Who were the Greeks and Why do they Matter?

by George Anastaplo


A standard reference book introduces its account of Greece as a Hellenic Republic on the Balkan Peninsula, in South Europe, with a current population (in 2000) of 10,562,000. It is then reported (Webster’s New Explorer Desk Encyclopedia),

The land, with its 2,000-odd islands and 2,500 mile coastline, is intimately linked with the sea. It is mountainous, with less than a fourth in lowland; much of this is coastal plains along the Aegean or mountain valleys and small plains near river mouths. The country’s interior is dominated by the Pindus Mountains, which extend from Albania on Greece’s northwest border, into the Peloponnese. Mt. Olympus is the country’s highest peak.

Among its islands are the Aegean and Ionian groups and Crete.

Greece is said to have a Mediterranean climate, something which it shares (in varying degrees) with Italy, Spain, and North Africa.

Distinctive to Greece is its particular history, which can be introduced in this way (ibid):

The earliest urban society in Greece was the palace-centered Minoan civilization, which reached its height on Crete about 2000 B.C. It was succeeded by the mainland Mycenean civilization, which arose about 1600 B.C. following a wave of Indo-European invasions. About 1200 B.C. a second wave of invasions destroyed the Bronze Age cultures, and a dark age followed known mostly through the epics of Homer.

The Classical Greece we know emerged thereafter, in about 750 B.C.,

as a collection of independent city-states, including Sparta in the Peloponnese and Athens in Attica. The civilization reached its zenith after repelling the Persians at the beginning of the Fifth Century B.C. and began to decline after the civil strife of the Peloponnesian War at the century’s end.

The history thereafter can eventually be brought into modern times with this account


In 338 B.C. the Greek city-states were taken over by Philip II of Macedon, and Greek culture was spread by Philip’s son Alexander the Great throughout his empire. The Romans, themselves heavily influenced by Greek culture, conquered the Greek states in the Second Century B.C. After the fall of Rome, Greece remained part of the Byzantine Empire until the mid-Fifteenth Century, when it became part of the expanding Ottoman Empire. It gained its independence in 1832.

A distinguished British classical scholar, H.D.F. Kitto, introduces his 1951 book,

The Greeks, with these observations that can illuminate our topic:

The reader is asked, for the moment, to accept this as a reasonable statement of fact, that in a part of the world that had for centuries been civilized, and quite highly civilized, there gradually emerged a people, not very numerous, not very powerful, not very well organized, who had a totally new conception of what human life was for, and showed for the first time what the human mind was for….[T]he Greeks themselves felt, in quite a simple and natural way, that they were different from any other people that they knew. At least, the Greeks of the classical period habitually divided the human family into Hellenes and barbarians. The pre-classical Greek, Homer for instance, does not speak of “barbarians” in this way; not because he was more polite than his descendants, but because this difference had not then fully declared itself.

More had to be said by Professor Kitto about the Classical Greek use of “barbarians”:

It was not, in fact, a matter of politeness at all. The Greek word “barbaros” does not mean “barbarian” in the modern sense; it is not a term of loathing or contempt; it does not mean people who live in caves and eat their meat raw. It means simply people who makes noises like “bar bar” instead of talking Greek. If you did not speak Greek you were a “barbarian” whether you belonged to some wild Thracian tribe, or to one of the luxurious cities of the East, or to Egypt, which, as the Greeks well knew, had been a stable and civilized country many centuries before Greece existed. “Barbaros” did not necessarily imply contempt. Many Greeks admired the moral code of the Persians and the wisdom of the Egyptians. The debt—material, intellectual and artistic—which the Greeks owed to the peoples of the East was rarely forgotten. Yet these people were “barbaroi,” foreigners and classed with (though not confused with) Thracians, Scythians and such. Only because they did not talk Greek? No; for the fact that they did not talk Greek was a sign of a profounder difference: it meant that they did not live Greek or think Greek either. Their whole attitude to life seemed different; and a Greek, however much he might admire or even envy a “barbarian” for this reason or that, could not but be aware of this difference.

