aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

A book very much worth reading

I just finished Victor Davis Hanson's The Other Greeks. I am amazed. For the first time, I feel like I have a real handle on what Classical Greek society was all about -- how it operated, and why it operated as it did.

The Greeks were passed over quickly in my humanities education. A bit of reverence for "Western Civilization," a dash of philosophy, a lot of artsy-fartsy stuff, and then on to the Romans. The Romans didn't get quite the short shrift the Greeks got, but there was little enough of them, either. Western Civ, as a subject to be studied in school and college, was dying even as I was growing up. Nowadays, it's about gone.

And what little is left misses the point. The academics who still talk about ancient Greece today keep trying to make the Greeks (especially the Athenians) into early apologists for their ideas. They make veiled tut-tutteries over things in the philosophers that seem illiberal, and then it's back to the glories of Greek democracy, Greek art, and (especially) Greek love.

Hanson points out that all that is a misappropriation and misapplication of the historical facts. The foundation of the Greek polis was the yeoman farmer. Like Delbert in Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? the Greeks believed, "you ain't no kind of man unless you got land." Specifically, one's own 10-acre plot or so, which you worked with your own hands. And defended with your own body as a hoplite. And which you spoke up for in the assembly. The middling farmers of ancient Greece shoved aside the Dark Ages aristocrats and bypassed the landless poor, to erect a city-state that was themselves writ large. That was Classical Greece: an agrarian society, rather like the farmers of early America. The philosophy, the art, the architecture, the monuments, were made possible by what they wrought.

The Persian Wars began to change that. Greece was brought into contact with the rest of the Mediterranean world, and had to adapt. Athens became an empire. It also enfranchised the urban landless. But it was the changeover to different farming methods that marked the transition to the Hellenistic Age. Rural areas suffered a loss of population. Farms increased in size and were owned by absentee landowners. Taxes went up, especially to pay for the mercenaries now thought necessary to defend the state (and to engage in wars for fun and profit under the leadership of the new aristos).

Written in 1995, Hanson's history makes a lot of comparisons to the decline of agriculture in favor of agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley of California, which he knows well as a farmer himself (as well as an academic).

I wish I had had this book to read long before this.

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