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The legacy of ancient Greek politics, from Antigone to Xenophon

What do the pamphlets of the English Civil War, imperial theorists of the eighteenth century, Nazi schoolteachers, and a left-wing American artist have in common? Correct! They all see themselves as in dialogue with classical antiquity, drawing on the political thought of ancient Greek writers. Nor are they alone in this; the idea that Western thought is a series of “footnotes to Plato,” as Alfred Whitehead suggested in 1929, is a memorable formulation of the extensive role of ancient Greece within modernity. Further reflection, however, will show that the West does not have an unbroken connection with ancient Greece, as knowledge of both language and culture declined in the medieval period – even the great Renaissance scholars sometimes struggled to master their ancient Greek grammar and syntax. Once the West does recover a relationship to ancient Greece, is its own role confined to writing “footnotes” under the transcendent authority of Plato? Perhaps we can reconstruct more varied forms of intellectual engagement.

One thing to remember is that the political thought of ancient Greek was not itself monolithic. The democratic experiment of classical Athens, the idealistic militarism of Sparta, the innovative imperialism of Alexander – such plurality of political forms gave rise to a wealth of commentary that ranged across the ideological spectrum. Moreover, texts that are not only political but have other identities too, like Athenian history or tragedy, also involve sustained reflection on the organisation of society and the workings of power. So the political writings of ancient Greece are not confined to Plato, or to Plato and Aristotle, and they offer a range of political positions.

Xenophon in Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy (1655). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Xenophon in Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy (1655). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Conversely, Western thought does not simply accept the authority of Greek texts, despite the huge cultural clout that the classical world undoubtedly wielded during much of European history. Instead, we can see later writers using the classical past as a partner in dialogue, to be variously embraced, rejected, modified, and sometimes transformed out of all recognition. For instance, recent research has shown how Xenophon has been understood as forerunner of Romantic exploration, American militarism, and Nazi ideology. From the opposite perspective, an appeal to the classical past has often shaped and altered the discourses of modernity, calling its basic assumptions into question. The study of this complex kind of engagement is currently undertaken by scholars in classical reception and The Legacy of Greek Political Thought Network enables classicists, historians, and political theorists to learn from each other how the classical past has been debated, interrogated, and contested in post-classical political writings.

The Network is interested particularly in studying the political work of ancient Greek writers other than Plato and Aristotle, and we also want to move away from debates about democracy to investigate how ancient writers have been deployed to pursue many other arguments. Topics studied recently range from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, taking in republicanism, colonialism, pedagogy, Aesop and Antigone. Pamphlets from the English Civil War include reflections on Sparta as ideal democracy, which challenge our current understanding of Spartan politics and imperial theorists of both Britain and France focus on Athens as paradigm of imperial power and decline, with considerably less interest in the city’s democratic identity. German pedagogues in the 1930s drew on Xenophon for characterisations of political leadership that they applied to the autocratic politics and culture developing in their own society, while Aesop provided a way of figuring radical politics for Hugo Gellert, an artist in 1930s New York. New readings of Antigone, via political philosophy as well as drama, enable further consideration of the relations between classical reception and political thought. The current political context presents challenges both relatively familiar and wholly surprising, but we can expect a dialogue with antiquity to continue.

Image: Plato’s Symposium – Anselm Feuerbach. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Ancient Greek and Egyptian interactions

“You Greeks are children.” That’s what an Egyptian priest is supposed to have said to a visiting Greek in the 6th century BC. And in a sense he was right. We think of Ancient Greece as, well, “ancient”, and it is now known to go back to Mycenaean culture of the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. But Egyptian civilisation is much earlier than that: in the mid 2nd millennium BC it was at its height (the “New Kingdom”), but its origins go right into the 3rd millennium BC or even earlier.

Egyptians and Greeks are known to have been in contact already in the 2nd millennium BC, though we don’t know much about it. The picture becomes clearer from about 600BC, when the sea-faring Greeks were frequent visitors to Egypt. Some of it was for trade (there was a Greek trading-base at Naucratis in Egypt from about this time), some of it was about military services, and some of it was probably just sightseeing. By the 5th– 4th centuries BC Greek intellectuals had a pretty good idea of Egyptian culture. They knew it was ancient (in fact they greatly overestimated how old it was), and they saw it as a source of knowledge and esoteric wisdom. Some of them believed that Egypt had influenced Greece in the distant past; for the historian Herodotus, Greek religion was mostly an Egyptian import.

Flash forward to the Hellenistic period (late 4th– 1st centuries BC), when, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Egypt was taken over by a Greco-Macedonian dynasty based in the new city of Alexandria. These Greek pharaohs communicated in Greek and the country itself became increasingly bilingual and bicultural, a process that continued into the Roman period. The most vivid symbol of the new Greco-Egyptian culture that developed is the popularity of Egyptian religion, particularly the goddess Isis, who had worshippers all over the Mediterranean by the 1st century BC.

