes. However, it was in the war of ideas that they won their greatest victories.
The classicist Edith Hamilton, an unabashed Hellenophile, said that the Greeks of their golden age produced “art and thought that has never been surpassed and very rarely equaled, and the stamp of it is upon all of the art and all of the thought of the Western world.” But she lamented, “Of all that the Greeks did only a very small part has come down to us and we have no means of knowing if we have their best…Little is left of all this wealth of great art: the sculptures, defaced and broken into bits have crumbled away; the buildings are fallen; the paintings gone forever; of the writings, all lost but a very few. We have only the ruin of what was…” (from The Greek Way)
Experts have calculated that we have one bronze statue remaining for every thousand that once existed. Bronze was a precious metal and easily converted, in times of turmoil or economic hardship, into more practical things such as swords or plough shares. Pericles boasted that the World would always have the Parthenon underestimating, perhaps, the infinite capacity of man and nature to destroy material things. Ideas, great or misguided, have a much greater chance of surviving indefinitely.
Popular historian Charles Freeman writes that “The Greeks provided the chromosomes of western civilization”. (The Greek Achievement) That description is apt since chromosomes have long been described as the “building blocks” of life. In the case of the Greek heritage, the building blocks were supplied by a host of contributors whose names run the gamut from A to Z, Apelles to Zeuxis. Not all of the building blocks have been used by western civilization in creating the fabric of our society. Even such stalwarts as Plato and Aristotle came up with some ideas that could easily be labeled as “daft” but it was their process of reasoning (and other sparkling ideas) that have ensured their place in our history.
The Trojan prophet Laocoon warned his countryman to “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. He was proven to be dead right after the big wooden horse was dragged inside Troy’s city gates. But, in our case, we rejoice in the gifts the Greeks have brought, directly and indirectly, to us and our forefathers. Our system of government, our laws, our literature, the art we admire, the architecture we copy, the whole core of our philosophy, our religion, science, medicine, the Olympics, and so on. Western civilization rests firmly on ancient Greek footings.
It was the Greeks who took the art of writing out of the hands of the priests and scribes and made it available to the common people. And then, like most things they borrowed from other cultures, they put a distinctive Greek spin on it and made it better. As Plato noted in one of his Dialogues “whenever Greeks take anything from non-Greeks, they eventually raise it to a higher perfection. It was that Hellenic competitiveness at work- expressed best in the Olympics and at worst, in sad, endless conflicts between Greek states.
The Greeks invented public theatre and became its greatest practitioners. Most teachers of Drama agree that four playwrights stand head and shoulders above all the rest. Three are Greek and only Shakespeare belongs in their company. And who can match Homer for epic poetry, Pindar for lyric poetry, Thucydides for historical writing, Plato for insightful and incisive prose, Aesop for children’s literature?
In the realm of architecture- bridges, churches, legislative buildings, libraries, universities, financial institutions, museums and art galleries- all have borrowed freely from Greek models. It is not without reason that four of the seven wonders of the ancient world were Greek creations. In the modern world, ranging from the Parliament buildings in Austria, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to the Pushkin Palace, to the Capitol building in Washington, the Lincoln Memorial, the Plaza de Espana in Seville, Spain…columns and pediments with a Greek heritage show up everywhere.
The Greeks were the first to establish a jury system and a democratic assembly. Some of their ancient coins are the most beautiful ever produced. Many can recall studying The Elements of Geometry by Euclid, a textbook used for more than two millennia. In 1992 the Roman Catholic church issued an apology to Galileo for having excommunicated him for claiming that the sun was at the centre of the universe. A Greek had already demonstrated that to the satisfaction of many, 20 centuries earlier.
The ancient Greek world may no longer exist but it continues to echo throughout our own. Figuratively, it has been absorbed within our bloodstream over the past several centuries. It was a revival of classical studies, in the 14 th century in Italy, that sparked the Renaissance. Greek mythology provided European painters with a wealth of evocative subject matter. The Protestant Reformation drew inspiration from a re-examination of the New Testament, written originally in Greek. The 19 th century British school system modeled itself on Greek examples (including a modified version of the Spartan boarding school). Architects such as Le Corbusier were influenced by Greek architectural masterpieces like the Parthenon.
The one domain in which ancient Greek society gets a failing grade is in the area of human rights. They lived in a world created from the perspective of an adult Greek male citizen. In this construct women were segregated and marginalized. Even so progressive a leader as Pericles warned in his famous funeral oration that the less women were seen or heard the better. The issue of slavery, common in that era, was never adequately acknowledged or addressed. Undoubtedly some slaves were well-treated by enlightened owners but slaves never rose above the status of property and many were physically and sexually exploited. The Greek attitude towards foreigners (and even Greek citizens from other city-states) was also distinctly ethnocentric. Indeed, critics have long suggested that assumptions of cultural superiority clearly contributed towards European imperialism. Such is the dual nature of legacies.