The Greeks are further described by comparison with another distinguished people of

antiquity (ibid.):

We may note in passing that one other race…has made this sharp distinction between itself and all other foreigners, namely the Hebrews. Here were two races, each very conscious of being different from its neighbours, living not very far apart, yet for the most part in complete ignorance of each other until the period following Alexander’s conquests, when Greek thought influenced Hebraic thought considerably—as in Ecclesiastes. Yet it was the fusion of what was most characteristic in these two cultures—the religious earnestness of the Hebrews with the reason and humanity of the Greeks—which was to form the basis of later European culture, the Christian religion.


The critical place of Homer in any history of the development of Greek thought is generally recognized. His stories and characters pervade the speech and lives of the Classical Greeks. Religious practices and personages (including the Olympus-based divinities), as well as many heroes, are taken for granted in Homer.

Of course, we can wonder what “understanding” of the gods can have them warring among themselves to the extent and in the ways depicted by Homer. The oddness of that depiction is anticipated by the report, in Book I of the Iliad, that Zeus is temporarily unavailable for his supervisory role on Olympus; inasmuch as he (along with the other Olympian gods) is off for a twelve-day festival in Ethiopia. Elsewhere Zeus can even be pictured as asleep and hence temporarily unaware of what other gods are up to.

Another classical scholar, Laurence Berns of St. John’s College, has suggested that Homer established the “matrix” for Western literature. Certainly, there are, throughout the Greek plays several centuries after Homer, repeated references to the divinities and stories found in his Iliad and Odyssey. On the other hand, it can be noticed that virtually all the human actions depicted by Homer can be understood as happening without actual divine intervention, however much the gods are invoked and spoken of by human beings and their Poet.


How much the Classical Greeks were grounded in the myths and stories of old may be seen in the great plays staged in Fifth Century Athens. Aristotle, in his Poetics, observed that the best tragedies used the old stories. Indeed, only one of the Greek tragedies by the great playwrights that have survived (Aeschylus’ The Persians) drew explicitly upon contemporary events, a Persian invasion of Greece.

The old stories retold in the Greek tragedies make much of the gods, of animal sacrifices, and of prophecies, They also made much of critical differences among the Greek cities, even though they resemble each other more than they resemble any foreign cities and lands. They made much as well of curses, oracles, and (at times) divine intervention.

The role of fate may be seen quite graphically in what may be the greatest of the Greek tragedies that we have, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos. The horrible things done by Oedipus to his parents come about despite vigorous efforts made by him (after learning what was fated) to avoid these deeds. It can be wondered, of course, whether it is really of use to a human being to have a reliable prophecy about what he will do, especially if it is something he does not “really” want to do.


Further insight into the Greeks might be developed by looking at “the Others” of their day that they were in contact with. Particularly instructive here may be a glance or two at the Persians, especially since it was after, if not even because of, the Persian Wars that the Athenians became what Europeans have most admired and have been influenced by in the Classical Greeks. Herodotus tells a story about the Persians for which he does not vouch, but a story which does suggest critical differences between the Greeks and even the most cultured non-Greeks (History, VIII, 118):

There is another story told, that when Xerxes [the king of the Persians] in his retreat from Athens came to Eion, on the Strymon, he marched no further by land but entrusted the rest of his [defeated] army to Hydames, to bring it to the Hellespont, and himself embarked on a Phoenician ship and made for Asia. As he was sailing, a great tempestuous wind, called the Strymonian, overtook him, and great waves as well. The ship was weathering it even worse because so heavily laden, as there were many Persians on deck who were making the journey with Xerxes. The king was in such terror that he screamed at the helmsman, asking him, was there no hope for their safety? At this the helmsman said, “Master, none, unless we can get rid of these many that are on board.” The story goes that when Xerxes heard that, he said, “You men of Persia, now let each of you prove your care for your King; for in you, it seems, lies my safety.” That is what he said, and the men did obeisance and jumped into the sea, and the ship was lightened and came safe to Asia. As soon as Xerxes landed, he did the following: because the helmsman had saved the life of the King, he awarded him a golden crown, but for causing the death of many Persians, he had his head cut off.

Perhaps even more un-Greek, and hence instructive about what Greekness meant, is another report by Herodotus, in describing for his fellow Greeks the customs of the Persians (I, 137):

The Persians declare that never yet has anyone killed his own father or mother. As often as this takes place, say they, it must on investigation necessarily appear that the one who did it was either adopted or the fruit of adultery; for, they say it is against all seeming that one who is a true parent should die at the hands of his own son.

