A Review of “The Ancient Greeks” by Prof Edith Hall

Reading Edith Hall’s book on the Ancient Greeks, develops a deep respect for the power of poetry. No poet was more effective in this regard than Homer recounting the sea adventures contained in the ‘’The Odyssey’’. It shaped the self-definition of a nation and engendered self-confidence. The mariners set out in their beautiful ships across the Aegean and established colonies to the West, in the Mediterranean as far as the Pillars of Hercules, to the East as far as the Levant and built trading cities in natural harbours along the fertile edges of the Black Sea. They were, as Plato wrote in the Phaedo, “around the sea, like frogs and ants around a pond.” They were encouraged by Delphic oracles and inspired by the company of diving dolphins.

The structure of Hall’s account is clearly set down at the start with a useful chronology from the Myceneans in 1500 B.C. to the close of the Delphic oracle in 395 A.D. providing a clear context for the following text. It also gives a framework that neatly conveys the interaction between individuals, resources, military conflicts, the arts, sports, social upheavals and importantly the contributions of recent research. Anyone reading this book will discover how much our understanding of the Greeks has developed currently from new excavations, discoveries and recent scientific techniques. The first four strongly interconnected qualities that Hall ascribes to the Greeks are that they were seagoing, suspicious of authority, individualistic and inquiring. Further, they were open to new ideas, witty, competitive, admired excellence in people of talent, were exceptionally articulate and were also addicted to pleasure.

This is, perhaps, an ideal book to take upon a Mediterranean cruise. Reading it is arguably a cheaper but comfortable substitute and it will certainly improve your geographical understanding. Some of the ancient names may well be unfamiliar to us today. Most will have heard of Knossos on Crete where back in the early Mycenean period the cattle were called by ironic names like Swift and Talkative or ‘’Oinops’’ which means wine-dark, just as Homer describes the sea. Then there is Massalia where the Greeks imported the vine and thus founded the French wine industry. Sicily, however, provided the setting for particularly notorious tyrants. Olbia, on the Black Sea, which is situated in Ukraine today, was difficult to colonise but eventually provided a sanctuary area for the worship of ‘’Apollo Delphinios’’, a sea-god of music, healing and prophecy.

Spartan Girls challenge Boys by Edgar Degas
Spartan Girls challenge Boys by Edgar Degas

In an interesting chapter on the Spartans, Edith Hall writes of the famous battle at Thermopylae where the courage of 300 sacrificed warriors, led by King Leonidas, created the conditions whereby Greece was saved from the influx of marauding Persians. The excellence of these Spartans consisted in their stern self-discipline and their blunt and pithy sense of humour which is therefore referred to as laconic. In a similar manner, the admiration of the Spartans is called Lacophilia after the area of Laconia which these Dorian Greeks subdued in the eighth century B.C. Spartan women appeared to have attained a degree of independence from their men folk and cultivated the worship of Artemis and festivals involving hyacinths. However, when you read of the treatment meted out to the wretched helots (slaves), recorded by Plutarch and also from Xenophon and Herodotus of the vicious clash of the armoured scrum that constituted hoplite battles, the reader begins to understand why the Spartans are summed up by the author in one adjective-inscrutable.

The adventurous Greek mind appears to have exerted its strength when the kingdom of Macedonia fell to Roman power after AD168. But as Horace wrote, ‘’Graecia captum ferum victorem cepit’’ –captive Greece took her fierce conqueror captive. It was the fluency of the Greek which made it not only the language of business but dominated both rhetoric and prose. Hegemony is after all a Greek word. Recounting these later times the account becomes even more vivid. The writings of the self-assured physician Galen were influenced the development of medicine for many centuries to come. The touching story of rhetorical superstar, as Hall terms Aristides, the inventor of the personal memoir but also a hypochondriac, has a contemporary appeal. It is nice to know that his faith in the benevolent healing deity, Asclepius, quieted his inner turmoil.

Classical Head by John Emanuel
Classical Head
by
John Emanuel

Reading Edith Hall on the Ancients is a stirring adventure; a contemporary correspondence to what Keats must have felt when he opened Chapman’s translation of Homer. The experience is reminiscent too of a poem from the classicist Louis MacNeice who in his poem about the maritime mercenary Greek cry ‘’Thalassa, Thalassa’’ penned the following:-

’Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,

Whose record shall be noble yet;

Butting through scarps of moving marble

The narwhal dares us to be free;

By a high star our course is set,

Our end is Life.  Put out to sea.

 

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