Books History

Our Debt to the Greeks: Roderick Beaton’s “The Greeks: A Global History”

Roderick Beaton. The Greeks: A Global History. New York: Basic Books, 2021.

The Greeks started it all. Or at least part of it all. Greece occupies a special place in the Western imagination. Although the missionary efforts of Saint Paul and the eventual toleration and then adoption of Christianity brought the Hebraic religious tradition to Europe, the city of Athens and the mythology, literature, history, and politics of Greece has always remained part and parcel of Western identity and consciousness. To Greece we inherited the names Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, and Alexander; to Greece we inherited the ideals of citizenship and democracy; to Greece we inherited the idea philosophy. For most people, however, the story ends after Alexander. Roderick Beaton shows us, however, in his new book that the Greek legacy goes far beyond our classical garden.


Roderick Beaton’s The Greeks: A Global History, is a whirlwind tour of Greek history from its familiar ancient trappings to its less familiar medieval and modern history. It is important, here, to understand what the book is and what the book is not. It is not a new history offering a bold, new, provocative thesis. It is a new history that tries to present a concise chronological history of the Greek-speaking peoples from their cloudy origins in the Aegean, Crete, and Mycenae to the twenty-first century.


There are, nonetheless, some insightful moments to new readers or familiar readers. Although the history is meant to go beyond the usual fanfare and interest in “classical Greece,” the chapters dealing with the classical era take up a substantial portion of the book and offer some nice insights to new readers and possibly to readers familiar with some of the classical sources. For instance, in assessing how later generations of Europeans, like John Stuart Mill, could claim that the origin and identity of Europe owed more to the Greek victories against Persia rather than the Norman conquests, Beaton offers an important reminder that often slips our consideration: “the invention of history.”


As Beaton critically notes, the Greek word employed by Herodotus means “enquiry.” Herodotus’s Histories is not really about “facts” and “dates” and “events.” There is a broader ideological agenda at play: the attempt to advocate a united identity and politics among the Greeks. That idea of unity has been persuasively seductive ever since. As Beaton notes, “Herodotus rarely misses an opportunity to urge upon his hearers a sense of unity as Greeks in the face of a common enemy.”


Continuing onward, this struggle for a united identity and politics is part and parcel of the Peloponnesian War. It is at the heart of the cosmopolitan political philosophy of Plato (possibly, also, Socrates) and Isocrates. Its foundations were laid by Philip of Macedon and brought to fruition before sudden and rapturous collapse by Alexander the Great.


The failure to bring about that unity, however, brought forth a more important unitive contribution. A united Greek politics failed. But the Greek language became the cosmopolitan language of the educated world (and arguably remains so to this day). Here, Beaton’s implicit thesis and history is worthwhile. As he noted in his introduction, this is not a history of a geography or a specific ethnic group or a political entity. It is a history of the Greek-speaking peoples and the Greek language. And that language is one of three that has a longstanding continuous use-case (the others being Hebrew and Mandarin Chinese). As we know from the history of Alexander and Hellenism, “the effects of [Alexander’s] conquests was already, visibly, to carry Greek ideas, Greek ways of doing and making things, and above the Greek language far inland from the places where they had started out, across the Asian landmass as far as today’s Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the northwestern corner of India.”


While it is in vogue, today, to critique “Eurocentrism” (i.e., the “fathers” of science, history, literature, etc. aren’t Greek but various far eastern and Levantine-Mesopotamian individuals), the problem with this critique is that it doesn’t accept the obvious. True, some sources outside of Greece deal with the humanities and sciences. The problem is those sources are minor, miniscule, in comparison to the trove of Greek writings we still have on these subjects (and we also know a lot of Greek writing was lost).


Precisely because Greek writings and its language survived and became the basis for the educated culture of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, Greek has the greater prominence and weight to it. As Samuel Noah Kramer wrote, history may begin at Sumer but history endured and reached its recognizable form in Greece. Thus, Greek became the language of philosophy, arts and literature, and religion (with the translation of the uncanonical Hebrew Scriptures into the Septuagint and the New Testament writings in Koine Greek) and spread throughout the world as philosophy, art, literature, and Christianity spread. It could be said no moment of enlightenment was without the Greek language, from Antiquity to the present.


