Monday, February 17, 2014

Of arms and the man

I'm of the generation who learned their Athenian history from Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way. As I recall, we were required to read the book in a course called "Junior Seminar" designed to give engineering students a smattering of liberal education. It was impossible to avoid the Greeks.

We heard about their wars, of course. Marathon and Thermopylae were as familiar to us as Gettysburg and Iwo Jima. Our sympathies were with the poor put-upon Athenians. Just trying to live their lives as enlightened paragons of culture, and harassed by those militaristic Persians and Spartans.

Not according to Joan Breton Connelly. She writes: "If the Athenians are relatively unrecognized for the obsessively religious folk they were, their martial character is likewise under-remarked in the familiar litany of attributes." Peace was the exception, not the rule. Athens was at war for two out of every three years for most of the 5th century. Every young man was raised for battle. Even the Parthenon, that exquisite temple, was used mostly as a place to store the booty of warfare and celebrate success on the battlefield.

Athenian militarism and Athenian religion went hand in hand, says Connelly, inseparable from each other and from the Athenian character. And I suppose we always knew that, but chose to ignore it, thinking of ourselves as peace-loving descendants of white-gowned Athenians who danced, played pipes, declaimed poetry, and engaged in healthful athletics.

Connelly's The Parthenon Enigma is perhaps excessively reductionistic and a bit repetitious, but it's a bracing anecdote to our tendency to idealize Periclean Athens. For, of course, when we idealize the Greeks we are idealizing ourselves. That replica of the Parthenon in Nashville I visited as a child was not built to honor the Athenians, but to assert our claim to Athenian virtue.