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Access to newly discovered or newly available texts is allowing classicists to reframe the terms of engagement between cultures: So, instead of the study of ancient Greece being predicated on its uniqueness — its isolated, exceptional and untouchable brilliance — some scholars are recasting the Greek world and, in different ways, the Roman world as part of a series of networked cultures in multivoiced conversation with the lands lying east and south of the Mediterranean. This is not a universally applauded approach to the study of classics. On the right, Bruce Thornton , professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno, has written slightingly about "multiculturalist attempts to denigrate the Greeks' achievements" he has also described their victory against Persian conquest in the s BC as a liberation "from the shadows of superstition and bondage to the irrational".
From a less political perspective, other scholars suggest caution, too: Greg Woolf , professor of ancient history at the University of St Andrews, warns against taking the notion of a happy ancient multiculturalism too far. The ancient Greeks, he says, "were in the business of creating an autonomous civilisation. There were cultural conflicts, and separateness, and limits to transferability.
The Story of the Persian War from Herodotus, Illustrated by Alfred J. Church
We don't have a Greek version of Gilgamesh, or Babylonian versions of Homer". Woolf talks in terms of deliberate moments of hybridisation — such as the creation of the cult of Isis in Egypt after Alexander the Great's conquest. That was, he argues, an official fusing of Greek, Egyptian and Macedonian elements as a practical and locally contingent act though the cult later spread widely through the Roman world, even as far as York. Let's say the implications of the view are political, rather than the motivations behind it. So what are these implications?
Barbara Graziosi , professor of classics at Durham University, says: And it means working more closely with colleagues in places such as Egypt and Iraq — something that is of course made more difficult by political dichotomies. As Haubold argues in his new book Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature , it is an approach that can beckon towards the "cultivation of multilingualism, polyglossia, the arts of cultural mediation, deep intercultural understanding, and genuinely global consciousness.
It can develop these things both as scholarly endeavours and as new forms of citizenship in a globalised world". Graziosi offers a resonant event from her life: She recalls European and American colleagues' shock that Cairo even had a classics department; in fact, it was established in To her surprise, she found a cadre of eager, revolutionary students hungry to engage with classics and to find a way of thinking about Egypt's classical past it was drawn into Alexander the Great's empire and then became part of the Roman empire that might help them develop ideas about their present.
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Graziosi also points out the diffusion of classical texts into the medieval Islamic world. With the emphasis on Greece and Rome as "the foundation of western civilisation", it is easy to forget how important the classical world has been in the east, she argues: Indeed, argues Whitmarsh, the Roman empire was "the facilitating grid that produced Islam, in dialogue with Persia". Woolf talks too of Latin translations of the Qu'ran circulating in 12th-century Europe. In this story of interconnectedness and hybridity, rather than isolation and exceptionalism, there lie enormous intellectual and humanist opportunities, Whitmarsh says.
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There are three million Muslims in Britain, many of them learning an ancient language already. There's no reason why, in 50 years' time, undergraduate courses shouldn't be packed with people studying Arabic and Greek culture side by side. Of course, this already exists in a limited way, but it's not a cultural phenomenon at the moment and these worlds mostly exist entirely separately, but it seems to me there's nothing natural in that.
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How does this new approach to the classical world manifest itself? For a start, it means looking at already familiar texts with fresh eyes. Take, for example, approaches to Herodotus , the "father of history" who provided The Histories , the great account of the causes and events of the Persian wars of the s BC. A decade or so ago, a postcolonial approach to his work might have looked at the way he wrote about non-Greeks — Egyptians, Persians, Scythians and others — and concluded that his responses to the "other" tell us more about his own projections than what his, say, Persian characters actually thought or did.
Recent scholarship, though, might emphasise Herodotus's own culturally hybrid origins in Asia Minor: It's not inherently implausible that he had a much more informed sense of the world than we have previously given him credit for.
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It comes down to networks. If you see Herodotus as occupying a single point from which Greek culture is 'beamed out', that's a less interesting way of thinking of him than as a kind of nodal point between multiple different traditions and cultures. Herodotus's The Histories is a predominantly Greek-voiced text, but that doesn't mean that we should quieten all the other voices that can be detected within it.
Into this story of cultural cross-currents also falls the study of the Greek-language novel — a Roman-empire era prose fiction genre originating in Asia Minor and revived in medieval Byzantium in Persia.
Iambilichus , author of the fragmentary work Babylonian Affairs, was writing in his second language, after that of Syriac , and he may have known Akkadian too.