It’s All Greek To Me
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.