The Observer, 22 March 2015

Introducing the Ancient Greeks (Edith Hall) Review

When Michael Gove announced, during the Trojan Horse affair, that schools should teach ‘British values’ – among them democracy – it was a gratifying moment for those of us who spend much of our time pointing out that we would be nothing without the Ancient Greeks. Not only was democracy invented by them, but it was their myth which offered the scandal its headline-grabbing title. It is impossible to imagine our world without the Greeks: Greek-speaking peoples flourished over two millennia, having a profound influence on the Romans who followed them, and then reshaped the world all over again when their work was rediscovered during the Renaissance.

Between 800 and 300 BC, the so-called Greek Miracle took place, in which the Mediterranean world advanced so rapidly that it seems impossible in retrospect: the Greeks invented virtually every literary form from history and biography to tragedy and comedy. They perfected ships with multiple banks of oars, and they began to ask questions about the nature of the world and our role within it. As the leisured elite of the fifth century BC could hear Socrates pontificating about Truth or Beauty or Justice, so ordinary Athenian citizens could vote to decide on their city’s future.

And while the preface of Edith Hall’s masterly study, Introducing the Ancient Greeks, begins here, she is quick to explain that the Greek Miracle was only a chapter of a much longer story. Her new book pulls off the twin feats of being a chronological history covering around 2000 years, and a thematic history covering ten characteristics which define the Greek character: their sea-faring prowess, their inquiring minds, their fierce competitiveness. There is much here to entertain and inform the most enthusiastic classicist as well as the general reader at whom its title suggests it is aimed.

Hall has an uncanny ability to offer up facts you haven’t come across anywhere before: ‘The Athenians believed it was the duty of every father personally to teach his sons how to read and how to swim: The proverb characterizing the most uneducated type of man said he could “neither read nor swim.”’ It’s a gratifying example of how the book works: not only does she make her point about swimming, she reminds us that the Athenians enjoyed mass literacy too. And no wonder the Athenians were so obsessed with the sea: as Hall points out, Greece’s ‘number of headlands, inlets, and islands makes the proportion of coastline to land area higher than in any other country in the world.’

She is especially good on the nuance which thrives in every corner of the Greek world. The Greeks may have preferred dividing things into polarities (an ancient Greek wouldn’t have said ‘everyone in the world’, he would have said ‘both Greek and barbarian’, i.e. everyone Greek and not-Greek), but their world was never as binary as this tendency suggests.

But her passion for the Greeks is never uncritical. Aristotle’s achievements are obviously awe-inspiring, but we’re reminded from the first page that he was well-born and well-connected, as well as a towering intellect, which never hurts. A writer of beautiful verse, Archilochus, is mentioned not just for his talent, but for his astonishingly potent invective: after a man named Lycambes breaks his promise to the poet, Archilochus responds with an explicit verse about Lycambes’ daughter. The humiliation is so complete that it provokes the entire family to commit suicide.

Hall covers her subject in such detail that we even discover the impact Milesian geography might have had on its philosophy. It’s just one of many glittering moments in this terrifically good book.