Greek myths

Paul Cartledge has taken up Cambridge's first new Classics chair for decades, and is keen on a spot of iconoclasm

February 19, 2009

He is the University of Cambridge's first professor of ancient Greek culture, but according to Paul Cartledge, there was no such thing as "ancient Greece".

In his inaugural lecture this week, Professor Cartledge, who holds the first chair in Classics to have been endowed at Cambridge since the Second World War, was due to shatter a series of myths about the Greeks. He argued that there were so many different communities and cultures that "ancient Greece" is a protean term. Controversially, he also planned to defend the decision of Athenian judges to execute Socrates.

Professor Cartledge, an expert on Athens and Sparta, previously held a personal chair in Greek history at Cambridge, where he has worked since 1979. He described the position of A.G. Leventis professor of Greek culture as "a new kind of chair ... for the advancement of the public understanding of ancient Greek culture".

Aspects of ancient Greece still echo in modern politics and culture, he said, citing the example of the Hollywood film 300, for which he acted as an academic consultant. "They didn't exactly take my advice," Professor Cartledge said of the makers of the film, which he described as "potentially dangerously wrong" in factual terms.

But the movie excited fresh interest in the Spartans. US Marines asked Professor Cartledge for copies of his books.

"The Iranians took (300) so seriously that they protested to the highest level of Government. Issues from an ancient situation can have a resonance that is significant today."

Other examples include continuing debates over cultural property - Professor Cartledge is a member of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles - and the use of ancient Greek words in modern English.

In the lecture, he was due to argue that it is a myth that the Greeks invented democracy in anything like the sense of the word today. Another myth is that they were backward when it came to technology. This is refuted by research into the Antikythera mechanism, a proto-computer dated 100BC that was found in the Aegean Sea. Laser technology has transformed academics' understanding of the device.

"It mapped the heavens and predicted solar and lunar eclipses ... There is nothing like it known for another 1,000 years, at least."

On the decision to execute Socrates, Professor Cartledge said: "For hundreds of years, the view has been that the masses should not be in the position to do to Socrates what they did ... I will try to defend them and say their system worked for them, though it wouldn't work for us. Socrates ... somewhat invited the retribution he suffered."

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