And Greece created Europe: the cultural legacy of a nation in crisis

As the eurozone crisis rumbles on, we should not forget that it was ancient Greek literary and artistic forms that shaped the cultural unity of the European continent

Let us not forget that Europe began in Greece. The idea of the European continent as a cultural unity dates back to ancient Greece in more ways than one.

For a start, the Hellenes were the first people to define themselves as “western” as opposed to “eastern”. The separate city states of ancient Greece found a collective unity and sense of common nationhood at war with the Persian empire, and the classical heights of Greek culture were saturated with this sense of nationhood. The Parthenon that floats gloriously above modern Athens (while the best collection of sculpturefrom its frieze and pediments can be seen in the British Museum) was built as a symbol of Athenian and Hellenic resurrection after the Persian army razed the buildings that previously stood on the fortified sacred hill, the Acropolis.

In the years after 2001 when some spoke of a “culture war” between the west and Islam, it was fashionable to pick over this ancient Greek construction of an early European identity in opposition to the east. Certainly it recurs in the history of modern Greece, whose nationalism goes back to the war against Turkish rule in which Byron gave his life to the Greek cause and Delacroix lent his vivid imagination.

But western self-deconstruction can go too far. Ancient Greece really was different from the states and cultures that surrounded it, and its achievements defined a specifically European way of seeing the world. Greek literary and artistic forms would shape Europe in a way they did not shape other continents. The nude in art, for example, would be ascentral to the Renaissance as it was to ancient Athens. Even the mythology of Greece, and its gods, would survive the rise of Christianity to decorate Europe’s palaces. Tragic drama would survive and flourish, from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

Europeans have rediscovered their Greek legacy again and again, fromMarsilio Ficino translating Plato to Picasso confronting the Minotaur.

Now that Greece is vilified, its attempt to reassert the democracy that is such a proud creation of ancient Athens is damned as a threat to the eurozone, and a great history of Hellenic Europe is reduced to repeated – and increasingly real – references to an economic “Greek tragedy“.

What sad times are these.

Johnatan Jones


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