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date: 16 July 2019


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

One of the most influential aspects of Hellenic culture is its literature. Had only objects and documents survived, our interest in, and understanding of, ancient Greece would be much more limited. The Greeks seem to speak to us most directly when they write poems, discuss mathematical properties, engage in philosophical arguments, and analyse historical events. When Sappho pleads ‘don't break my heart’ (1.3–4, trans. Carson), or Plutarch claims that warfare brings advances, but only for men ‘who define “advance” in terms of wealth, luxury, and empire rather than safety, restraint, and an honest independence’ (Comparison of Lycurgus and Numa 4.12–13), their voices seem miraculously close. In fact, the ‘Greek miracle’ is perhaps precisely that: an impression of closeness. But that sense of closeness is deceptive: all the articles in this section recontextualize Greek literature and, in many cases, question its very status as a literate endeavour.

Gregory Nagy points out that many Greek texts were conceived as scripts for performance, rather than as literature designed for readers (like us): even the Greek alphabet—the first alphabetic script that recorded both vowels and consonants, and hence a crucial development towards our own literate culture—probably developed as it did out of a desire to reproduce as accurately as possible oral delivery. Undeniably, in the course of time, texts and readers became more prominent, as Wolfgang Rösler explains, yet all ancient texts remain part of a larger cultural context which is, in important ways, different from our own. When that wider context is explored, our sense of closeness to the Greeks becomes less secure, and the impression of a Greek ‘miracle’ begins to fade. For example, the Homeric poems are sometimes presented as a literary big bang: they are thought to bring European literature into existence out of nowhere; yet Johannes Haubold argues that recent comparisons between early Greek epic and modern oral traditions, as well as the discovery and investigation of ancient Hittite and Near Eastern texts, place Greek epic in a much wider literary and historical context. Andrea Capra similarly emphasizes the importance of context, and of what is lost, when we approach the study of lyric poetry: even the one complete poem by Sappho turns out to be a fragment, because we can no longer hear the tune to which it was sung, because we do not know for whom she was singing, and because we cannot pin down who might have learned and re-performed her lyrics, or why. The suggestion here is that we need to rethink quite radically ancient processes of identification between poets, performers, and audiences; while, at the same time, our own identification with the Greeks can be harnessed to understand their literature, and ourselves. For (p. 414) example, the dominance of the lyric poet-scholars in nineteenth-century Italian culture explains, in part, the current flourishing of Italian scholarship on ancient Greek lyric.

Oliver Taplin and David Konstan take the idea of performance even further and point out that, in the case of ancient drama, the history of performance is not just a matter of ancient practices. The original context of production, the role of classical actors, the make-up of classical audiences, and the ceremonies that framed first performances are all relevant to the interpretation of the plays, but so is the re-performance of drama outside Athens, and in later times: many tragedies and comedies turned out to be neither local nor ephemeral. When discussing ancient historiography, Carolyn Dewald makes something of the opposite claim: Thucydides—for example—wrote ‘a possession for all time’, but was also a man of his age. The ‘linguistic’ and the ‘cultural’ turn in the study of historiography help situate his work in a broader fifth-century context—and acknowledge its strangeness. Among other things, new approaches enable us to rediscover the connections between rhetoric and historiography—connections that were clear to all in antiquity, but have since eluded many readers. In the next chapter, Lene Rubinstein investigates a related problem by asking how much we really know about ancient rhetoric. She discusses the relationship between the public speeches delivered in classical Athens, and the textual remains available to us, many of which survived because they were considered, in some respects at least, model speeches. The question here is how much the practice of oratory differed from its theory, and to what extent our texts display the concerns and abilities of a narrow elite.

