Monday, June 16, 2014

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Greece

"The history of the ancient Greeks is one of the most improbable success stories in world history. A small people inhabiting a country poor in resources and divided into hundreds of squabbling mini-states created one of the world's most remarkable cultures."

- Preface to "A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture" (2nd edition, 2009), page xv

So I recently finished reading a textbook about the history of Ancient Greece. (I've still got a long way to go in my book about the Ancient Greek language, but I've just finished my book about their history.) Fascinating stuff - I'm glad I invested the time in learning it.

My Greek language book

I've been trying to learn Ancient Greek so I can one day read the New Testament in the original, and thought I should know something about the history and culture of the language. I'm also interested in classical history anyway, and so I got myself a book about the history of Ancient Greece. I was anticipating something shorter and more pedestrian than this, not realizing I was getting a major textbook when signing up for this - it's rare to get a textbook for under $60, and so this seemed like it wouldn't be a textbook. But when I got it, I thought to myself that this was actually good: I could become something of an expert in the culture of a Bible language, and know something about the secular history of the West to boot.

Greek New Testament

I was going to title this "A review of" this book, but decided against it for a couple of reasons. One, the audience for a textbook is not very large, and I wouldn't attract much readership in titling this that way. (It's true, I've reviewed some obscure history documentaries; but most of them are under five hours, with only three of them being longer than twenty hours. Thus, they require much less investment of time than this lengthy book.)

Two, I don't really recommend reading this unless you're either taking a class where it's assigned, or unless you're super-serious about learning the material. This is a fairly demanding book, which requires a lot of concentration and attention, not to mention investment of time. Thus, this post will be more experiential, focused on my experiences with learning this, with some personal reflections on the content.

My Greek history book

For starters, the book is called "A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Society, Politics, and Culture." (A pretty textbooky title, if you ask me.) It's co-written by a few different authors, and is a trimmed-down version of a larger textbook. This "brief" version is long enough - over 350 pages, with large pages and somewhat smaller print. (Took me five months to read it.) But for me, this was quite fascinating; as it started around the Bronze Age, and went up through the Hellenistic period. There's an entire chapter about the Spartans, since Sparta was one of the largest city-states in Greece; and there are a few chapters about the Athenians, since Athens was arguably the most successful city-state of all.

The Parthenon

One of the most fundamental things about Ancient Greece is that it was divided into city-states; and even though they spoke the same language, and had a similar culture and religion; they often made war on each other, and sometimes got into wars with non-Greeks as well (notably the Persians). There's also some coverage of the rise of the Macedonians; who did not consider themselves Greeks, but who were certainly close to being so. The Macedonian language (which has no living descendants, incidentally) was often considered a dialect of Greek, and the Macedonians spread Greek culture throughout the known world through the empire of Alexander the Great - one of the most important individuals in classical history.

Alexander the Great

There's also an entire chapter on the Peloponnesian War, which quotes extensively from Thucydides' famous history of that war. Naturally, this is in translation, since this book is in English; but enough of its meaning gets through to make the excerpts from it quite vivid. The Peloponnesian War is one of the saddest chapters in Greek history, because it involved a Spartan triumph over the Athenians, and was thus bad for democracy. But this period is certainly vivid, and no true account of a war will ever lack for drama.


So all in all, quite fascinating to me. I feel like I've gotten a good education.

My Roman history book

Next on my list: a textbook about the Roman Empire. Or in my best Hermione Granger impression, "Ancient Rome: A History." (You know that sounds like "Hogwarts: A History," doesn't it?) Next on my list is learning about the Roman Empire, and I look forward to reading and learning about this great civilization as well. (And I'll continue to read my textbook about the Greek language, too.)

" ... the dominant strand in the intellectual life of the eastern Mediterranean basin became what scholars call Hellenism, essentially a cosmopolitan form of Greek culture loosely based on Classical Greek literature. In this form Greek culture continued to flourish in the lands conquered by Alexander the Great and influenced the medieval civilizations of Byzantium and Islam and through them the culture of Europe and the Americas."

- Closing lines of the Epilogue to "A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture" (2nd edition, 2009), page 367

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization (PBS Empires)

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Rome

Learning the basics of Ancient Greek from a book

How I found Plato in the original Greek

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