What do the pamphlets of the English Civil War, imperial theorists of the eighteenth century, Nazi schoolteachers, and a left-wing American artist have in common? Correct! They all see themselves as in dialogue with classical antiquity, drawing on the political thought of ancient Greek writers. Nor are they alone in this; the idea that Western thought is a series of ‘footnotes to Plato’, as Alfred Whitehead suggested in 1929, is a memorable formulation of the extensive role of ancient Greece within modernity.
“You Greeks are children”. That’s what an Egyptian priest is supposed to have said to a visiting Greek in the 6th century BC. And in a sense he was right. We think of Ancient Greece as, well, “ancient”, and it is now known to go back to Mycenaean culture of the second half of the 2nd millennium BC. But Egyptian civilisation is much earlier than that: in the mid 2nd millennium BC it was at its height (the “New Kingdom”), but its origins go right into the 3rd millennium BC or even earlier.
Although a man named “Homer” was accepted in antiquity as the author of the poems, there is no evidence supporting the existence of such an author. By the late 1700s, careful dissection of the Iliad and Odyssey raised doubts about their composition by a single poet. Explore more about the “Homeric question” and the influence of these epics in the infographic below.
Some four decades ago the late Sir Moses Finley, then Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, published a powerful series of lectures entitled Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973, republished in an augmented second edition, 1985). He himself had personally suffered the atrocious deficit of democracy that afflicted his native United States in the 1950s, forcing him into permanent exile, but my chief reason for citing his book here, apart from out of continuing intellectual respect, is that its title could equally well have been Democracy Ancient Versus Modern.
In 2003 Paul Bahn led the team that discovered the first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags in Britain. In recent years, many more discoveries have been made including the expanding phenomenon of ‘open-air Ice Age art’. In the slideshow below, you can see some of the earliest examples of art on the planet, and take a tour of prehistoric art throughout the world.
One might think of classicists as the most tradition-bound of humanist scholars, but in fact they were the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of computing and digital technology in the humanities. Today even classicists who do not work on digital projects use digital projects as tools every day. One reason for this is the large, but defined corpus of classical texts at the field’s core.
Every year, millions of people visit California in search of beaches, hiking, celebrity sightings, and more. In the map below, Peter J. Holliday shows us his version of California, focusing on the rich history of classically inspired art and architecture in Southern California. Enjoy the stories of grand landmarks such as Hearst Castle, Pasadena City Hall, and the Getty Villa.
Do you know how many novelists, film directors, and board-game creators have been inspired to create art based on classical mythology and other classical works? Maybe not, but perhaps you know some of the more popular examples. Greek and Roman mythology has had a big impact on modern literature, film, and even the games we play. We owe more than we think to authors like Homer.
Despite much build-up to the new Star Wars film, one of the lesser-known news stories of 2015 described the transformation of a statue of Lenin, standing in a square in Odessa, into one of Darth Vadar. This metamorphosis was necessary to comply with a law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament in April 2015 that banned communist propaganda. Streets were renamed and monuments removed, though even before the law was passed some statues of Lenin had been torn down or mutilated, possibly in protest against Russian influence at a time of heightened political tension.
Latin, then, was a ubiquitous and commonplace language in the Renaissance, widely spoken, read, and written across Europe and beyond. If the defining characteristics of what has variously been called a “world language” and a “universal language” are its number of non-native speakers and its international circulation, by the time Erasmus was writing his Colloquies and Shakespeare his comedies Latin had been a paradigmatic world language for well over a millennium.
The so-called “Getty Hexameters” represent an unusual set of early Greek ‘magical’ incantations (epoidai) found engraved on a small, fragmentary tablet of folded lead. The rare verses provide an exciting new window into the early practice and use of written magic and incantatory spells in the Greek polis of the 5th century BCE.
The quiet corridors of great public museums have witnessed revolutionary breakthroughs in the understanding of the past, such as when scholars at the British Museum cracked the Rosetta Stone and no longer had to rely on classical writers to find out about ancient Egyptian civilisation. But museums’ quest for knowledge is today under strain, amid angry debates over who owns culture.
Reports over recent months from South Korea’s Yonhap news agency have suggested that two prominent North Korean politicians have been executed this year on the orders of Kim Jong-un. These reports evoke some interesting parallels from the darker side of the history of ancient Rome, or at least from the more colourful stories told about it by Roman historians.
Of all the things we could possibly care about, why should we care about the reception of Plato? Wars rage round the world. The planet is in the process of environmental meltdown. Many remain mired in poverty, oppression, and disease. Surely this is a most obscure, not to say obscurantist, pursuit. But perhaps we are too hasty.
Beginning over two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks and Romans innovated a surprising array of concepts that we take for granted today. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without the Greek alphabet, Euclid’s geometric concepts, Roman concrete, and more.
Today, we’re looking at the less fashionable side of this partnership and focussing our attention on the creatures that mortals feared and heroes vanquished. Does your gaze turn others to stone? Do you prefer ignorance or vengeance? Have any wings? Take this short quiz to find out which mythological creature or being you would have been in the ancient world.