‘The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others’ by Paul Cartledge, in Greek

Professor Paul Cartledge’s book «The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others» met with a warm reception elsewhere but it ruffled some feathers in Greece. In Athens last month for Alexandria Publishers’ launching of the Greek edition of his book, Cartledge entertained the audience with excerpts from some of the more negative reviews. Kathimerini English Edition asked him what elicited such a vituperative reaction from some critics. «The two particular Greek critics I referred to,» says Cartledge, «accused me of accusing the ancient Greeks of being racists and sexists: well, of course they were but only by totally anachronistic modern Western liberal standards, which I wouldn’t dream of applying ‘straight.’ My Greek critics totally misunderstood the whole thrust of the book, which was to explore the complex and often self-critical ways in which the ancient Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries defined themselves – above all, in terms of ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, freedom, and religion. I used as my main sources Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Aristotle – all elite, intellectual Greeks, so by no means ‘average’ or ‘typical’ thinkers, but Herodotus spoke to large audiences and Aristotle claimed to base his ideas on the most reputable of generally received views, so through them I was able to get at ‘average’ or ‘typical’ views on ethnicity, etc. at second hand.» Polarities The book originated in a course taught to third-year undergraduate classics students at Cambridge, and it retains the lively approach of a classroom course intended to provoke discussion. Cartledge examines a series of polarities – Us vs Them, History vs Myth, Greeks vs Barbarians, Men vs Women, Citizens vs Aliens, Free vs Slave and Gods vs Mortals – to discover how Greeks defined themselves in opposition to others. Part of his agenda is to dispel the notion that the Greeks were just like «us» but simply happened to live earlier. Classical culture is seen as a cornerstone of Western civilization, but this can blind modern observers to how radically different, or «desperately alien,» it was, argues Cartledge. For a start, not all ancient Greek cities (poleis) were the same. The Spartans, whom Cartledge has studied in a depth, were often viewed almost as aliens, he says. «Herodotus writes about their customs as if they were non-Greeks, like an ‘internal other.’ «I found the Spartans a fascinating test-case of what I came to call my ‘anthropological’ approach to the ancient Greeks. That is, I tried -and still try – to imagine myself as an anthropologist doing fieldwork in Classical Greece, living among the Spartans – my ‘people’ – and trying to explain to my own British and other contemporaries what Sparta was ‘really’ like. One major justification for such an approach (which could in principle be applied to any Greek society), in the case specifically of the Spartans, is that the other classical Greeks themselves found Sparta very ‘odd’ – especially in four respects: (i) the compulsory state educational cycle for both boys and girls; (ii) the apparent freedoms (including sexual) and equality of the women; (iii) the military character of the whole society; (iv) the fact that the whole social system was based on repressing the unfree underclass, also Greek, known as Helots (literally ‘captives’).» Modern parallels Asked whether modern Greece retains any of the features he sees as being part of the ancient Greek world, Cartledge responds: «If I was asked what I thought were the three most distinctive characteristics of the ancient Greeks, I would probably answer: competitiveness, passion for freedom, and capacity for self-criticism. Only the Athenians, perhaps, fully embodied the third of those – which is of course the most difficult to achieve and the most remarkable achievement (Socrates put it in a nutshell: ‘the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being’). But the modern Greeks yield little or nothing to their ancient forebears in their competitiveness and passion for freedom.» Cartledge notes that by forebears he doesn’t mean genetic ancestors, «though of course there is some genetic connection, but those ancient Greeks whom the modern Greeks have chosen to adopt as their forefathers. «On the other hand, the institutions within which they live, and the technological toolkit available to them, are of course vastly different. «One interesting area of both ‘continuity’ and ‘non-continuity’ is religion: Orthodox Christianity is a spiritual monotheism, whereas ancient Greeks were pagan polytheists, yet the worship of local saints, for example, is uncannily like the worship of heroes in antiquity, and a number of folk beliefs and folk religious practices can be more or less exactly paralleled in antiquity too.» Classical studies Commenting on the relevance of classical studies, Cartledge says: «Without the humanities – that is, critically alert and morally sensitive as well as professionally ‘scientific’ humanities – we cannot possibly begin to understand the value of the scientific, technical and economic rationalisms on which governments – on behalf, notionally, of taxpayers who are also voters – are determined to spend the lion’s share of national budgets. One reason, not a minor one, for studying the (Greek and Roman) classics is that they are a key root of much that we value, such as freedom and democracy, in our Western civilization and culture; indeed, value so much that we are prepared to go to war to defend or impose them. Humanities specialists can make a major, often the major – though not, of course, unique – contribution to understanding why we value what we do, and whether we should continue to value that or not.» Cambridge University’s Classics faculty has 240 undergraduates, almost all of them UK-trained, says Cartledge. «Under half of our first-year intake have Greek to a reasonably advanced standard when they arrive; a few more have some Greek at school, but all our students taking the 3-year degree have to attend a 2-week summer school in Greek immediately before coming up. «Less than one percent of UK school goers learns Greek, alas. There is virtually no teaching even of Latin in our maintained (state) schools, and even less Greek! So about 75 percent of our applicants and entrants come – inevitably – from what we call public, in fact private schools.» About the author and his work Paul Cartledge is professor of Greek History, chairman of the Faculty of Classics and a fellow of Clare College at the University of Cambridge. He studied the archaeology of the early Spartans for his doctoral thesis, which was the basis of «Sparta and Lakonia» (Routledge, 2nd ed. 2001), and has written extensively on classical antiquity. His most recent publications are «The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization» (BBC Worldwide 2001) and «Spartan Reflections» (Duckworth/University of California Press, 2001). «The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others» (Oxford University Press, new edition 2002) is available in a Greek translation by Paris Boulakis (Alexandria Publishers, 2002). Cartledge was one of four distinguished Hellenists who received the Greek award, the Gold Cross of Honor, in October, 2002 at the Greek Embassy in London, at a ceremony linked to the 28th anniversary of the reinstatement of democracy in Greece.