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No peace for a Cambridge Classics don

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Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. His new book, Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities, provides a highly original introduction to ancient Greece that takes the city as its starting point. He uses the history of eleven cities – out of over a thousand – to illuminate the most important and informative aspects of Greek history. In the original post below, Professor Cartledge talks about the recent publicity surrounding his claim that the ancient Greeks introduced the grape-vine and viticulture to what is today’s South of France.


Recently I have been interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s flagship ‘Today’ programme, on the BBC World Service, on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire (my local station), and by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The cause of all this interest? The claim that it was the ancient Greeks who introduced the grape-vine and viticulture to what is today’s South of France in around 600 BC (E). That was when Greeks from ancient Phocaea, a city that sits today on Turkey’s Aegean shore, founded the city of Massalia – which has ultimately evolved into contemporary Marseille(s).

ancient-greeceThis is just one illustration of two major points. First, that ‘ancient Greece’ was not any one country or nation-state but a cultural conglomerate – ‘Hellas’ in ancient Greek – stretching from Spain in the West to Georgia in the East and unified not by politics but by commerce and custom, especially religious custom. Second, that this enlarged Ancient Greece had – and still has – such an impact on our modern western world partly precisely because it was so enlarged.

Altogether ancient ‘Hellas’ – a cultural concept like medieval ‘Christendom’ or ‘the Arab world’ today – comprised around 1000 different Hellenic communities at any one time between say 600 BC(E) and AD (or CE) 300. Besides Massalia, there are Cnossos (where the earliest examples of Greek writing are attested, datable about 1400 BCE), Mycenae (‘rich in gold’, as Homer calls it), Argos, Miletus, Sparta, Athens, Syracuse, Thebes, Alexandria, and Byzantion (which in CE 324 became Constantinople, and later, much later, after both the Ottoman conquest and the founding of the modern Turkish Republic, Istanbul).

The ultimate origins of Cotes du Rhone is not perhaps the most earth-shattering issue for most of us today, though for the ancient Greeks it was not just what wine you drank, a matter of taste, but how you drank it (with what admixture of water) that counted – a matter of civilisation that divided Greeks from all non-Greeks. But the role of ancient Alexandria (the one in Egypt) as allegedly the ‘birthplace of the modern world’, as one recent book on the city founded by Alexander the Great in 331 would have it, is no trivial issue at all. For if you consider its outbreaks of (pagan) antisemitism (or judeophobia) and of Christian fundamentalist fanaticism (that resulted in the murder of Hypatia in AD 415, say), you would have reluctantly to answer ‘yes’. On the other hand, much more cheeringly, you would give the same answer if you were looking for the birthplace of scholarship (in the Museum and Library) and were considering numerous astonishing pioneering achievements in science, literary criticism and technology (the polymath Eratosthenes, the maths genius Archimedes, and the geographer Claudius Ptolemy all worked here, and it was here too that the steepling multistorey Pharos lighthouse was constructed in the 3rd century BCE, a genuine Wonder of the Ancient World).

Massalia, though, did not only merit inclusion because it was through there that the grapevine was first introduced to the south of France. It was also the birthplace of the man who ‘discovered’ Britain (and a great deal besides) in about 300 BCE, one Pytheas. And similarly horizon-expanding feats with major contemporary resonance and relevance can be identified in every one of the eleven ancient cities selected to represent ‘Ancient Greece’. It is a privilege as well as a pleasure for me as Cambridge’s endowed A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture to investigate and celebrate critically our ancient cultural ancestors in this and other ways. There is no peace for wicked Cambridge Classics dons.

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