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.
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 “despair” for Hamilton’s “despite.”)
Nobody since Hamilton has enjoyed quite that kind of influence. In the US, the field has largely been left to the college textbook market on the one hand and to coffee table books on the other. Perhaps the nearest recent attempt at a new Hamilton has been Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (2003), a sequel to his best-selling How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995). It shares that book’s tendency to breathless hyperbole, but is not without its virtues—not least its extensive quotations from primary sources.
Behind all these books lies the conviction that there is something special about the Greeks. No one has ever written a book called The Phoenician Genius and Its Meaning to Us. (Hamilton did produce a companion volume on Rome—titled, inevitably, The Roman Way—but one senses that her heart was not really in it.)
This continuing fascination is all the more remarkable since many achievements we tend to think of as Greek were anticipated or matched by other ancient cultures. The Babylonians predicted eclipses before Thales and discovered the Pythagorean theorem before Pythagoras. Most of the Greek alphabet—all but the vowels—was devised by the Phoenicians. It was the Lydians, not the Greeks, who invented coinage. The divine succession myths we know from the Greek poet Hesiod’s Theogony turn out to have Near Eastern ancestors. His Works and Days is a type of wisdom literature that can be found from the Euphrates to the Nile. Plato tells a story of the Athenian lawgiver Solon talking genealogy with an Egyptian priest. “Solon, Solon,” says the latter pityingly, “you Greeks are forever children. There is no such thing as an ‘ancient’ Greek.”
Ah, comes the retort, but it is the Greeks, not these other peoples, who made us what we are. They gave us the alphabet! Their thoughts and discoveries still affect us today! The legacy of Greece lives on in words like “democracy,” “mathematics,” and “economics.” (Also, of course, in “tyranny,” “oligarchy,” and—a later coinage—“psychopath.”) That this influence is, at best, muddled and indirect, that Greek democracy was neither all that democratic nor very much like ours—this makes no difference. The Greeks will always be what Edith Hall’s preface calls them, “the right people, in the right place, at the right time,” as they were for the celebrity lecturer in Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution:
There were two things he was crazy about, the thirteenth century and Greek: if the thirteenth century had spoken Greek I believe it would have killed him not to have been alive in it…. He would say, “What do we know that Aristotle didn’t know?” But he wouldn’t let you tell him; it was a rhetorical question. He had diabetes and used to get an injection of insulin every day, but I don’t believe he ever got one without wishing it were Galen giving it to him.
Edith Hall’s book is organized around a list of ten characteristics: “the ten ingredients in the recipe of Greekness.” Specifically, Hall’s Greeks were seagoers, suspicious of authority (her preferred word is “stroppy”), individualists, inquisitive, open to new ideas, witty, competitive, admirers of excellence, articulate, and lovers of pleasure. Each of these ten characteristics, the introduction tells us, will be paired with a period of Greek history, from the Bronze Age to the fourth century AD. These in turn correspond to ten geographical areas where Greek culture flourished, from Pylos to Ionia, Athens, and Sparta, to Macedon, Alexandria, and the Near East. The schematization is reminiscent of the table Joyce produced for the chapters in Ulysses, each with its assigned “organ,” “symbol,” and “art”—or perhaps of the permutations in a game of Clue. (The Macedonians, in the fourth century, with competitiveness.) Fortunately the scheme is less rigid in practice; it is the chronological division that prevails, and any of the ten characteristics can pop up almost anywhere.
The attempt to identify a canon of cultural traits is not new. Indeed, we find it already in Livingstone’s The Greek Genius, with its chapters built around various “notes”: the Note of Beauty, the Note of Freedom, the Notes of Directness and of Humanism, the Note of Sanity and Manysidedness. Contemporary readers are perhaps more likely to think of the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s Civilization (2011), with its “six killer apps” that allegedly distanced “the West from the Rest.”1 Ferguson’s “apps” are an odd mixture of fields of knowledge (science, medicine), legal concepts (property rights), and socioeconomic values (competition, consumerism, the Protestant work ethic). By contrast, Hall’s ten characteristics are primarily traits of individuals. Can “curiosity” or “wit” really be predicated of an entire society? Hall’s capacity for generalizing often makes her sound uncomfortably like a nineteenth-century historian, Francis Parkman on the Indian, say:
Ambition, revenge, envy, jealousy, are his ruling passions…. He loathes the thought of coercion; and few of his race have ever stooped to discharge a menial office. A wild love of liberty, an utter intolerance of control, lie at the basis of his character, and fire his whole existence.
