Saturday, November 1, 2008

Ancient Greece

Historians and polemicists sometimes argue about just how consequential and distinctively unique the Ancient Greeks were. There are those who take the position that all peoples and cultures are equally valuable and who get particularly exercised by the implied hierarchy that some cultures are more successful than others. While all individual persons may be morally equal in value, I think that it is reasonably clear that different peoples and cultures are more or less consequential. Just like successful people in life, it is fair to argue whether their success is solely or largely due to their own efforts or solely or substantially due to luck; that is being in the right place at the right time. What is difficult to argue about is that, for whatever reason, the Ancient Greeks were astoundingly consequential. And consequential in many fields.

In referring to Ancient Greece, we are usually discussing the period from 1100 BC (The Greek Dark Ages), through the era of Classical Greece (5th and 4th centuries BC), through the conquests of Alexander the Great (3rd century BC) and up to the time of the Roman invasion in 146 BC. Even though Greece as a collection of independent polities ended at this point, the nature and influence of Greek culture, as expressed in Hellenism, was just beginning to really gather steam and pushed through the Hellenistic period into the Byzantine period and into the Renaissance and modern era.

I think one of the things which makes the Ancient Greeks stand out so is not just the depth of their achievements but their astounding breadth. Were we to only have the Odyssey and the Iliad, we would hold the Ancient Greeks in deep respect. Someone has said that all of Western Literature is a footnote and elaboration on these two works.

But that is not all that we have from the Greeks. We have the product of what might have been the most significant two centuries in the history of mankind's intellect: the 5th through 3rd centuries BC when figures such as Pericles, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Herodotus, Archimedes, Plato, Pythagoras, Thucydides and others strode a small corner of the Earth and whose shadows still fall upon us today, twenty-five centuries later. What is additionally sobering is the density of these bright lights. Athens, epicenter of much Greek cultural effervescence was probably a city of not much more than a quarter of million. The extended Greek population on the mainland and in the islands and colonies probably did not exceed much more than a couple of million.

So where else did the Greeks excel? They either founded or gave structure to virtually all our main streams of knowledge: Political theory, Art of War, Mathematics, Philosophy, Literature and Theater, Art, History as a field of study, Architecture, Astronomy, etc. It is hard to find a field in which they were not among the first. And their real knack seems to have been to systematize and make practical the results of deeply conceptual and abstract thinking. Others peoples and cultures also made major scientific and academic discoveries (though not as prolifically or in as concentrated a period of time). But as often as not, these discoveries did not get translated into real world applications or were not sustained over time. As an example, I came across an account a couple of years ago indicating that the Ancient Chinese had mastered the art of making steel somewhere back in the first or second centuries AD but that the technique never spread and died out after a century or two. Likewise, the Aztecs invented the wheel - we know because we have extant surviving wheeled toys for children. However, they never, as far as we can tell, used it for transportation or engineering purposes. The Greeks generated new ways of thinking about things, applied them to a real world and achieved new insights and applications that were then not only used by themselves but by their neighbors and cultures far afield and distant down the years.

They were a curious people, a trait with which we can relate. Their drive to systemize knowledge was a function of their desire to know and understand their world. Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon were all moved to explore their world, not only territorially, but also historically. They were the fathers of history as a means of comprehending not only the past but using that past to anticipate the future. And like much of the writing of the Greeks, it remains strangely accessible despite being written in a different language, culture and age.
These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.
- Herodotus's opening lines to the Histories, explaining what and why he is recording this history.

There are so many great quotes and lines among the rich treasures of Greek writings. I love Herodotus, an inveterate purveyor of tales, gossip and sometimes downright slander, "I am bound to tell what I am told, but not in every case to believe it."

Similarly, Thucydides explained his motivation in his opening paragraph:

Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it. This belief was not without its grounds. The preparations of both the combatants were in every department in the last state of perfection; and he could see the rest of the Hellenic race taking sides in the quarrel; those who delayed doing so at once having it in contemplation. Indeed this was the greatest movement yet known in history, not only of the Hellenes, but of a large part of the barbarian world- I had almost said of mankind. For though the events of remote antiquity, and even those that more immediately preceded the war, could not from lapse of time be clearly ascertained, yet the evidences which an inquiry carried as far back as was practicable leads me to trust, all point to the conclusion that there was nothing on as great a scale, either in war or in other matters.

As much as we know about the Ancient Greeks, we also know that there are large swaths of knowledge which they had that have disappeared into the dust of history. There are books by some of the great thinkers and philosophers which we know existed (see Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose) but which, tantalizingly have not survived. Every now and then something, such as the Antikythera Mechanism (, will turn up which tells us that the Ancient Greeks were even more knowledgeable and sophisticated than we thought they were.

They had a knack for putting incredibly complex ideas into easily understood concepts. Take as an example the conditionality of life. Herodotus, of course, that collector of tales near and far, relates the story of Croesus and Solon. We are still wrestling with understanding the degree to which our fortune is under our direct control versus the degree to which we are all subject to the whims of random fortune. Michael Macrone relates this in his It's Greek to Me! (out of print) as does Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Fooled By Randomness. Taleb recounts the story of Croesus and Solon as related through Herodotus.

