Dare to Know: the Paradox of Greek History

Growing up in the 1940s in a Greek village was neither a baptism in Greek culture nor an indoctrination to nationalism. This was because “modern” Greece has been going through the suffering of centuries of foreign occupation and official neglect and often ignorance about the country’s unrivalled ancient civilization.

Greek history was interrupted by barbarian invasions. Hellas (the name ancient Greeks – Hellenes – called Greece) was remade, especially by its permanent Christian conquerors.

Lots of deprivations defined my Greekness, including the terrible legacy of World War II and civil war. The so-called communists in the civil war killed two brothers of my father and a sister of my mother.

Despite that violence, my rural elementary and urban high school education taught me a few things about my ancient Greek ancestors.

In contrast to modern Greeks (and nearly all Western people) who worship a Jewish-Christian god, my ancestors were pious to several gods.

Athena was one of those gods. She was the daughter of the father of the gods, Zeus. The Athenians honored her with the Parthenon, which is the crystallization of the highest virtues and talent of Greek culture. In addition, Athena is credited with giving the olive tree to the Greeks and inventing the bridle for the domestication of horses and cattle. The olive tree and farm animals are at the heart of rural economy and society in Greece to this very day. So, Greek gods were fundamental to the Greeks.

Philosophers, craftsmen, scientists and engineers, explorers, artists, political theorists, peasants and warriors created Hellas. This was not a united country but a commonwealth of hundreds of poleis (city-states) spread all over the Mediterranean. Plato said the Greeks were like frogs around a pond.

Homer was the supreme poet and story-teller of Hellas. His epics inspired dramatic poets, politicians, ceramic painters, philosophers and peasants.

Democracy prevailed in some of the city-states of Greece. Kings, oligarchs and tyrants ruled other Greek cities.

Despite the disunity and fierce competition among the Greeks, they defeated the Persians;  and Alexander the Great conquered the world.

The paradox of Greek history

Why Homer and other Greek thinkers, for instance, portrayed Zeus making love to beautiful mortal women? This never came up for discussion in my high school classes. Or why Antigone of Sophocles was so courageous a woman – a model for love, democracy, and human rights — in a culture that supposedly kept women down? This is where Sophocles has the Chorus say the immortal truth: “Love has never been defeated in battle: Ἒρως ἀνήκατε μάχαν.”

Or why did the ancient Greeks have so many great philosophers-scientists like Pythagoras, Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Eudoxos, Ktesibios, Archimedes, Apollonios of Perga, Aristarchos of Samos and Hipparchos?

The Christianization of Hellas

What about Greece after it was forcibly submerged into Christianity in the fourth century? Its Christian conquerors torched the Library of Alexandria, converted Parthenon into a Christian church, shut down the Olympics,  and murdered philosopher-scientist Hypatia in Alexandria in 415. Emperor Justinian closed the Academy of Athens in 529. That academy was a 900-year-old university founded by Plato.

The result of such onslaught on the Greeks and other polytheists all over the Mediterranean was the dark ages hitting the Roman empire with the force of tsunami. Christianization meant setting the seeds of violence, illiteracy, and superstition for a thousand years. The West suffered more than the East.

Most scholars avoid the Christianization of Hellas and Rome like a plague. But the questions of Greek history and that of Christianization of Hellas still bother me: not because I have no answers but because answering them unravels both Greek and Western history and culture.

Scholars and Greece

Some scholars are following the model of the Renaissance when manuscripts of Greek learning in science and the humanities unleashed the modern world. They recognize the originality of Greek science. They take Galileo’s praise of Archimedes seriously. So, they are praising the Greeks for giving us democracy, theater and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes; the history of Herodotus and Thucydides, including architecture, art, medicine, law – in short, civilization.

However, most scholars reject any notion the Greeks made contributions to technology. The evidence from the Antikythera Mechanism leaves them cold. The second century BCE Antikythera geared computer was so advanced that a similar device did not appear in Europe before the eighteenth century.

Greek history writing is subtle and part of a sophisticated propaganda of who we pretend to be. Like the Romans, we appropriate Greek architecture for our court houses, government buildings and the White House. We use Greek science and technology every day. And we have filled our museums with stolen Greek treasures.

Yet we keep talking about the Judeo-Christian traditions of America but rarely about our connections with the Greeks who taught us how to think about thinking.

Aristotle invented science. Ktesibios invented mechanical gears, in other words, advanced technology. Archimedes gave science its modern form. Indeed, modern science is to some degree commentaries on Archimedes. Aristarchos of Samos invented the Heliocentric Theory of the cosmos. Hipparchos created mathematical astronomy. The mathematics of Archimedes and the Conics of Apollonios of Perga possibly guide NASA’s spacecrafts for the exploration of the planets.

