The Roman Military Conquered the Greeks, but Greek Thought Would Not Be Overthrown

Plato and Aristotle and the dramatists of Greece’s golden age were powerful not only in their own right, but in the longevity of their influence — one that infiltrates, it seems, every aspect of world history and thought.

solut_rai via Wikimedia Commons
Aristotle statue at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. solut_rai via Wikimedia Commons

‘The Children of Athena: Greek Intellectuals in the Age of Rome: 150 BC-400 AD’
By Charles Freeman
Pegasus Books, 400 pages

At the beginning of Charles Freeman’s lively survey of Greek thought after the Romans began running the world, readers attend a party stocked with Stoics, Platonists, Peripatetics (Aristotelians), Epicureans, and Cynics. A fight breaks out between the agitated philosophers.  

How could Mr. Freeman possibly have had such material to work with? At the end of the party, we are told that what has been described is actually a satire by Lucian of Samosata. In short, we have been tricked and enlivened by the notion that ideas could matter so much, that they could be viscerally experienced and could thrive over centuries after the Romans conquered the Greeks. We learn, as well, that certain ideas are attached to certain kinds of personalities. 

As a strategy to engage readers, the trick is successful as a jump start, so to speak, on a survey of what happened to Greek thought as it first encountered resistance from Romans and then Christians, who nonetheless realized they could not do without the Greeks.

As good as this opening gambit is, “The Children of Athena” never quite sustains the momentum of its beginning, so that it sometimes degenerates into a conventional blow-by-blow discussion of Greek thought and the personalities who embodied it. Some of the short biographies — of Plutarch, say — in addition to being informative are moving, as we see how his humane sensibility and training in philosophy shaped his moral and historical writing.

The most fascinating and thought-provoking sections have to do with a Christian theologian, Origen, who was profoundly influenced by Greek thought and averse to dwelling on concepts such as the eternal damnation of sinners. As the Christian Church consolidated itself during Roman rule and established its orthodoxy, Origen came under attack as heretical.

Mr. Freeman is at pains to show Origen is superior to the more well-known St. Augustine, who could not read much Greek and so, it is implied, could not quite attain the depth of thought that exemplifies Origen’s work. What Mr. Freeman does not contemplate, though, is why that should be so. What is it about Origen that he has failed to attract the kind of attention devoted to Augustine? It is not enough to say that as institutional Christianity took hold, Origen had to be expunged.

Isn’t the answer that Augustine wrote a compelling autobiography, presenting himself as a sinner, as, at first, an opponent of Christian doctrine, as a womanizer and mama’s boy? The story of Augustine and his mother, Monica — one that Rebeca West, for instance, makes so palpable — is surely among the reasons why Augustine, the man and thinker, remains so powerfully present to this day.

In short, it seems to me that Mr. Freeman is not biographical enough. He is too keen to get on with his survey of Polybius, Strabo, Epictetus, Galen, and other great Greek thinkers who are not as famous.

In Mr. Freeman’s haste to get on with it, he takes certain shortcuts often favored by biographers but that are nonetheless nugatory. Too often he says a thinker “must have” felt a certain way, though no evidence is provided to compel our assent to the “must have,” except for the circumstances described. Yet how people react to circumstances can be surprising, and that is what is left out: What we cannot know and is better left off as knowledge we wish we did possess.

One other overarching result of Mr. Freeman’s book has left me to wonder about the persistence of Greek thought. The first Roman conquerers resisted that thought and sneered at the Greeks. The first Christians similarly saw their new dispensation as superseding the Greek philosophy. Yet over and over again, the Greeks resume their supremacy of thought, unconquered in the imagination of their successors, even if the Greeks no longer could field legions of triumphant soldiers.

In other words, Plato and Aristotle and the dramatists of Greece’s golden age were powerful not only in their own right, but in the longevity of their influence — one that infiltrates, it seems, every aspect of world history and thought. In the end, that insight into Greek hegemony is the lasting contribution of Mr. Freeman’s book.

Mr. Rollyson is the author of “Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl” and “Essays in Biography.”

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