The question of life in the ancient world

February 10, 2012
Michael Scott. Credit: M Scott

There’s a general feeling that we don’t get the Greeks – ancient or modern. Many, including heads of state like Angela Merkel, visibly shake their head in exasperation, rightly or wrongly, at the Greek response to the(ir) economic crisis. And most newspaper articles either start or round up their coverage of the modern situation with some expression of nostalgic comparison to the glory days of ancient Greece. But to what exactly are we referring? Just what was life like in ancient Greece?

It sounds a simple question, one which scholars around the world have been working on in various ways for hundreds of years. Surely, we should have a pretty good answer by now. And yet, the moment you scratch beneath the surface of the traditional comparison, the issue becomes more confusing. Compare, for a moment, the Romans. Most people, I would argue, have a pretty good picture in their heads about what the Romans were like. But the Greeks? If the heavily divided reactions to portrayals of ancient Greece in recent Hollywood movies are anything to go by (remember the furor around Oliver Stone’s Alexander in comparison to the more general triumph of Gladiator), we are much more divided over how to imagine the ancient Greeks than we might initially think. In short, while we know we owe them a lot, we struggle to agree on what they were really like.

In part, that continuing uncertainty and conflict over what life was like in the ancient Greek world is a product of the very fact that we have been so interested and absorbed in the question. Since the 15th century, at the moment when people began to become interested in the surviving ruins of ancient Greece (as opposed to only its surviving literature), what life in ancient Greece was like has been an increasingly busy battleground not just for academics interested in the ancient world, but for artists, collectors, writers, politicians and philosophers to name but a few. For much of that time, ancient Greece has been held up as an ideal, and as such, something in which much of Western Europe has a heavy stake. But an ideal of what? In part because so little was known about the realities of ancient Greece in the 15th-17th centuries, the articulation of ancient Greece as an ideal rested upon modern re-imaginings of the pictures conjured up by ancient literature, populated with increasing numbers of pieces of ancient ‘art’ and architecture as they came to light, which were then ‘fitted in’ to that model. It was in effect something of a blank canvas, an ‘ideal’ ancient world which in fact could be fashioned to look like whatever the modern world wanted their ‘ideal’ to be.

As a result, our picture of life in ancient Greece not only became a fundamental part of the geology of the mental landscape of Western Europe, but also, more importantly, was fundamentally fashioned by the events, needs and ideas of that world. And as those events, needs and ideas have changed and been debated in our world over the centuries since, so too has the resulting – often conflicted – picture of ancient Greece. At times it has been a place of ideal grandeur, at others primitive reality. Sometimes the epitome of noble simplicity and at other times one of savage cruelty. A perpetual holiday realm, a foreign distant never-never land, a ‘twin’ of the modern era, a waste of space – ancient Greece has been all of these things and more to us over the centuries.

Nor has the growing ‘academic’ study of ancient Greece and particularly that of archaeology – itself born from and motivated by the perception of Greece as an ideal – been able to settle that debate. Sometimes, early Greek sculpture was brutally transfigured to ensure it fitted with modern morality (like the hacking off genitals and the covering up of nudity). At other times, it has fired up the debate even further, for example when the detailed study of the Parthenon marbles led many scholars to deny they were Greek at all, so far did they diverge from what was thought to be ‘the’ nature of ancient Greek art and ancient Greece. Today’s scholarship continues to complicate the debate by making clear just how much Greece was not a monolithic unchanging entity in the ancient world either, but rather a flexible grouping of peoples with sometimes very different ideals, forces and attitudes, all responding to a harsh and constantly changing world.

The result of all this is two-fold. First, it makes the question ‘who were the ancient Greeks?’ far more interesting: we need to think not only about the complexities of their ancient reality, but also about how they have been represented over the centuries. Second, it means that studying the ancient Greeks actually offers us a mirror with which to study ourselves. How we have chosen to envisage them at any one time tells us as much about us as it does about them. And as the Greeks come to the fore once again as the barometer of the world financial crisis, coupled with nostalgic longings for ‘the good old days’ of ancient Greece, at the same time as the Olympics, with its own ancient Greek heritage, hits London in 2012, it seems clear that the question ‘what was life like in the ancient world’ has a long life of its own still to live.

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not rated yet Feb 10, 2012
The Greeks never made any allusions to being the 'ideal' society. And for that matter, life in ancient Greece was often too easy, giving the citizens plenty of time to sit around and discuss what would be the ideal state in which there was something for everyone to do, and not just the idle lot that contemplated it.

Plato's Republic is actually a comical reflection of the times. I believe that this was what Plato intended. It is a book about a man who talks just w-a-a-a-a-y too much. That's funny, then and now.
1.8 / 5 (8) Feb 10, 2012
why idealize Greece?

You know how they made all those monuments?

They had 1 in 3 people as a slave.

You can do a lot when you pay a third of the population the bare minimum to keep them alive, or maybe don't even pay them, just feed and clothe them, and force them to work at the point of a sword and a whip.

There's almost nothing to learn from these fools, except what NOT to do.

Rome is much the same.
1.4 / 5 (5) Feb 10, 2012
Sounds just like a modern - American or otherwise - wage slave.

"You can do a lot when you pay a third of the population the bare minimum to keep them alive, or maybe don't even pay them, just feed and clothe them, and force them to work at the point of a sword and a whip." - Lurker2358

The difference was that in Greece the slaves knew they were slaves. American's just aren't as bright or aware as the Greeks were.

1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2012
Sounds just like a modern - American or otherwise - wage slave.

Well, hasn't quite got to 1/3rd just yet, but it may yet get there, unfortunately.

Slavery is only illegal if you call it slavery.

if they don't know they're slaves, then it's perfectly legal.

Was going to say something like that earlier, but thought it might be too much, but at least i see someone else recognizes this trend.
not rated yet Feb 16, 2012
It is very disingenuous to ask the question what were the Ancient Greeks like. Other than being characterized as extremly rebelious individualists through their entire history, its very hard to classify the Greeks with one size brush. Greek history is very old. If we were to believe the Egyptian priests, at least 12,000 old from the days of the epic battle when the Greeks defeated the Atlanteans.

The proper question would be to ask what were the Greeks like during xxxx period and in yyyy polis.

Known Greek Ancient History starts 12,000 yrs ago and ends in 1453AD with the fall of Imperium Graecorum(Empire of the Greeks or Byzantine Empire). The Greek literature during the Turkish occupation is itself a very impressive collection.
not rated yet Feb 16, 2012
Someone defined freedom as "having a choice beetween working and starving" I think it was the Roman Cato who suggested freeing elderly slaves so as to avoid the cost of feeding them when they could no longer work.

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