The Greeks: plus ça change…

Cheri speaks as though from my own heart in lamenting the Greeks. How, oh how, to reconcile their ancient grandeur with their Euro-busting, book-cooking financial profligacy of today?

And then I remembered that passage by Polybius, that great Greek sage, which I reproduce here to cause a smirk rather than offense.

In The Rise of the Roman Empire (VI, 56), he tells us that

among the Greeks… men who hold public office cannot be trusted with the safe-keeping of so much as a single talent, even if they have ten accountants and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, whereas among the Romans their magistrates handle large sums of money and scrupulously perform their duty because they have given their word on oath.

Now, clearly one part of his observation seems, ahem, dated and the other rather au courant. 😉

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33 thoughts on “The Greeks: plus ça change…

  1. One of the Greek protesters was interviewed on BBC and said: “They [gov’t officials] stole all the money. Then they borrowed more money and stole that!”

    Two questions: Doesn’t the Euro zone have any sort of governance mechanism to control corruption? Second, if the answer to question one is ‘no’ what is going to happen to the trillion euro bailout money?

    Or does Eurozone governance work like securities markets regulation?

    • Good questions, Thomas. I don’t know the answer. In Brussels-speak, I believe that these matters are “inter-governmental” as opposed to “supranational” — ie, subject to agreements between the national governments.

      The bigger question is whether the the Euro countries can keep the same currency. I don’t think they can. So, once the political dust settles, we will see a discussion about the tortuous logistics concerning how to get out of a currency and re-introduce a national money.

  2. Well, first of all Andreas, thank you for soothing my heart.

    Polybius’ lines remind us that not much changes, really. We tend to look at that time is history which appeals to us with a warm fuzzy idealism…at least that’s what I do.

    For example, when I read the State Department’s warnings about travel to Athens, they listed Aristotle Square as a place to avoid. Ouch!

  3. I often wonder why an oath should matter. I have known many honest people and many dishonest people. The honest person would fulfill his/her obligations with or without an oath and the dishonest person would fulfill his/her obligations whenever it seemed advantageous to do so.

  4. My first encounter with an Athens taxi driver made airfare look cheap.

    Is there a perception that the Greek Orthodox Church pulled down the curtain on the academic and cultural scene the same way that a perception exists that the Roman Catholic Church fomented the saeculum obscurum or dark age ?

    • I’m not sure who is being blamed for the cultural decline of the Greeks in history. Under the Byzantines, it was still a cultural center. Under the Ottomans, it stayed a cultural center for a long time ….

  5. Allow me to disagree a bit here. I don’t want to discuss the Greek failure – linked to Greek sins surely, but also to problems created elsewhere.

    As I said over at Cheri’s, the beauty of going to Greece, to parts of Southern Italy (even to Rome), Turkey, Northern Africa etc. is the ‘time machine’ thing. We don’t go there to see things working – if we want just that we should keep going to Sweden, North Germany or the US. When we go to the Med – or even more to India etc. – we go to see places and especially people – not only monuments – caught in the past, living remnants of an ancient world we are not always fulfilled to admire from a library. This is the beauty of such trips. Of course there is a price to be paid. My daughter, 26, is now working in Mumbai for a month. She has started to love Mumbai immensely, but she is also paying a price for it.

    This for the today’s survivals of the past. As for the ancients themselves, Cheri suspects she is idealizing them a bit. I do it too often. But if we read attentively the ancient Greek texts (the Roman ones are no different) we don’t have only Pericles or Aristotle, but horrible poverty, thousands of slaves abused or, even worse, dying slowly in the Athenian silver mines, child prostitution widespread in ways not easily imaginable, the Macedonians (Alexander and his father included) ending their dinners in wild and drunken orgies most of the time.

    In the oration against Neaera, Demosthenes reconstructs with horrifying details 50 years of the life of a prostitute. It is a depiction of what could have been be the life of an outcast in 4th century BCE Greece.

    • That’s a soulful way of looking at it.

