British classicist Hall (Greek Tragedy, 2010, etc.) defines 10 characteristics that unified ancient Greek culture.
The author focuses on an individual characteristic during a particular historical period: For example, the Mycenaeans, whose heroes and wars are the subjects of Greek culture’s foundational epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were, like all the Greeks who followed, seafarers. The Greeks’ inherent suspicion of authority shaped their ethnic identity, which began to cohere in the eighth century B.C. around the idea that each free man had equal rights and privileges. (Hall is matter-of-fact about the miserable position of women in ancient Greece but is given to delightfully tart asides such as, “Medea [in Euripides’ tragedy] is the Athenian husband’s worst nightmare realized.”) Their inquiring natures sparked the births of natural science and philosophy as intellectual disciplines in the sixth century B.C. Their insatiable competitiveness led Alexander the Great to conquer most of the known world but kept him from naming an heir and prevented his warring successors from presenting a united front against the rising threat of Rome. The Greeks’ love of excellence and addiction to pleasure are among the other traits Hall explores. It’s a clever way to organize 2,000 years of history, albeit slightly schematic—an impression reinforced by her tendency to frequently recap the 10 characteristics and a weakness for such this-will-be-on-the-test phrases as, “in the next chapter we ask” or “their achievements form the subject matter of this chapter.” These mildly annoying academic mannerisms are trivial in comparison to Hall’s wonderfully rich portrait of Greek culture’s evolution and underlying continuity from the Bronze Age to the triumph of Christianity. Maintaining a judicious neutrality in the modern scholarly wars, the author acknowledges that the Greeks adopted many of their Near Eastern neighbors’ best ideas and practices yet praises them for the unique “cluster of brilliant qualities” not found elsewhere in the ancient world.
An excellent survey for general readers, refreshingly opinionated without neglecting to give conventional wisdom its due.