Ancient Greece's legacy can be seen all around us, including in our political system — but many of us don't know that much about it. Fortunately, we have someone who has devoted his life to studying this remote time and place to give us a reading list. Chris Pelling, Emeritus Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, recommends his top five books on Ancient Greece.
Chris Pelling is Regius Professor of Greek Emeritus at Christ Church College, Oxford. His research interests range over Greek and Latin historiography and biography, and over other areas of Greek literature, especially tragedy. He is the co-author of Twelve Voices, a wonderful introduction to the classics of Greek and Roman literature.
There is so much that one can pick from. In some ways, it was like the process of picking the authors to talk about in Twelve Voices. It’s partly to give an idea of what was special or different about ancient Greece and partly to give an idea of ways in which they’re similar or still speak to us.
I’ve had quite a lot of years now of reading, thinking, and teaching about it. These are marvellous books that have also meant a lot to me.
Both the modern books I chose trace through the legacy of ancient Greece: what Greek authors and Greek ideas have meant, and may still mean. One of the books covers all sorts of different areas and the other—particularly close to the bone in 2017—is concerned with democracy.
Tell me about your own interest in ancient Greece. When did you first become interested in this long ago time and place?
It’s a long, long time ago for me as well. It was probably the language that caught me at first—getting things right and in the right order. It was an almost mathematical delight.
Then, it was the history. My interests have always been in ancient culture and the historical side of things. I’ve done a lot of work on the Greek authors who write about the past—either historians or biographers. That has continued. And that was, in fact, what I was originally admitted to university to do: to end up as a historian. But I never quite managed. I got more and more caught by classics and never quite escaped. I keep thinking that when I grow up I might still become a historian but time is running out.
It was the excitement of reading Greek, doing it, and thinking about it at an increasingly more challenging level—and still finding it very difficult as well as very exciting.
Let’s start with the first book on your list, and also the oldest text you’ve chosen, which is Homer’s Iliad, written in about 700 BC.
I suppose one might say ‘composed’ rather than written. It’s still a bit of a mystery how and when it was written down. Just as it’s still a bit of a mystery who Homer was—or one might even say ‘were’ because it may well be that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed by different people.
There’s clearly a very long tradition behind them that is somehow brought together. What that somehow is and how it happened, we don’t know. But it must be said that both the poems are simply too good to have been composed by a committee. There does seem to be at least a single controlling brain—if not a hand, then at least a mouth—that is behind each of these poems. I think probably most people now would go along with that, even though they might find multiple contributions, possibly after that single controlling voice.
Do most people think Homer was one person or two?
Probably more people, now, would go for two. It’s still very much disputed. Given that there’s also a possibility that it only came to be written down sometime later or by somebody other than the person that we might call Homer, there are various permutations you could have. You could have two original people—who put their shape to the poem—written down by the same person later on. Or the other way round: you could have a single person as the original poet, if you like, with all sorts of variations coming in at a later stage and finally being written down by two. It’s all highly speculative.
It wasn’t even physically possible to write down works of that length in 700. You’d need a lot of papyrus. People have sometimes thought that it might have been written on leather, but you’d need a whole herd of cows to write the Iliad on. It’s not, on the whole, very plausible that that’s what writing would have been used for in the very early stages.
What is the Iliad about? My husband and I listened to it in the car and we were bit confused because it seemed to stop rather suddenly.
It’s a very good question. As you say, it does stop quite suddenly. Part of the Iliad’s brilliance is that it only takes four or five days of the action but you feel like it captures the 10 years’ war as a whole.
At the beginning of the poem you often feel as if you’re going back to the beginning. There’s a catalogue of ships. Why ships? They’ve been in tents for 10 years—but this is how it would have seemed as they sailed 10 years before.
There’s a duel between Paris and Menelaus. That’s something, you might think, that could easily have happened at the beginning of the war. It feels like the beginning of a war. Who knows, the first audience might have heard versions of that sung in the context of a beginning. So, you start off by going right back to the beginning.
