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.
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
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
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.
The first episode of Michael Scott's Who Were the Greeks? will air on BBC Two on Thursday 27 June, at 9pm.
Michael will be live tweeting, answering questions and providing
further information on the programme between 9pm and 10pm on Thursday 27
June and during the second episode on Thursday 4 July. Follow #WWTG and
tweet your questions and comments to @drmichaelcscott