1995-06-04: The Classical Greeks

The Classical Greeks (1989)

by Michael Grant (1914-2004)

This book treats Classical Greece, as so many other books do. As Grant says in his introduction:

… But at this juncture in our own affairs, when the world’s instabilities make it so important to examine our origins – and when current educational systems are not making it very easy to do so – there seems to be room for one more endeavour.

The old mistake of concentrating too much on political and military affairs must be avoided (although it would be equally mistaken to neglect them). There remains, then, the problem of how a book of this kind ought to be organized and arranged. It would be possible to aim at a straightforward chronological survey, or alternatively, to tackle one topic or theme after another. Neither of these courses, however, suits the peculiar character of the epoch. Another possible arrangement would have been geographical – to consider each of the principal areas and city-states of the Greek world in turn, as I tried to do in The Rise of the Greeks. That seemed appropriate in dealing with a period during which the Greek world was assuming its regional configuration. But now that we have reached the next period, when that configuration has been established, it appears best to interpret this new age by accepting that its outstanding deeds and thoughts were produced not by communities but by individuals.

Of course, it was within the framework of their communities that they worked, and, indeed, it was the existence and circumambience and tradition of those communities that made their work practicable. But it was they, as individual persons, who did what was done and wrote what was written. I have listed nearly forty of these men, and grouped my narrative around them.

The list could have been extended to an almost indefinite length, but I have tried to single out those whose contribution seems enormous. This is, perhaps, a somewhat unfashionable way of proceeding, in an age which believes that the ancient writers concentrated too much, not only on politics and military affairs, but also on individual personages at the expense of general, underlying impersonal movements. …

This is the right approach to classical Greece for my purposes. In the memetic framework, creation is the act of the individual, and Classical Greece is the source of much of the original creativity that went into our civilization. Creation is individual, but propagation is the work of a community, a collection of individuals among whom the associations of individual creation become the memes of a culture.

The table of contents groups Grant’s selection of individuals into seven parts, repeated here for reference:

Part I – Wars Against External Enemies

1. Miltiades: Victor at Marathon

2. Themistocles: Victor at Salamis

3. Pausanias: Victor at Plataea

4. Gelon and Hiero I: Victors at Himera and Cumae

Part II – Between the Wars: First Phase

5. Cimon: Creator of Empire

6. Pindar: The Old Values

7. Aeschylus: Gods and Human Beings

8. Parmenides: And Three Reactions

9. The Olympia Master: Early Classical Temple Sculpture

10. Polygnotus: The Painting Revolution

Part III – The Periclean Age

11. Pericles: Imperial Democracy

12. Protagoras: Unsettling Sophists

13. Herodotus: The New Art of History

14. To the Riace Master and Polyclitus: The Male Nude

15. Ictinus and Phidias: The Parthenon

Part IV – The Peloponnesian War

16. Hermocrates: Saviour of the Western Greeks

17. Sophocles: Harrowed Heroes and Heroines

18. Euripides: Dramatic Challenger

19. Aristophanes: Comedy of Protest

20. Hippocrates: Scientific Physician

21. Socrates: Ironical Questioner

22. Zeuxis and Parrhasius: A New Look at Art

23. Thucydides: Historian of the War

24. Lysander: Conqueror of Athens

Part V – First Half of the Fourth Century: West and East

25. Dionysius I: Empire Builder

26. Archytas: Philosophical Ruler

27. Leucon I: The Grain Route

28. Mausolus and Pythias: The Mausoleum

Part VI – First Half of the Fourth Century: The Greek Mainland

29. Epaminondas: The End of the Political Road

30. Xenophon: Literary Land-owner

31. Plato: Eternal Reality

32. Isocrates: Panhellenic Educationalist

33. Praxiteles: The Humanizing of Sculpture

Part VII – The End of Classical Greece

34. Timoleon: Sicily at its Best

35. Philip II: The City-State Supplanted

36. Demosthenes: Orator Resisting the Future

37. Aristotle: The Frontiers of Classical Knowledge

The primary problem for this arrangement is the large amount of cross-referencing between chapters, as one man’s actions or words affected another’s, and as they traveled around the Greek world.

As Grant points out in the epilogue, the reasons for the enormous creativity in this culture, time and place(s) lies in a rather simple fact: These men had a great deal of leisure time, in which they were not pressed with the day-to-day requirements of making a living, running a household, or raising children. The men of this age (of a certain rank) employed slaves for the running of their enterprises, and their women, entirely excluded from public life, handled their households. They seem to have spent little time at home, but a great deal of time in the company of other men. They talked a great a great deal, and considered the conditions of their lives. Talk occasionally turned to public action, in the form of political and military affairs, and also the improvement of their city-states. Those among them who were particularly inventive found a ready audience to criticize or appreciate their novel ideas.

A great deal more can be done with Grant’s material, such as casting it into a highly intertwingled hypermedium. A great deal also remains that did not make the cut into Grant’s book.

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