Croesus, King of Lydia, was considered the richest man of his time. To this day Romance languages use the expression "rich as Croesus" to describe a person of excessive wealth. He was said to be visited by Solon, the Greek legislator known for his dignity, reserve, upright morals, humility, frugality, wisdom, intelligence, and courage. Solon did not display the smallest surprise at the wealth and splendor surrounding his host, nor the tiniest admiration for their owner. Croesus was so irked by the manifest lack of impression on the part of his illustrious visitor that he attempted to extract from him some acknowledgement. He asked him if he had known a happier man than him. Solon cited the life of a man who led a noble existence and died while in battle. Prodded for more, he gave similar examples of heroic but terminated lives, until Croesus, irate, asked him point-blank if he was not to be considered the happiest man of all. Solon answered: "The observation of the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions forbids us to grow insolent upon our present enjoyments, or to admire a man's happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with all variety of future; and him only to whom the divinity has [guaranteed] continued happiness until the end we may call happy." . . .

Yet the story of Croesus has another twist. Having lost a battle to the redoubtable Persian king Cyrus, he was about to be burned alive when he called Solon's name and shouted (something like) "Solon, you were right" {again this is legend}. Cyrus asked about the nature of such unusual invocations, and he told him about Solon's warning. This impressed Cyrus so much that he decided to spare Croesus' life, as he reflected on the possibilities as far as his own fate was concerned. People were thoughtful at that time.

Hence the famous line - Call no man happy until he dies!

This is another area in which the Ancient Greeks are kept close to us - in daily language. We are perhaps aware of it when we use words that are clearly of Greek origin such as democracy, epicurean, laconic, olympian, cynic, hedonist, meander, etc. Less aware we might be that some of our common adages, concepts, sayings, and idioms reach back those thousands of years: a wolf in sheep's clothing, the golden mean, the sword of Damocles, rich as Croesus, cutting the Gordian knot, a Trojan horse, don't count your chickens, the siren song, caught between Scylla and Charybdis, the Hippocratic oath, the Muses, if you want peace prepare for war, speak well of the dead, man is the measure of all things, the philosopher king, the unexamined life is not worth living, nothing in excess, Deus ex Machina.

Look around day to day, listen to the words and phrases we use - the Greeks are still among us, perhaps laughing at our unexamined lives.

How to introduce our children to these living dead who stalk our every footstep? Well of course, to start with, there are Aesop's fables, the various versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Greek myths and legends as a critical foundation, not only for understanding the Ancient Greeks, but to some extent, understanding ourselves today. You can find a more complete listing in some of booklists, but we have included selections in this booklist as well.

We have also included stories about some of the events of the period, the battles, the inventions, the invasions, the heroes, the villains, etc. There are also, particularly at the Young Adult level, retellings of some of the ancient stories in either a more contemporary structure or even, in a couple of cases with some fantasy elements to give the familiar story a new twist. We hope that your children will gain both a comprehension of the impact of the Ancient Greeks as well as an interest to know more about these amazing people.

There are a couple of poems that bear reflecting upon in considering what we think of the Ancient Greeks and just what we can really know about them. One is the provocatively emotional Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats and the other is The Gloomy Academic by Louis MacNeice. Both evocative of these ancient peoples, and of how close and yet how distant we are from them.

Picture Books

Aesop's Fables by Aesop and illustrated by Michael Hague Recommended

Aesop's Fables by Aesop and illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger Recommended

King Midas and the Golden Touch by Charlotte Craft and illustrated by Kinuko Craft Recommended

The Classic Treasury of Aesop's Fables by Aesop and illustrated by Don Daily Suggested

Aesops Fables by Aesop and illustrated by Charles Santore Suggested

Independent Reader

The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum amd illustrated by Willy Pogany Highly Recommended

Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths by Ingri D'Aulaire & Edgar Parin D'Aulaire Highly Recommended

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan Highly Recommended

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Alan Lee Highly Recommended

The Wanderings Of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Alan Lee Highly Recommended

Bulfinch's Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch and illustrated by Sabra Moore and Richard P. Martin Recommended

The Golden Fleece by Padraic Colum and illustrated by Willy Pogany Recommended

Cupid and Psyche by M. Charlotte Craft and illustrated by Kinuko Craft Recommended

The Echo of Greece by Edith Hamilton Recommended

The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton Recommended

Mythology by Edith Hamilton Recommended

Perseus by Geraldine McCaughrean Recommended

Theseus by Geraldine McCaughrean Recommended

Favorite Greek Myths by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Troy Howell Recommended

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan Recommended

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan Recommended

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan Recommended

The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan Recommended

Goddess of Yesterday by Caroline B. Cooney Suggested

The Fire Thief by Terry Deary Suggested

Greek Gods and Heroes by Robert Graves Suggested

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes Suggested

Odysseus by Geraldine McCaughrean Suggested

The Odyssey by Homer and Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Victor G. Ambrus Suggested

The One-eyed Giant by Mary Pope Osborne Suggested

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner Suggested

Men and Gods by Rex Warner and illustrated by Edward Gorey Suggested

Young Adult

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield Highly Recommended

The Landmark Thucydides edited by Robert B. Strassler Highly Recommended

The Landmark Herodotus edited by Robert B. Strassler Highly Recommended

The Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw Recommended

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill Recommended

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan Recommended

The Isle of Stone by Nicholas Nicastro Recommended

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield Recommended

Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield Recommended

Tides of War by Steven Pressfield Recommended

The Virtues Of War by Steven Pressfield Recommended

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault Recommended

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault Recommended

The Praise Singer by Mary Renault Recommended

The Mask of Apollo by Mary Renault Recommended

Ilium by Dan Simmons Recommended

Archimedes and the Door to Science by Jeanne Bendick

Achilles by Elizabeth Cook Suggested

The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford Suggested

Troy by David Gemmell Recommended

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