One big thing Egypt and Greece had in common was their passion for literature. Greek literature was comparatively young, attested from about 700BC (Homer, Hesiod), although the Greeks probably had oral literature much earlier that that. Egypt has one of the earliest attested literary traditions in the world, going right back to the 3rd millennium BC.

Demotic script on the Rosetta Stone, British Museum. Photo by Einsamer Schütze, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
British Museum Egypt by Einsamer Schütze. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Once Greeks were settled in Egypt, they must have encountered Egyptian literature. There was no shortage of Egyptian literature being written and performed in this period, most of it in the later form of the Egyptian language called “Demotic” (which has a really difficult script). We wouldn’t know anything about this today, but luckily some of the papyrus-manuscripts have survived, or at least pieces of them have. Tremendous advances have been made in identifying and deciphering these in the last few decades, and for the first time we can begin to see what Egyptian literature was like in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Some of it can be described as a literature of resistance. For most of the 1st millennium BC Egypt had been under the control of foreign powers, not just the Greeks, but the Persians in the 5th century and before them the Assyrians, and the popular literature imagines a world in which Egypt once had the upper hand, or will have again. A typical subject in Egyptian literature are the adventures of Egyptian pharaohs and other heroes battling against occupying enemies. A whole cycle of these stories centred around the pharaoh Inaros and his sons and their conflict with the Assyrians. Another national hero was the pharaoh Sesostris who was supposed to have once established an Egyptian empire larger than that of the Persians. There were also prophecies predicting a time in the future when the foreign occupiers would be gone. Besides this, there is also a lot of religious literature: for example, the so-called Story of Tefnut narrates how an angry goddess who has abandoned Egypt has to be persuaded to return; and the recently discovered Book of Thoth consists of esoteric writings related to priestly initiation.

We know the Greeks knew this literature because some of it was translated into ancient Greek (the Story of Tefnut, for example). In other cases, an Egyptian work or genre may have been adapted by Greek writers; for example, the “Book of Thoth” could have been a model for the Greek mystical literature known as the Hermetica, i.e the works associated with the god Hermes, the Thrice Great (Thoth and Hermes were always regarded as equivalents). This process could also have happened in the opposite direction, with the Egyptian texts being influenced by Greek models. For example, some of the narratives associated with Inaros may have been somehow influenced by the epic poems of Homer. Mutual influence of this sort probably happened mostly in Hellenistic and Roman periods, but it is likely that already in the 5th century BC, Greeks such as Herodotus, were encountering Egyptian literary traditions, albeit in oral form.

Headline image credit: Philae Temple HDR  by Naguibco. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Homer: inspiration and controversy [Infographic]

The Iliad and The Odyssey loom large in European literary history and the tradition of epic poetry. Readers in both the ancient and modern worlds have been fascinated by the heroic exploits of Achilles and Odysseus and the idealized past the epics portray. Heinrich Schliemann was so taken by the events relayed in these Homeric epics that he sought to excavate the site of the Trojan War (Hisarlik, Turkey) that had been identified in 1822.

Although a man named “Homer” was accepted in antiquity as the author of the poems, there is no evidence supporting the existence of such an author. By the late 1700s, careful dissection of the Iliad and Odyssey raised doubts about their composition by a single poet. Since then, scholars have used literary and archaeological evidence to address the “Homeric question,” which involves debates about the identity of Homer, authorship of the Homeric epics, and the historicity of the society depicted in them. Though aspects of this question remain hotly contested today, most scholars now accept that the poems are the product of a gradual process of oral dissemination.

Explore more about the “Homeric question” and the influence of these epics in the infographic below. To discover more about Homer, the Iliad, and the Odyssey, check out the digital edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, which is now available for subscription.


Download the infographic as a JPEG or PDF.

Featured image credit: Homer, by Rufus46 (Own work). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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And the lot fell on… sortition in Ancient Greek democratic theory & practice

Some four decades ago the late Sir Moses Finley, then Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, published a powerful series of lectures entitled Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973, republished in an augmented second edition, 1985). He himself had personally suffered the atrocious deficit of democracy that afflicted his native United States in the 1950s, forcing him into permanent exile, but my chief reason for citing his book here, apart from out of continuing intellectual respect, is that its title could equally well have been ‘Democracy Ancient’ Versus ‘Modern.’ For in the matter of the dēmokratia (‘People-Power’) that the Greeks invented (the word as well as the thing) ancient Greece was a desperately foreign country – they did democracy very differently.

