Talking with a friend about ancient Greece the other day reminded me of being in Athens back in 2007, and taking two days to wander through its National Archaeological Museum. The best part was all the faces, whether reliefs from numerous funeral stele, or the later busts of Roman emperors or other higher-ups. Nearly all of these are below if you want to skip to them, but looking over these faces I also had these thoughts:
Amid an American election where the choice is between two mostly reprehensible human beings, it is easy to feel the world is going under, or to look back to Athens—when we talk about “ancient Greece” what we almost always mean is ancient Athens—for some wistful perfection of cultural and political life. But it’s worth remembering a few things:
That this only occurred after a century of ceaseless war, whether with the Persians, or later the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War;
That these wars could only have been carried out after the creation of muddy federations of Greek states with Athens at its head, which themselves could only exist if those states which refused to join (like the Melians) were put down in brutally un-democratic ways;
That Athens and the Peloponnese would have never prospered, or been able to fight so well amongst themselves or against the Persians, had they not colonized the west coast of Turkey today and the Aegean islands (where Western philosophy and historiography were probably born), north Africa, Italy, and beyond, forcing them into inevitable relationships with other and different cultures, as one among the many practical ways of surviving, and supplying themselves with the basic necessities to the newest efficiencies;
And that anyway a rosy look at Athenian democracy is a wish for what cannot exist today: a relatively small total population of men, women, and slaves (perhaps 250,000), of which only landholding non-slave men had the vote (perhaps 40,000), who participated in a collection of assemblies, councils and courts, and who ideally had a grasp and knowledge of local events (since all events were local) that no one today can pretend to have on a national, let alone international, level. (And never mind that this combination of perhaps the most knowledgeable and most politically active public ever, was nevertheless criticized for being the exact opposite at the time);
And so on.
This is not to condemn their achievement in that easy anti-Western fashion so popular now, only to suggest that it had its limitations of fear, arrogance, and injustice, just as countries today do, and that it lasted as long as it could. Only a polarized time like today could possibly look at ancient Greece, or any country’s past, and expect to find only lessons in virtue and invincible longevity, or its opposite. We are only as good as the greatest faults we allow ourselves to collectively admit, faults which are bound into the fabric of our greatest achievements (something that those who only emphasize one or the other easily forget). Any supposed democracy today is no different, and any supposed democracy that is older than a century is awfully lucky. This at least is what I see in many of these faces: one way or another we’ve been here before, and whatever happens we’ll be here again: