Ahead of his talk, ‘Democracy, Ancient Versus Modern: Ten Things You Really Ought to Know’, we caught up with Paul to find out more and to learn about his passion for history…
Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?
A: At the age of eight, when I studied the Saxon invasions of England at school. It was around the same time that I first developed my passion for the Ancient Greek world, through reading Told to the Children versions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Q: Why do you love your period of history?
A: My period extends from about 1300 BC to about AD 300. So I don’t love all of it equally – I have a special passion for the ‘Archaic’ (700–500 BC) and ‘Classical’ (500–300 BC) sub-periods.
The ‘Archaic’ period was Greece’s formative age of experimentation and discovery. A fully phonetic alphabetic script was developed and widely disseminated; the monumental Homeric epic poems were created and written down; and Greek culture (Hellenism) spread out from the Aegean basin heartland to all round much of the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
Greek interactions with other cultures resulted in huge advances in visual arts, science, mathematics and medicine, and – though this is very largely a Greek achievement – in politics. By 500 BC an early version of democracy had been invented at Athens.
In the ‘Classical’ period, meanwhile, a small coalition of Greeks resisted attempted conquest by the mighty Persian empire. This unpredictable success released a further flood of intellectual creativity. It saw the invention of history writing by Herodotus and Thucydides, the medical writings attributed to Hippocrates, further advances in democratic self-government, the architectural perfection of the Parthenon, the moral philosophy of Plato and the scientific writings of Aristotle…. the list is endless. It is here that modern western civilisation and culture has its ultimate spiritual roots.
Q: Which other historical areas fascinate you and why?
A: In principle, I’m up for pretty much any period or culture, even the Dark Ages. But I’m especially fond of 17th-century British history – the revolutionary era of the Levellers and the regicides. I come from Putney, where Cromwell presided over the 1647 Levellers’ Debates and Thomas Rainsborough uttered the immortal words, “the poorest he hath a life to live as the richest he”. Still only “he”, but it was a start…
Q: Which history books are you reading at the moment?
A: Several, but I would single out Frank L Holt’s The Treasures of Alexander the Great (OUP 2016). I’ve written a book on Alexander myself, Alexander the Great: The Truth Behind the Myth (Macmillan, 2004) and at this year’s Cambridge’s International Summer School I will be debating with an American colleague whether Alexander was a ‘good thing’ or a ’bad thing’ – not just for his own time, but even for us still today…
Q: Are there any developments in your field that are really exciting you at the moment?
A: I am biased here, because I’m co-director of the multinational team of scholars engaged to write the Oxford History of the Archaic Greek World (OUP, New York).
Our guiding practice is ‘archaeo-history’ – not a new practice, but one still with plenty of great potential. It marries the methods and aims of archaeology with those of history. The study of mute remains of material culture is combined with the study of past cultures though written remains, such as literature, formal or informal documents and other kinds of written testimony.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York History Weekend?
A: Meeting old friends and making new ones. Especially specialists in other periods of history, who, like me, aim to reach out to a much wider audience than just their scholarly peers.
Q: What can we expect from your talk at York?
A: A brief and accessible illustrated introduction to democracy (and the varieties thereof) in ancient Greece, and a demonstration of how and why any ancient Greek democracy was unlike any modern version of the idea. In a nutshell, to an ancient Greek democrat, our democracy is an oligarchy. Go figure. I shall also say a bit about some exceptionally controversial and topical contemporary expressions of ‘democracy’.
Q: Which other talks are you looking forward to at the York History Weekend?
A: Any that time permits me to attend!
Professor Paul Cartledge is a classicist who is senior research fellow at Clare College, Cambridge. His most recent book is Democracy: A Life (2016). You can find out more about our history weekends and Paul’s talk at our York History Weekend, ‘Democracy, Ancient Versus Modern: Ten Things You Really Ought to Know’, here.