      Gosh, you make the darker bits of antiquity sound fascinating. I must get myself a copy of the oration against Neaera….

    • MoR,

      It is always the elites we are told of in the histories. Those who ruled, who were influential, who owned property, who were the “movers and shakers” of whatever society (or culture) we delve into. The life of the common citizen is seldom mentioned.

    • Douglas, there’s not only the histories (and often even the histories are non conventional, like Herodotus and Suetonius, or even Plutarch) but all sorts of comedies, and novels, Greek and Roman, that depict everyday life (upper and lower classes and slaves too), plus, as I said, the speeches of the lawyers full of realistic details, & satires mocking follies (Juvenal etc.) or epigrams like Martial’s, so colourful but also shocking for their details on brutality in Rome.

      I mean, there’s plenty of records of the ancients’ everyday life, which may sounds often disgusting to us (while it just had different codes) and totally non puritanical. I am not that expert in any case, I am just a dilettante having fun connecting the modern to the ancient – a very ‘edgy’ place, no doubt. My problem is the language. I write with all sort of dictionaries. Fascinating, but painful.

    • Please do not misunderstand me but who wrote those histories? All writing, all observations, reflects the perspective of the writer. In that, they are written as they are seen, not as they perhaps are.

      Take any given incident, collect the witnesses, ask them what happened. Only by a collection of perspectives can one gain a knowledge of what actually occurred. Even in that there is an element of bias on the part of the one piecing it together.

      So, yes, I am sure the life of an average Roman was not all orgies, high living, and wine-soaked afternoons at the Colosseum. Life was cruel for those who had no family connections, money, or position of power. It does not take a genius to figure this out.

      But histories do not reflect the average person’s life. They reflect the life of those in power, those with influence, and those who achieved.

      Or, put another way, you do not learn how the scribe lived but how his patron did.

      I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective. You might not understand how life is for the people who deliver the goods to the market or keep the phones working or whose family must all work in order to pay the bills.

      In the end, it comes down to what is the “average person” and how that status is determined.

  6. @Douglas

    It is too late now to reply well. Going to bed.

    But histories do not reflect the average person’s life.

    Of course they don’t, although I don’t get what you mean by histories. Surely life of the ancients was not all orgies or wine soaked days spent at the Colosseum, but it seems likely it did not know the sexual repression of Christianity, at least at certain periods, conditions, places. And, frankly, I don’t understand what’s the big deal about it.

    I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective.

    The ancients we will probably never know who they really were but what is certain is, they were VERY different. Take a god like Dionysus Bacchus, worshipped by the poor and the rich alike, almost all around ritual madness, ecstasy and, basically, eroticism: it is painted sculpted carved EVERYWHERE both in Rome and Greece.

    The term ’the ancients’ is of course too vague. There are plenty of books written by scholars that depict everyday life – for different classes – in 5th century Athens or Augustus’ Rome or Alexandria at the times of this or that monarch. They are just guesses based on the evidence we have which is not much but it is growing because research is progressing (for example we see the reasons of the Fall of Rome quite differently now from what we thought, say, 50 years ago, but I am shifting). We will never know what was the real life of a Roman at Caesar’s time, for example, like, even for today, you are right, my testimony of modern Rome is certainly subjective and partial, but that doesn’t mean it is not real.

  7. Let me put it another way, my friend…

    What do you suppose the literacy rate was in, say, ancient Rome?

    Of current times and high (comparatively to ancient times) literacy rates, what percentage of people visit our vast array of museums, operas, ballets, and such?

    I say we can only know what we are told and what we are told is dictated by the mindsets, biases, and consciences of those that can pass the knowledge on. We cannot know what is true.

  8. @Douglas

    Douglas, you are a friend – you ALL are to me – and you raise here a big philosophical problem: whether man can reach truth. I’m not qualified, my wife is the epistemologist at home (she has a degree on philosophy of science) and all I understood (from our quarrels) is that ‘scientific’ research is all about trying to go beyond doxa, ie biased opinion, so you hit the nail on the head I believe.

