The Magic that was Greece
Greece is magic. Greece produced a culture that was one of the most vibrant that the world has ever seen. It was a culture that was based in a small number of city states, but which spread all over Europe and much of the Middle East. There was a new form of politics based on democracy — even if democracy was slightly wobbly. It produced a new form of towns, centred round the forum or market place. It produced a new form of art with human bodies coming alive and writhing and twisting. It produced drama performed in a theatre, there were new philosophies, and what impresses me most, it produced a new type of history that aimed to find out what really happened, rather than trying to please the rulers. And the reason behind all this was a new type of economy based on choice, and this power of choice depended on money.
The Greeks invented money. Or rather, they were the first to use it to form a market economy. Money brings you choice. You are able to decide for yourself how you are to spend your money, and rather than having goods allocated to you from above, you are able to choose for yourself just how you are going to live. Money in other words brings freedom, an urge to experiment, a ‘let’s try it and see’ attitude that is the basis of progress. Money is the spur to innovation – and this is the magic of the market.
The market brings with it several important concomitances. The first is democracy. If people are free to live their own lives and no longer need to rely on the palace for the necessities of life, they will want to do away with the ruler, and instead make their own decisions as a people.
And then there is a huge economic bonus. The market brings about a great leap forward in efficiency. The spirit of trial and error, of constant experimentation leads to a great increase in economic productivity. This can be seen best in the archaeologists’ favourite media of pottery, where we can see how in the sixth century and throughout the fifth, Athenian pottery production dominated Greece, and was exported all over the Mediterranean.
The market also brings about a revolution in the arts. No longer are the arts dependent on the palace. No longer is the artist an employee of the ruler, but he can go out and sell his goods in the market place, tell his stories in the market place, or find new means of presenting spectacles in the theatre financed by the liturgies of rich men. The plastic arts lose their stiffness: figures are no longer stiff but twist about in the representation of real life. In sculpture and architecture, the fifth century sees the construction of the Parthenon, the great temple on the Acropolis and the supreme achievement of Greek art.
The new spirit can also be seen in the study of history. Hitherto, history had been in the province of the rulers: the task of history was to proclaim the greatness of the ruler and all his achievements and conquests – even if the ‘conquests’ were in fact defeats. Now historians can tell their history in the marketplace to a new and very different audience and as Herodotus so magnificently shows, the audience wants to hear the multifaceted story of truth, telling the history not only of the Greeks, but also of their enemies, the Persians, with excursuses to tell strange and exotic stories of the Egyptians and the Scythians. History was born in Greece, as indeed was ‘news’, the offspring of the magic of the marketplace.
And with the advent of choice came a new structure to the city. City life was no longer centred on a Palace, but on the marketplace, the Agora. It was here that the law was administered, the Council met, and weights and measures were tested. And above all, goods were traded and ordinary people could decide how to spend their money. And adjacent to it was the Pnyx, the hill on which once a month the whole people met to decide what they, as the people, should do.
Sparta and after
But the most interesting part of the new story is the story of the city that rejected money: that city was Sparta. Sparta was in some ways magnificently old fashioned: they didn’t like this new idea of money and half suspected that it might bring with it this newfangled idea of democracy so they rejected money, retained the old-fashioned rigid form of society and concentrated on being soldiers. They led the Greeks in their battles against the Persians and were the triumphant victors, and when towards the end of the fifth century, Athens and Sparta went to war, it was Sparta that won. Sparta has long presented a challenge to the students of Greek history, but the key to the mystery is the Spartans’ rejection of money.
The greatest triumph of Greek culture came with the figure of Alexander the Great who in a dozen years conquered the tottering Persian Empire and made it Greek, and spread the Greek magic, or parts of it, over what had been the heartlands of civilisation, spreading from the Mediterranean across to India and down into Egypt. The lure of Greek civilisation was strong and the influence long lasting, even if it was sometimes no more than skin deep.
The end, or perhaps the second part of the story, came with the Romans. Roman Greece is in some ways a golden age, when Greece became the university of Rome: Rome captured Greece, but Greece captured Rome. There is indeed another side to the story, for it was also a period of population decline; there was indeed a late revival, with the rise of Constantinople, but with the invasion of the Slavs in the seventh century, Greece collapsed into a long dark age.
Greece has a fascinating story to tell, a story of the advent of money, its successes and yes, also its failures. Today, as we face the challenges of an even more monetised society, when we find ourselves on the helter skelter of the still evolving Industrial Revolution, Greece provides a fascinating precedent. It is a precedent we should do well to study.
Start with Archaic Greece,
Revised: 19th March 2021