Then, at the end, there are all sorts of hints about what’s to come. Hector dies. There’s a simile towards the end: “it was as if all Troy was collapsing in flames.” And, in a sense, it is. Troy is as good as done for.
“Part of the Iliad’s brilliance is that it only takes four or five days of the action but you feel like it captures the 10 years’ war as a whole.”
Also, you know Achilles is going to die. His mother comes and grieves for him as well as his friend Patroclus at Patroclus’s funeral. Achilles blames himself dreadfully for Patroclus’s death. Achilles gives away all of Patroclus’s possessions as part of the prizes but he also gives away of all his own possessions.
He knows that he’s next. And he has got good reason to know this because he has been told by his mother, who has got access to the gods and is a goddess herself: ‘If you kill Hector, you are next.’ By going back to the battle, by fighting, by taking vengeance for Patroclus—which he feels he must do, as he owes this to Patroclus and to his men whom he has let down—he is killing himself as well. We know what it all means. We know what it’s going to lead to. But it casts that backwards and forwards to make it not simply an Achilleid. The clue is in the title ‘Iliad’—it’s a poem about Troy.
Is Achilles the key character—if there is one?
It’s as much about Hector. Many people identify with Hector. Achilles and Hector are very different. It’s partly because they’re on different sides. Achilles is part of a military machine. There’s female company for him—and that’s where it all starts—but he’s anything but a family man. His father, back home, is important. Achilles is fighting partly because his father is there, but also because of glory. In a way, this is what he feels he is made for.
Whereas for Hector, it is the baby seat in the back of the chariot, as it were. It’s the fact that he’s got a warm bath waiting for him, he’s got his wife and his child. He’s fighting for Troy and he knows that they’re going to lose, but he must do it for the community.
And these different things come together, rather than being about any one person. You feel for a lot of people. You also feel for the women, which is interesting. You think of it as a very masculine poem but you see a lot of it through the eyes of the women.
They play a key role in the dispute that causes the war but also in the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon.
Well, things start from women and then they come back to women at the end. It is a fight over a woman. Agamemnon takes Achilles’s prize away because he’s had to give up his own girl. It’s not a case of blaming women, because the males take over and it becomes an issue of masculine pride. But, at the end, you’re feeling for Hector’s wife, Andromache. You’re feeling for this family that is being destroyed and for all the other families.
In your book you mention themes of death, glory, love and loss of loved ones. Are those the key things that make the Iliad feel relevant to us today?
I think so. It’s a reflection on war, really. War was ubiquitous in the Greek world. They sometimes gave wars names like the Persian Wars. But they also gave peace names like the King’s Peace or the Thirty Years’ Peace. It was unusual enough to have peace. War was everywhere at the time; after all, it still is.
There is a choice that Achilles has to make. He is told that he has two alternative fates: he could stay away from the war and live out a long life and nobody would ever know or remember him. Or he could go and win eternal fame and glory, but would have a short life. In a way, that is a version of a dilemma that keeps coming back. I start the chapter on Homer in our book with the soldiers in World War I, to whom the Iliad meant so much. They had to face that choice. And for them, too, it was a choice that could only be made one way—or that’s the way it felt to them.
Do you think it misled them in World War I? They felt that it was glorious to die for their country—and then realised the war wasn’t glorious at all.
Perhaps, though there were plenty of other things that misled them. You could certainly say that the officer-class was saturated in the Iliad. In general, this class was very well educated: Wilfred Owen was a grammar school boy, and some of the other poets were prize-winning Etonians. In those first years of the war, they could think of the glory and of themselves as a new Achilles.
Equally, poems from the end of the war, like Owen’s “Strange Meeting”, were also saturated in the Iliad. We’ve all got our mental frameworks, I suppose, and that was an important part of theirs. They could slot into it both the exhilaration and the feeling of meaningfulness and then, eventually, the feeling of ‘Well, hang on a minute. Is there that meaningfulness?’ And that’s part of the brilliance of the poem.
In a way, it’s the dilemma of western literature. So much of it is already there in Homer. We’ve been struggling to keep up ever since.
