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date: 12 August 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces the themes for the first part of this book, ‘Hellenes and Hellenism’. In the classic Victorian statement of political and social criticism, Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold wrote that to get rid of one's ignorance and to see things as they are is the simple and attractive ideal which Hellenism holds out before human nature; and from the simplicity and charm of this ideal, Hellenism and human life is imbued with a kind of clarity and radiance. The rest of the article briefly describes related themes such as modernity, classical antiquity, Greek society, colonization, Alexander the Great, Hellenistic culture, Rome, Hebraism, Islam, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.

Keywords: Hellenism, Victorian, political criticism, Matthew Arnold, human nature, Greek society, Hellenistic culture, Enlightenment

In the classic Victorian statement of political and social criticism, Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold wrote:

To get rid of one's ignorance, to see things as they are, and by seeing them as they are to see them in their beauty, is the simple and attractive ideal which Hellenism holds out before human nature; and from the simplicity and charm of this ideal, Hellenism, and human life in the hands of Hellenism, is invested with a kind of aërial ease, clearness, and radiancy; they are full of what we call sweetness and light. (Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (London, 1869), 151)

Arnold was not alone in believing that Hellenism contributed to the development of aesthetic, intellectual, and moral abilities of his contemporaries. Yet, Arnold's ‘sweetness and light’ are not easily or always recognized elements in ‘Hellenism’ (which Arnold opposed to ‘Hebraism’), even in its nineteenth-century versions, and his essay reminds us of the challenges held out to all who seek to comprehend the meaning of the term. As James Porter observes, in the volume's opening essay, Hellenism is a controversial concept that has a lengthy history and that ultimately defies all attempts to give it definition. Porter, who also discusses Arnold, suggests that we think of Hellenism as a relationship between a particular past and a perpetually changing present. The ancient Greek world is contested, fragile, and phantasmatic; it is constructed by a gaze that looks intensely back into the past. Thus, while the concept of Hellenism has been extraordinarily fertile, it is also restrictive, and its evasions and exclusions need to be acknowledged. A broader and more inclusive conception, as some have argued, would allow for a more critical and self-aware reception of the Greek past and would engage with the range of diverse traditions that have contributed to the formation of Hellenism since antiquity.

Few places have so fraught a relationship with Greek antiquity, Yannis Hamilakis indicates, as the nation of Greece itself. Hamilakis shows how, since the nineteenth century, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and politicians received, recast, and managed the Greek past, especially, though not exclusively, in its material legacy. Through a process of sacralization, classical antiquity was placed at the centre of the emerging modern state, and the material culture of the past (ruins, statues, inscriptions, etc.) gained in status and value. While the new nation of Greece saw itself as the resurrection of an ancient entity, the ideological basis for this national project was provided by a home-grown synthesis of ‘western’ and indigenous Hellenisms. It was the crucial work of Johann Gustav Droysen that facilitated this synthesis, and it was, in particular, his idea of a continuity between the ancient and modern worlds (p. 4) that gave Greek intellectuals the impetus to trace their own origins back to the classical past.

Our next chapter, along with some others in this section, considers ways of approaching Hellenism from the perspective of non-Hellenes and invites the reader to rethink some of the fundamental tenets of Hellenism. Robert Rollinger argues that ancient Near Eastern sources offer a contrasting picture of cross-cultural contact in comparison with the Greek: for instance, several kinds of evidence from the era of the Persian wars point to Greek involvement in the workforce at Persepolis, Susa, and Pasargadae and in the bureaucracy of the Achaemenids. He does not suggest that the non-Greek sources are necessarily more accurate or less biased than the Greek; rather, he illustrates how Near Eastern sources, which have been relatively neglected in the study of the eastern Mediterranean, cast a complementary light on historical situations that are also described by or impinge upon Greeks. The study of colonies and colonization, Franco De Angelis writes, needs to be situated within wider Mediterranean and Near Eastern contexts and to throw off its parochial conception of Greek history. A wider geographical range is not enough by itself to bring the study of ancient colonization out of its current ‘crisis’, however. Scholars should be rethinking the very terminology they employ, including such words as ‘colonization’, and they ought to evaluate how modern colonialism and capitalism have shaped the understanding of the ancient phenomena conventionally described as ‘colonization’. Such a revaluation would lead not just to a more rigorous analysis of ancient colonization but also to a broader, and more nuanced, consideration of modern empires. Problems of terminology also plague the study of the Athenian Empire, according to Polly Low, who draws attention to the many ancient Greek words that have been translated as ‘empire’. Arriving at the right terms to describe Athenian ‘imperialism’ would go hand in hand with the larger process of understanding other features of Athens' hegemony: for instance, while the financial aspects of the Athenian Empire are heavily discussed, the cultural imperialism of the city-state still needs to be analysed more fully. Further study may well show that the major importance of the empire lies in its role as the transmitter of Hellenic culture during the period of Athens' dominance and not in its place as a decisive moment in the history of imperialism.

