Why Athens Still Matters Today
Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
December 02, 2005
In a brief period of time, about 100 years, a remarkable city, Athens, generated the finest examples of our Western culture, which remain our models of excellence today:
1. Philosophy – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle
2. History – Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon
3. Drama – Sophocles, Euripides
4. Comedy – Aristophanes
5. Architecture – The Parthenon
6. Sculpture – Phidias, Praxiteles
7. Politics – Democracy
8. Literature and poetry – Building on Homer (800 BC)
Athens went into a period of decline, mostly because of the 27-year war with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War. Persia was also a constant threat, having made repeated attempts to conquer Greece (Barr, 1961).
Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
Suddenly, a great Macedonian general was murdered, perhaps by his ex-wife, the mother of Alexander. The son did not automatically become the leader of Macedonia, but he quickly assumed power, swept down across Greece, and consolidated power. Then Alexander proposed an attack on Persia, to revenge losses from previous wars. He went on a 10 year conquest of the civilized world, reaching India, but turning back when his veterans refused to conquer one more land.
Alexander the Great took Greek culture with him (Fox, 2003). Tutored by Aristotle as a youth, he spread Hellenistic culture across the lands he conquered. Although his death meant the division of his empire, Hellenistic learning and achievements lasted in all those lands, especially in the city in Egypt he modestly named after himself, Alexandria.
The Roman Republic and Empire
When the Alexandrian empire was receding, another one was growing. Rome threw off its monarchy in 510 BC and established a republic until 44 BC. Roman citizens voted for their leaders and began an expansion westward toward England and eastward toward India. They dominated northern Africa and controlled the Mediterranean Sea.
The mark of education in Rome was Greek culture. The Romans modeled their gods after the Greeks, changing the names only slightly. Zeus Pater (Zeus the Father) became Jupiter. Aphrodite the love goddess became Venus. Hermes the messenger became Mercury. Roman literature, drama, comedy, and philosophy looked to Athens for models to emulate. Roman architecture and sculpture reflected their admiration for the greatest Greek accomplishments.
Rome did not die with the Sack of Rome in 410, but Western Europe became fragmented when officials left their posts and tracts of land were taken over by hungrier and more ferocious Germanic tribes. The Church of Rome and the Bishop of Rome grew in importance across Europe, providing literate priests and scholars who filled the vacuum left by the decline of Rome.
The Medieval period of Europe (410 to 1453 AD) was dominated by the Latin language and by the Church of Rome. Although Christianity was born in Judaism, the religion was spread and defended through the medium of classical studies. The theologians were philosophers who knew Aristotle and other writers in Latin. Augustine (around the time of the Sack of Rome) was brilliant in Latin and in Greek. Thomas Aquinas, 12th century, wrote exclusively in Latin.
Byzantine Empire (330 AD to 1453 AD)
When the Roman Empire of Western Europe was declining, the Eastern Empire established in Byzantium grew in power. Constantine established his New Rome in Byzantium, which became Constantinople in his honor. The Byzantine Empire was not only incredibly wealthy but also largely Christian. Constantine became a baptized Christian on his deathbed and pointed his domain in the direction of Christianity. For eleven centuries Constantinople was the center of Christianity. A long period of decline began with the Fourth Crusade when the Latin Christians (Church of Rome) sacked Constantinople and ruled the city for 50 years. The Eastern Empire was also whittled away by the growing power of the Ottoman (Turkish) Moslem Empire (Norwich, 1997).
Renaissance and Reformation
The Fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, horrified the West, who did little to help the struggling city. However, the final days led to Greek scholars and Greek treasures emigrating to Italy, helping to spark the Renaissance. Classical scholarship, art, literature, sculpture, architecture, took on a new life and spread across Europe. The concept of freedom began to percolate through the Medieval world of kings and popes.
Athens remained the model for culture. European education revolved around classical scholarship. An educated gentleman (and some notable ladies) were well versed in Latin and in Greek, although Greek was not in the curriculum for everyone. The Reformation grew out of the Renaissance, starting with the scholarship of Erasmus, who published a Greek New Testament. Martin Luther hatched the egg that Erasmus laid, as some wits said, when he posted his 95 Theses (in Latin) in 1517 and wrote in German for the first printing press, cobbled from an old wine press, by Gutenberg.
The Renaissance and Reformation surged ahead with the printing press, sending religious literature in the modern languages of Europe (and in Latin) across the civilized world. The theologians of the Reformation were necessarily Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scholars. They argued their viewpoints through the language of philosophy, especially Aristotle.
Protestant ministers were expected to learn Greek. Books were relatively inexpensive compared to the manuscripts of the past.
England – Protestant or Catholic
England was the battleground for religion. Henry VIII was ordered to marry his late brother’s widow. His lack of a male heir convinced him that his incestuous marriage was cursed. The divorce from Catharine of Aragon and marriage to Ann Bolyn led to his break with Rome. Catherine gave birth to Mary (known as Bloody Mary for persecuting Protestants). Ann gave birth to Elizabeth, who favored the Protestant leanings of her country and her father. Elizabeth’s fabled reign, immediate after Bloody Mary’s, was especially tolerant of religion. Scholarship flourished. England was relatively free, prosperous, and stable. Shakespeare wrote his sonnets and plays, all of them imbued with classical learning.
Queen Elizabeth was finally forced to have her cousin Mary Queen of Scots executed for high treason. However, Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, became James I of England and Scotland, the first of the Stuart kings. One author said of the Stuarts, “They left an indelible bad impression on England (Trevelyan, 1996.).” James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II all plotted to make England Roman Catholic again. This led to two important developments:
1. Parliament gained influence and the throne lost power, giving English citizens more rights and freedom.
2. Protestants tired of the strains of religious tension (such as the Catholic plot to blow up Parliament) and headed for America.
America – Haven for Religious Freedom
The founding of America by educated English citizens during this period made the earliest citizens completely opposed to the rule of the Church by any monarch. They also arrived with a sense of Parliament having powers over and above that of any king. The American Revolution focused on the rights of man established by the Creator. “We are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Founders were well aware of the decline of Rome because Edward Gibbons published his sensational Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776. They looked to the Roman Republic and the earlier Athenian democracy as the ideals of government. When they established their tiny little schools in America - Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania, William and Mary College – they taught their students Latin, Greek, and the elements of a classical education.
Greek Revival – 1900s
Greek learning underwent a revival at the turn of the century, 1900, when Greek fraternities and sororities were started to promote Greek learning, not toga parties. Greek and Roman scholarship were considered the foundation of a sound education. Until a few decades ago, all high school students who wanted to apply for college were told, “You must have two years of Latin or the good schools will not want you.”
Our present culture may not care much for classical scholarship, but Athens and Rome still weigh heavily in our history, literature, and art. When people visit Washington DC, they see Greek and Roman temples, homage to our classical past.
Barr, S. (1961). The will of Zeus: A history of Greece. New York: Delta.
Fox, R. L. (2003). Alexander the great. London: The Folio Society.
Norwich, J. J. (1997). A short history of Byzantium. New York: Vintage .
Trevelyan, G. M. (1996). England under the Stuarts. London: The Folio Society.