    By ‘research is progressing’ I meant: ok, we possibly will never ‘know’ these folks (Saxons invading Britain, Macedonians at the times of Alexander etc.) but the various ‘pictures’ we have of them are enriched every day, researchers communicate more (such pictures are interrelated), and, our sources are not only the ancient literary texts (which reflect the view of the writer) but of course also the (less biased?) ‘data’ from archaeology, biology, studies on agricultural techniques, fossil seeds etc.

    As an example (also of various doxas coexisting), the picture(s) of the fall of Rome – the period 300-600 CE, ‘late antiquity’ ie between antiquity and middle ages – has changed dramatically in the minds of many specialists, I believe, altho the public still thinks in terms of a Gibbon’s progressively decadent, imploding empire almost dead when it received the last blow by totally rough Germanic barbarians. Who is right? I don’t know, these younger historians tho surely profiting from a lot more of multi-disciplinary research I think.

    So to them the news is ‘electric’ (as Peter Heather phrased it) for both the descendants of the Romans and of the Germans – I belonging a bit to both as I said in my mystical (and bit pompous) *first post*.


    1) the ‘late’ Roman empire was a total success story.

    2) Germanic, non Roman, Europe was a two-speed reality (no new thing), one portion being much more civilised than we thought, surely influenced by Rome but absolutely non Roman (so this doesn’t imply Bavaria or Austria, that were Romanized, and, not by chance, when ‘nordic’ Luther arrived, they said: no thanks).

    So what the hell happened? Why ‘healthy’ Rome fell?

    Because, blinded by her sense of superiority, Rome made fatal mistakes, and was murdered. Within tho a period of ‘collaboration’ with the Germans.

    [Christianity surely also helped a bit (love your enemy bla bla, Gibbon in this was right imo), but I still have to figure out to which extent.]

    Excuse my logorrhea, such ‘collaboration’ between Germans and Romans was started by Julius Caesar the Myth. One reason he conquered Gaul was that the Germans, much stronger than the Gauls or Celts, were crossing the Rhenus in flocks and were invading Gaul (so Caesar postponed an invasion that occurred much later with the Franks, thence the name of France).

    So Caesar, after defeating the Germans of Ariovistus he said to the toughest prisoners: “I admire your valour, so I give you a choice: either be sold in the slave markets or become my personal guard”. Imo the Germans preferred the latter also because it was in their culture to be totally faithful to the commander that proved to be the strongest.

    Caesar took a risk, but not that much I believe. He belonging to the impoverished nobility was a son of the slums of Rome (Subura), where he surely had lived in contact with Germans and Gauls long enough to know their mentality. And surely, in the conquest of Gaul that ensued, the Germans proved much more faithful to Caesar than the Celts allied to the Romans. From that day many Roman emperors had German gorillas protecting them – not to mention foot soldiers and Calvary, also used by Caesar.

    • @MoR,

      Thus began the Praetorian Guard (under Augustus, successor to Julius) which became the controllers of the fates of emperors for 300 years until Constantine disbanded them. Perhaps that had something to do with the fall of Rome? Hitler seemed to have read his history well and created his own guard but tried to control them utterly and was quite successful in maintaining their total loyalty. Did il Duce? Certainly, he had his personal guard but they failed to protect him in the end from the citizens.

      I think (to get back to history and understanding the common citizen of any culture or state) that with the expansion of literacy came more understanding. One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite. Ancient Rome (and Athens, Egypt, and so forth) are known by what its rulers (for the most part) decided was important (and, often, flattering). To learn about the average citizen, we must make guesses and extrapolations based on myths and legends and on relics found. Do we taint these guesses and extrapolations with our own biases? Probably so.

      But my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.

  9. @Douglas


    That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people on the whole, do envy.

    As for the Praetorian guard, I just now read in the Wikipedia their role – according to who wrote the article – was of stability to the Empire on the whole. I don’t think though the Pretorian guard (a substantial army) were Germans (I only believe a few gorillas around him were). Maybe some of the Praetorians were. I don’t know. I’m sure instead the legions who fought against the enemies of Rome had a progressively increasing number of Germans, which at the end was a problem possibly.

