Captive Greece (Graecia capta) took its fierce conqueror captive.                  (Horace, d. 8 BCE)

Horace’s famous Graecia capta epigram was a huge compliment—and a fundamentally accurate one. Indeed, it is ultimately thanks to the Romans’ decision to declare themselves the cultural legatees of classical Greece that we in turn may echo Shelley’s hyperbolic but in some sense defensible claim that ‘We are all Greeks’. However, between the Romans and the Romantics—and Us—stood two seemingly immovable obstacles.

The first, somewhat paradoxically, were the Greeks of Byzantium and the Byzantine world, who persisted in calling themselves ‘Romans’ in preference to ‘Hellenes’, not least because they were Christians, whereas ‘Hellenes’, thanks to the preachings and prejudices of the ex-Jewish Christian authors of the New Testament—written, ironically, in Greek—had acquired the connotation of ‘pagans’ (see Glossary).

Second, there was the formidable Ottoman empire, which first put paid to Byzantium (the empire), then expunged the name of Constantinople, as Byzantion (the city) had long become known, in favour of Istanbul, and then extended their Muslim empire from Algeria via Syria and Egypt right round to Hungary. As the mightiest of the Ottoman monarchs, Süleyman the Magnificent, put it (in a treaty with the Habsburg emperor) in 1565, a little over a century after the termination of the Byzantine world:

I…am Sultan of Sultans of East and West, Emperor and Sultan of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean…the undisputed champion of the Cosmos…Sultan Süleyman, son of Sultan Selim.

From his perspective, the glory that had been Greece (to paraphrase Edgar Allan Poe) as late as the second century CE must have seemed very far away indeed. That fertile century had witnessed the heyday of the so-called ‘Second Sophistic’: a revival of Hellenism, fostered by such philhellenic Roman emperors as Hadrian and his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius, and written up by such ornaments of it as Plutarch, Arrian, and Pausanias. True, this had been a nostalgic sort of Hellenism, indeed in Hadrian’s case Panhellenism; but it had been none the less real or potent for that. The very last spark, or gasp, of it appeared a couple of centuries later, with the brief reign of another emperor, Julian the Apostate (reigned 361–3); he was so called because, though brought up an orthodox Christian, he had retro-converted to an intellectual form of paganism. But, by his day, to be a philhellene pagan or polytheist was to be a reactionary, raging impotently against the dying of the light of the pagan gods and their supersession by the one true god of Catholic (universal) Orthodox (correct-belief) Monotheism (one-god-ism). The very incarnation of the latter creed in its human, mundane form was the first overtly Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great (reigned 312–37).

Constantine is the last of our Founders of cities. So far in this book we have spanned the entire potential range of types of founders: from the mythical Minos (Cnossos), Theseus (Athens), Cadmus (Thebes), and the descendants of Heracles (Sparta), through the entirely human and historical (but posthumously heroized) colony-founders of Massalia, Syracuse, and Byzantion, acting on behalf of the metropoleis of Phocaea, Corinth, and Megara respectively, to the heroized and divinized King Alexander the Great (Alexandria). Constantine came from what is now Nis in Serbia, a soldier-emperor with a Roman not Greek name. Yet he chose in 324 to establish a new, Greek, eastern capital for the Empire, astride the Bosporus strait separating the landmasses of Europe and Asia, dividing East from West.

That capital, dedicated on 11 May CE/AD 330, he had called after himself, Constantinoupolis, the polis of Constantine, following a long imperial naming tradition going back to Philip of Macedon (Philippopolis, modern Plovdiv in Bulgaria) and his son Alexander (first Alexandroupolis in what is today Greek Thrace, then a spate or spasm of Alexandrias, most famously that in Egypt: above, Chapter 11). But Constantinople had originally been Byzantion, founded as such, as we have seen above, in the earlier seventh century BCE. And from the mid-fifteenth century it has been Istanbul—perhaps a Turkish corruption of a Greek phrase including the word polis —but that is another story. At least Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, who in 1453 ended the millennium-long reign of Byzantium (the civilization and epoch), had the grace to speak and write and read Greek, indeed prided himself on doing so; and his principal court architect, Sinan, one of the very greatest architects there has ever been, not just of Ottoman Islam, was very likely by birth a Byzantine Greek. Indeed, even the magnificent Süleyman spoke, as we saw, of a ‘cosmos’, a throughly Greek term meaning originally ‘orderliness’.