It is quite easy to compile a checklist, perhaps even a decalogue, of differences between their democracy (or rather democracies, as there was no one identikit ancient model) and ours (ditto). And in no respect did they and we differ more than on the issue of sortition, that is, the application of the lottery to the conduct of politics (another Greek invention, both the word and the thing, with – again – the accent to be placed on difference as well as similarity between theirs and ours). We today take the exercise of voting in either general or local elections to be the very quintessence of what it is to do ‘democracy.’ The ancient Greeks took the exact opposite view: elections were elitist and for the nobs, appropriate more for oligarchy (the rule of the few rich) than for democracy (the rule of the masses, most of whom were poor), whereas sortition, the lot, was the peculiarly democratic way of selecting most office-holders and all juror-judges to serve in the People’s jury-courts.

The very first extant example of developed Western political theory is to be found in Herodotus’ pioneering fifth-century BCE History of the Graeco-Persian Wars (Book 3, chapters 80-82). It’s a three-way debate staged between advocates of respectively Rule by All, Rule by Some, and Rule by One. The pro-democracy/Rule by All speaker negatively rubbishes the cases that he anticipates will be made by his rivals. Positively, he claims that the system of rule he is advocating has three features that together both distinguish it uniquely from its rivals and demonstrate its pre-eminent choice-worthiness:

  1. All office-holders are selected by lot. 
  2. All office-holders so selected are subject(ed) to public scrutiny and audit. 
  3. All public political decisions affecting the common weal are taken by all the People altogether.

The order is telling – first, sortition; second, accountability; third, popular majority-vote decision-taking.

Image credit: Pnyx hill in Athens by Qwqchris. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

So what did sortition have in its favour, according to ancient democratic ideologues, that elections did not? It’s an irony (another good Greek word) of our surviving evidence that we don’t have an awful lot of explicit ancient Greek democratic theory to go on, but here the work of modern political theorists and indeed advocates of applying sortition to enhance our contemporary democratic processes can help us out, for instance Peter Stone’s The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (2011). The following eight features have attracted most attention and comment, not all of it positive of course.

  1. Descriptive representation – of the population from which the office-holders are to be randomly selected.
  2. Prevention of corruption and/or domination (see also 4).
  3. Mitigation of intra-elite competition.
  4. Control of political outliers – preventing those with nonstandard views from unduly dominating.
  5. Distributive justice.
  6. Participation.
  7. Rotation.
  8. Social-psychological benefits – the sense of equality and fairness being made political flesh.

Those eight qualities add up to a powerful contemporary case that I for one find highly persuasive. Were an ancient Greek democrat to be reading through them, however, he (males only need apply in antiquity – legitimate adult citizen males) would surely have found the last four, numbers 5-8, the most relevant by far. The watchwords of ancient Greek democracy were freedom and equality. The use of sortition provided the greatest freedom of action to encourage all qualified citizens to volunteer for important public political positions knowing that the process of selection was random, that it presupposed equality of both opportunity and outcome, that it fostered participation and, perhaps above all, that it recognized and engendered in all citizens in principle a sense of their equal worth, what the Greeks called timē or ‘honour’.

However, as Moses Finley would have been the first to add, there were exceptions; there are always exceptions. The original ancient Greek dēmokratia was Athens, which also developed the most all-embracing forms of that regime. But even the Athenians did not apply sortition to cover absolutely all kinds and conditions of office-holding. For severely pragmatic reasons, the top military and financial offices were allowed to remain elective and not become sortitive; commanding armies and navies or administering public finance were considered far too important public political functions to be left to the random chance of selecting potentially incompetent or corruptible amateurs.

So, how did radical democratic Athenian ideologues reconcile that hard pragmatic fact with their ideology? By invoking and applying rigorously the second distinctive quality promoted by Herodotus’ pro-democracy speaker: that is to say, elected office-holders were subject(ed), regularly and vigorously, to public scrutiny and audit; and should an official’s conduct land him in court, the judgment of his peers would be applied by large numbers of juror-judges serving in the People’s jury-courts – to which they had been allocated by lot. Even the great Pericles felt the hot judgmental breath of democratic Athenian equalitarianism. I can think of quite a few of our (elected) democratic leaders today to whom that breath might likewise be salutarily applied today.

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Art of the Ice Age [slideshow]

In 2003 Paul Bahn led the team that discovered the first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags in Britain. In recent years, many more discoveries have been made including the expanding phenomenon of ‘open-air Ice Age art’. Information gathered from advanced dating methods have revolutionized our knowledge of how cave art was created and when it was created. For instance, we now know that the art found at Creswell Crags must have been created at least 12,800 years ago. This may seem like a long time ago, but other examples of cave art date back 40,000 years.

In the slideshow below, you can see some of the earliest examples of art on the planet, and take a tour of prehistoric art throughout the world.

Featured image credit: Rock painted panel with figures of bison in the cave of La Covaciella, Spain by Locutus Borg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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