Daily Archives: 7 October 2006

Who Spread Greek Culture and What Did They Spread?

The Rhine River blog quotes a longish excerpt from Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the World: A Language History of the World (Harper, 2006). Nathanael comments on one interesting question about the Greek legacy:

Beneath the veneer of this celebrated role, Greek culture was a tool of hegemony across the eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. This should raise questions about how “the Greeks” are portrayed in Western Civ courses, whether democracy was really their legacy, recovered by the Renaissance, or appended to the existing institutions of the European free cities.

The whole excerpt is worth reading. I’ll just repeat two passages about the role of the Greek language.

Literacy could be seen as the Greeks’ secret weapon. But this can’t be the whole Answer. After all, literacy was a gift to them from the Phoenicians, who themselves were just the lately travelling sales representatives of a vast Middle Eastern range of literate societies, from Egypt at one end to Babylon and Elam at the other. But unlike the Phoenicians, the Greeks had chosen to use their literacy to record their culture: the ability to read Greek brought a vast range of original works in its wake. The result was that the Greeks had access to ‘the arts of civilisation’ in a way that could only impress others when they came into contact with them. Civilisation, after all, when combined with such delights as olive oil and wine, is apt to be attractive….

But the agents who spread this undoubtedly attractive commodity round the oikouméne, the inhabited world, were seldom actually Greek. The spread of the Greek language is, rather, an object lesson in the effectiveness of hitching a ride. Macedon was beyond the pale of the Greek language community; yet its king planted Greek-speaking colonies all the way to the boundaries of India. Aramaic was the language of Greece’s greatest foe, the Persian empire; yet the two-hundred-year-old use of it as a chancery language across the empire meant that there was a clear model for Greeks to follow in seeding a Greek-based communications network round their newly won domains. Two hundred years later Rome, and with it Latin, was taking the whole Mediterranean rim by storm; yet Greek, the language of colonies in southern Italy, was accepted into a kind of equality with Latin, and went on to become the true cultural milieu of the Roman empire—in the sense that no cultivated inhabitant of the empire could be without it. Two hundred years later still, the new brooms sweeping the empire were mystery religions, especially Christianity; yet although none of them originated in Greece, their language of preference was Greek, and so Greek built an indissoluble link with the greatest movement of the late Roman empire, the Christian Church. By a final stroke of good fortune, this same movement, now specialised as Christian Orthodoxy, turned out to be the key to preserving Greek through four centuries of Turkish domination, after the dissolution of the Roman empire in the east. Greek thus owes its remarkable career to help from its friends, at every crucial turning point of the last 2300 years.

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