How must the Greeks have regarded any people who could insist on this, those Greeks who had long had as part of their heritage not only an Oedipus who had unwittingly killed his father but also an Orestes who had (upon Apollo’s ominous insistence) deliberately killed his mother? What was thus presupposed by the Persians about how the universe is inevitably ordered?

Did, for the Persians, divinely-ordained justice somehow rule the universe, a justice grounded in family relations and the sacredness of political authority? Or did these stories from Herodotus, about the fleeing Xerxes and about the impossibility of patricide/matricide, reflect how oppressive Persian life was, if not also what they did not dare to admit that they longed for? Perhaps the Greeks would have regarded as intrinsically perverse still another set of Persian opinions reported by Herodotus (I, 133):

[The Persians] are very addicted to wine… [T]hey are wont to debate their most serious concerns when they are drunk. But whatsoever they decide on, drunk, this the master of the house where they are when debating proposes to them again on the next day, when they are sober. And if they like it, too, when sober, they act on it; but if they do not like it so, they let it be. And whatever they debate, in preliminary fashion, sober, they give to final decision drunk.


These glimpses of the Persian mind may help us notice what is distinctive about the Greeks. After all, it was among the Greeks that there emerged that mode of inquiry and of understanding known as philosophy. Nowhere else, it seems, may philosophy be found in antiquity independent of the Greeks, even among the most learned peoples of Egypt and of Asia.

Critical to philosophy’s emergence in Greece was something that permits the assessment of some opinions and practices as “intrinsically perverse.” That is the idea, or explicit awareness, of nature. The word for nature is used only once in Homer, and that use is rather curious—but the way may still have been prepared by Homer, somehow or other, for its emergence, a century or two later among the Greeks— and thereafter eventually among Europeans generally.

It is this explicit awareness of nature which is central to the development of that scientific enterprise which “everyone” now takes for granted. From an exploitation of the natural sciences has come the remarkable technology which has transformed human life immeasurably worldwide. That these developments have not depended on any genetic superiority among the ancient Greek is evident upon noticing the remarkable diversity worldwide of the natural scientists who have risen to preeminence in recent centuries.


That philosophical discipline grounded in an awareness of nature may have inclined philosophers to assume the eternity of the world. That is, they may even have long had the tendency to regard the universe as necessary. Most philosophers have not been inclined to ask until fairly recently, “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

It can be wondered what such philosophical pioneers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle thought about these matters. Certainly, what they did think here could impress some and intimidate others. Particularly noteworthy was an answer evidently given by the Delphic Oracle in response to the inquiry, by an impulsive Athenian, whether any man was wiser than Socrates.

It can further be wondered, of course, whether the Delphic Oracle, or the priests speaking in the name of Apollo, would have said the same about any Greek (or any human being?) who was known to be thoughtful. Did such priests, themselves exposed through the language of the Greeks to the idea of nature, sense that philosophy was somehow equivalent to, if it did not even take precedence over, the divine revelation to which they were dedicated? And did they also sense, partly because of the kinds of questions they did get from Greeks, that there was something special about the Greeks and hence, even more, about a Socrates who might have seemed to them decidedly Greek?


We, too, should be able to see whatever the Delphic priests saw in the Greeks. After all, such priests seemed to regard the Olympic gods, of whom their Apollo was one, as somehow Greek in spirit. Chief among those gods, they “knew,” was Zeus, the father of Apollo.

They “knew” also, that Zeus had carried off Ganymede, a boy of unusual beauty, who was made by him cupbearer to the gods. This and like episodes can remind us of the challenge put to us by the way that male homosexuality was evidently regarded among the Classical Greeks. It can be difficult for most of us in the West today to understand what went on here—and why.

Is it somewhat a matter of chance what most of us (perhaps partly because of Biblical influences) tend to regard as natural in these matters? Is it also somewhat a matter of chance that contemporary homosexuality in the Western World has been corrupted by the sensuality, self-centerness and licentiousness to which so much of contemporary heterosexuality is dedicated? However that may be, the problems that we do have (that we naturally have?) with Classical Greek homosexuality may make us wonder whether we truly understand the Classical Greeks.


We can be further reminded of the difficulty in understanding another people when we notice that thoughtful Muslims may not be troubled by the report they have of the Prophet’s child bride. Further questions about both the Muslims and the Greeks of old can be raised when we recall how slavery was routinely accepted among them. But these questions may seem to us less troubling, than those connected with unfamiliar forms of sexuality, when we recall the generations of distinguished Americans who accommodated themselves in this Country to the institution of chattel slavery.

