On a Nice House

“What is the good of having a nice house without a decent planet to put it on?”

– Henry David Thoreau

Thanks to the Ancient Greeks

α. Democracy. The cherished idea flowered in the 6th century BC when power was first passed to the people. Or rather, the ten per cent of Athens’ population who classified as citizens – women, slaves and foreigners did not make the grade. The remainder, men of 18 years and over, were divided into local groups – the demoi – who were then represented on the city’s major council or parliament of 500 called the boule. In addition, 40 times each year the people (the ekklesia) met in their thousands to vote on issues of both foreign and domestic policy.

β. Love. Indeed, love is actually Greek. The Goddess of Love in Greek mythology is Aphrodite who was born in the sea off Cyprus, conjured from the foam produced by the severed genitals of Zeus’s grand-father, hurled there by his son. Not the most auspicious of starts in life, though Aphrodite subsequently thrived, going on to become not only the Goddess of Love but, in the eyes of the Spartans, also a Goddess of War. So, by default, she was the Goddess of Married Couples.

A Greek and an Italian argue over who has the superior culture.
The Greek: We built the Parthenon.
The Italian: We built the Coliseum.
The Greek: We gave birth to advanced mathematics.
The Italian: Yes, but we built the Roman Empire.
The Greek: We invented sex!
The Italian: That’s true, but we thought of having it with women.

γ. Philosophy. The entire canon of western thought: Marx, Descartes, Derrida are all balanced on the shoulders of three men. Aristotle (384-322 BCE), who stood on the shoulders of his master Plato (429-347 BCE) who was propped up by Socrates (469-399 BCE). The latter was a veteran of the Peloponnesian War and when he was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock, he showed future generations how to die with dignity.

δ. Geometry. The ancient phrase “Beware Greeks bearing gifts” was coined to describe the dubious present of the Trojan horse, and any school pupil baffled by Pythagoras’ theorem is likely to turn up his nose at their gift of geometry. The word is derived from the term geometria, meaning the measurement of the earth, a discipline which Euclid, who was actually from Alexandria in Egypt, first studied at Plato’s Academy. In case our weary pupil wishes to nurse any further grudges, mathematics was also the Greeks’ fault.

ε. The Secret Police. The Gestapo in Nazi Germany and the KGB of Stalin’s Russia can trace their antecedents to Sparta, the original military state. The heroics of the ancient warrior race are justly celebrated at Thermopylae. It was here that 300 Spartans held off a Persian army of 150,000, and left the moving inscription: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by/That here obedient to their words we lie”. But their society was one of great cruelty. A percentage of the Helots – their slaves – were slaughtered each year and at night an elite group known as the kryptia would seek out and execute trouble-makers.

ς. Ostracism. To be ostracised from a group or, as it is described today, “sent to Coventry”, is a Greek invention, which required the spurned party to depart from the city walls and live in exile. This law of banishment was first introduced in 508 BC but was first used almost 20 years later in 487 BC. The term is derived from ostraka the fragments of pottery on which the unfortunate nominee’s name was inscribed.

ζ. The Marathon. What a poor Athenian messenger tackled out of necessity, millions now do for fun. Following the battle of Marathon at which the Greeks broke the Persian army, losing just 192 men to their opponents 6,000, a messenger was dispatched to run the 25 miles back to Athens to announce the city’s salvation and their success. It was a feat he doggedly achieved before dying of exhaustion.

η. Alexander the Great. Before Colin Farrell dyed his hair blond and slipped into a leather skirt, a young Greek (well Macedonian actually) led an army of 40,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry on a mission to conquer the known world. Today the battle tactics and wisdom of Alexander, who was a pupil of Aristotle, are studied by business leaders who adore his direct approach. When faced with the riddle of the Gordian Knot, which prophecy decreed could only be unravelled by he who would rule Asia, Alexander paused for a second before slicing it in two.

θ. The Olympic Games. The first gathering of top athletes drawn from the Hellenic world was in 776 BC and afterwards, every four years, they would return to Olympia to compete for crowns of wild olives in events such as chariot racing, wrestling, boxing and the pentathlon. There is no mention in recorded history of a competitor being banned for steroid abuse.

