Introducing the Ancient Greeks by Edith Hall

In the period 2013-2015 The European Union has been desperately trying to prevent Greece from crashing out of the Euro. Bailout follows bailout. Why? It is a basket case of an economy saddled with a 320 billion Euro debt, a society mired in corruption from top to bottom, and with a hopelessly divided political class. For every single day since Greece joined the European Union in 1981 it has been a net recipient of European cash, that is to say – your taxes. Why, therefore, is the rest of Europe so devoted to this sun drenched outcrop in the Med?

One answer is that our political leaders, and the European intelligentsia, still revere Greece as the fountainhead of Western culture. In this regard they are, of course, thinking of Ancient Greece. To understand what this is all about turn to a new introduction by Edith Hall (Professor of Classics at Kings College, London,

The ancient Greeks invented democracy, theatre, rational science, and philosophy. They built the Parthenon and the Library of Alexandria. They bequethed to us competitive sport as we still celebrate it. Their masterpieces of sculpture and architecture have never been surpassed. They wrote down the timeless myths of Odysseus and Oedipus, and the histories of Leonidas’s three hundred Spartans and Alexander the Great. Yet understanding these uniquely influential people has been hampered by their diffusion across the entire Mediterranean. Most ancient Greeks did not live in what is now the nation state of Greece but in settlements scattered across Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine. They never formed a single unified social or political entity.

Edith Hall offers a synthesis of the entire ancient Greek experience, from the rise of the Mycenaean kingdoms of the sixteenth century BC to the final victory of Christianity over paganism in AD 391. Each of her ten chapters visits a different Greek community at a different moment during the twenty centuries of ancient Greek history. In the process, the book makes a powerful original argument: A cluster of unique qualities made the Greeks special and made them the right people, at the right time, to take up the baton of human progress. According to Herodotus, the father of history, what made all Greeks identifiably Greek was their common descent from the same heroes, the way they sacrificed to their gods, their rules of decent behaviour, and their beautiful language. Hall argues, however, that their mind-set was just as important as their achievements. They were rebellious, individualistic, inquisitive, open-minded, witty, rivalrous, admiring of excellence, articulate, and addicted to pleasure. But most important was their continuing identity as mariners, the restless seagoing lifestyle that brought them into contact with ethnically diverse peoples spread widely across their settlements, and the constant stimulus to technological innovation provided by their intense relationship with the sea.

For a recent television introduction to the Greeks try Dr Michael Scott’s ( 2 episode documentary at

Should you wish to know how generations of students, including myself, got properly introduced to the Greeks – try H.D.F. Kitto’s 1952 introduction The Greeks ( and two of Sir Kenneth Dover’s books (both 1980) – The Greeks ( and Ancient Greek Literature (

For Edith Hall’s book enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic details.

336 pages in Bodley Head

ISBN 978-1847922588

Image description

Edith Hall

Scroll to Top