In Theaters Now
Greek stories are alive in today’s culture. The story of Hercules has been made into several live-action and animated films, and Homer’s Odyssey inspired several movies. The mythical Trojan War and the real battles of Thermopylae and Salamis have been retold in other films. Legends of the gods have also been featured. The ancient Greek tragic plays are still regularly performed, sometimes with a twist to reflect modern political agendas. And once people see the movie, they often buy the book.
The Odyssey and Herodotus’s The Histories started selling to modern audiences once they were featured in big-screen adaptations.
The turning point might have been that day in August, in 490 BCE, at the Battle of Marathon.
IF PERSIA HAD WON
The odds were stacked against the Athenians at Marathon, but some combination of luck and skill handed them a victory against the Persians. The Greek soldiers would live to fight another day, but more important, their way of life would survive and flourish. In fact, it might have been the victory itself that helped inspire the Greeks. The British historian Edward Creasy, who lived in the 1800s, observed, “[Marathon] broke forever the spell of Persian invincibility, which had paralyzed men’s minds....
It secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, [and] the liberal enlightenment of the Western world.”1 Had Persia been the victor, events might have played out much differently.
The victory at Marathon was more than a lucky break for the Greeks. It was also a lucky break
for the future of Western civilization. Greece barely escaped extinction at a critical time, for it was on the cusp of making major breakthroughs in politics, philosophy, and science. Democracy, which was still in its infancy in the early 400s BCE, was allowed to grow and thrive, and future democracies would use the Athenian model to draw from. Democracy’s influence went well beyond politics. Its ideals of freedom encouraged the development of Greek theater, art, and literature. Its principles flowed through the minds of philosophers and scientists.
The Greeks showed the world how public works could produce magnificent results when Pericles’s massive building project produced the majestic Parthenon. They showed it how ingenuity could come in large packages and small, such as Archimedes’s simple yet invaluable screw. The legacy the Greeks went on to leave after Marathon showed the results that come from a combination of confidence and optimism.
The Elgin Marbles
In the early 1800s, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, visited the Parthenon. At the time, the Ottomans of Turkey controlled Greece. The structure was badly damaged, and Lord Elgin took many of its remaining statues and artifacts before they were destroyed. The decision was controversial. Some accused him of looting the Parthenon for his own personal gain or said he obtained the sculptures illegally. Later, upon his return to England, he sold the sculptures—called the Elgin Marbles—to the British Museum. Greece asked for them back years later, at the end of the 1900s. The British Museum said no, and a debate still rages over who should have possession of the marbles.
Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople, survived. Many citizens spoke Greek, and thus the Greek heritage remained, if somewhat submerged. Greek culture also survived via the Arab cultures that preserved ancient texts and built upon Greek science.
The Renaissance—a grand revival of arts, culture, and thinking in Europe—began in the 1300s CE in Italy, bringing with it a new appreciation of ideas. The Italians were anxious to learn about and in many cases imitate their ancient culture. The Italians had descended from the Romans, and much of what was Roman was also Greek. The ancient Greeks provided a natural source of inspiration.
By the 1700s, Europeans were beginning to travel to Greece. They returned with descriptions of the land and drawings of the magnificent architecture that still stood 2,000 years later. Scholars showed revived interest in the ancient texts of the Greek writers, and a study of the classics was the hallmark of a quality education.
Several countries in Europe also competed to snap up Greek artifacts and install them in national museums to prove their appreciation of Greek culture, and ancient Greek architectural styles were emulated in new buildings.
From architecture to math to democracy, today’s scholars still chronicle the contributions of the ancient Greeks, debate their significance, and marvel at their ingenuity. Two millennia later, ancient Greece remains a fascinating place.