The Children of Athena: Greek intellectuals flourishing in the Roman empire.
Back in the 1960s, those far-off days, some of the older English public schools still taught classical Greek. So as a teenager I was introduced to Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and the great playwrights of fifth century BC Athens in the original. I was never much good at Latin but I warmed to the Greek mind and never forgot its exuberance (try Aristophanes’ bawdy comedies) and sophistication (in almost every discipline from mathematics to epic poetry).
I eventually got to Greece in 1970 and still have a letter to my parents from Delphi, the oracle shrine magnificently sited on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. It was the first of many visits and I have led tours to the most prominent sites. My enthusiasm for ancient Greece was so intense that I wrote The Greek Achievement, first out in 1999 and still selling a few copies today.
There has been a flow of books since then. I have explored so many different facets of the past, from early Christianity to medieval relics and the second century AD copper horses of St. Marks in Venice. I get almost as much pleasure out of writing, and, inevitably, rewriting to bring a book into a sellable form, as I do when seeing it between covers.
Lurking at the back of my mind have been the Greek intellectuals of the Roman empire. Mary Beard and Tom Holland can give erudite and readable accounts of the Roman emperors but, once the Greeks had been conquered, they usually take second place in histories of the empire. The classical Greeks of the fifth and fourth centuries BC are celebrated, the scientists and philosophers of the Hellenistic period (323 -31 BC), among them the Stoics, the great astronomer Hipparchus and the polymath Archimedes, are well covered. The aim of The Children of Athena is to show how this intellectual tradition flourished during the later era when the Greeks were ruled by Rome. I have covered no less than twenty subjects, some known, others still obscure, but all of them of interest.
My favourite subject in the historian and philosopher Plutarch. I would have loved to have had a landed estate next to his in Chaeronea in central Greece, dropping over to share a glass of wine in the cool evenings. Plutarch was, like myself, a historian, famous for his Parallel Lives, a study of Romans and their Greek equivalents. So the Athenian orator Demosthenes is paired with Cicero and Alexander the Great with Julius Caesar. It would have been fun to have been one of the coterie that indulged in his Table Talk, discussions which ranged over the whole field of human knowledge. I would have been silent much of the time, certainly not able to contribute as much as these extraordinarily well-read friends of Plutarch. Yet when one visits Chaeronea today only a modern bust of the great man remains.
In contrast I can never go through the Lion Gate at Mycenae without remembering the travel guide Pausanias who passed under the same gate nineteen hundred years ago. At Olympia there are the ruins of the extravagant fountain which the immensely wealthy Herodes Atticus erected as a dedication to his wife Regilla. Again at Olympia, the columns of the great temple to Zeus lie concertinaed after an earthquake in the sixth century brought them down. But on a quiet evening one can imagine the oratory of Dio of Prusa who was there speaking of the glory of Pheidias’ statue of the god nearly six hundred years after it was made. The Odeion that Herodes donated to Athens still holds concerts although its original cedarwood roof (the Greeks were expert at acoustics and cedarwood is best for sound) was probably destroyed by raiders in the third century AD.
Strabo’s Geography (of the Mediterranean), a favourite of the Renaissance humanists, records ham from Serrano, wild-flower honey from the Hybelaean mountains in Sicily and wine from the slopes of Mount Falernius whose vineyards were founded by none other than Bacchus himself. They all can be enjoyed today, while Strabo’s ‘great mound on a high foundation of white stone’ In Rome is none other than the Mausoleum of the emperor Augustus which has been recently restored. The Mediterranean remains haunted by these ancient presences
Of course, the main survivals are literary. There are very few to compare with the early sixth century AD edition of Dioscorides’ De Matera Medica, the Latin name by which it is usually known. It was dedicated to the Byzantine princess, Anicia Juliana, the daughter of one of the last Roman emperors, in thanksgiving for a church she founded in Constantinople. The manuscript is richly illustrated with no less than 383 illustrations of the plants that Dioscorides described. It is a rare treasure and has ended up as one of the glories of the Habsburg imperial library in Vienna. An annotated edition of Dioscorides was the best-selling work of natural history as late as the sixteenth century.
By far the most prolific author is the fourth century teacher of oratory, Libanius, who among his vast collection of speeches and works, has left 1,500 letters. In them we read of how he recruited his students, what they might have read before they started with him, the travails of adolescents having to create their first speeches, and even the letters of recommendation for his graduates.
I cannot remember how I started this book. It was sometime during lockdown but I soon became absorbed in it and realised that there were a host of eccentric and not so eccentric subjects to explore. So the many ailments of the arrogant orator Aelius Aristides, the distasteful practice of the physician Galen in cutting a live pig’s squealers and then restoring them before a public audience, and Dioscorides’ medical recommendations for a beaver’s testicles are all there. I hope readers will enjoy the book as much as I have writing it.
(c) Charles Freeman
The Children of Athena: Greek intellectuals flourishing in the Roman empire by Charles Freeman, published by Head of Zeus, is available to buy now.
About The Children of Athena:
The remarkable story of how Greek-speaking writers and thinkers sustained and developed the intellectual legacy of Classical Greece under the rule of Rome.
In 146 BC, Greece yielded to the military might of the Roman Republic; some sixty years later, when Athens and other Greek city-states rebelled against Rome, the general Lucius Cornelius Sulla destroyed the city of Socrates and Plato, laying waste the famous Academy where Aristotle had studied.
However, the traditions of Greek cultural life would continue to flourish – across the eastern Mediterranean world and beyond – during the centuries of Roman rule that followed, in the lives and work of a distinguished array of philosophers, rhetoricians, historians, doctors, scientists, geographers and theologians.
Charles Freeman’s accounts of such luminaries as the polymathic physician Galen, the soldier-botanist Dioscorides, the Alexandrian geographer and astronomer Ptolemy and the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus are interwoven with ‘interludes’ that counterpoint and contextualise a sequence of unjustly neglected and richly influential lives.
This is the story of a vibrant, constantly evolving tradition of intellectual inquiry across a period of more than five hundred years, from the second century BC to the start of the fifth century ad – one that would help shape the intellectual landscape of the Middle Ages and long after. The Children of Athena is a cultural history on an epic scale.
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