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Without Greece there is no Western civilisation

By Evaggelos Vallianatos - posted Monday, 28 November 2011

The West has always been perplexed by Greece. Yes, the Greeks made us who we are, Western thinkers admit, but can we tolerate their gifts of reason, science and democracy? And these modern Greeks, are they really Greek? The Romans started the peculiar relationship of the West with Greece. They borrowed a lot from the Greeks. They even adopted Greek war machines, which they used to conquer Greece. Roman generals plundered Greece and dismembered Macedonia. In late third century BCE, the Roman state assassinated Archimedes, the greatest Greek mathematician and engineer. Yet despite this violence against the Greeks, the first century BCE Roman poet Horace admitted, “Captive Greece took its Roman captor captive.”

When the Roman Empire fell to the barbarians in the fifth century, the Greek-speaking half of the empire survived for another millennium. The barbarians barbarised the West, plunging it into near darkness. Despite the hostility of Christianity for Greek thought, the East had the texts of the ancient Greeks. The Christian West forgot Greek and, by 1054, anathematised the Christian East.

In 1204, crusading Italian and French armies attacked Constantinople, the capital of the Greek empire. The crusaders captured Constantinople and dismembered Greece. The violence of the crusaders left a lasting legacy of mistrust between Greece and the West, cementing the theological hatred of 1054. The Western occupation of Constantinople prepared the ground for the Turkish conquest of 1453.


The Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries healed, but not completely, the enmity between East and West, though Greece, in the Turkish concentration camp, did not have a Renaissance. Greek texts triggered the scientific revolution of the West, hence the making of our modern world.

The mathematical physics of Archimedes is our mathematical physics. Archimedes originated calculus for the measuring of curves; his discovery of combinatorics is behind our theory of probability and, with calculus, imaging science. Archimedes also initiated the world’s first computer, dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism.

We are all Greeks

“We are all Greeks.” This was the proud declaration, in 1821, of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who was witnessing the heroic struggle of the Greeks to throw the Turks off their land. He was one of several philhellenes who fought with the Greeks to regain their freedom. When the Europeans were fighting each other in the Crimean War in the 1850s, “The Manchester Guardian” connected the Greek achievement to the Greeks’ drawing “the sword at Marathon.”

In 1872, Jacob Burckhardt, the Swiss cultural historian, proposed that the Europeans see with the eyes of the Greeks and to abandon them would be to accept their decline.

Writing in 1907, the British classical scholar Gilbert Murray admitted “the seeds of Western civilization are mostly to be found in Greece and not elsewhere.”


Still another European scholar from England, W. R. Inge, wrote in 1921, “Without what we call our debt to Greece we should have neither our religion nor our philosophy nor our science nor our literature nor our education nor our politics. We should be mere barbarians. Our civilisation is a tree which has its roots in Greece…[our civilisation] is a river…but its head waters are Greek.”

In 1948, the British poet W. H. Auden suggested the Greeks taught us to think about our thinking, that is, to ask questions. Without the Greeks, he said, “we would never have become fully conscious, which is to say that we would never have become, for better or worse, fully human.”

In the late 1950s, E. J. Dijksterhuis, Dutch historian of mathematics and natural sciences, said that the origins of present-day knowledge, especially in mathematics and natural sciences, go straight to ancient Greece. And in 1999, Charles Freeman, a classical scholar, argued that the Greeks “provided the chromosomes of Western civilisation.”

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About the Author

Evaggelos Vallianatos is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

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