What did the ancient Greeks do for us?
To say that we owe a lot to the ancient Greeks is nothing new. Everywhere we look, we see echoes of that world in our own: democracy, philosophy, art, architecture, science, sport, to name but a few. But to properly understand the legacy and impact of the ancient Greeks, we need to grasp four crucial ideas. Dr Michael Scott writes...
The first is that it is not only thanks to the Greeks that our culture is so infused with theirs. Just because they invented and built things does not mean, by right, that those inventions, ideas and creations will always continue to be admired. It’s in the way that the legacies of ancient Greece have been taken up, admired, re-formulated and manipulated by every culture between theirs and ours, that we must also look for our answer to the question of why we are so indebted to the Greeks in particular.
For example, the Roman emperor Hadrian loved all things Greek: he completed the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, despite the fact that no Greek had been able to complete this massive temple in about 650 years of trying. The emperor had created a legacy that, in truth, augmented the reality of what the Greek world actually achieved.
The second idea is that, in that continual process of reformulation and manipulation, we have on occasion completely misinterpreted the ancient Greek world. Take paint for instance. Our very sense of the ‘Classical’ from the Renaissance onwards, has been based on the ‘fact’ that ancient Greek temples and buildings were made out of marble and stood shining off-white in the sunlight.
But ever since the first modern travellers visited Greece in the 17th century, we have discovered evidence that this is, in fact, completely wrong. Greek temples were painted bright blue, red, green: our very definition of the opposite of Classical! And so strongly implanted in our cultural psyche is this – incorrect – understanding of the Classical world, that even today we find it difficult to accept what the reality actually was.
Thirdly, we need to realise that the ancient Greek world has not always been such a source of inspiration and, equally, that it has not always been a source of inspiration for things we would choose to admire now.
By the seventh century AD, for example, the term 'democracy' had a ‘mob-rule’ feel about it, which made ancient Athens a very unpopular model for any society, right through until the until the late 18th century. In the English Civil War, for instance, Cromwell was encouraged to follow the example of the ancient Spartans, not the Athenians.
In the formulation of the constitution of the US in the 18th century, the Roman model of a Senate and Capitol was followed, rather than the Athenian boule (a council of citizens appointed to run the daily affairs of the city) and ekklesia (the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens). More worryingly, the same Spartan model that was urged on Cromwell was the model taken by the Nazis as the way to create an Aryan race; Nazi youth camps were directly modelled on the training system for young Spartans.
Finally, although we may like to think that we have taken the inventions and ideas of the ancient Greeks and improved upon them, this is not always the case.
Take ancient Athenian democracy, again, as an example. In ancient Greece, this was based on slavery, and excluded women. Today, we rightly pride ourselves on the fact that neither of these is true. We have improved on the original Greek legacy to the degree that some argue we should not call their system a democracy at all. But equally, we must remember that the ancient Greeks probably would not call our system much of a real democracy either!
We have a representative democracy with a very apathetic voter turn-out at elections; they had a system where every citizen voted directly on every major issue, and in which approximately two-thirds of the citizen population sat, at some point in their adult lives, on the supreme governing council, the boule, of the city. None of this makes the Athenian system better than ours or vice versa. But it should make us think twice about we mean by the ‘legacy’ of democracy.
Overall, the crucial thing we must always remember is that the legacy of the ancient Greeks is a constantly moveable feast, caught between icon and enigma, and one that we – alongside every generation between us and them – have been, are still, and will always be, absolutely implicit in creating as much as the ancient Greeks themselves.
Michael Scott is the author of several books on ancient Greek and Roman society and has presented numerous TV documentaries on ancient history.