What’s So Great About the Greeks?


Edith Hall’s Introducing the Ancient Greeks belongs to a familiar genre: the attempt to sum up ancient Greek civilization in two hundred pages for that elusive and mystical creature, the General Reader. The earliest recognizable example is perhaps R.W. Livingstone’s The Greek Genius and Its Meaning to Us (1912). Livingstone was an Oxford don and future administrator (he wound up as vice-chancellor of the university), and his book had a trail of British successors: H.D.F. Kitto’s The Greeks (1951), M.I. Finley’s The Ancient Greeks (1963), Kenneth Dover’s The Greeks (1980), Oliver Taplin’s Greek Fire (1989). Each of the last three grew out of, or was designed to accompany, a television series. All are worthy contributions. Yet in readership and influence, none of this group could compete with the American Edith Hamilton.

Hamburger Kunsthalle/bpk, Berlin/Elke Walford/Art Resource © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Max Beckmann: Odysseus and Calypso, 1943

Hamilton came from a midwestern mercantile family. Educated at Miss Porter’s and Bryn Mawr, with a postgraduate stint in Munich, she spent several decades as headmistress of a private girls’ school in Baltimore. After retiring in her fifties, she produced a succession of popularizing books and translations of ancient works. Generations of American students have been introduced to Greek myth by her sanitized Mythology. But it was her first book, The Greek Way, that really made her name. First published in 1930, it appeared in an expanded version in 1943. Its selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1957 gave it a vast middlebrow readership, and it remains in print today.

Hamilton’s view of the Greeks and her expression of it can be gauged from a passage like this one:

The Greek temple is the perfect expression of the pure intellect illumined by the spirit…. No superhuman force as in Egypt; no strange supernatural shapes as in India; the Parthenon is the home of humanity at ease, calm, ordered, sure of itself and the world. The Greeks flung a challenge to nature in the fullness of their joyous strength. They set their temples on the summit of a hill overlooking the wide sea, outlined against the circle of the sky. They would build what was more beautiful than hill and sea and sky and greater than all these.

Note the swelling tricolon (“No superhuman force…no strange supernatural shapes…”), the faint echo of John Winthrop (“temples on the summit of a hill”) and the less faint one of First Corinthians (“greater than all these”): this is history as commencement address. It was Hamilton’s version of Aeschylus that Robert Kennedy cited on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination: “Pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” (Speaking without notes, and perhaps channeling his first reaction, Kennedy unconsciously substituted…

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