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Echoes of Athens

How the image of ancient Greece is reflected today.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By DAVID WHARTON
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It’s All Greek To Me

Echoes of Athens

From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece
Has Shaped Our World
by Charlotte Higgins
HarperCollins, 240 pp., $16.99

‘How perfectly obscure!” my late Aunt Patty remarked when I told her I was studying Thucydides. Aunt Patty was no philistine; she read the New York Times and the New Yorker and didn’t mind telling you so. Thus her judgment—that ancient Greece’s greatest historian was rather outré—shows just how shallowly the Greeks have penetrated American middlebrow culture.

Not that the ancient world has been keeping a low profile at the lowbrow end of things. Movies like 300, Troy, and now the remade (3-D!) Clash of the Titans, along with cable extravaganzas such as HBO’s Rome and Starz’s Spartacus, fill the pop-culture sandals that Victor Mature once wore in Demetrius and the Gladiators or Androcles and the Lion. But the literary pickings are slim for a sheer novice interested in ancient Greece as something more than a CGI-generated movie set for monsters, balletic gore, or anachronistic melodrama. And since classics Ph.D.s don’t get tenure for writing popular and interesting books, it’s left to others to enter the breach.

Charlotte Higgins does so effectively with this slim and highly readable volume, an attempt (in her words) to “turn .  .  . our minds back to ancient Greece, as a way better to grasp our own world, our own hearts.” Higgins, an arts writer, editor, and blogger for the Guardian who studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford, calls her book

a love letter to the act of thinking about ancient Greece. In one sense, it’s a bluffer’s guide, a primer that will give you a helping hand around Greek democracy, or the Persian Wars, or the Parthenon. But it is also a book of enthusiasms and pleasures. .  .  . Reading the Greeks is a joy that is at risk of slipping quietly out of our grasp if classics continues its drift away from curricula and the mainstream.

Indeed. In nine chatty chapters Higgins touches on Greece’s main historical and cultural figures, from Homer through Aristotle, briskly portioning out summaries, commentary, and tasty quotations from the ancient texts. It’s no criticism to say that most of Higgins’s favorite anecdotes from Herodotus, similes from Homer, or stanzas from Sappho are old chestnuts in the classics world. They’re chestnuts precisely because they’re full of rich Greeky goodness, and for readers who haven’t experienced them before, they will burst with all their original piquancy. Higgins serves them up with engaging verve; when she says she is physically incapable of restraining tears when reading about the doomed love of Hector and Andromache in the Iliad, you believe her. 

Her chapters reflect modern interests: There’s one on the origins of democracy, one on women, and one on the origins of science and medicine, as well as a chapter each on war, mortality, and love. Homer’s poems and Plato’s Republic each get treatments of their own. Organization tends to be associative, and each chapter is like a basket into which she tosses a lot of loosely connected material. Thus her chapter on democracy includes, among much else, a floor plan of the Parthenon, a plot summary of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and an explanation of ancient rhetorical tricks (with good examples cribbed from the 2008 presidential elections). Somehow she pulls it all together into an easily digestible whole. 

Particularly welcome to me is her inclusion of the pre-Socratic philosophers in the chapter on the beginnings of Greek science, though she rightly reminds us that the Greeks had no word for, and no general conception of, what
we call science today. Nevertheless, the contributions of non-household names such as Anaximander, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Empedocles are worth contemplating. For example, Heraclitus seems to have been the first to assert that “everything comes to be in accordance with reason (logos)”—a bedrock assumption of scientific inquiry. And Empedocles first proposed that there was a fundamental principle of attraction among natural objects. Though he called it eros (“desire”) instead of a Higgs boson, I’m sure he would recognize the research into the subatomic roots of gravitation at the CERN Large Hadron Collider as a continuation of his own interests. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that the pre-Socratics not only framed the basic questions of physics—what are the basic constituents of things, and how does their behavior produce our world?—but also were the first to begin to cordon off their explanations from myth and tradition. When we throw into the mix Pythagoras, who first proposed that number is the fundamental organizing principle of nature, we see the basic intellectual building blocks of modern science emerging already in the 5th century B.C. What’s true of science holds as well for history, philosophy, geometry, medicine, drama, rhetoric, warfare, sculpture, and architecture. All the more reason to make Higgins’s book (or one like it) mandatory reading for secondary school students, and highly recommended for anyone else who just wants to know why the Greeks matter. Higgins also includes a useful and up-to-date bibliography for those who want to read more, as well as helpful aids like a who’s who of mythical and literary figures, a timeline of Greek history, and an explanation of the origin of many borrowed Greek expressions such as “cynical,” “dog days,” and “draconian.”

If there’s anything not to like about the book, it’s that, in its brevity, it must leave out a lot of wonderful stuff. For example, we learn part of the story of the Athenian arch-conniver Themistocles, who saved the Greek cause in the Persian Wars by tricking the Persian King Xerxes as well as his own Greek naval allies, some of whom wanted to cut and run. He secretly sent a letter to the king, offering friendship, and invited him to surround and attack the unwary Greek navies moored in the straits of Salamis. Xerxes took the bait. Then Themistocles told his wavering allies exactly what he had done; since they were now blocked in by the Persians, they had no choice but to fight. In the event, the heavily outnumbered Greeks outmaneuvered the Persians in one of the greatest naval upsets of all time. Themistocles was hailed as the savior of Greece. 

What Higgins doesn’t have space to tell us is that the Athenians eventually came to hate Themistocles because of his arrogance, and they harried him out of Athens and Greece with a price on his head. He somehow managed to sneak into Persia, hiding in a courtesan’s wagon, and again sent a letter to the Great King. This time he wrote that, just as he had once done great harm to the king’s house, he was now in a position to do great good. He asked for a year’s time to learn Persian in order to make his case to the king in person, which was granted. Having learned a new language and culture in his old age, Themistocles spent the rest of his life as an influential adviser to the Persian court. It’s as if Colin Powell had defected to Iraq after Desert Storm and ended his career as Saddam Hussein’s foreign minister, wearing a thawb and speaking Arabic.

A strange ending to a great story—one Aunt Patty might have read and enjoyed in Thucydides, if only she hadn’t wasted so much time reading Anthony Lewis in the Times.

David Wharton is associate professor of classical studies at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 

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