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The Ancient Greeks: Ten Ways They Shaped the Modern World

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  321 ratings  ·  48 reviews

They gave us democracy, philosophy, poetry, rational science, the joke. They built the Parthenon and the Library of Alexandria. They wrote the timeless myths of Odysseus and Oedipus, and the histories of Leonidas’s three hundred Spartans and Alexander the Great.

But who were the ancient Greeks? And what was it that enabled them to achieve so much?

Here, Edith Hall gives us a revelamuch?

Kindle Edition, 337 pages
Published November 17th 2016 by Vintage Digital (first published June 9th 2014)
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At first I felt that this book was ok, but it grew on me so that now I think it is quite nice and eminently recommendable as a non-threatening introduction to the Ancient Greeks.

Hall has a double approach which structures the book, one broadly chronological, the other ten key characteristics which she thinks typical of the Ancient Greeks (apart from the Spartans who don't have all of them) (view spoiler) (view spoiler) amusingly, towards the end of the book we learn that this idea is not only not original (view spoiler) but has itself a long pedigree back to Isocrates who said that Greeks "were not united by blood but by a frame of mind" (p.233) . We might view this book as an attempt to educate the reader and not so much introduce them, but actually to make them part of the ancient Greek community - you too can be an ancient Greek, particularly if you like Dolphins, triangles, and psychological honesty (view spoiler).

And who doesn't like Dolphins, apart from tuna fishermen and fish, according to Hall in the region of 40 cities used a dolphin motive on their coinage at one time or another, Olbia on the black sea went further than most: one of the peculiarities of Olbia was its coins, which did not just depict dolphins, as did the coins of many cities, but were actually minted in the three-dimensional shape of dolphins, with curving backs (p.97), I suppose at least their coins would have been distinctive.

Hall suggests there are two broad approaches to the Ancient Greeks. One that the Greeks were exceptional, a pure spring of self-created invention, the other that the Greeks were primarily translators, transferers and combiners of ideas and technologies from other people. Hall in classic Goldilocks fashion wants to find a middle ground which is neither too racist, yet which also gives some individual credit to the Greeks (pp xiii-xv), the odd thing to my mind is that she portrays the second approach as the more recent one a result of the greater understanding of the ancient Mediterranean realm and the near -East that has developed over the last couple of hundred years - yet oddly it is one of the oldest ideas there is - Herodotus quite plainly tells us of customs which the Greeks 'borrowed' from their neighbours - hoplite warfare for one, it is the idea of attributing ancient Greek culture to their racial characteristics which itself is a relatively new idea (view spoiler).

The borrowings are quite wide ranging some at least of the adventures of Hercules apparently were originally the Phoenician adventures of Melquart, the gods Apollo and Artemis from modern day Turkey - while amusingly Dionysius who was regarded as a new incoming God in the classical period seems to have already been around in Mycenaean times. Best of all the word barbarian turns out to have been an imported loan word from the barbarous heart of the Persian empire.

Reading Hall's account of the story of Archilos's seduction poem in which rejected by one of Lycambes' daughters he sweet talked another one and he reports that he achieved some kind of intimacy with his new lover; by staying within her "grassy green plot", he ejaculated white semen on her golden hair. This is the most explicit discussion of sexual activity in archaic literature. The ancient Greeks said that Lycambes's whole family, as a result of Archilochus's vituperation, committed suicide (p.89) I had the feeling that the ancient Greeks invented revenge porn, thus strengthening my belief that young people would be best served if all syllabuses and curricula in educational establishments only dealt with material from between the years 400 BC to 400 AD (view spoiler) as there is more than enough in the classic world to help them deal with the modern one.

Hall takes what to my mind is an unusual approach, beginning with the Mycenaeans and ending in the Christian period. Generally books about the ancient Greeks have an evident hunger for sicking to the world of classical Athens - though of course, the Athenians get their chapter in the Sun too. The chapter about the Ptolemies I particularly enjoyed with a speech of Demosthenes's put in the mouth of a transvestite brothel keeper suggesting that Ptolemaic Egypt had a lively theatre scene.

I was curious that in Mycenaean times Poseidon was the chief God, while in later times Zeus had supplanted him as supreme being, strange to imagine how that occurs, one day you are on top of creation, the next, just one of the gods, not even first among equals but in second place to your own younger brother. Some odd revolution occurred in the minds of believers, but one which is silent to us.

