Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Great Communicators of the Mediterranean World

Nicolas Ostler raises an interesting point about Ancient Greek Civilization in his book, The Empire of the Word: democracy did not spread along with Greek culture. Beneath the veneer of this celebrated role, Greek culture was a tool of hegemony across the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. This should raise questions about how "the Greeks" are portrayed in Western Civ courses, whether democracy was really their legacy, recovered by the Renaissance, or appended to the existing institutions of the European free cities.
Western Europe likes to think itself an indirect heir of the Greeks; but the countless modern accounts of what the Greeks were like never ask, much less answer, this question. Rather, they simply trace the processes by which the Greeks produced so many pioneering contributions to Western civilisation, in mythology, politics, literature, the arts, architecture, philosophy and science. Part of the answer is thus given implicitly: for none of their contemporaries has laid by as vast a record of their cultural product as the Greeks— unless one counts the Romans, who chose to build on the Greek work, rather than replace it. Literacy could be seen as the Greeks’ secret weapon.

But this can’t be the whole Answer. After all, literacy was a gift to them from the Phoenecians, who themselves were just the lately travelling sales representatives of a vast Middle Eastern range of literate societies, from Egypt at one end to Babylon and Elam at the other. But unlike the Phoenicians, the Greeks had chosen to use their literacy to record their culture: the ability to read Greek brought a vast range of original works in its wake. The result was that the Greeks had access to ‘the arts of civilisation’ in a way that could only impress others when they came into contact with them. Civilisation, after all, when combined with such delights as olive oil and wine, is apt to be attractive. ...

It is often, somewhat romantically, claimed that Greece’s greatest contribution to subsequent civilisation was the invention of democracy, the highest mechanism invented to realise eleutherIa, ‘freedom’, always a virtue that the Greeks claimed to care for. This is certainly false: false as a theory of what appealed in Greek to outsiders confronted by it, and false as an account of what made Greek capable of spreading so far to the east and west of its homeland. It has already been pointed out that most Greek city-states were never democratic; and the larger states with Greek as their official language, established all over Egypt and much of Asia after conquests by Alexander, were without exception monarchies. They were bureaucratic states, where civic control by concerned citizens was not possibly an ideal. They were also much bigger than any city-states had ever been. When the Greek language spread, it did not carry with it the properties that had possibly been crucial in the original creation of its attendant culture.

Indeed, a major property of Greek culture, throughout its long continuous history since the third century BC has been a wish to hark back to the classical aping their linguistic form as well (as far as possible) as their style and content, but never the excitement of innovation and originality that must have attended their actual writing in the fifth and fourth centuries. Whatever had proved enduring in the Greek language tradition—and leaving aside the question of whether its classics really are the best things ever written—it has far more to do with rigid conservatism than openness to exciting new ideas. If nothing else, the history of the Greek language community shows that conservatism too can be attractive, if something attractive is being conserved.

We can see that what Greek had to offer was highly attractive in the context of the ancient world. Even those whose careers were dedicated to limiting and diminishing Greek influence nevertheless took as much as they could from it ... . The Greeks were undoubtedly the Great Communicators of the Mediterranean world.

But the agents who spread this undoubtedly attractive commodity round the oikouméne, the inhabited world, were seldom actually Greek. The spread of the Greek language is, rather, an object lesson in the effectiveness of hitching a ride. Macedon was beyond the pale of the Greek language community; yet its king planted Greek-speaking colonies all the way to the boundaries of India. Aramaic was the language of Greece’s greatest foe, the Persian empire; yet the two-hundred-year-old use of it as a chancery language across the empire meant that there was a clear model for Greeks to follow in seeding a Greek-based communications network round their newly won domains. Two hundred years later Rome, and with it Latin, was taking the whole Mediterranean rim by storm; yet Greek, the language of colonies in southern Italy, was accepted into a kind of equality with Latin, and went on to become the true cultural milieu of the Roman empire—in the sense that no cultivated inhabitant of the empire could be without it. Two hundred years later still, the new brooms sweeping the empire were mystery religions, especially Christianity; yet although none of them originated in Greece, their language of preference was Greek, and so Greek built an indissoluble link with the greatest movement of the late Roman empire, the Christian Church. By a final stroke of good fortune, this same movement, now specialised as Christian Orthodoxy, turned out to be the key to preserving Greek through four centuries of Turkish domination, after the dissolution of the Roman empire in the east. Greek thus owes its remarkable career to help from its friends, at every crucial turning point of the last 2300 years.


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