Friday, 28 June 2013

Who were the Greeks?

It's a while since I posted anything here because I've been travelling. I had a varied and fascinating time and will try and share some of my impressions with you in the next few weeks.

But first I want to highlight Who Were The Greeks?, which I caught on BBC 2 last night. 

The presenter is Michael Scott, a classicist at the University of Warwick. "Ancient Greece," in his words, "seems full of ... contradictions. A place that invented democracy but also ran on slave labour, that idolised youth but left children to die through exposure. The key question for me in Who Were The Greeks? ... was how to make sense of those contradictions, how to understand what made ancient Greece tick."

That is an attitude I can accept and learn from, I thought. My own research and experience confirm such contradictions in both ancient and modern Greeks!

And then one of the first places Dr Scott stood to address the camera, was on the plain of Marathon. I spent a week staying in a friend's flat on the hills there last month! So I was hooked.

Plain and swamp of Marathon on a misty May evening, showing the 2004 Olympic
rowing lake and radio mast. The area is now a protected wetland and forest sanctuary.

Painting of Phidias' statue of Zeus at
Olympia in the museum
Later he described helmets in a case in the museum at Olympia. And I was there last month, too. In the programme, this painting of the statue of Zeus was in the background as Dr Scott walked away from the camera. If you've read The Boy with Two Heads, you'll know what an important focus that statue is in my story, as it also was in the minds of many people in those times. As Dr Scott says, the gods were inextricably woven into every facet of life.

The ancient theatre at Sparta with Mount Taygetos
in the background** (June 2012)

And of course he visited Sparta's woods and tried that 'black soup' made from pork, blood and vinegar, that the Spartan army* marched on ...

The Parthenon from the east on the
Athenian Acropolis
... and Athens to talk about democracy, slavery, and sexual mores, among other things.
Plan of the Athenian Agora

One thing he mentioned that I hadn't heard about before, was the well in the Athenian Agora full of babies' and dogs' skeletons. Most of us are no longer under any illusion that the Ancient Greeks lived and thought as we do now, but this did surprise me. I had heard of exposing imperfectly formed or ill babies in the countryside, but had never thought about how they were disposed of in the city. Distasteful to us now, but, as Dr Scott says, a necessary facet of survival in that insecure world of warring city-states. The dogs seem to have been sacrificed, probably in connection with the deaths of the babies. 

I did get a little tired of the close-ups of his face fading in from the faces of statues (perhaps the editor wants to point out his similar good looks?), but his enthusiasm and curiosity are infectious. If you are interested and have iPlayer, you have 13 days left to watch Part One here. Part Two (there are just two parts) will be on BBC 2 next Thursday evening at 9pm. 

Some of the comments on-line about this programme have prompted me to clarify my own attitude to what we know of the Ancient Greeks. The ancients of all races lived before the spread of religions that advocate (but often have not supported!) peace and harmony. In those days, an idea not linked to survival could not last long. 

The humans living in the area we now call Greece had to deal with natural dangers (earthquakes, diseases, and wild animals, for instance) which most modern people cannot even imagine, as well as vying for resources and territory with neighbouring groups of humans. We should not be judging them at all, let alone on terms we see as acceptable today. Learning about - and from - them is enough. 

*The Spartans were, it seems, in many respects the exception to much of what we learn about the Ancient Greeks in general. Paul Cartledge's The Spartans is a very readable account. If I remember rightly, it even mentions the soup!
** The photograph heading this blog is of the same Mount Taygetos from the other side.

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