With this short article, I begin a series of meditations on the history of ideas concerning ancient Greece.
When we think to ancient Greece our thought goes spontaneously to the institution of the polis, with its poets, writers, artists and philosophers. That is due to the fact that from around 1760 until now, nearly every study of classical Greece lavished emphasis on the self governing communities of this civilization. The prevalence of this institution is so obvious for most scholars that many will be surprised to learn that for a very long period – from the late 1st c. BC until around AD 1750 – Greek city states were left at the margins of the memory of the classical past.
The aim of this article is to summarize the process which led to a notion of classical Greece without polis for such a long time.
From late classical times onwards, Greek city states lose power and large kingdoms are on the rise. The ideal of a community taking decisions in the assembly or through a body of appointed statesmen loses appeal, while the prevailing ideal becomes that of a wise monarch who is surrounded by clever, learned and devoted advisers and takes care of the well being and prosperity of his subjects.
Accordingly, the interpretation of history changes and is made in keeping with this new Zeitgeist. Probably Ktesias of Knidos in the early 4th c. BC forged the notion that history is characterized by a succession of empires in the 23 book of his monumental history entitled Περσικά: first of all there was the Egyptian empire of Sesostris, then the Assyrian one of Ninos, Semiramis and Sardanapallos, then the Persian Empire. He was the physician of the Great King of Persia Artaxerxes II who reigned from 405 to 359 and thus he may have received from the imperial court the task to advertize the institution of the empire as the best and most obvious form of government. The historians of Alexander – first of all Kallisthenes and Ptolemaeus – may have continued this interpretation by adding the Macedonian empire. By the late 1st c. BC, with Pompeius Trogus and Diodorus, we have also the Roman state in the sequence, as the last and definitive ecumenical state. This concept of history will continue for very long time until late antiquity: for example it is still adopted by Orosius (early AD 5th c.) and Malalas (AD 6th c.). The experience of the polis has no place in this sequence of empires and is left at the margins.
The same history of Athens, the city which is regarded now the polis par excellence, changes.
The two inscriptions on the Arch of Hadrian at Athens which label the old and the new city respectively as Athens of Theseus and of Hadrian have been thought by scholars, from Schmaltz to Stewart in an article published last week, to refer with the first text to the Agora of Theseus which is located by most scholars just north-west of the Arch. These scholars may be right but there is more than that. These inscriptions epitomize the two main phases of Athenian history – the pre-Roman and the Roman – with names of kings: in other words they convey a monarchic interpretation of the history of Athens.
The digression of Pausanias on Hellenistic kings in the context of his description of Athens has been regarded from Wilamowitz (who despised Pausanias) mere display of erudition. Even in this case, I believe there is more than that. We should ask why this digression concerns kings and not statesmen of classical Athens. In my opinion one of the reasons of this excursus is to forward an Athenian history in which kings are more important than officers of the Athenian polis.
This ‘royalization’ of ancient Greece was going to be strengthened by the classicism. From late antiquity until the 18th c., the memory of classical Greece was based more on Greek mythology than on history.
Greek myths usually bring to the fore, queens, kings, princesses, princes etc. Thus a ‘fil rouge’ is instituted between these mythical antecedents and the royalty which ruled countries in late antiquity, throughout the middle age and especially in the golden centuries of the absolutistic monarchies. The obvious conclusion is that this is the natural order of things: from mythical times, kings and aristocrats ruled upon commoners, thus this system will last forever.
Even statesmen of democratic Athens are sometime equated to kings. For example Kedrenos in his ‘Compendium historiarum’ (around 1090) attributes to Perikles the dedication of the colossal Zeus of Olympia. In a previous essay I wrote that probably Kedrenos was right and that this enterprise was promoted by Athens. However Kedrenos attributes to Perikles an evergetism which is typical of kings.
During the middle age, the two most famous Greeks were Alexander the Great and Aristotle, id est a king and his teacher: this fact must have consolidated the ‘monarchic’ interpretation of classical Greece.
There were even royal dynasties which claimed to descend from heroes of the Greek myth: for example the Trojans became the ancestors of the Carolingian dynasty.
The most radical statement of this trend is that of the Turkish traveler Evliya Celebi who in 1667 visited Athens: he regarded this city founded by King Solomon and claims to find vestiges of Macedonian kings, and first of all of course of Alexander the Great.
However the criticism of monarchic absolutism was going to bring a view of ancient Greek with different eyes.
The slow crumbling of the monarchic conception of ancient Greece begins between the late 17th and the early 18th century. First of all François Hédelin, abbé d’Aubignac with his ‘Conjectures académiques ou dissertation sur l’Iliade d’Homère’ written before 1676 and then Giovanbattista Vico regarded the archaic epic poetry, popular products: the ancient Greek commoners were back as protagonists of the highest expressions of the Greek genius.
Winckelmann in 1764 theorized that the Greek excellence in visual arts depended on the freedom of its society, foreshadowing the idealization of the Greek polis.
Finally, the deeply felt need of politics based on the virtue of citizens led to the idealization of statesmen of the Greek polis as well as of figures of the Roman republic: Aristides the fair, Phokion the right, the modesty of Lucretia, the continence of Scipio etc. flooded both literature and visual arts – especially paintings – of the neoclassic period.
Thus I have hopefully outlined in a nutshell a nearly forgotten interpretation of the ancient Greek civilization.