I grew up thinking that guff about the ancient Greeks being uniquely rational, creative, free, and so on was as dead as Theosophy. The writers who influenced me as a child, like Peter Connolly or L. Sprague de Camp, either ignored it or mocked it, and none of the teachers and books which influenced me at university took it seriously. But I am watching a talk by Dimitri Nakassis on “Orientalism and the Myceneans” and I am coming to a horrid revelation.
He shows that since the first decipherment of the Mycenean palace archives in 1952, there has been a very strong Anglo tradition of explaining that the Myceneans were not really proper Greeks even if they spoke Greek, worshipped some of Homer’s gods, and grew grapes and barley. He lists a surprising number of scholars who have published things to this effect within the past 30 years, and traces it back to Moses Finley who said and wrote things like:
never in the Greek world proper (that is, excluding such basically alien societies as Ptolemaic Egypt) do we find palace complexes, archives, or a palace economy like the Mycenaean. Because the Greek language survived, many Mycenaean terms lived on, too, but it is a mistake to assume that, where institutions are concerned, their meanings remained essentially unaltered … The most striking thing about Myceaean society is that it was not Greek. Some members of that society spoke and wrote the Greek language … But the civilization was not in any significant or proper sense that which we know as Greek
in the 1950s. Moses Finley was a thoughtful scholar, but this one time he encountered new data which did not match his model, and he resorted to the No True Scotsman fallacy: “the Myceneans may have had kings and bureaucrats, but that just shows that they were not REAL GREEKS.” And Dr. Nakassis points out that this allowed believers to map an east-west dichotomy onto an early-late dichotomy, where the west and Iron Age is free and creative but the east and Bronze Age are tyrannous, static, and doomed to be replaced by its opposite.
For about ten years I have been wondering why the study of early Greek warfare relies so heavily on literature and fine art and neglects artefacts and inscriptions. There are thriving traditions of classical scholarship which classify bronze swords and iron spearheads, and reconstruct the wars of little cities on Crete and provincial governors in Egypt using broken inscriptions and scraps of papyri, and historians working on the period after Alexander rely heavily on these kinds of evidence, but the best-known specialists in earlier Greek warfare focus on the Great Writers. The recent book on Greek linen armour, for example, carefully works through Plutarch and Strabo but not all the temple inventories which list leather and linen body-armour or the site reports where bronze fittings from these armour must appear.
And as I watch Dr. Nakassis’ video, the clouds on the Antarctic plateau are opening and I wonder if I see what I think I am seeing … could the decision to marginalize these kinds of evidence be because some scholars had a fixed belief that administrative records were not properly Greek or western? The romantic idea of Greek exceptionalism was established before scientific archaeology started to give another picture, and always focused on vase paintings, sculpture, and Great Writers.
I am not sure, I am not thinking very clearly right now and I have not read the books which Dr. Nakassis has found. But I am sure that it is easier to banish a habit of thought than a piece of knowledge. And for good or bad, I do my best to learn the truth even if what I learn may be unsettling.
Edit 2020-12-02: Also, to spell out one of the things Dr. Nakassis left implicit … in the 19th and 20th century, many German-speaking and English-speaking scholars took it upon themselves to declare that some native speakers of Greek born within 50 miles of the Aegean were not real Greeks. The 19th century romantics who declared that the Greeks of their day were a bunch of Slavs and orientals while the true spirit of Pericles had migrated to Munich were doing the same thing as Moses Finley … and the same thing as the colonial governments that put themselves in the business of telling indigenous people whether they were really Bantu or Haida. And the quotes which he found reminded me of Peter Green’s words from 1976 that “Modern Europe owes nothing to the Achaemenids. The civilization … is almost as alien to us as that of the Aztecs” (quoted in Past Approaches, Future Prospects p. 39) and lo and behold, in 1967 Moses Finley declared in The New York Review that “without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins.” If you choose which cultures to study based on what you think they contributed to your own, you choose to ignore most of what they can teach you.