Tony Spawforth on What the Greeks Did For Us

Tony Spawforth

Our editor met with the author of a new book on the Greeks and their impact today.
Home » Author interviews » Tony Spawforth on What the Greeks Did For Us

Tony Spawforth, surely the impact on our world today by the Greeks is significantly limited – after all the Romans would surely claim the ancient influence, if there is any?

In many ways the Romans were simply conduits for the older and greater Greek civilisation that they conquered. As recently as World War I at least, the Greeks thus preserved were a kind of cultural lodestar for western civilisation. That’s no longer true, but paradoxically modern media have given ancient Greece a new lease of life in popular culture, from Olympic sport to film, video games, graphic novels and so on—not to mention the Chinese translation of Aristotle!

In that case, presumably you’d agree with John Stuart Mill that “the Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings”?

Mill had a point. Thanks to the Greek victories in the Persian Wars, 5th century BC Athens flowered—Pericles, Sophocles, Athenian democracy, the Parthenon and all that. Rediscovered in the Italian Renaissance, in turn the Athenian legacy profoundly shaped important aspects of British life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Arguably this would have happened whichever side had won the Battle of Hastings.

Do you find that ideologies and politicians misuse ancient Greece whether it was the Nazis and their admiration for Sparta, Johnsonian classical references, or Alexander’s role as a gay icon?

Yes. I mean, sometimes the misuse is blatant, as with the Nazis, whose idealogues wrongly claimed that the Spartans were of German descent. Johnson’s Periclean turn is a good example of what E. M. Forster called ‘Public School Greece’: a certain vision of the ancient Greeks inculcated by a certain type of education. Alexander’s role as a gay icon is overplayed—historically the evidence for his sexual relations with males isn’t conclusive. But minority groups are entitled to search history for their heroes. If some Greek nationalists disapprove, that’s arguably a form of bigotry.

The Parthenon is a stunning architectural achievement, and so is it rather a shame that a huge amount of it sits more than a 1000 miles away in the British Museum?

Of course many museums around the world hold artefacts illustrating the aesthetic and craft achievements of the ancient Greeks. Partly that’s because these achievements have won getting on for universal admiration, like Benin Bronzes or Chinese porcelain. The presence of the Parthenon Marbles in London is a vivid witness to the geographical spread of stakeholders in the ancient Greek legacy by the time of Lord Elgin. They can never be reattached to the building for which they were carved. That said, it’s morally troubling to possess something if your ownership claim is dubious.

If you were to identify an ancient Greek who has had the most impact on the modern world, who would you pick and why: Alexander, Pericles, Sappho, Aristotle or someone else?

A tricky one! Pericles inspired the powerful and moving, and ultimately beautiful, Funeral Speech of Thucydides, an icon of rhetoric. Without Alexander, arguably the Jesus movement seeded in Judaea would never have transformed into an ecumenical religion deeply indebted to the Greeks for its language and its theology. Sappho: if only we knew more of her poems! As for Aristotle, his claim alongside Alexander’s is the strongest: in Aristotle’s case, a huge influence on western thought, for better and for worse—for instance, his dark thinking as it seems today about the natural inferiority of women and slaves.

Is Alexander’s influence the strongest?

Athens was a beacon for freedom and culture for much of antiquity, but can we argue that is the case now?

The ancients certainly saw Athens as a cultural beacon and as standard-bearer for freedom-fighting of a limited but key kind, namely, an independent state’s battle to stave off an aggressive foreign empire (Persia above all). That still seems relevant. In a global world, the cultural legacy of Athens still means a lot to those who enjoy a whole range of outputs derived from ancient Athens, from high-brow drama (restagings of Athenian plays) to the more universal response to artistic beauty (such as the curving lines of the Parthenon, extraordinary to behold as you often see tourists doing as they crouch to run their eyes along the upward bulge of the temple’s top step). But no one would claim that other ancient worlds do not also merit our attention and admiration, Rome included but also further afield—Scythians, Egypt and the ancient Near East, ancient China and so on.

Recently an argument has developed among certain American academics that the study of ancient Greece is elitist, or worse, racist. What’s your view?

This argument derives from the way in which western civilisation has sought its cultural roots in ancient Greece —consciously so by the nineteenth century. At the same time, as happens with history, interpretations of the Greek past were angled to as to support present concerns. In antebellum America spokespersons in favour of slavery found support in Aristotle. European theorists of imperialism constructed hierarchies of race with European whites at the top and appealed to the authority of Greek (and Roman) antiquity for legitimacy. Greeks were colour-blind but not innocent in this area; after all they invented the idea of the ‘barbarian’. The charge of elitism is fair enough. There was no mass education in the west much before the later 1800s. By definition, before then, if you learnt Ancient Greek and read Thucydides you belonged to an educated elite. That’s changed, although private education in the UK and USA, at any rate, is still something of a bastion of Forster’s ‘Public School Greece’, with class overtones in the eyes of some. What societies teach the young is always contested. In my view there’s still a strong case for including ancient Greece in the school curriculum, if only to allow the penny to drop when you puzzle over the meaning of ‘pandemic’, or who this bloke Pericles is who’s named on Hyde Park’s recently-built Bomber Command monument.

What’s next for you?

I’m not sure. Ancient Greece had a fall as well as a rise. I’ve always been fascinated by the twilight period after Roman legions tore up the old Greek independence. How did ancient Greeks respond? You get novel, sometimes bizarre, forms of cultural expression channelling a huge nostalgia for the old days—the Spartans publicly whipping their youth in a parodic take on their old military discipline, the Athenians resurrecting the archaic diction of their revered ancient orators. Religion gets interesting too, as the old pagan deities adapt their offer to give the rising Jesus movement a run for its money. Maybe there’s a book there.

Tony Spawforth is the author of What the Greeks Did For Us , published by Yale University Press.