Let’s go on to your second book, which are the Histories of Herodotus. You mention in your book that this is the earliest continuous Greek text in prose to survive: the date is around 425 BC. Although it’s called ‘Histories,’ the ancient Greek suggests ‘enquiries’; he’s looking at the wonders of the world, rather than writing a history as such.
That’s right, ‘historie’ is ‘enquiry.’ He was an interviewer. The key word is ‘thomata,’ which means wonders or marvels in Greek. These are things to make you say coo, I suppose. It is all sorts of things about humanity; things that originate from humans, and then how the Greeks and Barbarians—as he calls them—came to war with one another.
The framework is signalled right at the beginning. It’s all going to come around, at the end, to the greatest marvel of all, which is the fact that there had been a series of great Persian invasions of Greece—one in 490 and then again in 480/79—where Greece is wholly outnumbered and yet they win. When he gets to that, he tells that story and he tells it marvellously.
But there are many things along the way. In fact, after the first 40-50 pages or so, Greece rather drifts out of view. Persian expansion was terribly useful for him, in that way. First they moved into Lydia. Then they moved into various other tribes like the Massagetae, which is important because it led to the death of the great king, Cyrus. And then there’s Egypt and Herodotus wants to tell you about Egypt. And then Libya, ‘Let me you about Libya. India? Oh yes, I’ll tell you about India.’
So you have this wonderful framework for putting in all sorts of other things. All the time, you have an idea of what’s coming. Part of it is to put this great thing that’s going to come—the final wars—in their place in space and in time. There’s a big world out there and there’s an awful lot of history. It will stand up against all these things but there are lots of other things and they’re all wonderful too.
He has got a wonderful capacity to be amazed. It’s a very infectious personality. You get amazed too because there’s always something new.
What is your favourite marvel that he sees?
One that I find particularly endearing is a marvel that doesn’t happen. He’s been told that there’s a floating island in the middle of a lake in Egypt. He says, ‘I didn’t see it move.’ I have this wonderful picture of him sitting there on a stool all day, gazing out to the middle of a lake. ‘Was that a little shift there? No, just a bit of haze.’ It’s this wonderful feeling of enquiry.
He’s got all sorts of stories about flying snakes and skulls that don’t break because of the sun.
One of the most thought-provoking, I think, is a story that he tells of a Persian king, Darius, who is very interested, as a lot of kings are, in other customs. They’re proto-Herodotuses, I suppose. He has, at his court, some Indians and some Greeks. He asks each of them what they would do with the bodies of their fathers when their fathers die. Would they burn them or would they eat them? The Indians are absolutely horrified by the notion of burning and the Greeks are absolutely horrified by the idea of eating. The conclusion he draws is, ‘Well, there you go, there are customs everywhere and we are all different.’ Custom is king and we each get used to our own.
What I think is beautiful is its context. It comes at a time when they have had a particularly batty Persian king, Cambyses, who has been particularly insensitive to the Egyptians’ practices. This is a time when Greeks would feel particularly superior as they were reading—or, more likely, hearing—Herodotus talk about this.
In my notes, I jotted down his view that people think that their own customs are best and “only a madman” would scoff at what others do. That’s very, very relevant today.
Absolutely. So much for anybody who wanted to feel that, ‘We Greeks are dramatically better than those nasty foreigners who are so primitive.’ You’re suddenly caught back and realise that the Greeks are much less sensitive to human difference than the Persians here. It’s one of the ways that people are made to think quite hard about what is special and what is not special about their own culture.
There are many things in the Histories to make you think, ‘Hang on a minute.’ Just as those poets in World War I could take different things away from Homer according to what they were looking for, you can also take different things away from Herodotus. And you will also, unless you’re very sleepy, take away things to make you second-guess yourself and monitor your own prejudices.
Did Herodotus travel to all these places or is it just hearsay?
