The Magazine

The Greek Way 

An ancient Mediterranean civilization is still in business.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By DAVID WHARTON
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His parting comment, however, is strangely clueless: "The maintenance of such 'primitive' rites in developed societies such as those of the Greek city-states may seem surprising." Really? I suppose Sartre has never heard of initiation trials like those of the Order of the Arrow in the Boy Scouts, or the Ranger School ordeals in the U.S. Army.

Histoires Grecques extends the range of what most would consider "Greek
history" geographically, chronologically, and culturally, with many essays on the interaction of Hellenized populations with Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Jews, and Christians. Thus he devotes a short chapter to an interpretation of the events in the second book of Maccabees in the Bible as an opening skirmish of a long internecine struggle within Judaism to adapt itself to the Hellenized world of the Near East. He takes up the theme again in a close study of local Jewish political intrigues in Egyptian Alexandria under the Roman emperors Caligula and Claudius.

Is this really "Greek" history? It is if you think that imperial Rome was an essentially Hellenized civilization, and that "Greek" refers not only to geographically and linguistically defined peoples, but to habits, customs, institutions, and modes of thought.

Sartre's series of vignettes concludes with the dramatic figure of Hypatia, the Neoplatonic philosopher of Alexandria who was clubbed to death, quartered, and burned during the episcopate of St. Cyril, some say at his instigation or with his approval. For obvious reasons, the Church has always strenuously denied this. Sartre interprets Hypatia's death as collateral damage in a struggle for temporal power between competing groups of Hellenized and cosmopolitan Christians rather than as the secular martyrdom of a pagan saint, as freethinkers have argued since the Enlightenment. Thus Sartre leaves off by tweaking fixed ideas on both sides of a controversy, a practice he relishes throughout the book.

Sartre's investigations intimate that Greek civilization never really quite dies; it just keeps metamorphosing itself in changing circumstances, and Greek institutions and cultural configurations still crop up in unexpected places.

On a recent afternoon at West Point, watching the cadets come out of their academic buildings for physical training, I found it impossible not to see traced there the faint outlines of the ancient gymnasium, where young men were trained in mind and body to be future leaders. Or in towns across America, ordinary citizens serve on elected and appointed boards and commissions, dutifully and voluntarily looking after their town's welfare, much as their civic-minded counterparts did in city-states across the Hellenized world millennia earlier.

Of course the lines of causation for these similarities are impossible to trace, but throughout our local governments, institutions, schools, entertainments, and architecture, innumerable threads of the ancient life of the polis are still woven into the fabric of our quotidian experience.

David Wharton teaches classics and linguistics at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.