I am currently working in Rio di Janeiro at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university where I have been invited to give a course of lectures about ancient Greek democracy to Brazilian students of international politics, law, economics and history.
It was, I must admit, a surprising request to be invited to Brazil to teach about a place 10000 km and 2500 years away. While people often turn to ancient Greece for explanations of the language, culture, art, architecture, philosophy and politics in Western Europe, the US and in Australia, it seems slightly more bizarre to imagine ancient Greece being thought of as a subject directly relevant to South America.
It is equally more bizarre to be sitting writing this column about ancient Greece in Rio for publication in Australia and the UK – an image of the globalised world in which we live!
Working with the students here in Rio though has helped me realise just why ancient Greece is relevant even in Brazil. It is not only Brazil’s Portuguese and French heritage that has imported linguistic, cultural and architectural echoes of ancient Greece into modern-day Brazil. Nor is it only because of the importance Fundacao Getulio Vargas attaches to providing a classically /well-rounded/education fostered within a Brazilian outlook that has traditionally been orientated towards Europe rather than the rest of Latin America.
Nor indeed is it only because ancient Greece has recently been used to test modern theories of international politics, like democratic peace theory- the idea that democracies don’t make war on one another – sadly the ancient Greek example doesn’t obviously support that idea.
But it is also, more importantly, because of the way in which ancient Greece is still continually used as an active currency for comparison, exhortation and
justification in our modern world, a world in which Brazil is playing an increasingly important role. To the students of international politics here at Fundacao Getulio Vargas in Brazil, it is worth learning about ancient Greece because they want to be able to understand and judge better the use made of ‘the [ancient] Greek example’ across the international political world.
Interestingly, Brazil itself has also begun to make its own use of that example. Following the recent clamp-down by police on drug trafficking in the favelas here in Rio over the last month, a great deal of praise has been heaped on the police and particularly its crack units, to such an extent that they have been compared to the warriors of ancient Sparta, as US Marines have over the last years too!
It seems that the legacy of ancient Greece is alive and well here in Brazil and the rest of the world.
Michael C Scott is a Research Fellow and lecturer at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge University. He is also the author of ‘From Democrats to Kings’ and the monogram ‘Delphi and Olympia’. Visit:
www.michaelcscott.com or for more information on his Rio lectures visit: cpdoc.fgv.br/relacoesinternacionais/michaelscott