What the Greeks Did For Us

Tony Spawforth

There are many echoes of ancient Greece in today's world.
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When Heather McCallum at Yale suggested that I write a book about the legacy of ancient Greece with the title What the Greeks Did for Us, my first reaction was self-doubt. Was I up to the task? Many of us are invested in ancient Greece in one way or another. The scope for disappointing such readers by failing to do justice to a cherished image of the ancient Greeks seemed large. The book written, I still worry.

I promptly had a second thought, that this seemed like a well-trodden subject. To mind came a book called precisely The Legacy of Greece. It was put together by a distinguished team of specialists and is by no means outdated. I emphasise the words ‘team’ and ‘specialists’. How could one author do justice to how today’s world defines itself in relation to the near-inexhaustible gamut of ancient Greek civilisation, including such rarefied fields as its philosophy and science? The prevalence of modern versions of the ancient Oath of Hippocrates in medical schools around the world hints not only at the expertise needed to write about the Greek legacy today, but also at the problem of how to squeeze within the covers of a single book a potentially global phenomenon.

This last concern only grew as I embarked on writing the book and came across, for instance, the avid interest of today’s China in the ancient Greeks. This goes well beyond the scaled replicas of the Parthenon popping up in Chinese amusement parks alongside models of other ancient Mediterranean wonders like the Pyramids and the Colosseum—although taken together these scale models put me in mind, not entirely comfortably, of the Roman emperor Hadrian’s proprietary replication in his grandiose country palace at Tibur, modern Tivoli, of famous sights of ancient Greece now contained within his empire. There is also the ongoing business of China’s harvesting of the wisdom of Greek philosophers, thanks to Chinese translators skilled at rendering one difficult dead language into another seemingly as difficult and very much alive. I find myself reminded of those medieval translators in Damascus, Baghdad and Islamic Spain busy rendering into Arabic the ancient Greek store of practical knowledge in fields such as pharmacology and mathematics.

Still over lunch, I started to see a ray of hope. That pre-existing tome on Greece’s legacy was quite old—1981 when I checked. Times had changed. My personal experience as a university teacher offered a small measure of how much. During my thirty years in a university in north-east England teaching Greek and Roman history our students ceased being required to learn Ancient Greek. New colleagues arrived who were dispossessed ‘refugees,’ their former departments in other universities closed in a national shaking down of classics teaching in the sector. Shifts in the cultural zeitgeist of the big wide world outside were echoed in the new teaching topics which increasingly younger fellow-lecturers sought to introduce—ancient women, for instance, and slavery. None of this compared to what is now happening in the USA. Teachers of the classics of ancient Greece in a renowned American university feel compelled, in effect, to apologise for the very subject that they teach and to protest at its contribution, so they feel, to the present-day woes of the world.

Then again, what seem like cultural trivia hinted at a story not really reflected in the older ‘legacy’ writings of classicists. I’m thinking of the British Olympic champion Adam Peaty, whose tattoos include Achilles, Athena and a Spartan warrior. Or a video game like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, released in 2018. This draws for its recreation of the ‘look’ of ancient Greece on leading scholars from a prestigious institution of learning, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens—a measure of the growing respectability of a new medium. Or the Pirelli-style calendar of French rugby stars—‘The Gods of the Stadium’—posed artfully naked and themed as the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. Popular culture manifested in books, films, television, video games, theme parks and mass tourism has created in many parts of the world a collective picture of the ancient Greeks, not necessarily punctilious about dates and historical context, but spreading ancient Greece further afield than ever before and offering a spring-board for deepening understanding of the ancient Greek world, for those so inclined.

The book that has resulted confronts the negatives of ancient Greek civilisation such as misogyny, slavery and, some would say, “proto-racism”. Also the uses and abuses of ancient Greece to suit the ideas and ideologies of more recent times—of western imperialism, totalitarian regimes, Hitler’s most obviously, and today’s extremists such as white supremacists. The book concludes with my personal view that there is too much that is breathtakingly clever, or aesthetically beautiful, or wise about the human condition, for the ancient Greeks not to continue to be a cultural resource to preserve and to relish—even if they could get their science seriously wrong.

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

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