This column is intended for the happy fewer and fewer who see nothing obsolete in Greece and Romeby Frederic Raphael / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Caring about the ancients
If ancient history is nothing more than ancient history to you, I suggest the beach or the box. This column is intended for the happy fewer and fewer who, like my old friends Simon Raven and Peter Green, my dearest friend, the late irreplaceable Kenneth McLeish, and my ferociously engag?e correspondent Pamela Jane Shaw, see nothing obsolete in Greece and Rome.
Recently, I was reviewing the new (shrewdly abridged) edition of Jacob Burckhardt’s The Greeks & Greek Civilisation. Until the scissors had to go in, for fear of boring the barbarians-I was elaborating a challenge to the great man’s assertion that the Greeks uniquely invented and practised synoecism: the system of (sometimes forcibly) coalescing villages into city-states. I did not wholly agree. Who cares? So who cares what “people’s” crap goes under the Millennium Dome or when Dr Cunningham gets reshuffled or whether England should have had a penalty (they should, they should)? I cared, because Greece lies at the root of western vanities and because it is the destination of most of our political and intellectual backtracking. Also, the wilful construction of Europe is a form of synoecism writ large, supervised by the kind of wise men (we hope) who, as Solon showed, can put their minds to social conflict and defuse it constitutionally. Is Senator Mitchell the old sage come again? Should Clinton check with the Dalai Lama?
By archaeological chance, we know more than Burckhardt did. The lost city of Palenque, for example, was rediscovered long after it could be added to his database. One of the mysteries concerning the great Mayan metropolis, founded in about 300 AD in what is now the Mexican state of Chiapas, is why a secure theocracy was suddenly abandoned to the jungle by rulers who lost the nerve and will to command.
Because the code of the hitherto indecipherable Mayan inscriptions now seems to have been cracked, we may yet get the official story. Meanwhile it remains plausible to guess that excessive faith in their computational skills undid the Mayan lords (their mathematics were more advanced than Plato required of his guardians). The Mayan fetish for astrology probably led the lords of Palenque to believe-as the Aztec Montezuma II believed when faced with the white-faced, bearded Spaniards-that it was impossible to contend with a heaven-sent terminus to their supremacy. Their fault was in the stars.