The Greek Genius for Adaptation

Michael Grant describes how the Greeks borrowed from other civilizations, and how they transformed their borrowing.

An essential, though sometimes irritating, feature of classicism is that the ancient writers and artists were less interested in complete originality than in originality within a framework—the expression of old ideas in new terms and in the best possible way. One reason why this idea appealed to the Greeks, to say nothing of the Romans, is that they were not one of the world’s most original peoples. They were, instead, pickers-up of near eastern cultures, which they adapted with extraordinary genius.

The Homeric poems themselves, the very basis of Greek culture and education, owed their completion and survival to one of these external factors—the recent importation of the alphabet of Phoenicia, in the form that was current in the eighth century B.C.; vowel-signs were added to express word-endings and differentiate between words composed of identical consonants. The substance of the Homeric epics also contains a good many echoes of Asian lands. In the Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus are a heroic pair like Gilgamesh and Enkidu in a famous Mesopotamian epic. Menelaus’ loss and recovery of Helen have something in common with an epic of Ugarit fRas Shamra) on the Syrian coast, which told how Keret won back his beautiful bride. The circumstances, it is true, are dissimilar, and a comparatively jejune technique has been turned into incomparable poetry; but there were evident transmissions of thought, ideas and poetical methods.

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