Following the death of Alexander and the Hellenistic process and subsequent subjugation under the Roman Empire (which didn’t destroy the Greek language, importantly), Beaton’s history turns to what most readers are less familiar with: the history of “Greece” in the Middle Ages and into early modernity and modernity. Beaton’s work is, therefore, extremely useful to readers whose knowledge of Greek history and culture after Alexander is limited. In concise rapidity, Beaton takes us through the highs and lows of Roman conquest, the Byzantines, the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests (and the influence of Greek on the followers of Muhammad), Europe’s Constantinople complex, the contests between Venice and Catholic Christian crusader against the Ottomans and the tensions and paradoxes of two religious faiths fighting over the residual legacy of ancient Athens and the Greek tradition (often at the expense of a third religion: the Greek Orthodox, though Greek Orthodox Christians often found a greater tolerance and social mobility under the Ottomans than with their Western Catholic co-religionists).


While the book promises a global history of many millennia, the bulk of the book is still set in the ancient and medieval periods that readers may have familiarity with. Though the push into modernity is the smallest component of the work, what Beaton has provided is exceptional in his concise overview. We learn, especially as Greece is occupied by Venetians, then Turks, and finally achieve independence, how a combination of national identity, territory, and Greek Orthodoxy became the backbone of this newly won revolutionary identity that has produced the Greece we see on a map today and the Greece we have either traveled to or dream of traveling to. We also learn of the larger “national” aspiration of the Greeks and their continued prominence in diaspora communities well into the early and mid-twentieth century especially in places like Egypt until the catastrophes and steady decline after the world wars changed things.


Readers who might complain about the broad and simplistic narrative must remember, Beaton is not writing a history of ancient Athens and Sparta, Byzantium, the Arab Conquests, the Crusades, Venice and the Ottoman Empire’s contest for the Mediterranean, or the Greek War for Independence. He is writing a global history stretching over 3,000 years to bring a fuller portrait of Greece and her contributions to a reading audience that tends to only be familiar with bits and pieces of that extensive history. As such, Beaton’s book is the best concise introduction to the large scope of Greek history.


Yet in any such book there are, rightfully, problems. Let me highlight one such example, his short treatment of Plato whom he says derided life in this world and offered an “otherworldly” philosophy. This is eminently not true. Plato’s philosophy of the Forms entails embodied living in this world. He was, after all, a political philosophy first and foremost whose interests were tied to the daily reality of living in a polis. The “otherworldly” Forms serve as the ideal to strive to embody in this life which will make this life better, more just, and less cruel—not a flight from this world but a striving to create a better world. It wasn’t until the Neoplatonists allegorized Plato that the misinterpretation of Plato as advocating otherworldly flight emerged (then given greater credence in the Christian adoption of Plato’s metaphysics divorced from his politics which was elaborated in systematic form in the Renaissance). Scattered throughout the book are some statements that are, in fact, questionable from that deeper scholarly perspective that Beaton must forego to write his history of the Greeks spanning three and half millennia but that doesn’t really diminish this wonderful summary history.


In The Greeks: A Global History, Beaton undertakes an odyssey that would make Odysseus blush. In his remarkable book, stretching into the twenty-first century, a new Herodotus takes up the mantle to bring us the best considerations and wrestling with Greece and her legacy and her ongoing contributions to the world (and, possibly, problems from others to deal with). The Greeks gave to us a big picture understanding of human nature, our place in the cosmos, and the meaning and purpose of life. Beaton, fittingly, has given us a big picture understanding of those peoples whom we are still influenced by even if unknowingly. In reading Beaton, we come to know the continued influence of the Greeks on us. Our own conceptions of geopolitics, history, art, science, philosophy, and more, are all still indebted to those inspirational, though imperfect, explorers, artists, warriors, thinkers, missionaries, slaves, and freedom fighters.

This review was first published at VoegelinView, 10 April 2022.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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