Looking at ancient Greece… from South America


I was recently working in Rio di Janeiro at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) university where I was invited to give a course of lectures about ancient Greek democracy to Brazilian students of international politics, law, economics and history. It was, I must admit, a surprising request to be invited to Brazil to teach about a place 10,000 km and 2,500 years away.


While people often turn to ancient Greece for explanations of the language, culture, art, architecture, philosophy and politics in Western Europe, the US and in Australia, it seems slightly more bizarre to imagine ancient Greece being thought of as a subject directly relevant to South America. It is equally more bizarre to have written this column about ancient Greece, in Rio, for publication in Australia (and the UK) – an image of the globalised world in which we live!

Working with the students in Rio, though, has helped me realise just why ancient Greece is relevant, even in Brazil. It is not only Brazil’s Portuguese and French heritage that has imported linguistic, cultural and architectural echoes of ancient Greece into modern-day Brazil. Nor is it only because of the importance FGV attaches to providing a classically ´well-rounded´ education fostered within a Brazilian outlook that has traditionally been orientated towards Europe rather than the rest of Latin America. Nor indeed is it only because ancient Greece has recently been used to test modern theories of international politics, like democratic peace theory (the idea that democracies don’t make war on one another – sadly the ancient Greek example doesn’t obviously support that idea).

But it is also, more importantly, because of the way in which ancient Greece is still continually used as an active currency for comparison, exhortation and justification in our modern world, a world in which Brazil is playing an increasingly important role.

To the students of international politics at FGV in Brazil, it is worth learning about ancient Greece because they want to be able to understand and judge better the use made of ‘the [ancient] Greek example’ across the international political world. Interestingly, Brazil itself has also begun to make its own use of that example.

Following the recent clamp-down by police on drug trafficking in the favelas in Rio over the last month, a great deal of praise has been heaped on the police and particularly its crack units, to such an extent that they have been compared to the warriors of ancient Sparta (as have US Marines over the last years, too). It seems that the legacy of ancient Greece is alive and well in Brazil and the rest of the world.


Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com