Although I preferred the richness of Early Greece and this book has annoyingly no pictures apart from reproductions of mainly Victorian etchings, it is a very nice introduction with fairly full descriptions of Greek literature, short easy chapters and an engaging tone, it's not a perfect book - and other reviews have pointed out various errors, but I feel the good outweighs the bad.
This book looked interesting on the shelves; I thought that, if nothing else, I might learn one or two things, at least, about post-Mycenean, pre-classical Greece, and, since the author is a philosophy prof, get her particular take on the ground zero of western philosophy.

Unfortunately, whopper errors at the start and end of the book mar any good content in the middle.

First, near the start, Hall talks about how small Greece is, at 25,000 square miles, smaller than Portuga
Peter Mcloughlin
A big subject in a small book. It is difficult to get everything that was important about Greeks in 300 pages but the book does a good job of giving a sketch of why we should still pay attention to the ancient Greeks. The story is not revisionist and in many ways is old school about the Greeks but it is an entertaining synopsis of the highlights of Greek Culture. Pleasurable. See my updates for more details.
Professor Hall’s work does not appear to be so much a history as an intellectual history, an important subdivision of the more general enterprise of history. While this is a competent history of the Greeks, through to the conquest of Christianity, it does not offer any new insights.

There is an acknowledgement of the traditional and revisionist approaches to the ancient Greeks in this work. Professor Hall does her best to navigate through these rocky shoals—this they succeed at quiet well. Howev
Shane Ver Meer
Apr 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book served as a good intro to the ancient Greek world. I am going to read some Herodotus and Thucydides soon.
Ryan Tyrrell
Jul 17, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A great book written by a superb author (although her comments on christianity made me feel like she was yelling at me through the pages). My only complaint is the lack of maps/illustrations, as it was extremely difficult to picture so many military campaigns in my head! Her ancient literary commentary was absolutely fantastic.
Daniel Kukwa
Jul 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
A fantastically useful research & teaching tool on Ancient Greece that is also immensely readable...and these two characteristics don't always work in tandem. I thoroughly enjoyed the concise chapters, the categories of analysis, and the smooth flowing prose style.
Gilles Demaneuf
A good book but could be better written. Some odd error (Augustus for Octavian at the battle of Actium).
Regina Beard
Aug 26, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind by Edith Hall is an exceptional review of the impact of the ancient Greeks and clearly describes how these innovators gained their knowledge and scattered their culture abroad to what ultimately becomes known as the Roman Empire. Hall uses ten characteristics unique to the ancient Greeks and how each of these characteristics manifest themselves, especially in literature and archaeology. Hall begins the tale w

Emre Sevinç
Jan 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ancient Greece culture is one of the pillars of modern Western civilization, and this book is a great introduction to almost two thousand years of history that still shapes our culture.

The author lays out in the very beginning of the book what she considers as the essential components of ancient Greek culture and character, and then proceeds in chronological fashion to show us how parts of ancient Greek history relates to those components. It is not easy to summarize such a long segm
Jul 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can't say that I knew much of anything about the ancient Greeks before reading this book (other than mythology) - so I was coming into this as a blank slate. Hall does an incredible job of covering thousands of years of history, across dozens of regions, including a multitude of people, and yet manages through it all to keep a brisk and engaging pace. I was worried this would be an academic slog to suffer through and it was NOT. Hall creatively set up each chapter to focus on one time period, ...more
Jul 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Superb one volume introduction to the world of all the famous Greeks we've all at least gained a slight familiarity with, plus an overview of archaeological discoveries over the ages. This book barely scratches the surface but gives a lot of directions on where to go next. Whether your interest lies in Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Herodotus, Alexander the Great, science, philosophy, drama or history, this fine book will whet your appetite for further exploration.
Dec 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent intellectual history of the Greeks and the Hellenic world...the subtitle: From Bronze Age seafarers to Navigators of the Mind says a lot. The last two chapters: Greek Minds and Roman Power, and Pagan Greeks and Christians I found particularly interesting - how the change in world thinking came about and how Greek thought still resonates in today's world. A very pleasant and thoughtful read for vacation time.
This is an interesting cultural/intellectual history of millenia of Greek history, broadly conceived as including everyone who fits within the wide sphere of Hellenic culture from the 12th century Mycenaeans to the collapse of Hellenism under Byzantine Christianity. As such, this is a broad overview that offers only minimal analysis of any particular element or text from Greek culture. However, what I really admire about Hall's approach is that she focuses on how the Greek relationship with the ...more
Chris Damon
Jan 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a gem of a book! If you are interested in ancient Greek civilization and only want to read one book about it, I can't think of a better one than this. She covers the entirety of ancient Greek civilization from Bronze Age Minoans and Mycenaeans all the way to late antiquity when pagan Greek religion, philosophy and culture finally gave way to emerging Christian civilization in the West. Much more than just a surface survey of the history, she provides a lot of meaty details. She manages the ...more
I was both pleasantly surprised by this book and slightly disappointed. The subtitle of my copy of the book is “Ten ways they shaped the modern world”. I expected a very simplistic book based on that subtitle, school age stuff really, because that kind of title is typical of very basic history non-fiction for children. These children’s histories cannot fit in anything close to a comprehensive work, obviously, and operate on the assumption that their readers know nothing about the subject nor hav ...more
Ian Williams
Jun 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Usually, books about Ancient Greece concentrate on the 4th – 5th century BC, the golden age of Athens – Periclean democracy, the wars with Sparta and Persia, the philosophical insights of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, the scientific discoveries of Democritus and the mathematical insights of Pythagoras.

