To say that the ancient Greeks have had a profound influence on Western civilisation is a truism so obvious to many who regularly read this site that it might seem silly to spell it out. The state of education in Britain, however, means that it is important and necessary to spell that achievement out and draw out the key elements of what the ancient Greeks ‘did for us’ as well as point to some of the shortcomings.
Charles Freeman’s The Greek Achievement is a splendid tour of ancient Greece, starting in the Bronze Age and finishing with the advent of the Middle Ages. It covers military campaigns, notably the long-running Peloponnese war; the changing fortunes of the dozens of city states; the development of democracy and city government and the eventual rise of Rome. Interwoven with this is a masterful survey of developments in philosophy, maths, science, astronomy, law and language. Freeman also is excellent at explaining the role of myth and ceremony in Greek culture, and does not fight shy of showing the lousy treatment of women and the huge use of slavery. Among the highlights of the book is a lucid exposition of the philosophical innovations and arguments of Plato and Aristotle. Freeman writes without obvious bias but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that much though he admires Plato’s clarity of thought, he is highly conscious of how Plato’s vision of a Republic run by ‘philosopher kings’ is an early model for many tyrannies such as Revolutionary France, Communist Russia and China. Freeman even cites Sir Karl Popper’s book, the Open Society and its Enemies, as a foremost demolition of Plato’s ideas. He is, meanwhile, full of admiration for Aristotle and his development of key building blocks of logic.
Another highlight is Freeman’s description of the military campaigns of Alexander the Great. The myth of this great military leader is that of a man who had conquered a huge chunk of the then-known world by the age of 32 before succumbing to illness. He was certainly a brilliant and brave military commander and his feats were openly envied by later greats such as Tiberius of Rome and Napoleon Bonaparte. Alexander, though, was also a brute – sacking towns that failed to show instant loyalty and looting captured cities of their treasures. He also failed to set up the kind of stable regime able to survive after his death. Freeman certainly tries to cut this man down to size.
When I studied history at school and in my undergraduate days the Greek story was hardly touched upon in my studies. It seems to me, as I get older and think about the enormous contribution to civilisation made by the Greeks, that a study of this period is intensely absorbing. I intend to go on filling a major gap in my education in this area.