To Ancient Greece With Professor Cartledge

by Yashvardhan Sharma


Professor Paul Cartledge who is the Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture and A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College at the University of Cambridge.


He's one of the global leading experts in the study of Athens and Sparta in the Classical Age. I had the honor to talk to him about the history of Ancient Greece. Our conversation has been transcribed below:


Q1) How did the study of philosophy begin in ancient Greece and who can be credited for taking it to the heights that we know today?


The ancient Greek word *philosophia* (love of sophia - a knack, or a skill, or Wisdom) is found first in a work of Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) who may have invented it. But most of us think the first true ancient Greek philosopher was Thales of Miletus (flourished c. 600 BCE). Thales asked - what is the world, the non-human 'natural' kosmos, made of? He may have coined the word theoria (our theory), meaning contemplation and research/enquiry. The important thing is that he did his thinking and research without invoking the divine or supernatural: he was a humanist. He and his followers are called 'Pre-Socratics', i.e., they came before Socrates of Athens (469-399) of whom the most famous pupil was Plato.


Plato, the founder of western moral-political philosophy and epistemology, in turn, taught Aristotle, the 'master of those who know' (Dante), a 'giant thinker' (Karl Marx). Aristotle covered/pioneered all the known 'sciences' of his day as well as inventing Western logic. In the post-Classical, Hellenistic period (see answer 2 below) several philosophical schools flourished, following either Plato or Aristotle or neither: the two most influential were the Stoics and the Epicureans.


Q2) According to you, what were some of the major periods in the lifespan of the ancient Greek civilization, and what new did each of those periods bring to culture, lifestyle, politics, et cetera?


I divide 'my' super-period (c. 1000 BCE to c. 200 CE) into 5 sub-periods:


1) Early Iron Age/Late Dark Age 1000-800 - Homer (epic/heroic poetry)


2) Archaic 800-500 - Thales of Miletus (see above), Cleisthenes of Athens (inventor of world's first democracy)


3) Classical 500-320 - Pericles of Athens (all-round super-statesman and democrat) and the Parthenon (greatest single building in the world so far, famed for its harmony, proportion, symmetry). Also Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle - philosophers. And Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes - playwrights. Herodotus and Thucydides - historians. Hippocrates of (the island of) Cos - medicine.


4) Hellenistic 320-30 - Eratosthenes of Cyrene and Alexandria (the all-round genius who worked at the Library in the Greek-Egyptian city founded by and named after Alexander the Great) )


5) Roman 30 BCE - CE 200 - Plutarch (biographer, essayist, philosopher) and Lucian (satirist)


Q3) What do you think were the major causes of the decline of ancient Greece?


'Decline' is a slippery word. There was no real intellectual-cultural 'decline' visible over the 12 centuries covered in Q 2. But there were two political catastrophes (as I see them!):

  • by c. 300 there was no longer any democracy as invented by Cleithenss of Athens and developed by Pericles;

  • by 50 BCE all the Greek cities of the old, Aegean world were subjects of the all-conquering Roman empire and had therefore lost both their external liberty and their internal autonomy.

Q4) There used to be several city states back then, what were the important distinctions between them, in terms of cultural practices and their overall contribution to civilization? Moreover, was there a political struggle between these states, if yes, which were the dominant powers?


More than just 'several;'. Between c. 600 and 300 BCE about *1000* - yes, really.


Stretching almost all round the Mediterranean and around the Black Sea. And then - after Alexander of Macedon conquered the Persian empire - scores more, as far east as Afghanistan and Pakistan. 'Hellas' was what the Hellenes called their - cultural - world. Cultural, not political, since it was divided into hundreds of separate and fiercely independent states.


The most powerful in 'old' Greece were Sparta, Athens, Thebes, and (the kingdom of) Macedon. The most powerful in the new, 'colonial' Greece was Syracuse in eastern Sicily. For a time Greek Halicarnassos (modern Bodrum in Turkey), the home of Herodotus, was - under non-Greek Maussolus - an important town within the Persian empire.


Q5) How did the economy, of the city states, and civilization as a whole, function?


There was no single economy in the Greek world, ever anywhere - until the Roman conquest. Individual states had their own 'economies' which might be very very different - e.g, contrast Sparta (agrarian, non-commercial) with Athens (both agricultural and maritime-commercial via its port of Piraeus).


The post-Alexander 'Hellenistic' world (see answer 2.) was dominated by three or four territorial monarchies, one of which was Egypt with its new capital at Alexandria. In one way this took over from the Pharaohs and was based on the Nile-flood agricultural economy - in another way Alexandria was Egypt's new window on the Mediterranean world.


Q6) How were the relations of the Greek people, with the people of contemporary civilizations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Indus Valley Civilization?


The Greeks of old, Aegean Greece were always closely linked to Greeks of Asia and North Africa. Thales (see 1 and 2 above) came from a Greek city in Ionia on what is now the west/Aegean coast of Turkey. He was in touch with mathematicians and other thinkers in Babylon (modern southern Iraq). Many Greek thinkers and intellectuals visited non-Greek oriental countries, especially Egypt, and were said to have been inspired by what they saw, heard, and read.


The Greeks' alphabet - the world's first fully phonetic alphabetic script - was borrowed some time in the 8th century BCE from the people the Greeks called 'Phoenicians' (who live in what's Lebanon today).


Q7) What are some major myths about ancient Greece propagated by Pop Culture?


1. Democracy - that 'ancient Greece' was a hotbed of something that we would understand as democracy.


No: many Greek cities were never democratic. And those that were had a form of (direct) democratic politics that was open only to free, adult male citizens - no women, no foreigners, no slaves had a vote.


2. Freedom - yes, the Greeks in 480 and 479 BCE fought for freedom (from foreign, Persian domination). But no - they did not all equally practice freedom at home - e.g., the Spartans held down thousands of Greeks as 'Helots' (the word means 'captives') whom they compelled to work for them as a kind of agricultural slaves. And most Greeks found no contradiction between believing passionately in freedom - for them, and inflicting un-freedom/slavery - on others (mainly non-Greek 'barbarians').


Q8) What are some of the lessons that we can learn from Ancient Greece?


The lesson of difference is the most important of all: the inhabitants of ancient Greece were humans, just like us - same DNA, etc. BUT they invented and lived in communities of very different sorts from each other and very very different from any we are familiar with today.


In other words, their nature was not so different, but their culture was EXTREMELY different. Consider only our technology and technique - following the scientific, industrial, and digital Revolutions, we today live in almost unimaginably different societies and cultures. Consider religion - in one way very very different, if ... one is brought up a monotheist today.


The ancient Greeks were (almost all) practicing polytheists - with lots and lots of gods/goddesses (and heroes/heroines and spirits) to worship, at any time and in any place. But then there are of course many polytheists still alive and well today!


Q9) Why do you like to study this period in history? What is it about the field that interests you?


(See answer 2 above) I find something either interesting or exciting or challenging or brilliantly and inspirationally original in the work of all those individuals I name.


Q10) Lastly, we have an audience of readers, primarily youngsters in school and college from all around the world; is there any advice that you’d like to give them?


Doubt everything! Think - and live - critically!



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Created by Yashvardhan Sharma.

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