The legacy of the ancient Greeks is so overwhelming in so many areas democracy, literature, philosophy, science, mathematics, mythology, drama, art, the Olympic games it is easy to idealize them. As Charles Freeman writes, A popular image of Athens has survived in which the marble is always shining, the streets are clean, and there is a lot of time for passionate philosophical discussions about art, theater, and the meaning of life. But Freeman is keenly aware of the human reality behind the reputation and the paradoxes that accompanied the towering accomplishments. His magnificent The Greek Achievement: The Foundation of the Western World offers the general reader an excellent introduction to the subject. The author uses the best of recent scholarship and excerpts from the works of many classic sources such as Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, and Sappho, in a fast-paced narrative that covers almost 2,000 years of cultural, diplomatic, and military history.

Greek society had a rich spiritual tradition that involved a complex mythology. For example, It was typical for a new city to find a protecting god, Athena at Athens, Apollo in Corinth, for instance, and sacred areas, both inside and outside of the city were set aside for temples . . . in which to worship them. After her victory in the Persian wars, for 75 years Athens became the most important force in the Greek world. Democracy was sustained by empire; drama was an essential part of democratic participation, philosophy fostered by the experience of intense debate within a city setting. The city's pride was enhanced by the magnificent building program on the Acropolis. But Freeman notes: Athens' democracy depended on slavery and the fruits of empire. Democratic government did not necessarily mean benign government. The Athenian assembly could order the massacre of the entire male population of another Greek island and the enslavement of its women and children. Women were segregated and marginalized in almost every area.

Freeman explains that until recently we knew virtually nothing about the Greeks as farmers. But Ninety percent of Greeks made their living on the land and it was their surpluses which underpinned city life. He discusses the close relationship between town and country. There is no sense of an urban elite who use the countryside primarily as a leisure source and look down on the more ignorant country dweller. Such an idea comes only in Hellenistic times when poems about the countryside are written by urban poets who clearly see the countryside as something to enjoy or use as a backdrop to tales of love and seduction in shady groves. There is a fascinating discussion of the intense interest in the place of the hero that began in the eighth century. Who was the hero? How limited were his powers? Alongside heroic behavior comes the idealization of the heroic male body. The search for perfection in the human form was to prove one of the driving forces of Greek art. Homer's epics are not concerned only with glorifying the hero. The greatness of the Iliad and Odyssey as literature lies arguably in the way they illustrate the difficulties inherent in the heroic role.

The greatest glory for the hero comes from activities which court death and yet death brings nothing but a shadowy existence in the underworld. Here is the ultimate and inexplicable human tragedy. This rich overview points out the flaw of the Greek political system was that it never developed a theory of human rights. Rights and duties were assigned not on a universal basis but on the grounds of status and sex. The author also notes that a major point to remember is the resilience of the Greek culture. As he surveys the Greeks from 1550 B.

C. to A.

D. 600, from Mycenae to the Byzantine Empire, their influence spreads to other lands, other cultures.

comments powered by Disqus