"Why Ancient Greece Was Awful": This was the title of a lecture I recently attended, hosted by a historical association. As a classics civilization major in university, the topic intrigued me. The lecturer introduced himself and announced that the topics he'd be covering included coarse language and sexual themes. A mother and child excused themselves. Another woman followed shortly afterward. The lecturer looked crestfallen. I attempted to assuage him. "I'm not afraid of a few swears," I said, "and I'm a classics graduate." He didn't look soothed.
He had a nervous tic where he slapped the sides of his legs simultaneously. This he did so regularly that he looked like he was trying to fly away. He put me to mind of Bubo from the original Clash of the Titans
movie. It was distracting and annoying, but I wanted to hear what he had to say.
He opened by asking us to name some of the things that were great about ancient Greece.
"Olive oil," I said. Other people chimed in. "Democracy." "The Olympics." "Theatre." "Acoustics." "Art." "Marble."
He looked startled. "Yes," he said. "All of those things are great. You are doing much better than I would."
This perplexed me. How could someone lecturing on the ancient Greeks not be able to list a few positive traits about ancient Greece? Then he told us his area of expertise wasn't ancient Greece at all, but early modern English theatre (ie. Shakespeare and his contemporaries). He said he didn't actually know much about the time period aside from what he'd learned in a seminar on Athens. Now I was thoroughly boggled. Why would he be talking about something he admitted to knowing little about? This was especially bizarre considering there was a decent chance that at least half of the people in his audience had a solid education in ancient Greek history. We were at a historical conference, after all.
He told us he'd read some plays by Euripedes, who had written extensively on the disenfranchised people of ancient Greece. Now, if he'd stuck to the points of views of these characters from the plays of Euripedes, he may have had a thesis. But instead, we were subjected to what would essentially be an unplotted, unthought-out rant like you might expect to read in YouTube comments.
He said that the ancient Greeks didn't refer to their country as Greece at all, but he didn't bother telling his audience what they did refer to themselves as: Hellenes. He posited that it was acceptable to judge this culture by our current culture's standards. He then made many objectionable, if not outright incorrect, points:
- People who study ancient Greece are unusual in that they all consider ancient Greece to be the pinnacle of human existence, and they all believe the ancient Greeks could do no wrong. As a classics graduate, I honestly have never come across anyone who believes everything in ancient Greece was sunshine and roses. I mean, c'mon! They poisoned poor Socrates!
- The ancient Greeks had no sense of morality. I think it's pretty safe to presume the speaker has never heard of arete. And there are all sorts of moral virtues which crop up again and again in Greek writings: hospitality, loyalty, honour, glory, justice, wisdom, revenge on the battlefield, the importance of family, and temperance are some classic (heh) examples.
- The only ideal for men was to be a hyperaggressive, violent, rapist (such as Herakles or Zeus). This notwithstanding the high esteem with which the Greek philosophers, orators, and Homer were held. To be able to recite The Iliad and The Odyssey by heart was proof of great standing.
- The ancient Greeks were into slavery more than other cultures. Uhh....
- Slavery no longer exists in western culture. Several indignant people called him on this. He backed down somewhat, amending his statement by saying, "Ok, there are no legal forms of slavery in Western culture now." I immediately said, "Prison labour." He flapped his hands on his legs a few times, then pretended I'd said nothing at all.
- The ancient Greeks were all child molesters. While pederasty was widely accepted, in Athens, consent was more important than age. That being said, the Athenians did believe there was such a thing as too young, and too young to give consent. (More here).
- The advent of Christianity stopped pedophilia. There was a widespread "Uhhhhh...." emitted by the audience at this point. His arms flapped and flapped and he flew away to his next point without elucidation.
- The way women were treated in ancient Greece had no counterpart. Although the ancient Greeks were pretty darned misogynistic, they were certainly not alone in this regard.
- No Greek women were allowed to have jobs. At least in Rome, women could be prostitutes Roman women could do a lot more than that, but that's beside the point. But if we use that as a baseline, well, there were plenty of female sex workers in ancient Greece, including pornai and hetairai. It has been posited that the hetairai, along with being independent workers who could potentially save up enough to own property, were also intellectual elites. Highly-educated, they held their own in symposia alongside foremost Greek philosophers.
- Women were never portrayed as dominant or equal to men. Medea kicked Jason's ass, and the Amazons were a force to contend with.
- Aside from in Sparta, no women had property. The hetaira Phryne was said to be so rich that she offered to fund the rebuilding of the walls of Thebes.
- Women were completely uneducated, and there were no women writers. I immediately burst out with "Lesbos. Sappho." He flapped his hands on his pants a couple of times and just soldiered on.
- No Greek women had positions of authority. The words of the Delphic Oracle could make or break a powerful man. And despite ruling in Egypt, Cleopatra was Greek.
- Greek women held no power in the home. "What about Penelope in The Odyssey?" I asked. She wouldn't have been able to hold off her suitors if she'd had absolutely no power. He slapped his legs again. "I've never read The Odyssey," he said.
- The ancient Greeks were more racist than any other culture. They definitely didn't hold a monopoly on xenophobia.
- That the ancient Greeks had no real religion. The Hellenes had religions out their wazoos. I don't even know where to begin, so here's an encyclopaedia entry on the topic: Ancient History Encylopedia: Greek Religion.
- The world became a much better place thanks to Christianity. This is a whole kettle of fish I didn't bother jumping into. There was a religious history graduate in the audience who tore him a new one in this regard, plus another audience member who called him on his obvious biases.
- That if Christianity hadn't replaced the beliefs of the ancient Greeks, Norse religions would have certainly become the religion of western civilization. Considering the inroads made by Mongols throughout Europe, I think they stood a decent chance of disseminating their religious beliefs. Not to mention there were plenty of other religions amongst indigenous peoples which could have become more influential.
- The culture of the ancient Greeks has absolutely no bearing on current religion/culture/etc. in the western world. Even Jesus Christ's name is Greek. Aside from that, we still have the Olympics, the Hippocratic oath, feta cheese and souvlaki, a rather lot of words, tragedy, comedy, iambic pentameter, and the concept of history. And on the negative side of influences, well, misogyny is a Greek word, and it sure does still exist.
I graduated with my classics degree way back in 1994. I could have given a better talk on the downsides of Greek history without even brushing up. Heck, I'll betcha almost everyone in that classroom could have. So why on earth didn't he talk about early English theatre instead? Then again, English drama was my other major. I just might have caught him talking another steaming pile of shit there, too.