Wednesday, 3 August 2016

To Hellenikon and beyond.

The BBC's recent Who Were The Greeks two parter with Dr Michael Scott as our guide was one of the most informative and interesting things I'd ever watched about the ancient Greeks, their customs, their history, and more. He showed us both how the Greeks lived and what they have given us. Quite a lot you'll not be surprised to learn.

Beginning in 490BC overlooking the plain of Marathon where 10,00 Greek soldiers defeated a Persian army twice, maybe three times, its size. The Greeks had created democracy, architecture, and philosophy and all that had been at stake.

After their victory their general Militiades traveled to Olympia to make offerings to the Gods. He dedicated his helmet to Zeus (fnarr, fnarr) and a Persian helmet too. A spoil of war. John Stuart Mill, an old favourite of mine, once claimed the battle of Marathon to be a more important historical event in English history than even the Battle of Hastings. Such is our debt to the ancient Greeks.



Greece, at the time, was not the unified country it is now. It was a series of poleis (city states) that represented groups of people rather than cities as we'd recognise them. It was a patchwork, a mosaic, divided by mountain ranges and, of course, sea. These poleis formed alliances. Like a precursor to the EU they felt, and were, stronger together and peace, of sorts, prevailed over this previously bellicose region.

An indication of this bellicosity was pankration, a combat sport with scarcely any rules, which was used to train Greek soldiers to fight to the death even after being divested of all their weapons.

In Sparta things were seriously tough. At the age of six boys were taken from their families and whipped for minor offences as they trained to become perfect warriors. Blood cropped up a lot. In battle they wore red cloaks to hide any blood they may have shed. They ate disgusting tasting broth which consisted of pig's blood mixed with vinegar. A tough food for tough men. And tough women too.

The Athenians looked down at Spartan women for joining in with the fighting and flashing their thighs. In Athens the men were often naked whilst women tended to remain clothed but in Sparta men and women were more equal both on the field of battle and in their nudity.

Not everything in ancient Greece would appear so enlightened to our modern morals. Parents of weak Spartan children were ordered to carry their frail offspring to Mount Taygetos and leave them there to die. Cold blooded old times. Again. This happened all over the country. Even in Athens. Some say 10% of daughters were simply left to die. Infanticide and eugenics thriving in the cradle of democracy.


Osteologists studied the skeletons of 450 babies in a well from the second century BC and found that dogs were buried along with the kids. Sacrifices and bribes to the Gods too. And what a lot of Gods there were. So many they were described as being like clothes that had spilled out from an over filled drawer that nobody felt compelled to tidy.

Yet, paradoxically, alongside this belief in the supernatural the Greeks took to science and medicine. Dr Scott visits Epidaurus on the Peloponnese to study stelae dealing with the dichotomy between the rational and the irrational. The stelae tell fantastic stories of pregnancies that lasted a lustrum and new born babies that could pretty much walk out of the womb.


It was mostly faith healing bullshit, the crap that persists to this day, but they did make some genuine medical breakthroughs. A terrifying case of scalpels and knives, anyone fancy an anal speculum insertion?, testify to the efficiency of ancient Greek surgical instruments.

But, yet, offerings to the Gods remained. Which seems a bit of an insult to the surgeons themselves. Quite often these offerings took the form of the body part that had been healed and, more often than not it seems, that body part was a man's cock. They weren't shy about such things because everyone in the gym was bollock naked anyway. In fact the world gymnasium, Greek of course, essentially means naked room.

Unsurprisingly all that naked man-on-man wrestling action led to a very open ended view of sexuality. They thought sex was good for women as it kept their wombs from drying out and, er, wandering around the body! Athenian laws demanded husbands have sex with their wives at least three times a month. Anal wasn't allowed with one's wife but high class hookers, lower level prostitutes in brothels, and live in lovers could provide bum fun.

Young men were expected to have sexual relations with adolescent boys. It was considered an exalted and important form of love. Greek vases show priapic older men fiddling with younger boys willies. These relationships had to end when the boy reached puberty. The man had to be married by the age of 35, anyway, or face a fine.


As touched on earlier, it was different for women. Male statues were naked. Females clothed. Much like the actual men and women. Girls were married off aged 13 and were expected to be virgins.

A form of body fascism operated too. People deemed ugly were shunned. Plutarch metaphorically claiming that those who lived with a lame man would end up limping also.

So sexual mores were very different. As was the culture of drinking. Symposia drinking parties for the beautiful and clever weren't exactly relaxed affairs. They consisted of a series of behavioural tests. For example drinking wine whilst reclining which was not so easy out of one of those wide brimmed vessels they used at the time.


The 'eye' appears. Not to ward off evil as believed by modern day gullible cretins but to remind Greeks that society was watching them. There were cleansing rituals and libations to the Gods. Plato wrote of one famous symposium in which the expected argument and debate about love was ruined when Socrates' other half turned up pissed. Bad form apparently. No preloading in the Hellenic social scene.

If you opted out of society (or symposia, much the same thing it seems) you were simply denounced as an 'idiot'. The literal translation being 'private person' but the meaning of the word changed for a reason.

With all this sex and booze it seems surprising that they ever got much else done but in the centre of modern Athens there lies an unremarkable pile of rocks. This was The Assembly. The birthplace of all democracies everywhere. It wasn't like Westminster where elected representatives speak for, or against, us. Every citizen had a right to attend.

As well as, potentially, having to represent yourself in parliament you may have to do so in law also. There were no lawyers. If you wanted to try a case you had to do it yourself.

Pottery shards called ostraka gave us the word ostracism. You wrote, on your ostraka, the name of someone you wanted expelled from Athens for a decade. Like a Big Brother eviction night vote those whose names came up the most were out on their ear. Hundreds of ostraka were found carrying the name of Themistocles. Vote rigging was suspected. Even the earliest of democracies was bent.

