The Classical Debt: Greek Antiquity in an Era of Austerity
Johanna Hanink
Belknap Press
310pp, 26 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £23.95

Credited with the birth of democracy and influential accomplishments in the arts, the Greeks, specifically the Athenians, have left their mark on the modern world. But to what extent is the West indebted to our ancient predecessors? This new book by Johanna Hanink, Associate Professor of Classics at Brown University, explores the idea of 'Classical debt' in a time when debates over the Parthenon marbles are still raging and when the government of Greece is dealing with a financial crisis. But rather than setting out to establish the validity of our debt to the Greeks, Hanink considers the concept at various points in history, beginning with Classical Athens when the brand of the civilised, artistic city-state was developed.

In the early modern period, we encounter travellers to Greece who were ultimately disillusioned with the once-great ancient land they found, with Athens little more than a village, which could never live up to the country of their imaginations. Those 19th-century philhellenes wanted to rescue the now fallen Greece from the Ottoman Empire and help her rise once more, and the ideal of Classical Athens was at the forefront in establishing the newly independent Greek nation.

Hanink is dismayed by Europe's obsession with the glories of ancient Greece, and is highly critical of contemporary pundits in thrall to an ancient Greece as the birthplace of every virtue. She cites many contemporary references, including political cartoons and headlines that feature the Trojan horse, ill-fated heroes and ruined temples, and concludes that the realities of our own century have revealed just how untenable the Greek ideal is.

This is a timely book, dealing with a complex concept that has been invoked at various challenging periods in Greece's past.
Lucia Marchini

 

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