However, contemporary scholars and documentary producers in Europe and America have discovered non-white populations in their countries are increasing. So, the easiest way to show they care is their frantic efforts to rewrite history, making non-white people feel more satisfied and less threatening to the rulers. The trick is “discovering” non-Greek origins for almost everything. In addition, their new mission satisfies the latest fads about gender, race, and non-Western cultures.

They find that Greeks had slaves; they were misogynists; they stole and appropriated the science and civilization of their neighbors: Egyptians and Babylonians. Alexander the Great was a “butcher”: he does not deserve the title of greatness.

Of course, there are exceptions to this fashionable nonsense. There are scholars who study and admire Greek achievements. They were plenty in the 19thand early 20thcenturies. Now they are few and they are not entirely free of the misconceptions of our age about the Greeks.

The Greeks

One of them is Philip Matyszak, author of The Greeks (Reaktion Books, 2018). Matyszak teaches ancient history at the Institute of Continuing Education of Cambridge University.

His book covers 2,000 years of Greek history: from the prehistorical settlements in the shores of the Black Sea to the capture of the medieval Greek capital of Constantinople by Moslem Turks in 1453.

The Greeks is a breath of fresh air in the stories it tells about the Greeks who lived primarily outside of mainland Greece: Southern Italy, Sicily, north Africa, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, France, Spain, Black Sea, and Asia Minor.

Alexander the Great: genius and wisdom

In the 330s BCE, Alexander the Great revenged the early fifth century BCE Persian attack on Greece. He conquered Persia and the Middle East. The Greek world expanded enormously. It equaled in size to that of the United States. Its territories included mainland Greece and Macedonia, Middle East and Central Asia: all the way to the foothills of the Himalayas.

This was a gigantic empire with countless people, languages, traditions, religions, and political institutions. Alexander’s genius was not merely in conquering such a vast realm so young and so soon but in his wisdom of creating a new world of Greeks and non-Greeks living together.

He married Roxane, a princes from Samarkand (in modern Uzbekistan). Samarkand was a Silk Road polis, right in the highway from China to Western Europe. Alexander also married two more Persian women: the daughter of Darius, the Persian king he defeated and the daughter of Artaxerxes III, a Persian king before Darius.

Alexander also ordered his generals and soldiers to marry Persian women. His ambition was to create a society that would merge Greek and Persian traditions and civilizations.

In addition, in the empire of Alexander and the successor kingdoms, an Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Persian, Jew, Syrian or Afghan was free to join the Greek ruling class. The passport to that privileged society dotted with theaters, beautiful temples, government buildings, stadiums, palaistra (wrestling) schools was education: ability to speak Greek, respect for the Greek gods, and participation in Greek culture.

Alexander died prematurely in 323 BCE. He was barely 33 years old. He and the Greek kings, who ruled the divided empire after his death for about three centuries, also respected and supported the culture of their non-Greek subjects.

The Romans: decline and fall

However, the Greek world was no more united in the empire of Alexander than it was in the poleis of mainland Greece before Alexander. Rome took advantage of that perennial weakness and conquered the Greek world.

The Roman empire used Greek culture, decorating Rome with Greek architecture, sculpture, and Greek tutors. Two of the emperors, Nero and Hadrian, were philhellenes. However, the Romans destroyed Macedonia and Corinth. They fought their decades-long  civil wars in Greece and. They depopulated, impoverished and marginalized the country.

In the fourth century, Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, an old Greek polis near the Bosporus strait between Europe and Asia. Byzantium became the polis of Constantine or Constantinople. Constantine also abandoned the millennial Greco-Roman polytheistic culture for Christianity. This decision effectively crippled Greek civilization.

In the fifth century, the Roman empire split into East and West. Barbarians overrun the West, while the East lasted for about a millennium. In 1054, the pope in Rome excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople who returned the anathema.

At about this time, Western armies started their crusading wars against Islam. In 1204, however, they turned against the Greeks: capturing Constantinople and most of the country. This was a fatal blow for the Eastern Roman empire, which was by then entirely Greek. The crusaders reaped apart medieval Greece. They burned libraries and looted the Greek treasures of Constantinople. This destruction prepared the ground for the Turkish conquest in 1453.

Like most historians, Matyszak intentionally ignores the devastating impact of the Christianization of Greece and the Roman empire. It’s like a climatologist is describing local rains but says nothing about the existing and enveloping storm.

Dare to know

Despite this inexcusable blackspot, he ends his timely and riveting story with the lasting influence Greeks exercise on the imagination and civilization of the West: in architecture, language, mythology, theater and science: “the Greeks can lay claim to being the world’s first scientists,” he says.

He reports that the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries was powered by the motto Sapere aude (dare to know) – “a thoroughly Greek sentiment expressed in Latin.”

“The Greek legacy has become an integral part of a Western-based culture that has spread further than even the Greeks of Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan could have even imagined. In a sense, today we are all Greeks,” he writes.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.