Imagine a place where men slaughter animals and spray their blood around before government meetings. Imagine a place where brutal public shaming rituals occur regularly. Imagine a place where slavery is legal and where only landowning males are allowed to vote.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to ancient Athens.
Classics professor Sara Forsdyke sees a lot of students come into her classes who imagine ancient Greeks as very, very similar to us, almost like ancient Americans. It’s a natural impulse, considering how much we have in common. The Greeks made important innovations in government, medicine, literature, and philosophy. Doctors still take the Hippocratic Oath, and plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus are performed in theaters around the world.
But it’s dangerous to overemphasize our similarities with the ancient Greeks, says Forsdyke, and ignore the many important differences.
“There are all sorts of ways we can estrange the Greeks from us,” Forsdyke says, “and we risk idealizing them if we don’t do that.”
Part of Forsdyke’s mission to see ancient Greek civilization in a non-idealizing light involves painting a clearer picture of how some of the most vulnerable populations in the Greek world—including slaves and sharecroppers—actually lived. The process of uncovering the daily lives of these Greeks is sort of like scholarly forensics: It requires a nimble imagination and hours and hours of research to yield fruit.
It sounds a bit like an episode of CSI: Sparta, the way Forsdyke explains her process. First, Forsdyke searches through pages and pages of ancient Greek texts, searching for clues about Greek popular culture among records written by the literate, upper classes of Greek society. Then, Forsdyke looks to other, comparable societies throughout history, hoping to find similar situations to which she can compare her findings.
She catalogs her results in her book Slaves Tell Tales. In one story a runaway slave is worshipped as a cult hero. In others, Forsdyke finds episodes of violent mob justice in which crowds sought redress for perceived wrongs outside of the standard legal process. For example, in the ancient city-state of Megara, near Athens, there was a popular revolution during which the poor invaded the houses of the rich and demanded food and wine as part of an elaborate community feasting ritual.
“The poor demanded to be feasted sumptuously,” Forsdyke says, “and if they weren’t, then they would abuse the rich, physically and verbally, tearing off part of their houses and carrying off their daughters.
“Plato talks about the Megara incident as an example of a popular revolution gone wild and as a justification for the belief that ordinary people are unfit to rule. But if we go to early modern Europe, we can see that it’s fairly typical for agricultural societies to have some kind of ritual or holiday where the poor approach the rich and ask to be feasted.
“In ordinary times, festivals like this are a ritual affirmation of the mutual dependence between two groups. When times are tough, though, then there can be violence, usually followed by the government lowering the price of corn or doing some token measures to alleviate the suffering of the poor.”
These explorations of the past have an urgent significance to modern readers partly because they allow readers to see themselves not just as modern versions of ancient Greeks, but as part of an evolving, pluralistic, democratic society grappling with its own issues of injustice and inequality. Some problems—like whether to spray blood around a government meeting or not—have pretty much been solved. Others persist, 2,500 years later.
“Whenever we look at the past, we learn something about ourselves,” Forsdyke says. “One of the justifications of doing history is that we understand ourselves better by understanding where we came from.”