The Greeks Are Us

I was born and raised in Greece but studied ancient, medieval, and modern Greek history in the United States. I earned a doctorate in history at the University of Wisconsin and even did postdoctoral studies in the history of Greek science at Harvard but, for a variety of reasons, I made a living outside the academy.

Greek history, however, never left me. I kept reading, investigating, and writing about the Greek past. I was so enthralled by the achievements of ancient Greeks that I hoped my new home, America, would learn from and imitate the Greeks.

Of course, my hopes were exaggerated. The US has had the Roman Empire as a model, not the Greeks. Nevertheless, nothing remains the same for long. After blundering into wars, and trying in vain to remake the world on its image, the US or, more accurately, some of its most enlightened citizens, are challenging the country with the inventive mind of the Greeks.

On June 21, 2016, the National Geographic and the Public Broadcasting System broadcast "The Greeks." This insightful, mind-changing, and beautiful TV documentary traced Greek history from prehistoric times to the imposition of Christianity on the Greeks and Romans by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.

Millions of Americans probably watched this remarkable Greek story. They learned that the Greeks invented the virtues that make Western civilization the envy of the world. They also learned in the last few minutes of the documentary, and probably for the first time, that Christianity brought the Greek miracle to an end. That violence sparked the dark ages.

But the terrible end of the ancient Greeks did not diminish the Greek achievement. In fact, the promoters of the BPS program summed up the timeliness and importance of the series forcefully: They said the Greeks invented democracy, logic and reason, drama, and art. "Quite simply, the Greeks created our world."

Furthermore, the National Geographic and PBS stressed that Greek history "illuminates our present, and will shape our future. The story of the Greeks is the story of us."

To spread this powerful message to as many Americans as possible, in 2016, the National Geographic also published a companion book to the TV documentary also entitled "The Greeks."

The author of this timely, riveting, and lavishly illustrated book is Diane Harris Cline, professor of history at George Washington University. Cline says her book covers "the high points of Greek civilization," not "slavery, poverty, imperialism, misogyny, and the miserable lives of the great unwashed."

True, the Greeks were by no means perfect. Poverty, inequality, and other political evils pestered them no less than other people. But they struggled against bad politics, civil wars, and injustice. That is one reason why their philosophers kept a steady conversation on how to address those major problems and make their society a better place for all.

Two of the greatest of Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, offered incisive reflections and understanding of the good society and how society and the cosmos work. Plato wrote his dialogues to stimulate thought and action for an ideal society defined by the polis, city-state, the Greeks' gift of political theory and organization for civilized people. And Aristotle explained politics and invented what we call science. Biology is Aristotle's gift. But Aristotle also tutored Alexander the Great and through him he shaped our love for libraries, research, science and universities.

Cline praises Plato and Aristotle. However, she starts her story thousands of years before Plato. With an ingenious use of archaeological findings she highlights how we know what we know about prehistoric Greeks and those Greeks of the Bronze Age we call Minoan and Mycenaean.

Was the Trojan War and, hence, the Homeric epics, myth or history? Cline says the Trojan War probably happened during 1250 - 1200 BCE. The four hundred years following the Trojan War might have been a violent age but it was not a dark age. Homer, the greatest genius of the Greeks, came out of that era.

Cline then summarizes the achievement of the golden age of the Greeks, a time she describes as a "bright, shining moment." This is a period of less than two centuries. It starts in 508 BCE when Athens initiated its bold experiment with direct democracy. The period comes to an end with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.

The heroic and immortal victory of the Greeks over Persia in the early fifth century BCE made everything possible: the classical age of Greece and our Western civilization.

The Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War among the Greeks at the end of the fifth century BCE devastated Greece but did not disrupt the flourishing of philosophy, science, and technology. The Greeks, says Cline, always strove for excellence. They "built a culture of reflection, contemplation, civil discourse, and critical thinking, as well as reverence for freedom, justice, and the rule of law... bronze and marble statues represented gods like humans, and humans like gods."

Cline says both beautiful landscapes and classical architecture contributed to awe and wonder that Plato and Aristotle thought "the source of all wisdom." Poetry and the dramatic theater helped the Greeks confront their flaws while being inspired by the gods, the good and the beautiful, the heroic, and the just. Greeks tried to "treat all people as gods in disguise."

This is a tremendous insight that makes Cline's book so valuable. But Cline is also right the Greeks struggled against horrific difficulties just like we do. We need the Greeks to solve our problems.

"We need the insights of Athena, the foresight of Apollo, the strength of Hercules, the justice of Themis, and the confidence of Zeus to solve them. We need the logic of Aristotle, the pursuit of truth of Plato, and the conscience of Socrates. We need their idealism," Cline writes.

"The Greeks" is an extremely important book. It succinctly and vividly tells the story of our intellectual ancestors, the Greeks. Read it.