Child swallowings and vainglory

The marvellously unrelatable world of the ancient Greeks

Today’s classicist is often asked, “How are the ancient Greeks relevant to me, to our society?” To which the awkward answer must be: “They’re not, which is why I like them.” It’s different with Rome. In law, for example, or in lyric poetry, or in the very idea of “the West,” half the Empire still survives; parallels between Donald Trump and the more grotesque emperors, for instance, are by now taken for granted. But the Greeks are a people apart: we are far closer in worldview to their comfortable neighbours, the more even-keeled Egyptians and Lydians and Persians, than we are to that hard-headed, hot-hearted race whose fierce little city states somehow gave rise to an unparalleled artistic and intellectual achievement. The Greeks are deeply alien, whence their perennial fruitfulness. “I do not know what meaning classical studies could have for our time,” protested the civic-minded Nietzsche, “if they...