“Introducing the Ancient Greeks review – the culture that shaped our world”
by Natalie Haynes, The London Guardian Newspaper, 7/12/16.
… Between 800 and 300BC, the “Greek miracle” took place, the Mediterranean world advancing so rapidly that it seems impossible in retrospect. The Greeks invented virtually every literary form, from history and biography to tragedy and comedy. They perfected ships with multiple banks of oars and began to ask questions about the nature of the world and our role within it. As the leisured elite of the 5th century BC could hear Socrates pontificating about truth, beauty or justice, so ordinary Athenian citizens could vote to decide on their city’s future.
The preface of Edith Hall’s masterly study begins here, but she is quick to explain that the Greek miracle was only a chapter of a much longer story. Her new book pulls off the twin feats of being a chronological history covering about 2,000 years, and a thematic history covering 10 characteristics that define the Greek character, not least their seafaring prowess, inquiring minds and fierce competitiveness. There is much here to entertain and inform the most enthusiastic classicist as well as the general reader, at whom its title suggests it is aimed.
Hall has an uncanny ability to offer up facts you haven’t come across before: “The Athenians believed it was the duty of every father personally to teach his sons how to read and how to swim: the proverb characterising the most uneducated type of man said he could ‘neither read nor swim’.” It’s a gratifying example of how the book works: not only does she make her point about swimming, she reminds us that the Athenians enjoyed mass literacy too. And no wonder they were so obsessed with the sea: as Hall points out, Greece’s “number of headlands, inlets and islands makes the proportion of coastline to land area higher than in any other country in the world”.
She is especially good on the nuance that thrives in every corner of the Greek world. The Greeks may have preferred dividing things into polarities (rather than “everyone in the world”, an ancient Greek would have said “both Greek and barbarian”), but their world was never as binary as this tendency suggests…