There’s some dispute about whether he actually travelled to all the places he said he travelled to. He may bend the truth a little. The extreme sceptical position, that most of his travels are fundamentally made up, I don’t think would have many people signing up to. Equally, there are times, for instance in Egypt, where he might not have gone quite as far as he gives the impression he did. But he’s also quite careful sometimes to say, ‘I heard this’ rather than ‘I saw it.’
We know that he travelled a bit because it looks as if he spent some time at Athens. And he wound up, so it was said and it seems right, at Thurii in Italy, which is quite a long way away.
Thurii was a very interesting exercise. With all the intercity jealousies and rivalries in Greece, it was a Panhellenic settlement, with people from all the different cities coming together. That’s part of his project, being interested in the different cities. Inevitably, it didn’t necessarily go as smoothly as all that. They were not necessarily greeted with total acclaim by the people already in Italy. And there was also a certain amount of struggle between the different city contingents in Thurii itself.
He came from Halicarnassus himself. Is that what gave him this understanding of different cultures?
The understanding and interest, I think. It is a frontier zone. It’s close to that area in Asia Minor where a lot of the great intellectual enquiries of the 5th century took their roots. And, in fact, even the ethnic background of Halicarnassus matters because it’s a Dorian city but very close to Ionia. That whole area is full of Ionians. So he knew these two ethnic groups within Greece—who rather defined themselves against one another—all too well.
In your book, you say Herodotus is the person you’d most like to be. Why is that?
I think it’s his capacity always to be fascinated with something that is new. You get the impression of somebody who really likes a conversation and to be wide-eyed as he’s told things. And yet, he keeps a very critical, not to say cynical, part of the brain as well. He says, ‘I will say what I heard but I don’t have to believe it.’
Freedom is another topic that comes up a lot in the Histories, is that right?
Yes. This is particularly a keynote when he’s talking about the biggest marvel of them all, the struggle against the Persians: freedom as an inspiring force for the Greeks. There’s a wonderful moment when some Spartan envoys make their way up to what they think is going to be their deaths. They are being sent to atone for an outrage that the Spartans had performed years earlier against the Persians. A Persian says to them, ‘Why don’t you just come over to our side? You’d be treated very well. We’ll take care of you.’ They simply say, ‘Look, you don’t know freedom. We know freedom. If you knew freedom, you’d tell us to fight for it—not just with spears but even with axes.’ That inspirational force is certainly there.
But, at the same time, there’s a feeling that it can go badly wrong because when people are free, they’re also free to go their own way. Freedom can lead people to decide that our interest is to get out of all this and be our own state rather than be part of a coherent unit that stands for something bigger.
Let’s talk about Euripides next, and his play, Medea. In your book, you mention that Euripides completed his first tragic festival in 455 BC. What was the tragic festival?
All of the Attic plays that we have would have been composed for this yearly festival. In fact, there were two festivals. A lot of the comedies that we have were composed for the Lenaia, which was probably the smaller of the two. The other ones we’ve got were for the Dionysia, which was a festival in January, before the beginning of spring, but a great part of the Athenian year.
You would have the three tragic poets each year who would be putting on their trilogies, and perhaps a satyr play as well. I’m not sure whether it was always the same or if it changed. People were very competitive, fighting for a prize. The Medea was one of those that, in fact, did not win. I think it came bottom that year. But it’s still one of the most exciting ones to us.
Why did you choose Euripides and not Sophocles? Is he more ‘out there’?
That’s maybe more of an image than reality. Euripides, we are fond to read, is the one who shakes things up whereas Sophocles is more serene. But Sophocles can shake things up too.
There is a story told in one of the modern books that I’ve chosen, of Gladstone—the prime minister—asking the Cambridge classicist Jane Harrison who her favourite Greek author was. The answer was supposed to be Homer, whom Gladstone had written a lot about and greatly admired, and she said Euripides. The conversation stopped dead. Euripides was far too much of a shaker-upper.
But I think there is something that we can still feel in Euripides’s plays. Perhaps it’s not too far away from some of the things I was saying about Herodotus, where you monitor your own prejudices. You feel uneasy. And Medea certainly would have made people feel uneasy, and makes people uneasy still, I think, either in the theatre or in reading. It’s a shocking play. It’s very difficult to feel comfortable at the end of it.