In November 324, when Roman Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople as his new Eastern capital, the Greeks repaid Horace’s compliment, in spades (if I may use a suitably constructional metaphor). For thereafter all Byzantine Greeks were ‘Romans’, and it was therefore as ‘Praetorian Prefect’ that, a century or so later, following a devastating earthquake, Flavius Constantinus oversaw the rebuilding of the massive city-walls under the reign of Emperor Theodosius II. A laconic and clearly legible inscription on a marble slab still in situ boasts, in three rough hexameter verses:

By Theodosius’s command in less than two months

Constantinus triumphantly built these strong walls.

So swiftly such a secure citadel [even] Pallas could

hardly build.

Like Rome, Constantinople was built on seven hills. But constructional rivalry might extend even to a derogatory comparison with the Acropolis of Athens and its patron goddess Pallas Athena—a clearcut case of hubris, surely!

Right down to Mehmet II’s conquest in 1453 of what was left of the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantines stubbornly called themselves ‘Romans’; indeed, still today one word for the essential quality of Greekness is Romiosyni —‘Roman-ness’ (the title of a famous modern poem by Yannis Ritsos, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis). Yet the city of Byzantium, or rather Byzantion, as we have seen, also takes us back—almost—to the beginning of our story of ancient Greece and historical Greek civilization. Moreover, in the process of founding and establishing their new colonial polis in largely alien territory, the Byzantines subjected the local Bithynians to a status of serfdom comparable to that suffered by the Helots of the Spartans. Yet again we see Freedom and Slavery, Savagery and Civilization advance hand in hand in the remarkable history of the ancient Hellenes.

The history of Byzantium (the epoch, the civilization) has often suffered by comparison with that of Classical, even Archaic or Hellenistic Greece (Plate 20). By no means the most original, but probably the most tart, expression of this negative point of view is to be found in Edward Gibbon’s magnificently comprehensive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (chapter 48, first published in 1788):

the subjects of the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonour the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity, nor animated by the vigour of memorable crimes.

Ouch! We note that the Byzantines did not suffer merely from vices, but from ‘abject’ vices, the uniformity of which was not simply uniform but ‘dead’. Above all, the Byzantines’ greatest failing was political, that theirs was not a free civilization. However, what Gibbon’s immediately preceding unqualified paean to the free citizens of ancient Athens failed to observe was that such political freedom was conditional, indeed somehow based, directly or indirectly, upon the labours of a far larger multitude of unfree chattel slaves; just as the heroism of the Spartans at Thermopylae and Plataea, which had so signally contributed to keeping Greece free (from ‘barbarian’, Persian domination), was purchased at the expense of the hereditary servitude of even larger numbers of men and women, Helots as they were derogatorily labelled, who—unlike the chattels of the Athenians—were themselves Greeks, with lively if no doubt inaccurate collective memories of the ‘good old days’ when they too had been free.

This dialectic reminds us that, although the culture of the pre-Hellenistic and (through Rome) the Hellenistic Greeks is one of the West’s most important cultural taproots, whence springs our borrowing of ‘politics’, ‘democracy’, and much else from them, yet their culture and politics were also in important respects not just very different from but also frankly alien, desperately foreign—at any rate since the successful Abolitionism of the 1830s—to our ways of behaving and thinking: in a word, ‘other’.

