Saturday, 9 March 2013

Ancient Greece: legacy to the West

Classical Greek culture has long been interpreted in the West [1] as the beginning of European civilisation. There is no doubt that Classical Greece was one of the great episodes in world culture. But it was not, of course, single in nature. Spread across the Mediterranean, conditioned by and conditioning other cultures, it was a complex phenomenon which archaeology is still piecing together.

Greece’s role as a spiritual ancestor is usually taken for granted in Western states, and on a certain level this is uncontroversial. It is written on the very streets in buildings like the Capitol in Washington, DC. However, the relationship was neither linear nor continual. As the historian Michael Wood observed:

Should we even view Greece as part of the West? The question may seem perverse, but where a Muslim scholar in tenth-century Baghdad would unquestionably have seen himself as the intellectual heir of classical Hellenism, the idea may never have occurred to a tenth-century scribe in England. She would have been familiar with some of its stories and myths; indebted too to the great patristic legacy in Greek; but she would hardly have thought herself its heir. Israel and Rome loomed far larger in her imagination.[2]

We mentioned in an earlier post that Minoan Crete should be seen not as the first ‘European’ civilisation so much as the westernmost expression of a development that began in the east. Ancient Greece occupied a similarly ambiguous position. The origins of Classical Greek culture can be traced back to the Near East and Egypt, partly via the Minoans and Mycenae, partly through their own direct contacts – early Greek sculpture for example is highly derivative of the Egyptian style. The Greeks owed a great deal to the Phoenicians, a Semitic culture from the coast of modern-day Lebanon, from whom they learnt to use an alphabet and to share other ideas, in sites like Al-Mina on the coast of modern Syria. The Ionian Greeks – inhabiting the colonies on the west coast of modern-day Turkey and in direct contact with Asia – benefited especially from their contact with Eastern ideas. It is true that the Greeks assimilated and transformed this cultural traffic to produce their own distinct, revolutionary culture. But as far as the Greeks do represent the beginning of Western civilisation, this means that the modern West, which is relatively very recent, ultimately finds its ancestry in the East. To draw a line at around the 8th century BCE on the Greek peninsula is somewhat arbitrary.

By 400 BCE Greek culture was already declining under the pressure of constant internecine war. As Wood points out:

Greece never united, remaining instead a land of warring city states, and in the mid-fourth century they fell to the brutal and vigorous Macedonians from the north. With that, Athens lost for good its cultural eminence which passed to the great Hellenistic foundations in Asia and North Africa, the powerhouses of a multi-racial empire which spread from the Balkans to India. It was the ideals of this Hellenistic Age, adapted by the Romans, which would be the first shapers of the Western tradition [my italics].

The identification of Greece as the birthplace of European civilisation was an invention of the Renaissance, when the early bourgeoisie was looking for legitimacy for its own secular, scientific, individualistic and imperialist worldview. In the Greeks they saw a certain correspondence of interests in the study of the natural world, realism in the arts, etc. But even then, Greek culture was seen through the mediation of Rome. It was really the Romans who laid down the foundations for the last two millennia of culture in Europe and its offshoots. It is no accident that bourgeois revolutionary France and the United States took inspiration from the Roman Republic, not democratic Greece; the model for their senates was Roman.

There are very practical reasons for this. The Roman legacy was one of organisation, administration, and importantly – beginning with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in about 312 AD – Christianity. The Roman policy of winning over sections of the ruling classes in the conquered territories created a culture that looked to Roman models even when the Romans had gone. For example, when in 800AD Charlemagne united most of western Europe for the first time since the Roman empire broke up four hundred years before, he was crowned Imperator Romanorum (‘Emperor of the Romans’), in Rome.

Another reason is the limited availability of original Classical Greek culture. The works from antiquity unearthed during the Renaissance and later at Pompeii and Herculaneum were Hellenistic or Roman. Even today, a great deal of Greece’s artistic legacy exists only second-hand. The closest thing we have to a full-scale Greek painting, for example, is the ‘Alexander mosaic’ from Pompeii [3] – itself possibly a Hellenistic work shipped to Italy, or a Roman recreation; and works like Myron’s Discobolus sculpture survive only as Roman copies of original works of higher artistic quality. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Europeans began to study the Classical Greeks directly. Even so, many now-famous Greek works were unknown to the West until relatively late: the Parthenon marbles weren’t brought to Britain until the early 19th century, and the ‘Riace bronzes’ were not fished from the sea until the 1970s.

The rational, self-critical European who is supposedly the enlightened inheritor of the Greeks didn’t appear until two thousand years after the heyday of Classical Greece, having in the meantime been immersed in the legacy not of Greece but of Rome – and the often bloody superstitions of feudal Christianity.

The line of continuity from ancient Greece to modernity was constructed by the bourgeoisie to add legitimacy to their own concerns. When reinventing the Greeks as spiritual ancestors, they concentrated upon the rational, scientific, humanist legacy rather than the bickering, superstition, sexism or blood-letting which were equally part of that culture. European history is a plentiful panorama from which subsequent generations can cherry-pick ideas and events which suit their ideological purposes, while ignoring other equally powerful ideas and events which don’t. One example of such an element of ancient art was its frankness about sexuality. The scale on which Greek and Roman art proudly sported genitalia and sex acts was utterly unacceptable to bourgeois Europe, which hid the offending objects from sight in museum vaults. Another is the participatory nature of Greek democracy – most modern bourgeois would be horrified by any proposal to allow direct votes for the working class about forty times a year, with terms of office lasting just one year, and the threat of exile hanging over politicians who earned popular disapproval.

Theories that recruited the achievements of Greece and Rome to ‘European’ culture were also used to support racism and justify colonialism, by claiming a superior ancestry of civilisation for white cultures. As we’ve touched upon above, Eurocentrists conveniently forget that the West owes its own achievements to an intellectual legacy not just from the Aegean, but from Sumer (the 60-minute hour and the invention of writing), Phoenicia (the alphabet) and Islam (Arabic numerals). Persia, the cartoon villain of ancient Greek history, gave us chess and backgammon, algebra and the medicinal use of alcohol [4].

In short, to understand ancient Greece we must also understand the wider trends of human culture at the time. For that reason the next post will place Greece in context, as one part of a seminal period in human history.


[1] By ‘the West’ I mean the dominant cultures of Western Europe and their offshoots in North America and elsewhere. Dating from the Renaissance, they may be identified as Christian, capitalist and materialist.
[2] Michael Wood, Legacy: A Search for the Origins of Civilisation (1999).
[3] The original may be a work mentioned by Pliny the Elder that depicted Alexander battling Darius, painted by Philoxenos of Eretria from the 4th century BCE.
[4] Anyone interested in Europe’s debt to other cultures will find M. Shahid Alam
s ‘How Eurocentric is Your Day?’ (2009) very interesting.

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