However, this book ranges much further than that and gives an overall view of the extent of Greek civilization. Edith Hall shows how the Mycenaean’s predated and created classical Gree
Mar 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What amazing book. Very well written and lightly going through 2000 years of cultural history. The love for the Greek culture shines throughout. I think it is particularly interesting to read how the Greeks went though 3 big transitions due to Alexander the great, the Romans and finally Christianity. while in the first two cases Greek culture remained dominant, in the last it wasn't, though it did inform Christian culture in particular with Neoplatonism and Stoicism (Stoicism has also big parall ...more
Jun 04, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An excellent overview on what the author identifies as various aspects of 'greekness' as percieved by the ancient greeks, starting in the time of heroes and Homeric verse, and ending as Greece makes it's transition from Pagan to Christian. This is not a proper history, rather a look at the ancient Greek sense of being through the lends of the existing documents and archaeological records that we have.

I enjoyed it considerably, especially as I prepare to dive deeper into source material via my s
Simon Dobson
The history and effect of Greece told through ten claimed characteristics of the Greek mind and civilisation. It's a strong claim and, while it makes for a reasonable read, doesn't quite pull off the effect that the author intended. It's hard say why, as the writing is clear and as erudite as one would expect from a classics professor at a leading university. Perhaps it's the lack of any clear necessity in choosing these particular traits, which leaves the whole assemblage feeling perhaps a little cherry-picked to ...more
May 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Edith Hall convincingly presents her case that the Ancient Greeks can be encapsulated by 10 key attributes, and her inviting, playful prose is delightful to read. Whilst the title may imply that the book is aimed at those new who are new to Classics, Hall's attention to detail and ability to draw comparisons across time and space makes this book refreshing reading for all classicists.
Nov 17, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I had to read this book for my Greek Classics class and so I listened to it on audible. It was really boring and not a fun read but had a ton of information packed into it. If you just want to get the facts about the ancient Greeks then this book is for you but it’s not great writing or interesting read.
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great introductory book on Ancient Greek History. Picked it up in a small book store on the beautiful island of Amorgos while on our hiking vacation in Greece. I never was much interested in Greek history/ mythology before, but after having been to Greece, I am just fascinated by the subject. This is one that I will read again to absorb more.
Jan 13, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I wish this introduction to the ancient Greeks had been more introductory and less pompous. I tried for years to finish this book, but I just couldn't stand it--too pretentious, too many big words where smaller words would have been fine and the big words contributed nothing extra.
Sep 28, 2019 marked it as didn-t-finish  ·  review of another edition
I tried to read this cover to cover but by one third was overwhelmed at the density. Definitely not an easy introduction to the topic.
Peter Shirley
Oct 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very pleasant read. More info on the Greeks before the Persian War than most surveys.
Illustrative, informative, subjective, a pleasure to read.
Jun 20, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting read
Russell Berg
A survey that lacks focus and drive.
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
I mean, it wasn’t terrible...
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“The Open Society of Athens In democratic Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Greek civilization reached the apex of creativity. Perhaps alone among the Greek communities studied in this book, the classical Athenians demonstrated their ample endowment with every one of the ten characteristics that defined the ancient Greek mind-set. They were superb sailors, insatiably curious, and unusually suspicious of individuals with any kind of power. They were deeply competitive, masters of the spoken word, enjoyed laughing so much that they institutionalized comic theater, and were addicted to pleasurable pastimes. Yet the feature of the Athenian character that underlies every aspect of their collective achievement is undoubtedly their openness—to innovation, to adopting ideas from outside, and to self-expression.” 0 likes
“The Babylonians had known about Pythagoras’s theorem centuries before Pythagoras was born. The” 0 likes
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