This emphasis on national or ethnic character overshadows more structural factors that surely influenced Greek development. Until the Roman period Greeks combined a common language and some common institutions (their gods, the Olympics, the oracle at Delphi) with a striking lack of political unity. In this they resemble the states of Renaissance Italy or early modern Germany, and one might wonder whether that combination might be especially conducive to artistic and scientific patronage. (We think of the fifth century as the age of Athens, but Aeschylus died at the court of a Sicilian tyrant, and Euripides wrote the Bacchae in Macedonia.)
Hall’s coverage is admirably up-to-date. Indeed, sometimes it is almost ripped from the headlines. A Mycenaean tablet found in 2011 pushes the use of written Greek back to the fifteenth century BC. A new fragment of the lyric poet Archilochus narrates a battle between the Greeks and the Trojan ally Telephus. A newly edited poem by Sappho meditates on old age and the mythological figure of Tithonus. Mummy cartonnage disgorges a sequence of epigrams by the Hellenistic poet Posidippus. And new archaeological finds contribute too. A seventh-century-BC skull from Abdera shows evidence of successful trepanning, and recent French excavations shed light on the harbor at Alexandria.
Even experienced students will find some new pieces of information: male beauty contests at Athens, a huge cache of terra-cotta masks at Sparta. Everyone knows the Macedonians exploited the phalanx formation; Hall emphasizes their use of torsion-spring catapults. And she draws attention to some less than familiar works: the fragments of the female poet Nossis, for example, or Plutarch’s playful dialogue Gryllus, in which one of Odysseus’s transformed comrades decides he prefers his animal form. Sometimes she seems overimaginative. It may be that life in Sparta “had its moments of lightheartedness and enchantment.” I am less convinced that the silting-up of the Maeander estuary prompted Ionian thinkers to invent natural philosophy, or that Napoleon invaded Egypt based on boyhood reading of the Greek geographer Strabo.
Hamilton is the inspirational head-of-school, eyes fixed firmly upon the pure, the good, and the beautiful. Hall is more like the capable and energetic games mistress, brooking no back talk. “Ambivalence,” we are instructed, “is the only possible response toward the Spartans of the classical period”—as if plenty of observers over the last two and a half millennia had not found them wholly admirable or thoroughly repulsive. To ancient observers the Parthenon frieze “can only have suggested the Panathenaic procession.” Casual readers might wonder about that “only.” What else might the frieze have suggested? As insiders will recognize, Hall is tacitly squashing Joan Breton Connelly’s suggestion that it actually depicts an episode from early Athenian myth.2 No “teaching the controversy” here.
Like the Greeks themselves, Hall is quick to generalize from a handful of examples (or even just one). “The Greeks’ conviction that they were the best swimmers in the world,” we are told, “was a core constituent of their collective identity.” How do we know this? Well, Theseus went diving for a ring, the shipwrecked Odysseus rode the waves in to shore, and during the Persian Wars a father-daughter team swam down and dislodged the anchors of enemy ships. Nor should we be surprised that the Syrian Philodemus found favor with Roman patrons: “Syrians were always skilled expositors of Greek philosophy.” (Always?) “The Greeks imagined the entire universe as being constructed like an enormous trireme”—here “the Greeks” means one passage in Plato’s eccentric myth of Er.
For all its novelties, this can be a strangely old-fashioned book. The treatment of early Greek poetry is reminiscent of Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind, a book that charts the Greeks’ progress in abstract reasoning through literature, but often ignores differences of genre and rates of survival. So Hall sees probabilistic reasoning as a creation of the sixth century: “Characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey do not argue from probability.” Neither do they eat fish, and perhaps for the same reason: it’s not a very heroic thing to do. “Archilochus changed the course of poetic history by putting his own irreverent subjectivity at the heart of his songs.” Did he? Or are his irreverent songs merely the first that the arrival of alphabetic writing lets us hear—as if in working our way down the radio dial we had finally hit a station with a strong signal?
The past generation has seen a dramatic reevaluation of Hellenistic literature, partly under the impetus of papyrus finds. Once dismissed as sterile academicism, it is now widely seen as a creative response to a new, multicultural world. Hall will have none of this. For her, the vogue for Hellenistic poetry is an indictment of our own time:
At the cinema, we have entered an age of nostalgia, of remakes and pastiches of old movies and television programs, as if seams of creativity have run dry. Our current obsession with recycling inherited artifacts inevitably makes us relate to the allusive, pseudo-archaic Hymns of Callimachus or the whimsical, gothic response to Homer in Apollonius’s Argonautica.
(“Whimsical gothic” would be a good description of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, but is perhaps less satisfactory as applied to Apollonius’s odd, unsettling epic.)
