Friday, March 27, 2009

Another excellent seminar

Unlike this phone picture of him, Richard Wenghofer's presentation in the history seminar series was not at all fuzzy: it was an excellent conclusion to an excellent year's worth of papers.

"The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens" argued that we can trace the invention of the notion of racial distinctiveness and a feeling of racial superiority, even to other Greeks, among the Athenians as they democratized their polity over the course of a century or so. In the old days when noble families have a lot of clout, and intermarried freely with nobles in other cities, it was commonly accepted that Athenians were descended from a variety of Greek and non-Greek peoples. When the poorer citizens gained legal and political rights, they sought to restrict citizenship to those of purely Athenian descent, and eventually succeeded in doing so. This restrictive definition of citizenship, argued Richard, affected Athenian views of their origins. It came to be accepted Athenians were autochthonous, sprung from the Attic earth. Not only were Athenians distinct from their neighbors, but they were superior as well, and superior in a racial sense because their superiority was inherited from their ancestors. So we have a record of known political choices and definitions adopted for practical reasons leading to an ideological view of all past history, one that is not particularly attractive. Athenians came to regard themselves as the only true Greeks who had taught their neighbors what Greek traits they possessed, and whom they deserved to rule.

After that, go back to Pericles' funeral oration and see if it doesn't seem a lot less attractive! And as I said here after I read Thucydides the last time, that was the only part of the whole book that made the Greeks seem admirable!

I can't wait to see the article version of Richard's argument.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Thucydides on ancient Greek politics

In my Ancient Civilizations class, I referred to the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles as "the one passage in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War that makes the Greeks look admirable." I was only 3/4 of the way through a rereading of the History when I said that, but I'm still looking for the second. More typical (though to my sensibilities more repellent than many others) is this incident from Book 8, chapter 41, page 560 of the Penguin translation:

On his voyage along the coast he landed at the Meropid Cos. The city was unfortified and had collapsed in an earthquake which was certainly the greatest one that can be remembered. He sacked the city, the inhabitants of which had fled to the mountains, over-ran the country, and made off with everything in it except the free men, whom he let go.

One could rant for hours about this passage. Even the Soviets would be ashamed to admit to this kind of behavior.

BTW, I have left the war criminal anonymous here; he's got enough publicity over the last 2 1/2 millenia. I have a similar policy for famous assassins.

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