What the Greeks Did For Us, by Tony Spawforth

Fodder for all sides of the debate in the culture wars.
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What The Greeks Did For Us, by Tony Spawforth.

Any academic standing up for Classics (Latin and Greek, no definite article) in 2023 does so knowingly entering a minefield of epic proportions.  Since the Renaissance the appreciation of Classics has been a mark of sophistication and at times an elite pursuit.  Until now.  The arrival of the ‘culture wars’ – O tempora O mores – has placed Classics firmly in the crosshairs.  Indeed under existential threat if some are to be believed.

Navigating what can be polarised and reductive positions, between enthusiasts for the traditional canon of Greek and Roman literature on the one hand, and decolonisers on the other, may seem the equivalent of keeping clear of Scylla and Charibdis, whilst simultaneously avoiding a Twitter storm and the inevitable cancellation and professional ostracism.

How then, following in the footsteps of other champions, to make the case for the relevance and importance of Greek society and culture?  This is the task Newcastle University prof Tony Spawforth tackles deftly in his What The Greeks Did For Us.

Spawforth’s jaunty prose, expansive scope and inexhaustible range of personal anecdotes make this a thoroughly enjoyable survey.  Chapters on sport, science, politics and language throw up example after example of What The Greeks Did For Us.  Scandal and corruption in the Olympics?  Herodes Atticus was there first in AD 143.  Celebrity scientists such as Archimedes are contrasted with today’s scientific collaborators in a nod to the pandemic during which this book was written.  There’s much discussion about the use and abuse of Thucydides by politicians, demagogues and neocons.  And in an amusing section on Greek medicine and Hippocrates, Spawforth traces the debt owed to Greek medicine by present day marketing campaigns for Vics VapoRub.

If you are inclined to judge historic figures by today’s mores then thinkers such as Aristotle can be given a beating.  Ancient Greece was a slave owning society, and the mandate in Democratic Athens was limited to adult male citizens. In this context poor old Aristotle’s ideas have “only recently acquired the power to dismay large numbers of people.”  Spawforth attempts a fair and even-handed treatment of a thinker upon whose ideas the entire scaffold of western reason and enquiry are clearly erected.

Not all Spawforth’s examples are positive.  The appropriation of the story of the Spartan victory at Thermopylae has been a constant theme, not least by the Nazis, Hitler Youth and more present day far right groups.

Of course no survey of the Greek inheritance would be complete without a chapter on sex.  Male homosexuality, Platonic love, lesbianism and kinaedeia, early trans people and the objects of scorn, are mined for contemporary relevance.  And who knew that 3,000 to 4,000 lesbians visit the eponymous island of Lesbos every year, a mainstay of the local economy?

It wasn’t clear whether Spawforth’s slightly cringeing self-deprecating tone “despite my being PSM, or ‘pale, stale, male’” is humour or a sop to the predominant academic vogue. Or perhaps it is both. Sometimes it seems he’s trying to appease both sides in the ‘culture war’ with Donald Trump summoned to make the case for ‘preserving our civilisation’ alongside (rather unnecessary) trigger warnings and references to ‘queering scholarship’.

With conferences, papers and pressure groups increasingly clamouring for ‘decolonising’ the Classics, this excellent read will likely provide fodder for all sides of the debate.

Justin Doherty read Classics at London University and is a political and social commentator. What The Greeks Did For Us is out now and published by Yale University Press.