Thursday, November 25, 2010

Greece: Birthplace of the modern world?

E pluribus unum: "out of many – one". The one-time motto of the US reminds us that, much like most of the larger nation states today, ancient Greece was a mosaic of very different components: about 1,000 of them at any one time between c600BC and AD330. That is, there were a thousand or so separate, often radically self-differentiated political entities, most of which went by the title of polis, or citizen-state. Our term "Greece" is derived from the Romans' Latin name, Graecia, whereas the ancient Greeks spoke of Hellas – meaning sometimes the Aegean Greek heartland, at other times the entire, hypertrophied Hellenic world – and referred to themselves as "Hellenes".

In the foundational epics attributed to Homer, however, you won't find Greeks referred to as "Hellenes" but as "Achaeans", "Danaans", or "Argives". That was because the epics are set in a period before "Hellas" and "Hellenes" had become common currency – before, that is, the eighth century BC, when Greeks first started emigrating permanently from the Aegean basin and settling around the Mediterranean and Black Seas. By the time of Plato, around 400BC, Hellas stretched from the Pillars of Heracles (straits of Gibraltar) in the west to Phasis in Colchis (in modern Georgia) in the far east. Later, following the conquests of Alexander the Great, the pale of Hellenic settlement was extended even further eastwards, as far as Afghanistan and the Indus Valley of Pakistan.

Everyone who was not a Hellene by birth, language or culture was labelled a barbaros. Originally an onomatopoeic description of anyone who spoke a non-Greek, unintelligible language, barbaros came to acquire the pejorative connotations of "barbarous" and "barbaric". The Romans took the same sort of view of all non-Romans – excepting only Hellenes – which is how those emotive terms entered our own language.

United Greece

The transformational turning point came in the first decades of the fifth century BC, in the course of the epic conflict known from the Greek standpoint as the Persian Wars. The mighty Persian empire, the fastest growing and largest oriental empire yet, had threatened to swallow up mainland Greece as well as those Greeks who lived within the bounds of what the Persians considered their own sphere – Asia. But on the battlefields of Marathon, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale, a relative handful of Greek communities managed to unite long enough to repulse that threat – for ever, as it turned out. Indeed, Alexander turned the tables by conquering the old Persian empire and starting to create a new Helleno-Persian successor: oriental in its underlying administrative and symbolic structure, but Greek in unifying language and high culture.

Furthermore, the Greeks' unexpected victories over the Persians of 490 and 480-479BC unleashed an era of unparalleled cultural creativity – from Aeschylus's tragic drama Persians of 472BC to the mathematical genius of Archimedes. However, united though they were by religion and common social customs and by at least partly fictional self-images, these Greeks were very much not united by one of their major contributions to the sum of human achievement – politics.

Much of our everyday political language is of ancient Greek derivation: monarchy, tyranny, oligarchy, aristocracy, plutocracy, democracy – not to mention the word "politics" itself. Much of the rest is Latin-derived: constitution, republic, empire, among others. But the Latin for "democracy" was democratia, a loan-word, because actually the Romans didn't do democracy – at least not in the original ancient Greek sense of the term; and they recognised, as we all do or should, that in this sphere the Greeks had been the original pioneers.

However, the ancient Greeks' demokratia was hugely different not just in scale but in kind from any modern political system that claims the title of "democracy". That was partly because the fundamental ancient Greek political unit, the polis, was a strong community in a very exclusive sense: only adult male citizens could consider themselves politically entitled. Even then, the ancient Greeks typically ruled themselves directly, in that they did not select rulers to rule over and for them. Theirs were direct, participatory self-governments, whereas ours are notionally "representative".

But democracy, so far from being the ancient Greek norm, was at first a rare and rather fragile plant: only later did it become about as widely distributed as various forms of oligarchy. And only in a few cases – in Athens, above all – was it both deeply rooted and conspicuously radical. At all times and in all places it remained more or less controversial. And there was a good linguistic reason for this. Demokratia was a compound of demos and kratos. But whereas kratos unambiguously meant "grip" or "power", demos could be interpreted to mean either "people" (in a vague sense, as in Abraham Lincoln's famous words at Gettysburg: "government of the people, by the people, for the people") or very specifically "the masses": the poor majority of the enfranchised citizen body (which might range in size from as few as 500, as on the island-state of Melos in the Cyclades, to as many as the 50,000 citizens of democratic Athens).

So if you liked demokratia, it could mean People Power, but if you hated it – if, say, you were a member of the wealthy elite – then it could stand for the ancient Greek equivalent of Lenin's dictatorship of the proletariat.

By and large the Romans took the second view, which is why they went to great lengths to stamp it out within their empire – the eastern half of which was basically Greek – in the end with total success. It therefore took a great deal of effort and ingenuity in the 19th century to rehabilitate "democracy" as a viably positive term of political discourse – and even then only at the cost of draining it of the active, participatory, class-conscious dimension the Athenians had given it.

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Cartledge, Paul. 2010. "Greece: Birthplace of the modern world?". Guardian Series: Guides to the ancient world. Posted: November 7, 2010. Available online:

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