What really stands out, though, is the omission or downplaying of certain topics. Here again one is reminded of Livingstone:
The men who built and based Hellenism were thinkers and artists…. In so far as the Greek was enterprising, dishonest, or superstitious, we are not interested in him: for these qualities are not part of the Greek gift to Europe. We shall not discuss his Orphism, nor his Chthonian worships, nor his anthropology, nor his political failures, nor his commercial morality, nor his military efficiency, nor his attitude to barbarians, slaves, and women.
Hall credits Pericles with delivering the funeral oration Thucydides puts in his mouth, a tribute to “democratic values and love of liberty.” (Tell it to the Melians.) We hear little of Athenian imperialism’s dark side—the “shadow of the Parthenon” as Peter Green dubbed it in a 1972 essay. Little too about slavery, except that it was a prerequisite for creating “a strong definition of individual freedom.”
Hall’s book is well represented by its cover, which shows part of a 1904 painting, A Libation to Olympus, by Hugh Goldwin Rivière. The viewer is placed amidships, looking toward the bow, as a boat shoulders its way through wine-dark waves. The lofty mountain of the gods gleams white in the distance. Rowers in bright-colored garb pull at the oars, one glancing over his shoulder at the far-off peak. Beyond them, the pilot looks on as a white-haired figure raises a two-handled cup in reverent homage, a young man standing poised behind him. Here are Matthew Arnold’s Greeks, “the young light-hearted Masters of the waves” (Hall quotes the passage in her epigraph). Here too are Edith Hamilton’s “sailors on a sapphire sea washing enchanted islands purple in a luminous air.”
But these are not the only Greeks. Less than a decade after the revised edition of The Greek Way, E.R. Dodds would publish his landmark study The Greeks and the Irrational (1951). Dodds’s Greeks are intimate with madness, prophecy, and ecstatic religion (including the “Chthonian worships” Livingstone found so distasteful), and their embrace of reason has to be understood against that background. This is a far cry, to be sure, from Hamilton’s high-minded thinkers or Hall’s agile, dolphin-like seafarers. Yet when one reads Aeschylus’s Libation-Bearers or the vision of the suitors in the Odyssey, Dodds seems a far better guide.
If Introducing the Ancient Greeks often reads like a children’s book for adults, the fault is not entirely Hall’s. As Livingstone confessed, “few people could write a book on this subject, and feel satisfied with it.” Yet the nagging question remains. Why do the Greeks matter? Why do we keep coming back to them? No doubt the Greeks have often provided a foil for the dreariness of one’s own society, as they did for Winckelmann in the eighteenth century and Nietzsche in the nineteenth. Certainly they have served the purposes of nineteenth- (and twentieth-) century racism, bearing the West’s standards against the slavish and benighted Rest. But these are only partial answers. What was it that made Petrarch struggle to parse his precious Greek manuscript of Homer? Why did Pope translate the Iliad rather than the Aeneid?
Perhaps the Iliad itself is part of the answer. For whatever else they did, the Greeks produced a body of written texts that, in their diversity of genres and subjects, have proved exceptionally good to think with. Like Hamilton’s, Hall’s book is billed as an introduction to Greek culture, but it is primarily about Greek literature. Of Hall’s ten Greek characteristics, it is “articulate” that is the prerequisite for all the others. As Horace observed, “there were valiant men before Agamemnon.” But without Homer the Mycenaean shaft graves and Linear B tablets would be like the Hittite royal archives, the preserve of a handful of specialists.
But this too is not the whole story. Other ancient peoples produced literature, from the Akkadian Gilgamesh to the Egyptian Dream of Nectanebo. The texts had to be not only created but preserved and transmitted. And here only the Hebrew Bible, with its continuous tradition of interpretation, can compete with the Greeks. It is conventional to give credit to the Romans—captors captivated by their captives, a nation of stolid Watsons writing up the Greeks’ adventures. But much of the credit is due to the Greeks themselves. Hall is sniffy about the Alexandrian library (she thinks it “stifled experimentation”), but it had a crucial part in preserving what we have of earlier literature. Nor should one forget the Byzantine grammarians who copied and commented on what we have.
But the real unsung heroes may be the Greek rhetoricians and educators of the early centuries AD, the era referred to as the “Second Sophistic.” In speeches, dialogues, biographies, and burlesques, it was they who created much of the “classical Greece” we think we know. Our image of Themistocles and Socrates owes as much to them as to Herodotus or Plato. Our Diogenes and Alexander are mostly their invention. It is their shadows that hover behind Hall’s mental navigators, in all their inquisitive rivalry and pleasure-loving independence.