Similar issues present themselves when we tackle philosophical writing. As William Desmond and Dirk Baltzly point out, philosophy was in the first place a practice, a way of life. Many philosophers did not write at all: charismatic and highly individualistic, some offered themselves, rather than any texts, as philosophical examples. This is true, for example, of the Cynics who, according to their critics, lived like dogs. It may seem easy, then, to draw a distinction between a low philosophy of the streets and a high philosophy of the written treatise, but in fact hard lines cannot be drawn. For example: cynic texts do survive, in a variety of forms; while it seems that anybody could wander into Plato's academy and listen to what was going on. It is similarly difficult to trace clear-cut distinctions between magic and medicine. Derek Collins points out the problems of identifying ancient magic and outlines connections between medical, magical, and religious practices. Brooke Holmes attempts to characterize, by contrast, a secular tradition of medicine and focuses on approaches to the body and theories of causation. It seems that, just like the street philosophers, magicians were more individualistic and charismatic than the writers of systematic treatises, and yet they too sometimes relied on texts—not just short curse tablets but, for example, collections of oracles. It is thus important to remain open to possible connections between magic and medicine: for example, (p. 415) in the course of medical history, dissection and investigation of the interior of the body gradually became more prominent; similarly, ancient curses, spells, and binds became increasingly specific about the body parts and internal organs they targeted. The wider context of society is relevant here: magical and medical texts are affected by the history of torture, and of vivisection (itself a form of torture—at least from the perspective of those subjected to it).

One area where it is particularly difficult to bridge the gap between text and performance is ancient music: Eleonora Rocconi reminds us that we know very little about how ancient music sounded. It is much easier to relate ancient theories of music to other intellectual endeavours, such as the study of physics, mathematics, or ethics, than to investigate its connections with the work of practising musicians. There is a paradox here, because ancient musical theories later inspired the development of musical forms on the part of performing artists: modern opera, most famously, originated in an attempt at reconstructing ancient Greek music and drama. The challenge of mapping our distance from the Greeks becomes particularly acute when we consider another influential field of enquiry, the ancient exact sciences: Euclid reads like a modern mathematician, not just because he explores inevitable, mathematical truths, but because he expresses them in a style that resembles very closely indeed that of modern mathematics. And yet, as Reviel Netz points out, mathematical science is not at all inevitable: nobody forces a mathematician to study this rather than that, to express it this way, or to have that ultimate goal in mind. Mathematicians too are shaped by historical contingencies and, in investigating the context of ancient mathematics, some unlikely connections emerge: the Hellenistic exact sciences, with their emphasis on surprising juxtapositions, the hybridization of genres, and exclusive readerships, closely resemble the aesthetics of Alexandrian poetry.

Alexander Sens further investigates Hellenistic poetry by outlining the gradual separation between literary genres and the performance contexts within which they originally developed. The Hellenistic poets felt the gap and tried to reconstruct a literary past from which they felt separated. In a city like Alexandria, where different cultures and ethnicities coexisted, Greek identity was increasingly seen as a matter of cultural and literary competence, rather than a function of one's place of birth—that is to say: ‘Greece’ was becoming a place of the mind. The genres of biography and the novel were also fundamentally concerned with Hellenic identity. As Christopher Pelling points out, ancient biographies do not just describe individuals, they tackle a range of issues, chief among which is that crucial question, what it might mean to be Greek. The novel too flourishes at a time when Greek identity is above all a matter of cultural affiliation: Stephen Nimis argues that the characters in the novels are fundamentally concerned with issues of gender, ethnicity, culture, and identity—and that their readers must have been too. However, the relationship between the world depicted in the novels and that in which they were written and (p. 416) read remains difficult to characterize: it is remarkable, for example, that Rome, the great imperial power of the time, is never so much as mentioned in the extant Greek novels.

The last chapter in this section asks how the Greeks negotiated issues of textuality and performance when developing their own critical approaches to (what we call) their literature. In tackling this question, Andrew Ford engages with some of the issues set out in the first chapters of this section and then explored, from different angles, in the articles that follow. Beyond the different subjects, perspectives, and agendas, there is a determination, on the part of all contributors, to confront theory with practice, and to compare text with context. Greek literature may seem very close, but it sets us in dialogue with a remote, sophisticated, and only partly literate society.