ι. The Muse. Artistic success in ancient Greece was not 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. Instead, creative ideas were bounteous gifts bestowed by the Muses, a group of nine goddesses who were each responsible for a particular endeavour. They were Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Erato (lyric poetry), Euterpe (the flute), Melpomene (tragedy), Polyhymnia (hymns), Terpsichore (dance), Thalia (comedy) and Urania (astronomy).

“Two thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature, as to her marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own serene and celestial atmosphere into all lands to protect them against the corrosion of time.”

– Henry David Thoreau

ια. Bawdy Comedy. Some 2,500 years before Frankie Howerd and Sid James, the Greek world had its own ‘Carry On’ star in the shape of Aristophanes (450-388 BC). The playwright attacked the establishment’s sacred bulls with scandalously sexual plays that mocked both politicians and the city’s elite with a merciless wit.

ιβ. Public Jury. The system of trying the accused by a jury of his peers first took place in Athens. A full participation in the political and criminal process began after male citizens turned 30, at which point they were eligible to serve on juries or stand for election as a magistrate. Each day potential jurors would gather at the Athenian Agora, the market place, where they were picked by lot.

ιγ. History. As in the fields of philosophy, medicine and mathematics, the father of history was also a Greek. Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote his famous “histories” in the 5th century BC. This recounts the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under its kings Cyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius I the Great. It also records for posterity the actions of the Spartans at Thermopylae.

ιδ. The Hippocratic Oath. The pledge made by modern physicians that they will, in essence, ‘do no harm’ is attributed to the Greek physician, from the island of Kos, who in the 5th and 4th century BC laid the foundation stones of scientific medicine by freeing medical study from the constraints of philosophical speculation and superstition.

ιε. Hades/Hell. Hades was controller of the Kingdom of the Dead and the brother of Zeus. In many ways the Christian concept of Hell, as an underground lair ruled by the Devil, is an appropriation of the Greek myth.

ις. Argos. Richard E Grant’s spaced out rock star may pronounce it as ‘Argoose’ and believe the catalogue shop in which your Tefal kettle comes sliding down a conveyer belt is, in fact, a chic designer outlet, but he’s wrong. The real Argos was a settlement to which Greeks in the ‘Golden Age’ choose to transplant the court of Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae and the destroyer of Troy.

ιζ. Doric Architecture. The evolution of Greek architectural styles took place during the 7th and 6th centuries BC. At the time the majority of buildings in Ancient Greece used limestone but the nearest quarry to Athens produced marble, and the result was the temple to Athena Parthenos or Athena the Virgin. This is known today as the Parthenon, on which the architects, Callicrates and Ictinus, perfected the Doric columns.

ιη. The Screw. The little metal device beloved by B&Q devotees across Britain was invented by Archimedes, a Greek mathematician, who lived during the 2nd century BC. The author of Archimedes’s Principle, a law of physics relating to buoyancy and specific gravity, discovered the screw while developing a device that would draw water from ships to prevent them sinking.

ιθ. Homer. The finest poet of ancient times was said to have been born in Izmir, in what is now Turkey. He has traditionally been credited with writing two of the greatest works of world literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which together tell the story of the Trojan war. Latterly it has been suggested that he did not even exist, and that these epics were the combined work of various oral storytellers.

κ. Tragedy. The Greeks were not the first society bedevilled by foul deeds and atrocities; they were, however, the first to shout about it. The theatrical Greek tragedy began with the dithyramb, a choral song in honour of Dionysus, but it was Aeschylus (525-456 BC) who developed the form from one actor to two. Sophocles (496-406 BC) added a third player and scripted the Theban plays that tells the story of Oedipus who murdered his father, married his mother, and went on to became the first soap opera star.

“So again we have learned something, instead of making a cheap joke about the Greek civilisation upon which everything around us depends, from electricity to clothes to democracy and logic and philosophy and everything we take for granted and is so dear to us.”

– Stephen Fry

On Books

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business.”