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Book Review: It’s All Greek to Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World, by Charlotte Higgins

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“Look, Corinthian columns!” Not exactly the sort of excited whisper one would expect to hear from fifth graders on a trip to the state Capitol building. However, in the fifth grade Waldorf curriculum, students study ancient Greece and the 50 United States. Not natural go-togethers? Not so fast.

Most of us are aware on some vague level that much of modern Western architecture, government and language has been influenced by the ideals of ancient Greece. However, few of us credit that influence on a daily basis. In It’s All Greek to Me: From Homer to the Hippocratic Oath, How Ancient Greece Has Shaped Our World, classics scholar and journalist Charlotte Higgins makes a compelling case for the linkage between ancient Greece and a trip to a seat of government.

Zeus once let fly two eagles from the ends of the world: one from the east and one from the west. They soared high over oceans, mountains, forests, and plains, until they met at the very center of the earth, its omphalos or navel. On this spot, a temple to Apollo was dedicated, the home of the Delphic oracle, where those who wished for insight into their past, present, or future might come to consult the god … as the inquirer passed under the temple colonnade…he would have seen some letters carved into the portico: gnothi seauton — "know thyself.”

Higgins portrays her book not as a “love letter to ancient Greece,” but as a “love letter to the act of thinking about ancient Greece.” She contends that “by looking at the Greeks, we can understand more about ourselves.”

 

Higgins does not pretend to be writing a comprehensive guide to the classics, rather “a bluffer’s guide.” With a scholar’s penchant for accuracy, she leads with the acknowledgement that the term “ancient Greece” is shorthand for a more complicated group of civilizations and a broader range of time than most of us realize. The “Greek world was made up of hundreds of politically independent, often disputatious city-states, each with separate systems of government, locally distinct religious cults, even different calendars and names for the months of the year.” She points out that what we generally term “ancient Greece” tends to be Athens in the fifth century BC.

Beginning with Homer, and concluding with Socrates' thoughts on “Love and Loss,” Higgins leads us on a journey through poetry, life and death, politics, feminism, war, medicine and science, philosophy, and love in its many forms. Although Higgins' prose is occasionally digressive, and the inserted essays (sidebars within the main body of the work) can be distracting, It’s All Greek to Me is never boring or pedantic. Although I could wish that the information presented in the intrusive essays had been placed within the text in a different manner, these paragraphs are chock-full of fascinating detail. For instance, did you know that Socrates' last words were “Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.”? I didn’t.

Higgins addresses the whys and whereofs of what we know or believe to know about the classics. From the authorship of The Iliad and the Odyssey to the reasons for the execution of Socrates, she explores some of the questions that have puzzled scholars for centuries, putting them into terms that hold the interest of the amateur.

Though It’s All Greek to Me has academic overtones, Higgins is unable to keep her sense of humor from enlivening the proceedings, nor does she appear to try. The appendices are well worth the read, and contain some of the best bits of the book.

Sitting in the chambers of the California State Assembly, I realize, thanks to Charlotte Higgins, that while an ancient Athenian would not recognize this building as the home of a democracy, our ties to that Athenian are inescapable. “What is that gold picture,” one of the girls asks. “Is that a goddess?” “That is Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.” The docent pauses. “In Greece she was called Athena.” Twenty fifth graders smile and nod. They know.

 

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • Eric Daams

    Ancient Greece is one of those subjects I’ve spent far too little time learning about, let alone how it impacts our lives today. Sounds like a fascinating read.