Historical notes: The Elgin marbles were never whiter than white
For the Romantics (here the philosopher Johann Herder) ancient Greece was the springtime of human history, an episode of innocence and purity. Its classical art, said Johann Winckelmann, achieved a "noble simplicity and calm grandeur" which was soon to be lost. "In the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and produce," proclaimed Wilhelm von Humboldt as he set about planning a new education system for Prussia after the humiliating defeat by Napoleon. Greek texts were made the core of the German secondary curriculum.
So the Greek past was appropriated for Europe. What European collectors could not carry off from the Greek sites (as late as 1880 the Germans shipped 350 tons of marble statuary from Pergamum) was dressed up to fit the ideal. When the Acropolis was cleared of its later building in the 1840s, it was left as a shrine, with isolated marble buildings among which the Parthenon reigned supreme. It is still treated as such by millions of visitors. There is little public recognition of the clutter of votive statues which made up the fifth-century sanctuary nor of the paint which covered the buildings. If the purity of the Greeks was to be sustained, it followed that their marble was white. As late as the 1930s, Lord Duveen was able to order the scraping down of the Elgin marbles in order to "restore" their whiteness.
By the mid-19th century the study of ancient Greece had become hopelessly entangled with the political, social and cultural needs of the European elites. The Greek achievement could be used to legitimise the superiority of Europeans over others. The mastery of Greek, useless in any practical sense, could serve to isolate, in the public schools, those who did not need to earn a living from those who did and preserve them as a ruling class. In the entrance exams for the British civil service there were 700 marks for the Greek papers, 350 for each of the French and German papers.
This ideological baggage has, inevitably, affected perceptions of Greek history. The emphasis has been on a few great thinkers and artists within the classical period and it is only recently that wider aspects, the relationship of the Greeks with their land, their slaves and with the surrounding cultures, have been explored in introductory surveys. Other distortions have still to be dealt with. One of the most extraordinary is the virtual exclusion of science and mathematics, surely among the greatest of the Greek achievements, from many cultural histories. "The state of editions . . . of ancient scientific works remains scandalous by comparison with the torrent of modern works on anything unscientific," complains T.E. Rihill in her recent Greek Science.
Another is the continuing concentration on the classical period. At a popular level histories still congratulate themselves for including a chapter on the Hellenistic period (332-30 BC) but venture no later than that. It is, in fact, the resilience of Greek culture in later centuries which impresses. Greek culture was old when the Romans conquered it, it was still there, and expanding, as archaeologists in the Near East are finding, when Rome fell. The apogee of the remarkable Greek achievement in astronomy (Ptolemy) and medicine (Galen) was in the Roman centuries and Greek philosophy was still vital enough then to underpin Christian theology.
Now that the ideological cladding which has encased classical studies has fragmented the history of ancient Greece can come into its own. The Greeks can take their place within the mainstream. Exciting times lie ahead for the ancient historian.
Charles Freeman is the author of `The Greek Achievement' (Allen Lane, pounds 25)
From the blogs
The main course on most beer matching menus tends to be meat. Not just any meat, pork. And I’m not t...
Norman Tebbit is not the first Tory peer to raise the hypothetical possibility of an heir to the thr...
"Being in Chagos is an incredibly special experience," says Rachel Jones, deputy team leader of the ...
Even though there was a complete absence of our favourite odd couple Brienne and Jaime, we got anoth...
Jeremy Paxman reveals he has heard senior Tories calling activists 'swivel-eyed loons'
Gay couple beaten in park urge MPs to moderate language on gay marriage
Strewth mate. Aussies wave goodbye to Britain as it becomes too pricey to stay
X marks the spot: The find that could rewrite Australian history
'There are empty spaces where there used to be living rooms, bedrooms, classrooms': President Barack Obama says America is praying for Oklahoma in wake of tornado that claimed 24 lives
- 1 'He was lucky he didn't die' - George Michael fell out of speeding car onto M1 motorway, according to eye witness
- 2 Austerity has hardened the nation's heart
- 3 Gay couple beaten in park urge MPs to moderate language on gay marriage
- 4 Why Arsène Wenger must spend to put icing on the cake and buy likes of Stevan Jovetic for Arsenal
- 5 'It was just like the movie Twister': Man survives Oklahoma tornado by taking refuge in horse stall
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Find out what The Independent's resident travel expert has to say about one of the most beautiful small cities in the world
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.
£350 - £500 per day: Progressive Recruitment: Project Manager - Public Sector ...
£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...
Negotiable: Capita Education Resourcing Permanent Team: HR Manager Independe...
£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Huxley Associates: INTERIM HR MANAGER - ...