Can you say a bit about what it’s actually about for people who have not read or seen it?
It’s about a woman who ends by killing her own children. It isn’t that she doesn’t love them: she does love them. That is why she kills them, because it’s a way of getting back at her husband. Her husband Jason has taken her away from her homeland, she has sacrificed an immense amount for him, oaths were exchanged, they were married, they have children.
But now they are living in Corinth and Jason has a chance to advance himself. If he gets rid of Medea, he can marry the local princess and everybody would be very comfortable. Jason is not a very attractive figure, it is fair to say. And this is itself pretty remarkable because he was conventionally a great Greek hero, but he’s treated in ways here that make him look anything but. He’s very complacent, he says he only did it for the children. “I did it to advance them. It’s in your own interests! Look at all I’ve done for you. I’ve brought you to Greece, it’s so wonderful here, and I’ve taken you away from barbarian land.’
And Medea absolutely wipes the floor with him. There’s no doubt about who wins their particular exchanges. Medea extends the discussion. She’s a very clever woman, clearly far more intelligent than Jason. She also has magic powers—which is rather disturbing. Jason doesn’t know what film he’s in, basically. He’s wholly out of his depth. She also has divine connections and that’s going to be important at the end.
But she delivers a wonderful speech, early on, to the women of Corinth who are the chorus—the group of singers and dancers who are always there—to win them to her side. She just talks about the terrible lot which is that of women. ‘It’s all right for men. When they get bored of the marriage, they can just go out and enjoy themselves and have a great time. While we stay at home, there’s nothing we can do about it. They say they take all the trouble—Ha ha! What about childbirth? I’d prefer to stand in the frontline of battle three times rather than give childbirth once.’ For an audience that is certainly largely male, this is tough stuff. They can’t laugh that one off. It probably was true that the statistical dangers were worse for women in childbirth than standing in the frontline, dangerous though that was. Standing in the first line of battle was the absolute criterion of masculine valour. You don’t know how to cope with that really.
She is very manipulative. You feel fearful, that’s part of her danger, and that’s part of the way that Jason doesn’t know what she’s about. It may be hard, even for that audience, to not see it from her point of view—from a woman’s point of view. That’s pretty shocking.
And then it goes on, you suddenly start being shocked rather more. ‘Hang on, I was sympathising with that woman and now look what she’s gone and done. She’s just gone and killed her own children.’ How can we arrange our own thoughts and sympathies? At the end she is given, by her relative the sun, a chariot to take her away to Athens. Here we are in Athens and we are implicated, as it were. We are the ones who are going to give her a home. It’s difficult to know how to cope with this, at the end. But it’s a very interesting way of actually entering into a psychology—a bizarre one. One that you’d expect to be immensely alienating.
In your book, you mention that Euripides can be viewed either as a misogynist or a feminist, that it has both in it. Either way I was intrigued by your comment that Medea is taking a woman’s mind very seriously indeed. The Greeks seem to be more interested in women than I expected.
It’s a deeply masculine society in lots of ways. You have to be male to be a citizen. Women could be ‘carriers’ of citizenship. Women staying indoors and men being out in the sun talking to each other was an ideal—though probably only practicable in the upper classes. You can’t get away from that, any more than you can get away from the fact that it was a slave society. And often a woman’s role had quite a lot in common with a slave’s.
But, at the same time, the Greeks are interested in women, and for more reasons than one. Women can think. That was disconcerting—this feeling that women actually see things and understand things and may even do so better than men can. Aristophanes makes great play with this in his comedy of women taking over the state and having some good ideas after all. I remember writing, in another book, that women are good to think with. It may not be quite as extreme as ‘what would a Martian think of Brexit? or the World Cup, or the National Lottery?’ but something like that. Somebody who clearly has a brain, and a very good one, who sees things from a slightly different and an off-centre point of view (from the masculine perspective), can come up with startling insights.
What would you say the Greek tragedies were?