Then there is the problem of the status of women among the Classical Greeks. What does that status suggest about the limitations of those people, at least as “role models” for us? This inquiry can be complicated, however, when we recall the roster of remarkable females to be found in Greek literature, including Alcestis, Andromache, Antigone, Athena, Clytemnestra, Electra, Helen, Medea, and Penelope.

A further complication, in our effort to appraise the Classical Greeks, is suggested by what they seem to have regarded as the natural relations between sovereign communities. The natural condition among states, unless modified by a treaty, seems to have been that of war—and even then, the peace-making treaty was likely to be for a fixed term. On the other hand, the Greek notion of hospitality can seem to us as exaggerated, a notion that is exalted in the story of Alcestis.


Thus we may see, again and again, how difficult it can be truly to understand another people. Still, is the kind of inquiry we ourselves are making here itself critically Greek? Thus, we, at least in the West, may even be said to have been substantially Greek.

This may be seen as well in the dominant religion of the West, that Christianity (grounded in Judaism) originally made available to Gentiles by the Greek Bible (which does claim a grounding in Logos). However “fallen” human nature may be believed by Christianity to be, it does seem that the nature-oriented Greek language has tended to keep at a minimum the kind of bizarre elements found in other major religions around the world.

And, of course, we see the influence of the Greeks all about us, not least in our architecture and our ethical discourse. We can even recall the disappointment of Stephen Crane’s youthful hero, in The Red Badge of Courage, when his mother, in seeing him off to the American Civil War, had said “nothing whatever about returning with his shield or on it.” We can recall as well that there had been during the same Great War the repeated invocation of nature in the profound debate as to whether all men are indeed created equal and what that should mean in practice.

Editor’s note: George Anastaplo is Professor of Law, Loyola University of Chicago; Lecturer in the Liberal Arts, The University of Chicago; and Professor Emeritus of Political Science and of Philosophy, Dominican University. See, for extended discussions of Classical texts, his book, The Thinker as Artist: From Homer to Plato & Aristotle (Ohio University Press, 1997). His most recent book is The Bible: Respectful Readings (Lexington Books, 2008). See, as well, the Anastaplo bibliography in John A. Murley, ed., Leo Strauss and His Legacy (Lexington Books, 2005); https://anastaplo.wordpress.com

These remarks about the ancient Greeks were originally prepared for an Honors Program lecture at Louisiana State University, Alexandria, Louisiana, November 6, 2008. Professor Anastaplo was introduced in this way by Professor Stephen Vanderslice on that occasion:

Let me present to you Professor George Anastaplo. Mr. Anastaplo earned his degree in Law from the University of Chicago, a top-notch law school in the country, and later a PhD in Political Philosophy, also at Chicago. For five decades he has been a student of political philosophy, classics, and American Constitutional Law and Jurisprudence. He has studied, reflected on, taught, and written extensively on the Greeks, He has published an elegant translation of Plato’s Meno, and has provided to the scholarly world his meticulous, even the definitive, explanation of Plato’s Apology. I know that he knew Abraham Lincoln personally, because of his uncanny insights into the Emancipation Proclamation; I have begun to wonder if he also knew Socrates, personally, so does he penetrate the Apology through and through. Our first Honors Program course is titled “Studies in Ancient Greece.” One of Professor Anastaplo’s books tracks our curriculum pretty closely: The Thinker as Artist: From Homer to Plato and Aristotle. I believe that Professor Anastaplo knows the Greek mind, and Greek culture. Some years ago, even, the Encyclopedia Britannica commissioned him to write the entry on Greece, and if I am not mistaken his grandfather was named Pericles. His talk tonight is titled, “Who Were Those Greeks, and Why Do They Matter?”

George Anastplo’s remarks, “Who Were the Greeks and Why Do They Matter?,” were published in The Greek Start, Chicago, Illinois, February 11, 2010, p.3

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One Response to Who were the Greeks and Why do they Matter?

  1. George Bliss says:

    I read with much joy and enthusiasm the articles by Professor Anastaplo.

    We hope to meet him soon and introuduce Professor to our Greek Media Club of Chicago.

    George Bliss Chicago, Ill

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