The centrality of Alexander the Great to the study of imperialism and cultural transfer can scarcely be in doubt. Indeed, the subject of Alexander is so heavily studied, Pierre Briant says, that we might well demand a justification for any new discussions of the Macedonian conqueror. Historiography proves to be one element in the scholarship that has been relatively neglected, a situation that is exemplified by the lack of any systematic account of Alexander studies from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. A long-term view of the historiography would show that Droysen's picture of Alexander was less original than previously believed, and that it was prefigured in some significant respects by Montesquieu. Briant also argues that progress in the field is likely to come when historians better account for the (p. 5) Achaemenid and Near Eastern milieux in which Alexander flourished and ruled. That appeal to broader cultural contextualization is echoed by Susan Stephens, who calls on scholars to look at the interactions between Greek and non-Greek cultures in the Hellenistic period, which followed the reign of Alexander and in which he continued to enjoy cult status. She emphasizes contrasting trends that emerge in relation to ethnic identity: non-Greeks learn Greek and adopt Greek customs, while Greeks often marry into local non-Greek populations, speak native languages, and practise native manners and rituals. In the West, however, the centre of power is Rome, and, as indicated by contemporary literature and art, both Greeks and non-Greeks find themselves responding and adapting to its growing cultural and political dominance. In turning to the vexed relationship between Latin and Greek literature, Alessandro Barchiesi analyses a series of famous passages about Rome's debt to Greece and calls on readers to be more critical and less accepting of the claims made by elite writers. Latin arguments about cultural indebtedness need to be contextualized in socio-historical terms. What are the stakes in sketching out a literary and cultural ‘reconciliation’ between Greeks and Romans when Greeks are subjects of Rome's empire? Does competition between Romans and the Italic peoples serve as an incentive for the aggressive and hegemonic promotion, by Romans, of a hybrid Graeco-Roman culture? The search for Greek models is not entirely unrewarding, in Barchiesi's view, but critics also need to be more sensitive to the many different kinds of appropriation by Romans of Greek culture and to appreciate the importance of distinctions within Roman Hellenisms. Shining the spotlight mainly on the literature of the Roman Empire, Tim Whitmarsh sifts through the varied kinds of Hellenisms practised by Romans and other non-Greeks. Whitmarsh makes the important point that not all Hellenisms were centred on fifth-century Athens and that some looked for inspiration to archaic Greece. While Hellenism on the part of Greek writers could be interpreted as anti-Romanism, few Greek texts of the empire offer unambiguous criticism of Rome (Christian writings are a partial exception in this regard). We may find both pro-Roman and anti-Roman sentiments in an author, and it is not easy to prove that an author always adopts a particular stance on Rome. If elite Romans themselves championed Hellenism as a cultural legacy, and if Greeks also deployed it to articulate a variety of subject positions in the empire, it appears critically more productive to see Hellenism as one of several modes of interaction available to the colonizers and the colonized during Roman imperial domination over Greece.

Returning to the conjunction made famous by Arnold, Erich Gruen observes that the stark dichotomy implied in the expression ‘Hellenism and Hebraism’ is, in fact, built on methodologically shaky foundations and perhaps stems from tendentious readings of 2 Maccabees. The concepts of Hellenism and Hebraism are complex and cannot be easily reduced to pure essences, though Greeks and Jews may have maintained a distinctive sense of their ethnic identities. As Gruen discusses Greek writings about Jews and Jewish writings about Greeks, he points to the ‘comfort’ (p. 6) that each had in forging a link or connection with the other. The ancient writers clearly show that Hellenes and Hebrews should not only be opposed to each other and that they participate in overlapping as well as divergent cultures and traditions. Gotthard Strohmaier writes about the attempts of Muslim intellectuals to forge a kind of synthesis between Greek philosophy and Islamic thought, attempts which have parallels in the Christian and Judaic traditions. Classical Muslim culture remained a vibrant and pluralistic phenomenon that often conceived of Greek thought and learning as an indigenous tradition and as a legitimate precursor to Islamic scholarship.

Christopher Celenza's essay, which discusses Hellenism in the Renaissance, illustrates how humanist scholarship laid the foundations for modern philology and the later stages of classical studies. Celenza brings out the hunger for ancient texts and knowledge that fuelled Renaissance intellectuals such as Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni. A large part of the humanist project was devoted to acquiring Greek texts, translating them into Latin, and studying them with the intense philological precision that was also deployed in the scrutiny of Latin. The humanist achievements cannot be separated from the enhanced status of libraries, the invention of printing, and the political upheavals caused by the fall of Constantinople in 1453, all of which served as an impetus to Greek learning in Europe. Paul Cartledge moves us past the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and, in particular, to the French Revolution, which crystallized an important, if not fully understood, moment in the history of Hellenism. He shows how the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the inspiration for so many of the French revolutionaries, were simultaneously proto-democratic and pro-Spartan. In this respect, Rousseau marks a complex breakthrough in the political traditions of Hellenism which were, for much of European history until the eighteenth century, anti-democratic and pro-Spartan.

Turning to the examples of Demosthenes and Alexander, Luciano Canfora closes this section by looking at the ideological uses of Hellenism not only in the general sense of the word but also in Droysen's sense of Hellenismus (referring to the historical epoch that runs from Alexander the Great to Augustus, now loosely termed the ‘Hellenistic era’ in English). As Canfora shows, the reviews of Werner Jaeger's study of Demosthenes were symptomatic of wider currents in the history of European thought and politics. Thus, Jaeger's book was condemned by National Socialists and Fascists, who favoured Droysen's conception of a world historical figure, and who, therefore, strongly praised men such as Alexander the Great and Philip over Demosthenes and his ‘dubious’ politics. If the many examples that Canfora adduces indicate how powerfully alluring ancient Greece has been, they leave open the question of what the ideologies of Hellenism might mean today, and what they might become in the future.