Homer to Plato: Boris Johnson on the Ten Greatest Ancient Greeks

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(…and yes, if your ancient Greek is a little rusty, translations of the quotes are included)

1. HOMER (c.700 BC)

Homer is simply the greatest writer of all time. He wrote the epic Greek poems, of course – The Iliad and The Odyssey – so you need no further proof. The latter is about good old Odysseus and his ten-year journey home following the fall of Troy. It’s over 12,000 lines long and is an astonishing feat of literary endeavour. In one section, Odysseus was having a particularly hard time. Men were being turned into pigs, women were luring him astray, yet he smites his shaggy breast and declares, ‘Endure, my heart; you’ve endured a worse thing even than this.’ Which is a phrase I’ve drawn great comfort from when things haven’t been going swimmingly.

2. HESIOD (c. 700 BC)

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for old Hesiod, a Greek oral poet. He was a great moralist and a pessimist – a glass-half-empty sort of chap – who’s best known for his poem about agriculture called Works And Days, in which he prescribes a life of honest labour and condemns idleness. There’s a line in there that runs: ‘Fools, they do not know by how much the half is greater than the whole, nor what great advantage there is in mallow and asphodel.’ Putting aside the second bit for a moment (in classical mythology, asphodel flowers were the favourite food of the Greek dead), the point here is that people always want too much and they forget that the half is sometimes greater than the whole. This speaks down the ages to us in our confused consumerist era, when we’re so obsessed with material possessions and dissatisfied if our neighbours have more than us.

3. ARCHILOCHUS (c.680-c.645 BC)

We’re moving on to the lyric poets now. And Archilochus is an absolute champion. He was a wonderfully mordant poet and revered by the ancient Greeks as one of their most brilliant writers. He once wrote, ‘I don’t like a big general, with a swaggering, straddling kind of gait. And with his curls all combed. Let mine be one who is small and bandy, stands with feet firmly planted on the ground, and is full of heart.’ Archilochus is saying he doesn’t like authority and people bossing him around – which makes him one of the earliest embodiments of the Greek idea of liberty. The greatest thing that ancient Greece has given us is the idea of political liberty.

4. SAPPHO (c.620-c.570 BC)

Next up is Sappho, another great lyric poet. She wrote lots of brilliant poetry about the experience of falling in love and the horror of unrequited love and the shock of jealousy. Her passion extended to both sexes. However, when it came to women, she wrote of her infatuation with them, rather than anything else. One of her greatest lines is: ‘Let there be no concern of honey or bee for me.’ She was saying the trouble with love is it might make you feel good, but it has a terrible sting – something we’ve all experienced at some point… So Sappho rejected both: she didn’t want to feel either the joys or the pangs of love, because her passions had left her heartbroken.

5. SIMONIDES (c.556-468 BC)

We’re getting to the Classical period now, so let’s have a bit of Simonides, a man best known for his epitaphs commemorating fallen warriors, in particular those at the Battle of Thermopylae – fought between an alliance of Greek city states and the Persian Empire in 480 BC. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held off the Persians for days before their rearguard was wiped out in one of history’s most famous last stands, as depicted in the movie 300. It was an amazing act of sacrifice that he duly commemorated in the couplet: ‘Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.’ The words form the first of many such literary quotations celebrating the idea of the heroic ratio of the ‘few’ against the ‘many’.

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