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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 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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