Ancient Greek splendour and brutality – a template for now

In his book From Democrats to Kings: The Brutal Dawn of a New World, MICHAEL C. SCOTT examines the period between the Athenian Democracy and Alexander the Great and considers how it resembles our world. Here he writes exclusively for Neos Kosmos.

When people think of ancient Greece, they most usually think of either democratic Athens – with its shining Parthenon atop the Acropolis resplendent then as it is today – or they think of the legendary exploits of Alexander the Great.

America cherishes its unbroken links to Athenian democracy, Greece has just voted Alexander the Great as the Greatest Greek of all time on national TV and books on Spartan military tactics are being supplied to soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan.

But what few people realise is that these two extremes of the political spectrum – democracy and absolute monarchy – were separated in the ancient Greek world by a period of about 80 years: a single lifetime in which the ancient Greek world was turned completely on its head. It is a crucial period in ancient Greece’s story and yet one which has attracted surprisingly little attention from both scholars and the wider public. It is, instead, often labelled simply as the sickly cousin of more glorious moments in Greece’s history.

From Democrats to Kings: The Brutal Dawn of a New World seeks to reverse this trend by putting the spotlight directly on this single lifetime of dramatic change which turned the ancient Greek world on its head. The book seeks to understand how and why the Greek world changed so quickly, how the different individuals and cities of Greece coped in such a turbulent world, to follow their successes and failures and, ultimately, to think about why this period of history – this single lifetime over 2000 years ago – is still worth our consideration today.

Why should we care about ancient Greece? First, there is, of course, our inherent human fascination with our own past; you just have to look at the response to recent archaeological discoveries (the Anglo-Saxon gold hoard in Britain, or the new amphitheatre discovered near the harbour of Portus in Italy) to see this Indiana Jones part of our human psyche. But it is more than that. We also have a lot of ancient Greece embedded in our world’s languages, systems of government and culture and, as a result, we need to be aware of its ancestry. But, most importantly, we also often actively choose to use ancient Greece as an exhortative example for our future.

America cherishes its unbroken links to Athenian democracy, Greece has just voted Alexander the Great as the Greatest Greek of all time on national TV, and books on Spartan military tactics are being supplied to soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan. It is difficult to know sometimes how appropriate these exhortations are.

What are we buying into when we tell soldiers to fight like Spartans for example? But the very fact that we continue to make them also makes it more important than ever that we investigate, discuss and debate at every level of our society what ancient Greece was and how it should be appropriately incorporated into our world.

From Democrats to Kings contributes to that debate by bringing the spotlight on a too-often-forgotten period of turbulent, and crucial, change in the history of ancient Greece that links two of the most often used modern-day exhortative examples (Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great). A focus on the single lifetime that links these two extremes helps to underline the changing nature of the ancient Greek world and adds texture and depth to our understanding of what ancient Greece was.

But I think it can also help in our search for a useful way of involving the ancient world in the modern. As an example of what I mean, lets look briefly at the city of Athens during this period of turbulent change.

Athens was in a difficult situation in the middle of the 4th century BC. It was heavily involved in trade, it depended on grain coming from the Black Sea to feed its citizens and it was surrounded by increasingly powerful enemies including Macedon, which was quickly becoming the most powerful of them all. Around 350BC, Athens, along with many cities in Greece, suffered an economic credit crunch. It was left with a difficult decision: how to extricate itself from financial crisis.

Debate raged in the Athenian assembly – not unlike the debate has raged in cities across the world today about how best to survive our own credit crunch. One important point of comparison between the ancient and modern worlds here is how both decided to harness the power of foreign wealth.

Many in ancient Athens advocated persuading rich foreigners to come to live in Athens and to bring their wealth with them. ‘Give them front row seats in the theatre’ they said, ‘make them full Athenian citizens’ – do whatever it takes. In Britain and I’ll wager in every country in the world, a similar debate about how to respond to non-domiciles has been taking place.

In Britain, this has resulted in the opposite approach taken by ancient Athens – an increasing tax burden for non-domiciles and there have been warnings of the prospect of foreign capital leaving Britain as a result. The point here is not that the ancient and modern worlds are the same – of course they are not. Nor should we simply say, “we should do what ancient Athens did.”

But this turbulent period of change in ancient Greece clearly brought with it similar strains and stresses to those we face today. As a result, the debates about how to respond, that took place then – on a whole range of issues, not just economic, but also political, philosophical, legal and sociological – can be a useful foil to our discussions and decisions now. It is as illuminating companion to our modern-day debates that the ancient world can be at its most useful.

Ancient Greece was both very similar and very different to our modern world. It is up to us to decide when comparisons between these two worlds can and should be made.

It is up to us to take active hold of our history and ensure it has its proper place in the debate about where we want our world to go from here. I hope very much that From Democrats to Kings puts a too-often forgotten period of Greek history on the table so that it can play its proper part in that debate.

Dr Michael C Scott is a Moses Finley Research Fellow in ancient history, Darwin College, University of Cambridge, UK. From Democrats to Kings: the brutal dawn of a new world from the downfall of Athens to the rise of Alexander the Great will be published by Allen and Unwin in December and will retail at $45.00 (inc.GST).