    Rome was more an idea, she was pretty international. The emperors themselves (Spanish, Arab etc.) could come from any land of the empire (like the Popes). It is little known that Caesar’s legions who conquered Gaul, future France, came mostly from Gallia Cisalpina, today’s northern Italy (80% sure). Big difference there was between these Italian Gauls and, sotosay, the French ones. The former were Celts, ok, (tho with doses of Roman & Latin blood) but wore the toga (Gallia Togata is another name of it), eg were deeply romanized (Virgil, Pompey the great etc. came from there), hence immensely more faithful to Rome than any other external people.
    They only lacked regular Roman citizenship, which was given to them as prize by Caesar at the end of his Celtic wars. So Caesar – he was no Hitler or Mussolini – had also the merit to create the unity of Italians, later re-attained only 150 years ago!

    One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite.

    True, but pls allow me we know something (I’d say a lot) about the average Roman too (who btw exchanged letters too – the middle class – but we have lost them). The comedies were for the average people and ‘had’ to correspond to the taste even of the lowest populace, or no success was given to them – there was no cinema, theatre was terribly important – plus we have thousands and thousands of graffiti – whole sentences, poems etc. – written by the upper and middle class – the latter mind VERY wide: you probably under estimate the complexity of ancient society, no less structured than ours – and sometimes the poor too, although, true, the rate of illiteracy was much much higher, but, since religion touched the middle and the lower milieus especially, hence we knowing A LOT about it – by Roman religion I mean ALL the cults present in Rome, hence Christianity included – I can infer that:

    We know a lot about the poor people as well. The whole (monumentally documented) history of the progressive success of Christianity tells thousands of things about the lower classes of the whole empire from the times of the first Christians onwards. Think about the letters by Paul: he had to persuade the non Pagan populace – slaves included – of the Empire; or he needed to reinforce the faith of the already Christian populace – his message including the middle and upper classess, it goes without saying.

    I mean, we even know the language actually spoken by the populace, since, for the reasons you mention, the language of the poor and of the rich differed in sophistication etc.

    The first Latin translations of the Bible – Jerome’s not by chance is called ‘vulgata’, from vulgus, populace – appeared in the 4th century CE. They were written in non literary, ‘vulgar’ Latin, to the extent today’s Italians with a high school diploma can understand them more or less, vulgar Latin and Italian being closely related (whatever you Phil may think about it lol).

    I have to stop this, Douglas. Thanks for obliging this lazy old man to work.


    • @MoR

      That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people on the whole, do envy.

      Actually, it is both of those men who made the association. Not unusual for more modern despots to see themselves in the same light as men whom history has portrayed as great.
      (Gen. Patton saw himself as a reincarnation of soldiers of the past and, I suspect, great generals and military leaders)

      Julius took control of the political structure of Rome and turned it away from being a true republic of the times. He had himself declared dictator. He took total control of both the political and military structures. And was assassinated for it. But he laid the groundwork for Augustus to become Emperor. In some ways, he created the Roman Empire. First, by expanding the territory under its control and, second, by changing its political structure and laying the groundwork for dictatorial rule.

      As I understand it, the literacy rate of Rome was ~15%. This would be the elite ruling class and the “middle class”. The “middle class” would be better described as the merchant class. This would be where the graffiti came from, as well as the letters.

      When I spoke of the correspondence of American citizens, it began with the literate classes. But later it expanded into the general public as education expanded. We were fortunate that we began as a country after the invention of the printing press and at the beginning of the expansion of literacy. It is more the good fortune of our time period than anything else.

      Try to understand, I am not denigrating Rome’s history. I am trying to explain my skepticism of history in general before the advent of the spread of literacy.

  10. @Andreas

    I am about to transfer part of this conversation to my blog, as it is my custom. I hope you don’t mind Andreas. Basically both Douglas’ amd MoR’s posts. Wiedersehen.

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