The Greek Way: Edith Hamilton

Athena” Little is left of all this wealth of great art: the sculptures, defaced and broken into bits, have crumbled away; the buildings are fallen; the paintings gone forever; of the writings, all lost but a very few. We have only the ruin of what was; the world has had no more than that for well on for two thousand years; yet these few remains of the mighty structure have been a challenge and an incitement to men ever since and they are among our possessions today which we value as most precious.” A passage taken at random (page 18 of my Norton edition) which illustrates the strength of this remarkable book. Edith Hamilton writes beautiful prose which has been a joy to many since her book was first published in 1930.

She writes for an audience unfamiliar with ancient Greek culture. Her attempt to indicate the effect that Pindar achieved is perhaps bound to fail, but it is a noble attempt. She fares a little better with the dramatists, though hindered in that we are little equipped to appreciate verse drama in translation. The best sections are those dealing with prose writers: Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides. An important proviso though is that Hamilton is not primarily an analyst. She strives to pass on her own love and appreciation, not a critique. As such her work has always been welcomed by lay readers new to the subject.

This beautifully written book, both lofty and inspiring, yet inculcates a number of falsities about ancient Greece, once commonly held. It downplays Greek religion and magical and mystical beliefs, apparantly under the impression that the philosophical outlook (which survives in written form more so than religious texts) was the norm. On the contrary, one of the universal influences on all ancient Greeks (and it is suspected, on emerging Christianity, was the Eleusian mysteries). Greek oracular shrines, too, were enormously popular throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The book also overlooks the fact that the ‘rationalist’ school of philosophy initiated by Thales was an outcrop of Persian philosophical thinking.

Hamilton’s book contrasts Persian (tyrannical and slave based) with Greek (freedom loving) society, oblivious that Greece was a slave based society (as most ancient cultures were) and that many Persians were fanatically loyal to their ‘King of Kings’. Little is said of the oligarchic governments of poleis such as Thebes, Sparta or Corinth, nor of the excesses of Athenian democracy; the list of great names who succumbed to democratic reigns of terror is a sad one: Themistokles, Aristedes, Alkibiades, Socrates…

The subjective feeling is that the Greeks were fighting something similar to Nazism in their Persian Wars. Scholarship is yet another expression of the time in which it was written.

Yet of course all this is little in comparison to the book’s great virtues. Don’t read it as an example of penetrating scholarship: there is plenty of more up-to-date material freely available. Read it if you need to know why the ancient Greeks are important, have been in the past, and hopefully will always be.

Sadly, all books on ancient Greek culture must tell an incomplete story. There were once many artworks and artists whom we are not aware of: musicians, dancers and other performers have of course left no trace; painters and sculptors as well as architects are represented by ruins and reputations; and there is a range of writings in genres we’ve never heard of that haven’t survived. The first volume of the Loeb edition of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists has an index listing over 300 writers – poets, dramatists, dancers, painters, philosophers, performers, writers on food, scholars, satiric poets and so on – none of whose works have survived the years. The culture of ancient times has been bereft of sound, movement and colour, and of 99% of its writers. The ruins of time have left something valuable, but something almost impossible to see in context. Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way  is still a useful aid to appreciating what remains of ancient Greek culture.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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