Book Review: Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens - What can we learn from ancient history?

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This site is devoted to practical philosophy, but Santayana strongly suggests that there is such a thing as practical history, in the sense of a way to learn from history that is not about what happened per se, but about what we can learn from what happened that will make our current and future lives better.

This is not, of course, how history is studied these days. A contemporary professional historian attempts to describe things, and cautiously analyze causes, in the most objective, and detached, way possible. Moral lessons are for philosophers and preachers. But the study of history actually began with a very practical, very moral bent. Thucydides, the guy who pretty much invented the field (together with his contemporary, Herodotus) with his famous History of the Peloponnesian War, articulated his opinions of what happened very clearly. When Pericles kept being elected general, for instance, he wryly commented that "Athens, in theory a democracy, was on the way to being ruled by the leading man."

He ought to know. Thucydides commanded the Athenian fleet at Amphipolis in 424 BCE, coming too late to the defense of the town, which had just fellen to the Spartan general Brasidas, a good diplomat, among other things ("he was a pretty competent speaker, for a Spartan," commented Thucydides). Thucydides was consequently prosecuted and given a lifelong exile by the Athenians. So he retired to Thrace and kept in touch with both sides, devoting himself to writing the history of the conflict. Lucky for us, the fickleness of the Athenian people deprived them of a mediocre (or even just unlucky) general and gave humanity one of its greatest historians and moralists.

This notion of history as a teacher of moral lessons, and hence of practical import for how to live our lives, is why I am writing here about Robin Waterfield's Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece (Oxford University Press, 2018).The book covers Greek history from the Archaic Period (750-480 BCE) through the Classical Period (479-323 BCE), the Hellenistic Period (323 BCE-30 CE), and the Roman conquest.

We are treated to a whirlwind of historical events and larger-than-life characters. From aristocracy in the Archaic state to the democratic revolution, from the Persian wars to the Peloponnesian war, from Pericles to Alcibiades to Alexander the Great, with cameos by the likes of Socrates.

It is largely a history of senseless strife, during which the Greeks sometimes rose to the occasion, unified, and defeated their enemies, bringing prosperity to themselves and everlasting cultural treasures to the rest of the world (philosophy, the Parthenon). More often, though, they were divided and therefore more easy to conquer. And always ready to pick a fight. As the poet Pindar observed, "war is sweet to those who have no experience of it." It all ended only with Greece's final loss of independence to the Romans, who imposed their famous pax. Plutarch commented: "All war, whether against Greeks or foreigners, has been banished from our lives until it is nowhere to be seen, and we have as much freedom as our masters allow us."

This is a good lesson to learn, it is sad, and it is ironic. Ironic because, as Waterfield points out in the final chapter of the book, the Greeks very much valued their freedom, and yet acted in a number of ways that clearly undermined it. Freedom for one city, apparently, automatically implied loss of freedom for another one, as if the ancient Greeks were involved in a zero-sum gain of their own invention. Plato summarized it clearly: "Every polis is inevitably engaged in undeclared warfare with every other polis."

Interestingly, the Greeks -- just like, say, modern Europeans -- forcefully acknowledged their cultural unity, and yet, just as forcefully, resisted the political unity that would have saved them from the Macedonians, and possibly even the Romans (like the current failures of the European Union condemn its member states to a secondary role on the world's stage). Aristophanes bitterly complains about this in his "Lysistrata," pointing out that fellow Greeks frequented the ironically named pan-Hellenic games as if they were brothers, and yet fought endless wars against each other.

Waterfield remarks that part of the root for this tragic state of affairs was the deeply ingrained notion of competition, the idea that one should always strive to be the best, superior to all others. That, to some extent, is what led to the senseless Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta. 

The idiocy of this was very clear to some of the best minds of the time. The sophist Gorgias, and the orator Lysias kept calling for a true pan-Hellenic unity in the face of outside threat. The statesman Demosthenes and the rhetorician Isocrates observed that it was mutual hostility that prevented the Greeks from unifying, and Aristotle thought that the Greeks could have ruled the world, had they gotten their act together.

(Fun fact: the word "idiot" comes from the Greek idiotai, meaning people who have chosen not to play part in public life. These guys were onto something...)

If this sort of things doesn't strike you as very closely analogous to the inability of the European Union to actually unify, politically, or to the oft-repeated grand statements of American exceptionalism, you are not paying attention, and as Santayana warned, you (and we all) are bound to repeat mistakes that are at the least two and a half millennia old.

The sad irony here is that, demonstrably, some people do understand where things are going well ahead of the final catastrophe. And they do warn others. But most people don't get it, or don't want to get it. And so humanity keeps driving its bus toward the cliff, ignoring the warning signs. Until the bus goes over the cliff, catastrophe does ensue, and we are left with the gargantuan task of rebuilding. It took until 1829 for Greece to regain its independence (this time, from the Ottoman empire). 23 centuries after the invasion of Alexander the Great. 

Then again, the Greeks themselves were very aware of the irony implied by human stupidity. After all, one of the enduring characters of Homer's Iliad was Cassandra, the Trojan princess cursed with the gift of being able to foretell catastrophes while being ignored and treated like a fool by the rest of the people. At least, after her death, she was considered worthy of being sent to the Elysian Fields. I doubt we will be so lucky.

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