Charlotte Higgins blogs in The Guardian
Paul Cartledge, the first ever professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge, aims to promote the public understanding of the Greek world
If Mary Beard is Cambridge University's doyenne of ancient Rome, a vigorous promoter of the understanding of Roman culture and history and a brilliant blogger, Paul Cartledge does a similarly effective job for the Hellenes (bar the blogging). The author of many scholarly and extremely approachable books (I recommend The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others, but there are many more), not to mention an adviser on the swords-and-sandals film 300 , Cartledge has just been made the first AG Leventis professor of Greek culture at Cambridge, and yesterday I popped over to hear his inaugural lecture (to be podcast in due course, and published in old-fashioned print). I nearly fell off my chair when I read the bibliography on the lecture handout – among Eagleton T, Leigh Fermor P, Osborne R and Scruton R, sat proudly Higgins C, although as I suspected I was there to provide at least partial evidence for the perpetrating of various "myths" about ancient Greece which he then took care to take apart.
These myths numbered four.
First, that there was any such thing as "ancient Greece". (I am certainly innocent of peddling this one.) Cartledge has been at the forefront of classicists' growing understanding of the cultural diversity of the poleis (city states) of the ancient Greek world, which numbered over 1000, and were dotted over a wide area from Marseille in the west to modern Turkey in the east. Though united (according to Herodotus), by religion and language, they had different customs, political systems and even calendars – and only a handful of them united against the Persian empire in the 480s BC.
Second, that the Greeks were technologically backward (I also plead innocent, but only because I made no claim either way). They may not, according to Cartledge, have had a word for wheelbarrow - but they certainly invented the amazing Antikythera Mechanism, object of much recent research and excitement from classicists and scientists alike.
Third, that the ancient Greeks resemble their Hollywood impersonators (not guilty, or not entirely - I do point out that the Spartans didn't wear leather knickers like they do in 300). Cartledge was fairly uncompromising on this one. Such movies, he said (despite his own involvement in 300) "can be dangerous as well as enjoyable and provocative. They can pander to or influence cultural attempt or hatred." He thought the Iranians were right to see 300's depiction of the Persians as "an example of cultural denigration".
Fourth (probably a bit guilty), that the Greeks invented democracy in anything like the way that we recognise it now. Radical democracy was government by, for, and crucially of, the people, unlike our modern representative democracies. Ancient Athenians would probably have regarded the British and American political systems as oligarchic.
All good stuff, but my favourite part was when he pointed out that the Greek word "borborygmos" has been excluded from the new Ancient Greek-English Lexicon being prepared in Cambridge. Since none of the assembled classicists at last night's lecture seemed prepared to tell me what this word meant, I had to email Prof Cartledge today, who replied that it refers to an "ominous rumbling in the bowels", a precursor, frankly, to a fart. Which proves, ladies and gentlemen, that you learn something new every day, particularly if you happen to make a visit to Cambridge university.