Reading History: The Birth of Greek Civilisation

Paul Cartledge surveys the historiographical treatment of the ancient Greeks.

There would appear to be two main reasons for our continuing fascination with the ancient Greeks. The first is that they are the fountainhead of what we are pleased to call Western civilisation or culture: to know the ancient Greeks is to learn more about what, and the ways in which, we think and see, as Sir Kenneth Dover has well shown inThe Greeks (BBC Publications, 1980, Oxford University Press paperback, 1982). The second reason is precisely the opposite. For institutionally speaking, Greek society and culture – or rather societies and cultures, since there were well over a thousand separate and often very diverse communities – are desperately foreign, irreducibly alien to our own. To comprehend the modes and concepts of ancient Greek democracy, for example, is to discover the unbridgeable gulf between them and any modern interpretations of that sorely abused term – but also to gain thereby a less distorted perception of both.

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