There’s a lively debate about what the tragic genre actually means. It may come down to, ‘they are plays that could be put on at the Greek tragic festival’—as they do vary a lot. Some have almost happy endings, and some have very sad endings. Some are very patriotic, and some are quite subversive.
What they tend to have in common (with one or two exceptions) is that they’re not set in the contemporary world. They’re set in the distant world of legend and myth. They use myth and that is an interesting mode for presenting issues that are live—probably eternal—in a way that gets away from the complicating, maybe even confusing, details that always surround real moral dilemmas that we have in everyday life.
Quite often you can see moral dilemmas in a slightly filtered way. It’s almost like playing a game of Scruples or the games that philosophers like to play—do I turn the train on to a branch line where it will kill one person rather than let it go ahead and kill five? It’s very simple, but actually, because they put things in a very crystallised and clear way, they enable you to think quite hard. I think that’s one thing that they do have in common. They make you think quite hard but in a lot of different registers. And, doubtless, not all the audience are thinking quite as hard as others, or thinking along the same lines as others.
Who decided who won the tragic festival?
There were judges from the different tribes, but they were probably heavily influenced by the clap-o-meter. It was a sort of ‘Athens’s Got Talent’ type of competition.
Why do you think Medea came last?
A lot of the plays we admire most didn’t win. There is a tradition that Oedipus Tyrannus, a great play of Sophocles, didn’t win either. Of course, we don’t know what the other plays were. Perhaps they were even more spiffing.
Your fourth book is Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life. So the birth of democracy dates to around 500 BC and then it flourishes around 450 BC. Can you tell me about the book?
This book came out a year or so ago, and was based on his Cambridge lectures. The first part, and the bulk of it, is about ancient democracy. It’s heavily based on Athens because that’s the democracy that we really know about. He does point out that there were perhaps a thousand other democracies, but this is a big one.
An awful lot of states would not have been democracies. Then there’s the scepticism with which the Romans dealt with it and it went underground for a long time.
The last bit of the book is the revival in modern times—first of all, as an idea to be played with very cautiously. We’re talking about the British civil wars, the Levellers, the Diggers, and so on. There’s the cautious toying with democracy in the French Revolution. There’s some talk of the American Revolution as well. But with the French Revolution, very quickly we get Napoleon. And with American democracy, there was slavery. Then it ends up with some final reflections on democracy now and where we go from here.
But a lot of it is just concerned with how similar ancient and modern democratic ideas are and where it all comes from. We tend to think of democracy as a very Greek thing, and Cartledge, I think, is right to say that, ‘Yes, it is.’ It’s one of the ten things that the Sun said that we owed to Greece, in a list which also included theatre, democracy, and the kebab.
But there’s some discretion in the book. There are certainly elements that we prize in democracy, like public debate for instance, which are not particularly distinctive to Greece. You can find parallels and antecedents in India and China as well.
Cartledge emphasises that, if we’re talking about power and decision-making, then there is a sense in which Athens got to the stage of letting the people really decide things in a way that not many ancient states did. Some did—Syracuse, interestingly, was a democracy. But this has very rarely been reached since. There are good questions of whether we’ll ever have that degree of democracy again: the real involvement of ordinary people in Athens, beyond elections. Elections were there for some things—but there was also the lot to ensure that ordinary people might have their moment in the sun. And it could be literally anybody.
All that really direct government has not been characteristic of any democracy as states have got bigger. It’s all been representative democracy. With new technology, we could now move in the direction of a much more direct democracy with new technology. Whether we want to or not is, of course, a very big question.
There’s ambivalence in ancient Greece towards democracy as well. Is that basically because democracy could easily turn into mob rule?
This is what John Stuart Mill called the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ Even in Athens, if one goes back to the tragedies, it’s as easy to find fairly vigorous criticisms of democracy as it is praise. The criticism normally takes the form of criticism of the people and their basis for reaching decisions.