Another word we took from the Greeks is bureaucracy. They loved it. Laws, contracts, scrutiny lists etc; Red tape gave way to more red tape and so on.

But how did they pay for all of this? Simple. Slavery. Slaves were either spoils of war or brought from overseas. At the height of ancient Greece there were ten slaves for each citizen. Athens also made money from silver mining but it was, of course, slaves who worked those mines. Some slaves were comparatively well treated and educated. Plutarch, always one for a controversial soundbite, said he'd rather be a slave in Athens than the king of some poxy island.


Slave testimony was only permitted in court if they'd been tortured. Slaves being seen as natural liars who could clearly only speak the truth when forced too. Starvation and flogging of slaves was common and, naturally, slaves had no business whatsoever denying the sexual demands of their masters.

In spite of all this some still prospered. One slave, Pasion, from the fourth century BC, had begun his bondage working in the Piraeus port district of Athens. He was bought by bankers and his work was so good they granted him his freedom. He became bank manager and, eventually, bank owner. A very very rich man indeed by this point he donated triremes and shields to the state. Eventually he was awarded citizenship and was considered the richest man in all Athens.

Athens had become the central and most dominant state. Yet the alliances, on the whole, held. Herodotus, father of history with his 'common blood, common language, common shrines and rituals, common customs' line, explained how the 1000+ city states (there was no Greece as such) gelled across the Levantine region.

Perhaps the greatest bonding exercise took place once every four years in Olympia. I think you can probably guess what that was. The Olympic Games only lasted for five days back then. There were running races, javelin, chariot races, and horse races as you'd expect. The boxing and wrestling was so competitive that people actually died.

The sport was seen as an act or worship but the main focus was outside the stadium. At the Temple of Zeus, God of all Gods, whose honour the games were held in, a great procession took place at the climax of the Games. It led to the altar of Zeus where 100 oxen were sacrificed.


Across Olympia historians have discovered helmets and shields. They tell of the many years of warring Greek states. The Olympics were war by any other means and, on top of that, there was no sanitation. Wags of the time claimed slaves were punished by being sent to the Olympic Games. And you thought having to watch dressage was bad.

After the wars with the Persians Pericles decided to rebuild the Parthenon and to build the original statue of liberty, Athena herself. Statuary show noble Greeks fighting brutal centaurs. The buildings and statues were brightly coloured. That's something seemingly anathema to our tastes these days but if we can't bear to look at it we should at least consider the story these colours tell.

The gypsum came from Northern Greece. The realgar from the Caucuses. The ochre from Cyprus. Cinnabar was imported from Spain and, most notoriously of all, Afghanistan provided the lapis lazuli.

It was the result of a network. Athens was a hub of commerce for the ancient world. A city of cushions, carpets, spices, and fish. And people. People with ideas. Aristotle came from Stagira in Macedonia. Herodotus from Halicarnassus in modern day Turkey. They were the Metics. Not citizens. Nor slaves. But they could live and work in Athens. What a great advert for integration.

Certainly it helped aid the wellspring of ideas. Socrates claimed the unexamined life was not worth living. Plato, his pupil, grappled with such evergreen posers as what makes an ideal individual and what makes an ideal state? They even coined the word philosophia. Love of wisdom. Which gives me carte blanche to describe myself as a philosopher. I don't need to be wise myself. I simply need to love wisdom - and I do'n'all.


The Richard Dawkins of his time it seemed that average Athenians found Socrates an insufferable know-it-all. Worse still he was always skint. This didn't stop him pointing out the moral weaknessesof others. Nor did his contention that nobody really knew anything anyway.

Such was the antipathy towards Socrates that in 399BC he was imprisoned for corrupting the youth by questioning the existence of the Gods. He was sentenced to death (and atheists are supposed to be the unreasonable ones).

The fictional dramas of the theatre were surely preferable to the horrific treatment of one of the city's finest minds. Yet theatre was not mere entertainment. It emerged in Athens as a drama contest and spread out as far as Sicily. Two forms emerged. Tragedy and comedy.

On tragedy Aristotle coined the term catharsis. Dealing with extreme emotions within the controlled environment of the theatre gave the audience better skills, coping methods, to deal with the shit that real life was to throw at them.

Comedy was equally influential. Its tropes of hookers with hearts of gold, young men falling guilelessly in love, and slaves who are cleverer than their masters set a template for much of our most enduring culture to this day. The masks look a bit silly now but the influence is utterly undeniable.

All these great ideas but what helped them to spread so far can be found by looking at two men. King Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great. Under Philip Macedon had become a power to rival Athens. Philip's ambition was to be leader of all the Greeks. The Macedons traced their lineage back to Heracles.

After Philip was assassinated Alexander famously built an empire that spread as far as India. He spread Greek culture but he assimilated it with the cultures he met along the way. He wore Persian clothes. His officers took Persian wives. Cities were built in Egypt. His name, undoubtedly, lives on and not just in the darts commentary of Sid Waddell.

In the 2nd century BC Greece was taken over by an expanding Roman empire. Augustus was the emperor. Romans saw the Greeks as militarily weak but artistically supreme. They honoured the empire they defeated and replaced. When Hadrian became emperor he completed the Temple of Zeus.


The Romans not only promoted Greek culture. They shaped its legacy. The shaping continues to this day. Dr Scott shaped a lot of it in my mind during two hours in which he managed to cram in a lot of history but never made it feel like a boring history lesson.

I hope, in this blog, to convey some of both Dr Scott's enthusiasm and some of the Greek love of wisdom for wisdom's sake. If I've failed you can write my name on an ostraka or something.

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