One reason indeed for continuing to study ancient Greek civilization is precisely to try to take the measure of this difference or ‘otherness’, to balance it against what we have—or think we have—in common with them culturally speaking. Let me move to a conclusion by accentuating the positive aspects of our Hellenic legacy, first by examining briefly two famous aphorisms: one collective, impersonal, and, because of its location, of divine origin; the other attributed to one specific human being in an all too human context. Together, these two illustrate well, I think, both the attractive seeming similarity, and the sharp alterity of the Greeks’ legacy.

Gnôthi seauton (‘know yourself’) was one of the (three) famous injunctions inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the spiritual ‘navel’ of the ancient Greeks’ cosmos (see Appendix). An important as well as interesting way for us today to carry out that injunction is to try—like our Roman cultural ancestors before us—to get to know what made the Greeks tick, to try at least to understand though not necessarily to explain completely their most fundamental social and cultural practices. Politics, I shall argue below, is of the essence in that process of understanding, even if of a very different kind from any that we in the liberal West may be used to.

The other aphorism goes like this: ‘the unexamined life is for a human being not worth living’. It is credited to Socrates in extremis by his greatest pupil, Plato, in his version of the Apology (Defence Speech) that Socrates supposedly delivered during his trial before a democratic People’s Court at Athens in 399 BCE (see Chapter 8). It is characteristic of Greek dialectical thought that that aphorism is both perfectly compatible with, indeed complementary to, the Delphic maxim discussed above and also potentially violently contradictory of it. For, on the one hand (to use the characteristic ancient Greek form of antithesis, signalled by the particles ‘men’ and ‘de’), the outcome of the process of getting to know oneself might be the convinced self-knowledge that one was human, and not divine, and therefore bound to respect and observe unquestioningly and unconditionally the laws and ordinances imposed by ‘the divine’ on mere weak, feeble, and above all mortal humans. (That was to be the line followed and imposed by Christian Byzantine emperor Justinian, when in CE 529 he ordered to be closed all Greek schools of philosophical, that is originally pre-Christian, teaching, most famously the Academy of Athens.) On the other hand (‘de’), it might be interpreted at its maximum opposite stretch to mean living a life in which one questioned absolutely everything, not least or especially human-made conventions and customs (for which the Greeks used the same word, nomos, as they used for ‘laws’, positive legal enactments), and not excluding therefore questioning even conventional belief in the very existence, let alone peremptory authority, of the divine.

Such contests (agônes) of interpretation were particularly, though not exclusively, a feature of ancient Greek democratic societies and cultures such as those of Athens and Syracuse in the Classical period. But competitiveness (Greek agônia) is by no means an ancient Greek prerogative. For all I know, there may be readers of this book who wish to take issue with or possibly derogate some part or even the whole of it. But to them, and indeed any others, I should like in closing to recommend the very opposite of an excommunication or excoriation—an encomium, or paean, if admittedly a rather double-edged one.

In about 300 CE a Greek called Menander nicknamed Rhêtôr (‘the Orator’) composed a short treatise on how to praise a polis. I quote from Mogens Hansen’s own book of that title (Polis, p. 158 n.12):

The urban aspects of the polis are emphasised, but when it comes to the political achievements and the constitution of the polis, Menander admits that there is no longer much to be said here, because all Roman poleis are now governed by one polis, sc. Rome!

How are the mighty prophets fallen—in little over a generation’s time, another polis would arise, a new Rome mightier by far (then, in the fourth century of our era) than the old one: namely, Byzantion/Constantinople, the new capital of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (died 337). The site was brilliantly chosen, bestriding as it did the Europe–Asia confluence and throwing down a challenge both to the old Roman world in the West and to the various threats to Roman suzerainty emanating from the Orient, ‘barbarian’ or otherwise.

Its foundation constitutes also as neat an exemplification as one could wish for of the quasi-law enunciated by Herodotus (book 1, chapter 5) some seven centuries or so earlier:

I shall…proceed with the rest of my story recounting cities (poleis) both lesser and greater, since many of those that are great in my own time were inferior before.

