I always had more students enrolled in Roman history than Greek history, probably because they had heard more about Roman roads, Roman emperors and Rome itself than anything that happened in the Ancient Greece.
Greek history is more difficult. Greece is more expensive to visit, it didn’t invent pizza and it even has its own alphabet. Also, its most famous city, Sparta, produced nothing more than a magnificent army; as for Athens, which had art, literature and philosophy, was there ever a high school football team called the “Owls”?
Athens produced two historians – Herodotus and Thucydides – who are worth reading today for their knowledge of human behavior, while Roman historians were primarily storytellers. Guess which ones were made into the Masterpiece Theater series? Bob Dylan once picked up a copy of Thucydides on a tour and lazily opened it to the section on the Corcyra revolt. He couldn’t let go – the social conflict was so real and so much like what was going on around him, it was like reading contemporary news. This is the chapter that reminds social commentators that even words change meaning when politics gets too extreme – reluctance to join in the killing becomes cowardice, caution becomes timidity, and objective reporting favors the other side.
When the Athenians, the party of democracy, demanded that the Melians join their League against Sparta, the Melians tried to decline. The Athenians listened eagerly to their excuses, then warned that the weak must yield to the strong, otherwise. The Melians replied that justice was on their side, so they would fight. It wasn’t long before all the men of Melos were killed and the women and children sold into slavery.
While the Athenians should have worried that their allies didn’t trust them, they said it didn’t matter as long as their navy was all-powerful. You can guess the rest – the Spartans, who normally would never board a ship, built a fleet (using Persian gold) and in a years-long campaign managed to crush Athens.
Alexander conquered the Persian Empire, but his historians turned his deeds into a series of novels, meaning exotic adventures in distant lands, defeating opponents who seemed invincible, with an increasingly small and aging army.
The Greeks analyzed cultures, personalities and ideas better than the Romans. Geometry and medicine, geography and navigation, governmental forms and economics were almost Greek monopolies. The Romans were more interested in how much tax their new subjects could pay and what the sale of prisoners would bring to the slave markets. It was normal that at the trial of Jesus, the Roman procurator would ask: “What is the truth? He meant it didn’t matter.
Plato, Athens’ best-known philosopher, is wickedly funny, but he thought government was a necessary evil at best, and the more democratic it was, the more evil it was likely to be. He wanted a society run by Philosopher Kings, much like the people who are mad at the Supreme Court for saying laws are made by Congress, not them.
Aristotle taught Alexander the Great principles that helped him remake the classical world, but he was more important for how he analyzed plants and animals, ideas and institutions. He employed no Socrates to add humor to his essays, but as medieval philosophers moved away from Platonic ideas to study his works, his influence on science and the liberal arts led to the creation of universities. A better understanding of Roman law was also important, of course, but it was often to qualify for careers in government or the church.
Some Greek ideas came to the West via the Arabs, but it was the impending fall of Constantinople to the Turks that led to the intellectual revolution we call the Renaissance. Until some Byzantine scholars came to Italy to ask for military help and then stayed on as teachers, no one in the Latin West could speak Greek. (Irish monks who had retained some knowledge of the language had lived on isolated islands.) Soon scholars could read Greek philosophers and scientists in their native language. Luther studied Greek for his translation of the New Testament, and Hebrew and Aramaic for his Old Testament, but he relied on scholars who had studied those languages for help.
I only took one Ancient Greek course. We started with Homer, sweating through difficult verb forms that we hadn’t seen when studying modern languages. But as we got to the works of Athenian authors it got easier, and by the time we got to the Bible it was really very easy. I forgot almost everything, but I never regretted the experience.
William Urban is Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.