Ancient History & Civilisation


The End as a Beginning

In keeping with the approach to the history of ancient Greece outlined at the start of this book, it seems appropriate to resist the temptation to offer prescriptive conclusions here at the end. For one thing, as also said in chapter 1, Greek history does not end in the Hellenistic Age. For another, the brevity of this overview means that there has not been space to discuss the judgments that the ancient Greeks reached in evaluating their own history. It seems to me that fairness requires historians to pay attention in the first place to what people say about themselves, and only after considering those views to proceed to express their own views in full. This was not the book for me to do that.

Most of all, however, I want to encourage readers to invest the time in reaching their own conclusions by going further than this intentionally brief and selective narrative can. The way to begin that rewarding quest is, to reemphasize what was said in the first chapter, for readers to turn to the ancient sources, to study them as complete works rather than as excerpts removed from their full contexts. Consulting modern secondary sources can then be the next step. As Pausanias memorably observed, almost everything in the history of ancient Greece is a matter of dispute. That seems only fitting for a culture that treated every human activity, from politics to sport to love, as a competition. That was true even of Greeks’ conclusions about their own history, as emerges, for example, from Strabo, a famous Greek author on geography and ethnography writing at the beginning of the first century A.D. This date was a turning point in European history, as it was now clear that the Roman Empire was not going to be just a flash in the pan. Consequently, it was equally clear that Greeks were not going to win back from the Romans the political independence or international status that they had lost in the Hellenistic Age.

There is a passage in which Strabo uses strong and frank language to criticize other Greek authors for what he regards as their inaccurate descriptions of “just and noble barbarians” compared to Greeks, and to present his own account as greatly superior. There, he sums up in strikingly blunt terms what he sees as the corrupting influence that the spread of Greek culture to others created: “Life the way we live it has set up a change for the worse among almost everybody, bringing in luxury and pleasures, and countless deceptive techniques for always getting more and more, to that end” (Geography C 301 = 7.3.7). Perhaps Strabo was so critical of his fellow Hellenes because the prospects of Greece’s diminished future in the world had embittered him, or perhaps he was just trying to score points in the literary contest in which he saw himself competing with fellow writers. In any case, this passage serves to remind us that ancient Greeks never flinched from expressing critical assessments of their own cultural strengths and weaknesses.

Whatever Strabo’s motivation may have been in expressing this negative opinion of the effects of his own culture, that he did it reminds us that ancient Greeks prided themselves on their freedom of speech. For them, the crucial component of freedom of speech was being able to say things to people that you know they will not be happy to hear. This seems to me a concept worth remembering because it is liberating for those willing to do the demanding work of investigating sources, which is the effort that earns them the standing to express judgments worth listening to, because their conclusions will then come from thoughtful and humble reflection about evidence. Doing this work also entitles them to disagree as forthrightly as possible with the conclusions of others that seem mistaken. Many fascinating and enduring questions remain to ask and try to answer about the accomplishments and the failures of the ancient Greeks. That fact should encourage, not discourage, readers to begin to go deeper on their own, competing freely and energetically with Strabo, with me, and with every other author they read on ancient Greece, in reaching and expressing their own persuasive and significant conclusions about a history whose impact lives on in so many ways.

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