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date: 22 September 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

Scholarship dealing with the past inevitably finds itself confronted with the related issues of ‘originality’ and ‘authenticity’: the original form taken by artefactual, including textual, evidence whose journey to us (from its ‘original’ context) might well have changed it beyond native recognition; the authenticity of the cultural picture we construct through its interpretation. It is by no means inevitable that these notions take centre-stage in our study of the past: some of the chapters in this section suggest that it might be unrealistic for them to do so, others that it might not be desirable. The extent to which they do direct our study, however, is just the extent to which our study is about an other culture at all—rather than the study of ourselves.

The consequences of this for any approach to the Greek world in particular are explored in the first two papers in this section—both of which, interestingly, appeal to Herodotus, who should perhaps be considered the father of cultural anthropology as much as of history. G. E. R. Lloyd resists an extreme position that relativizes concepts of originality and authenticity out of existence; but he shows, nevertheless, that the study of Hellenic culture always involves comparative anthropology: we can look harder and see more, but what we see is always the view from where we are. Indeed, we put ourselves in the frame by selecting the object of our study to begin with. Emily Greenwood, in her discussion of the ‘dialogue’ (as she calls it) between postcolonial theory and Hellenistic studies, highlights this by exploring the act of will and self-identification by which Greece is appropriated to a particular culture, made its history, and put to its service. (One important point to which she draws attention is the potentially universal significance that this gives Hellenic studies: just because the appropriation of ancient Greece is an act of will, it always remains available for counter-appropriation by other interests as well.)

The study of the Hellenic past understood as such always, then, involves us along with them, and particular questions require us to strike an appropriate balance between the claims of each. At one extreme, we can phrase our questions as questions just about them: the experience of individuals or classes in the Hellenic world: ‘What was it like to be [for example] a fifth-century Athenian?’ It is for the pursuit of this sort of question that the next chapters provide examples and guidance. For the most part, they deal with the application to Hellenic antiquity of questions which, in some form, might apply to any culture: how membership of society is counted and structured (Walter Scheidel on demography and sociology); the (‘cultural’) traditions through which members of a society achieve or express identity (Jan (p. 640) Bremmer on myth, mythology, and mythography); the meaning given within these structures to human individuals whose relationship even with their own bodies is culturally determined (Marilyn Skinner on gender); the language they speak, and all that that might tell us—synchronically of cultural history and diachronically of social interaction (Philomen Probert on comparative philology and linguistics).

These questions rely in their turn on our approach to the primary evidence which, on the face it, provides the most direct contact we have with the ancients and grounds our claim to be able to answer them as questions about the Greeks. Among such evidence, epigraphy, discussed here by P. J. Rhodes, has a special place, since its material is often rooted in a particular geographical site, linked to a particular historical event, and self-consciously intended to record both for posterity. But, as James Whitley emphasizes, no ancient artefact can speak to us in isolation: rather, we have to consider the ‘patterns’ of occurrence, and the dialogue they establish with other forms of evidence (not least of all, textual evidence). And here our own perspective is found framing the picture again. The artefacts we have are partly determined by the decisions of archaeologists, and so is the knowledge we have of the context in which they were discovered. But, more than this, the significance we read into them depends to a large degree on our own hopes and expectations. Andrew Meadows provides, in his discussion of Greek coins, a vivid case-study of a trajectory in Hellenic scholarship observed by Whitley too. In the early days, when artistic or iconographical interests dominated, coins were often thought of as ‘medals’; today more attention is paid to their social context, including not just their use in exchange, but also, for example, the circumstances of their production.

So even when we have to hand the very objects created and handled by the Greeks, the insights they provide us into Greek life are not transparent or unmediated. No more so are the ancient texts to which we might turn for commentary. Indeed, the question of ‘originality’ raises itself in a particularly acute form when we are dealing with texts, especially when our possession of these texts relies on their transmission through a long chain of copyists. (Their work, which is the province of Manuscript studies, is discussed here by Natalie Tchernetska.) But the same is true even when we are dealing with the more direct, and to that extent more ‘original’, sources whose study is doing so much to expand our body of textual evidence for ancient Greece today—notably the papyri scraps of Oxyrhynchus, and the bookrolls of Herculaneum. It is true that new imaging techniques constantly improve the quantity and quality of the texts we can recover, as David Armstrong explains in his reflection on his experience of working with the Herculaneum papyri; but it remains the case that, whether we are considering a medieval manuscript or a first-century papyrus, the evidence these provide is determined (that is, interpreted) by its reception. Even an ‘ideal’ text (written as the author wrote, or meant to write it) is interpreted in the process of presentation and commentary, as Luigi Battezzato and Barbara Graziosi respectively emphasize. But the ‘ideal’ text is, in any case, a theoretical entity: a text without error, ambiguity, or the need for emendation has (p. 641) probably never existed; and the choices that we make under all these headings are inseparable from our view of what the text might or ‘should’ have said—our view of Greece, then. Even the texts of antiquity, in more ways than one, turn out to be the products of our own culture.

The fact that ‘we’ keep intruding in this way into our own investigations of antiquity can, depending on the questions one asks, appear to be a nuisance. But many approaches turn it into a virtue by making ourselves, that is, our own presence in the examination of the Hellenic world, the immediate objects of their study. Freudian psychoanalysis, as discussed by Rachel Bowlby, is a programmatic example of the process because, while it is fundamentally introspective, it is articulated through a reading of the classics. (It is no coincidence, then, that psychoanalytic terms recur in subsequent chapters by Lianeri and Michelakis.) To this extent, though, Freud is only applying to the individual what cultures as a whole have done through their appropriation of Greece for their own past (the ‘act of will’ I mentioned above). In effect, the decision to study Greece, to find it important, is on every occasion a decision to express oneself in a certain way. This is something illustrated by one activity which is so central to Hellenic studies that it can seem commonplace: translation. For, as Alexandra Lianeri points out, to see the need for translation is to recognize difference and distance, but at the same time to seek a means of making Greek culture our own. Film studies provides the ideal field for further reflection on the issue: it involves the translation of Greek material into a new medium, as well as a new language, a medium furthermore which is characteristically modern (definitively ours). It is also, as Pantelis Michelakis points out, the medium through which many moderns have their first or only self-aware encounter with ancient Greece.

Collections of scholarly articles on aspects of the ancient world often end with a token article on the later ‘reception’ of the topic under discussion (cf. Taplin above, p. 475). Our collection ends with a paper on reception as well: but we end with it because, as Miriam Leonard observes and the preceding chapters have shown, ‘Reception studies’ cannot be separated out as a methodology distinct from anything else done under the heading of Hellenic studies. Properly understood, it is what Hellenic studies is—to just the extent that the emphasis is on us rather than the Greeks we study. (p. 642)