What the Greeks Did for Us by Tony Spawforth - review by Emma Park

Emma Park

Acropolis Now

What the Greeks Did for Us

By

Yale University Press 321pp £20
 

The title of Tony Spawforth’s new book alludes to John Cleese’s famous question in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ The answer Cleese gets is a long list of the tangible features of civilisation: aqueducts, roads, sanitation, medicine, irrigation, public order, education… A broader, if less humorous, answer would have included intangible influences too – on the Romance languages, the Catholic faith, the civil law and so forth. What would the answer be if the same question were posed about the Greeks? None of the Greek-speaking peoples ever established an empire on the scale of that created by the Romans. Much of their legacy was transmitted through the Romans or even more circuitously, which makes the thread of influence hard to follow.

Across fourteen chapters, Spawforth surveys different aspects of the Greek world, from politics and religion to sex and sport, and their use and abuse by later cultures, beginning with the Romans. Spawforth’s focus, however, is on the Greeks’ relationship to ‘us’, by which he primarily means ‘the Anglosphere – Britain and North America, especially’, and ‘the ways in which ancient Greece is present in our culture and society now’. What most clearly pins his book to the 2020s is its moral and political frame of reference. This is heavily influenced by, if not always in complete accord with, the current revisionist movement in Anglo-American academia and elsewhere. This movement, Spawforth notes, has criticised the Greeks for their ‘patriarchal repression of women and their quasi-racism, their imperialism and colonialism’. 

Reflecting these concerns, Spawforth presents a ‘litany’ of charges against the Greeks, including their use of ‘offensive’ language and slaves and their development of ‘proto-racist’ attitudes. Aristotle comes under fire because he was used by antebellum plantation owners to justify slavery (he has been labelled by the Washington Post as

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