Language and History in Ancient Greek Culture

Language and History in Ancient Greek Culture

Language and History in Ancient Greek Culture

Language and History in Ancient Greek Culture


Spanning forty years, this collection of essays represents the work of a renowned teacher and scholar of the ancient Greek world. Martin Ostwald's contribution is both philological and historical: the thread that runs through all of the essays is his precise explanation, for a modern audience, of some crucial terms by which the ancient Greeks saw and lived their lives--and influenced ours. Chosen and sequenced by Ostwald, the essays demonstrate his methodology and elucidate essential aspects of ancient Greek society.

The first section plumbs the social and political terms in which the Greeks understood their lives. It examines their notion of the relation of the citizen to his community; how they conceived different kinds of political structure; what role ideology played in public life; and how differently their most powerful thinkers viewed issues of war and peace. The second section is devoted to the problem, first articulated by the Greeks, of the extent to which human life is dominated by nature (physis) and human convention (nomos), a question that remains a central concern in modern societies, even if in different guises. The third section focuses on democracy in Athens. It confronts questions of the nature of democratic rule, of financing public enterprises, of the accountability of public officials, of the conflict raised by imperial control and democratic rule, of the coexistence of "conservative" and "liberal" trends in a democratic regime, and of the relation between rhetoric and power in a democracy. The final section is a sketch of the principles on which the two greatest Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, constructed their outlooks on human affairs.

Ultimately, the collection intends to make selected key concepts in ancient Greek social and political culture accessible to a lay audience. It also shows how the differences--rather than the similarities--between the ancient Greeks and us can contribute to a deeper understanding of our own time.


It is an honor to have been invited by the University of Pennsylvania Press to publish in book form a selection of my articles and essays.

To make the selection was difficult, chiefly because the Press mandated that the book cohere thematically, that it not be (merely) a collection of my best essays. The variety of my publications makes it hard to determine what is “coherent” in what I have published. My interest in classical antiquity was aroused in high school and turned to Greek in preference to Latin when I read large sections of the Iliad. Homer’s bracing narrative art evoked in me a youthful admiration of Achilles, which convinced me that there was nothing to which I’d rather devote myself than the study of the culture that produced and eternalized a character of such dimensions. Further study made me add to my passion other Greek poetry, history, and philosophy, especially of the Classical period.

This passion was reinforced by forays, formal and informal, into the development of Western civilization, and the realization that much of it was based on what the Greeks had created. Moreover, it made me aware of the close relation between language and thinking. Even as a mature scholar, my favorite teaching subject had always remained elementary Greek; no other subject offers the same excitement of daily watching the students’ intellectual growth within the compass of one academic year from ignorance of even the Greek alphabet to the reading of a giant such as Plato.

It had occurred to me earlier that learning any new language is tantamount to imbibing a new system of thought. Every language contains its own view of the realities of life, and reflects the social organization, values, and perception of the world of its speakers in a way that differs, more or less subtly, from all others. That English has only one form (“you”) to address another individual as well as a group of individuals, while German, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages differentiate between group and individual not only is a grammatical phenomenon, but reflects a considerable difference in social norms between any two given societies. Some languages . . .

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