One particular play of Euripides, The Suppliant Women, has both. There’s a very eloquent passage of praise for democracy which John Milton later put on the title page of Areopagitica. But there are also lots of pretty near-the-bone criticisms. Echoing a criticism that was often made, it is suggested that people are just not educated enough and it should be the people who are educated enough to understand real dangers who should take the decisions.
There is also criticism going back to Herodotus. He describes a constitutional debate of three views: do we want a monarchy? Do we want an oligarchy? Or do we want a democracy? Remarkably, this is in Persia. It has a very succinct treatment of democracy from one of the speakers. He says ‘I’d rather a monarch than a democracy—at least he knows what he’s doing! Whereas, the people just jump in and give everything a kicking around. It’s just like a torrent in flood.’
So there’s a lot of scepticism about it and that goes over into the Roman side as well. Yes, the Romans had an element of democracy—they had elections and the people did have a say there—but that has got to be heavily qualified.
What was Greek democracy like? Was it just men?
It was just men and citizens. Citizenship mattered a great deal and probably, in Athens, only one in ten of the people you would see on the street would be a citizen. There would be women, there would be a lot of slaves, and there would be a lot of what they called ‘metics’—resident aliens, who were making their lives and livelihoods in Athens and were very important to the economy, but were still not part of the body.
If you had citizenship, you were, in a sense, already an aristocrat. You maybe weren’t one of the one per cent but at least one of the ten percent. It was a great privilege. It comes in, possibly almost by mistake, as part of a general constitutional settlement back in 508 BC with Cleisthenes. It’s part of a political game. He gets the demos, the people, on his side to establish power for himself. And part of the power, then, goes to the people as part of payback for that.
You said that Cartledge talks about the differences between democracies then and now. Can you say a bit more about that?
The big difference is that Athenian democracy could really be direct. The assembly of adult male citizens really was sovereign. It was said that it would be appalling if the people were prevented from doing whatever they wanted. In one particular case, there was a trial of some generals who were called to account for letting people drown after a sea battle. And it’s pretty clear that it wasn’t their fault. There was nothing they could have done about it. But the people simply said the generals must be executed and they were executed.
It’s a balance between democracy and the rule of law. The rule of law is also an important concept. Law was regarded as an important part of democracy too. But, still, the capacity of a sovereign people to overrule is something that was fairly deeply embedded in Athenian thinking. So the notion that the Supreme Court could be—as the Daily Mail would put it—‘enemies of the people’ would have a lot more bite as an objection in the ancient world than it does in the modern. The protection of the rights of individuals is something that is part of freedom that we would rate rather differently, perhaps.
Cartledge himself is very upbeat in his treatment of democracy. He’s obviously very keenly pro-democracy, though, he has said in an interview that he’s a little less pro direct-democracy since Brexit than he was before.
He’s rather pessimistic about the future. In the last few pages of the book he talks about the threat to democracy caused by religion and the deployment of religion against democracy—the Daesh slogans of pro-Sharia against democracy, for example. The balance of religion and democracy is a very interesting one in the ancient world. Religion was part of what the city-state was about. The role of the city in guiding religion, taking care of religion and organising it, was fundamental. I think the notion that you could play one against the other is rather more modern than ancient.
How does freedom fit into democracy in his book?
The connection between freedom and democracy is an interesting area. They are so close in modern sloganism: people fighting for freedom and democracy. With George W. Bush, particularly, they came out almost as one word: ‘freedom-and-democracy’.
There are hints of that in the ancient world. That connection comes in around 450 BC largely because, even though they’re not necessarily connected that closely, they both have the same opposite. They are both contrasted with tyranny. If there’s a tyranny (as there was in the Persian world, according to the Greeks), there’s one boss and everybody else is a slave. Tyranny and democracy are opposite ends of the pole.
That affects the way in which Herodotus, in particular, portrays the idea of freedom as a great inspiring force. With all the downsides, it’s a very close thing whether it wins, but it does win.
On the other hand, certainly in the Greek world, there ought to be a pretty clear antidote to regarding them as equivalent because there were an awful lot of states that were anything but democracies and yet were extraordinarily proud of being free. They would have been horrified by any suggestion that they weren’t.
