Paul Cartledge, a meeting between ancient and modern Greeks

Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek History and Culture
Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek History and Culture .
He is rather ashamed to say that he first visited Greece under the dictatorship. It was 1970, during his first year of his doctoral research at Oxford when he came to help excavate the 'Unexplored Mansion' at Knossos, under Mervyn Popham’s direction. Since then it is impossible for him to count the number of his visits in Greece where he would give lectures in Athens, participate in conferences in Athens, Sparta, Olympia and in Delphi, to be honored from Sparti Municipality and Greek Universities. Professor of Greek Cultural History in Cambridge, Paul Cartledge, already famous for his participations in BBC TV documentaries, may give the impression of a life dedication to arrange a meeting between ancient and modern Greeks.

Ηenry Miller once noted: “Though I’ ve never read a line of Homer I believe the Greek of today is essentially unchanged. If anything he is more Greek than he ever was”. Do you agree?

I could not disagree more! To me, as a cultural historian, there is no such thing as the timeless, essential 'Greek' (or Briton, French or whatever). All cultures - and the people (individuals and groups) who compose them - are always conditioned in time and space, and - not least - by their preceding histories. There are I suppose certain Greek values - eg, ancient Greek "timi" [honour] and modern Greek "philotimo" - which have a lot in common but this is at least partly accidental: from similar conditions similar values may arise, and by reading/studying eg Homer it's possible for a post-Classical (especially a post-Turkokratia) Greek to aspire to be a homeric hero!

Μodern Greeks set themselves - or have set for them – the difficult task of trying to explain to themselves and others why they are not as 'great' as their ancient forebears


Has globalization defeated the ancient Greek spirit? Does the Modern Greek want to acquire more than he needs to be really happy?

Ιn so far as there was a - single, simple - 'ancient Greek spirit', it was generated by and focused on the social-political entity they called the polis, about which Aristotle composed his Politika. There were 1000 of these poleis at any one time between c. 600 and 300 BCE, often very different from each other. I wrote about them, laconically, in my *ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction* (Oxford University Press 2011). The ancient equivalent of globalism (not a very close equivalent) was 'cosmopolitanism' – a 'philosophy' rather than a 'spirit', and more of an aspiration than a reality. Whereas (alas) globalism is an all too present and prevalent reality for Greeks (and the rest of us) today: market globalism, let us say


Cyprus, being part of Greek civilization, has experienced English colonialism. Do you believe that if Cypriots had combined the ancient Greek spiritualism with the English way of organization they could have avoided the economic/social difficulties?

Τhis is a very difficult question for anyone -not just me- to answer because it is part-historical, part-metaphysical. To me as a Briton who has visited Cyprus twice, has close links with colleagues in Cyprus University, and is sponsored by the Greek-Cypriot philanthropic Leventis Foundation, the culture of Cyprus seems already considerably more British - or Britannized perhaps - than that of mainland Greece. But the 'economic/social difficulties' you speak of seem to me less a legacy of past British colonialism (although we do still 'own' 'sovereign' bases in the Greek-controlled part of the island') than the consequence of the market globalism I mentioned in the previous answer - and the disastrous effects of which I deplore


Ancient Greeks used the idiom "πᾶς μὴ Ἕλλην βάρβαρος" (“whoever is not Greek is a barbarian”). Today, we have the rise of the Golden Dawn party. Do you believe that Greek nature really is xenophobic?

Again, I would not myself wish to speak of Greek 'nature' but rather of Greek 'culture'. In ancient Greek the Spartans were quite literally xeno-phobic: they called ALL non-Spartans 'xenoi' and did not distinguish or discriminate between Greek xenoi (eg, Athenians) and non-Greek xenoi (what other Greeks called 'barbaroi'). Today Khrysi Avgi seems to me a peculiarly poisonous version of a phenomenon that's quite widespread throughout the EU (eg, UKIP party in my own country) - and not only in the EU: when economic conditions are bad, majorities tend to turn on minorities and treat them as scapegoats or whipping-boys. It makes them feel a little better than they would do if they just tried to struggle by themselves out of the economic, political social mess they find themselves in.


You are specialized in ancient Sparta and Athens. Do you believe that Modern Greeks honour their legacy?

I think modern Greeks set themselves - or have set for them – the difficult task of trying to explain to themselves and others why they are not as 'great' as their ancient forebears who were world leaders and pioneers in democracy, art, sciences etc etc. But the world has changed! Whereas (some of) the Greeks of the fifth and part of the 4th centuries BC freed themselves from foreign (Persian, Carthaginian) powers or would-be occupiers, and indeed under Philip and Alexander of Macedon went on to conquer the entire middle east and even spread Hellenic ideas and culture to it too, the Greeks of the 21st century are still labouring under the after-effects of 400 years of Turkokratia, and of being very small fish in a very big (first European, then Euro-American, now Global) pond.


Have Modern Greeks inherited any negative - or "bad"- characteristic from their ancestors?

If they do share any 'bad' characteristics with their ancient forebears (eg xenophobia), I would certainly not explain this in genetic, biological terms.

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