Ancient Greek Byzantion had been founded about a millennium earlier and had risen to significance, if not greatness, owing to its energetic exploitation both of the local Bithynians’ labour power and of its site’s unparalleled opportunities for taxing trade passing through the Bosporus. But the new Byzantion differed crucially from its predecessor not only in being an imperial capital but in being the capital of a Christian—Orthodox and Catholic (‘universal’)—empire. In CE 325 at Nicaea (Iznik) Constantine summoned a Council of Bishops to place the stamp of monotheist orthodoxy—the Nicene creed—on his mundane world. The old ‘pagan’ gods were by no means entirely dead yet—indeed they still have their adherents to this day; but the old relatively tolerant and inclusive pagan establishment was being compelled to give way before an exclusive, dogmatic creed that could countenance such acts as the murder of Hypatia in Alexandria, a murder at which the Bishop of that city seems to have connived. Of course, it is open to argument whether such murders of pagans by Christians and (more common still) of Christians by other Christians were in any sense worse than those of citizens by fellow-citizens in the bloody staseis (such as the ‘Clubbing’ at Argos) that disfigured Classical Greek antiquity. But at any rate it is clear that the old Greek polis—a city of (many) gods as well as of men—was a thing of the past.

Alexandria, however, retains its fascination today, if largely for nostalgic reasons, in the classicizing poems of the native poet C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933), one of which is called ‘The City’ (Hê Polis), in the idiosyncratic ‘History and Guide’ by E. M. Forster (1922), and in the fictionalized pages of Lawrence Durrell (classically inspired author of the Alexandria Quartet, 1957–60, in which Cavafy is referred to as ‘the old Poet of the city’), above all. One exception to that rule of nostalgia is the magnificent new Library of Alexandria, a ‘virtual’ facility of Norwegian design, which is as much of our present age as the original was of the ancient Greeks’ present in 300 BCE, 2, 300 years ago.

The new Library’s website tells us that ‘it is dedicated to recapture the spirit of openness and scholarship of the original Bibliotheca Alexandrina’, though actually that is the Latin not the Greek form of its name, and the original spirit of the scholarship that went on in the Museum to which it was attached was, as we have seen, characterized at least as much by odium academicum as by the free and open exchange of ideas and knowledge. All the same, openness is indeed a fair representation of the ancient Greek ideal, and if there is one message that I should like to bring to the fore in the conclusion of this very short introduction to ancient Greece by way of a small selection from its myriad cities, it is precisely that of openness, the openness of debate.

Our word ‘politics’ comes from the ancient Greek neuter plural adjective politika meaning ‘matters relating to the polis’ (as used, most famously, for Aristotle’s greatest work of political sociology and political theory, composed in the 330s and 320s). For the Greeks, politics happened centre-stage—‘towards the middle’ (es meson), as they literally put it. Public affairs, that is to say, were intended to be not just of concern to, but physically decided by, the citizenry as a whole, meeting ‘towards the middle’ to discuss, debate, and thrash out what they took, rightly or wrongly, to be the common good, the public interest of the city and its citizens. True, women were allowed no part of this communal political enterprise of decision-making; true, there were an awful lot of slaves or subjugated serf-like workers in or rather outside most of the cities, providing the citizens on the inside with the indispensable leisure (skholê, whence our ‘school’) to do politics as they saw fit; true, it was only in a pretty radical democracy such as Athens that most of the ordinary poor male citizens really did get the chance regularly to decide the issues for themselves; and true too, finally, Greek citizens had an unfortunate tendency to resort quite frequently to outright civil war (stasis) to settle their internal differences, andphthonos (envy) rather than friendship ruled rather too frequently in relations between Greek cities. And yet, even as an ideal that was quite often not well instantiated, Greek politics deserve at least our concentrated attention, and often enough, I would say, our respect, if not imitation. That at all events is for me a working definition of what ‘civilization’ is—a civilization essentially of cities.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!