The slogans that are associated with democracy, even more than freedom, are those with equality: either equality of speech—‘isēgoría’—where everybody could speak out, or equal access to the law—‘isonomia’ —perhaps not quite equality before the law but everybody being protected by law. But, as we saw with the case of that trial, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all that closely connected; the protections aren’t as great. It’s this idea of all citizens sharing things that is more basic, perhaps, even than freedom, to democracy.
Let’s talk about your last book, which is Greek Fire.
This is quite an old one, by an Oxford friend and colleague Oliver Taplin. I’ve been looking at it again recently. It was a Channel 4 series originally, extremely well illustrated and extraordinarily wide-ranging. I chose it because of its interest in not only the Greek world—though it says many true things about the Greek world—but what later generations have made of the Greek world in different ways and how they have responded to it creatively.
He himself draws the analogy of Orpheus going down into the underworld. As you burrow into ancient Greece, you’re in a sea with all the interest and knowledge and ideas that you have gained, but you can’t stay there and you can’t bring it all with you. All you can do is be different from the experience. It’s a very good analogy.
He talks about many things—aesthetics, tragedy (he’s an expert on tragedy), politics, ideas, architecture, art. It’s very rich and beautifully written. He’s also extremely good at giving an idea of what travelling through modern Greece is like. It’s an almost poetic response to the great landscape and Greece as it now is. He clearly loves Greece and knows it very well. There’s a feeling of some sort of contact, a very filtered and distilled contact, that you might still get when you’re there. I love that.
It’s also interesting on the ideas. An example that struck me is where he is talking about the difference between what Plato called the Sophists—the philosophical thinkers who are particularly interested in rhetoric—and what Plato taught about truth and truthfulness. It’s a balance between what was later called ‘homo rhetoricus,’ the rhetorical man, who is interested in persuasion, and ‘homo philosophicus,’ the man who cares about wisdom and the truth. It’s the clash between persuasiveness, what you can get away with saying, and truthfulness, what is actually true. It’s a book written in the early nineties but this may have even more relevance today, with post-truth societies.
As a final question, why has ancient Greece had such a big impact? Is it because they were doing really great things or is it more of an accident of history that they’re the people we happen to study and follow? Could it just as well have been the Persians?
The great Byzantine historian Steven Runciman was fond, so we’re told, of wondering whether it wouldn’t have been a good thing if Persia rather than Athens had won the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Then we would be thinking about Zoroastrianism and dualism—and all sorts of other Persian ideas. It doubtless is an accident of history that the Greek legacy, largely through the Romans, has come to us.
The Romans did what they did to it, which wasn’t straightforward, and then it came via Byzantine culture as well. So it may well be right that some of these ideas just seem very meaningful to us; they’ve never stopped being meaningful.
Equally, with science, we can’t neglect the way in which Islam was extraordinarily important. Around the millennium, it was Islamic scholars who were translating Aristotle, responding to Aristotle, taking Aristotle a lot further, at a time when Christianity was pretty frozen. And there were a lot of other things coming in as well, which make the channel from the ancient world to us anything but straightforward and straight.
There was that feeling of intellectual enquiry, I think, which is what appeals so much to so many of us— especially, inevitably, to people in my neck of the woods [Oxford] and academics in general. It’s this feeling that Socrates is said to have said, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” You look very carefully at things and you don’t take anything for granted. That feeling of energetic, vigorous, and open-minded enquiry is something that does appeal in ways that are not simply a matter of direct inheritance.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.
Chris Pelling is Regius Professor of Greek Emeritus at Christ Church College, Oxford. His research interests range over Greek and Latin historiography and biography, and over other areas of Greek literature, especially tragedy. He is the co-author of Twelve Voices, a wonderful introduction to the classics of Greek and Roman literature.
We ask experts to recommend the five best books in their subject and explain their selection in an interview.
This site has an archive of more than one thousand interviews, or five thousand book recommendations. We publish at least two new interviews per week.
Five Books participates in the Amazon Associate program and earns money from qualifying purchases.