Luke Slattery, in The Australian, 25 July 2019 where the title runs “Boris’s greek tragedy might reveal his achilles heel”
It is difficult to watch the concluding moments of a 2015 “intelligence squared” live debate between philhellene Boris Johnson and academic Mary Beard on the subject of Greece v Rome and not be concerned by the new British Prime Minister’s inability to prevail. Of course, Greece bests Rome in anything other than a contest of arms, or perhaps an aqueduct building competition. You don’t have to be a classicist to realise that.
Exhibit A: Athens invented democracy; Rome destroyed it.
If Johnson can lose an essentially unlosable debate — one in which he was intellectually equipped to triumph against an opponent not particularly blessed with oratorical gifts — one wonders which arguments on the political stage, domestic and global, he can win. And what his blustery, buffoonish, PG manner means for the great causes he intends to prosecute.
Roman philosopher Horace acknowledged Greek cultural superiority with his famous lines: “Captive Greece captured, in turn, her uncivilised / Conquerors, and brought the arts to rustic Latium.” Rome conquered Greece physically, and Greece in turn conquered Rome intellectually. Educated Romans drew their inspiration from the Golden Age of Greece, whose passing was much lamented. In philosophy and poetry, painting and sculpture, they were passionate inheritors.
Yet Beard, a Cambridge scholar most known for her bestselling popular history of ancient Rome, miraculously reeled in 56 per cent of the vote that day. Nine per cent of the audience actually changed their minds after Johnson’s rather pompous performance.
The debate mediator, who admitted to being biased towards the Greek case himself, was agog when he looked at the results. “You have voted for the bastards!” he announced before reading them out. Beard herself looked embarrassed. “I was a bit surprised,” she told reporters afterwards.
Johnson, lord mayor of London at the time, was happy to quote Homeric hexameters as testimony to his Oxford education in the classics. But he fluffed it. The befuddlement of shock loss was written across his face — even more blanched than usual. Johnson shook his head and reached out for the piece of paper on which the results were written before raising his lecture notes like a baton and thundering: “A sad comment on humanity.”
A sad comment, rather, on Johnson’s public persona — his schtick. His namesake, the great bear Dr Johnson, would never have lost such a winnable argument so lamely.
Of course, there are caveats to the Greek case: they put Socrates to death for impiety, wrecked their own democratic experiment, were often fractious, fratricidal and badly behaved. But in terms of cultural, intellectual and artistic achievements, as well as those in mathematics and medicine, the only things the Romans did for us — to paraphrase the Pythons — was to preserve and transmit what they had learned from Greece.
Roman indebtedness to the Greek genius is laid bare in religion: the gods of the Roman pantheon are simply renamed (with the exception of the sun god, Apollo) Greek deities. But then the Romans started to deify their emperors and the whole thing fell apart.
The Greeks invented philosophy. They gave us Plato from whose dialogues, it’s said, all subsequent Western philosophy is a series of footnotes. The first, and perhaps greatest, works of Western literature were composed by a supposedly blind Greek bard named Homer living near the coast of present-day Turkey, although some suspect the word Homer is really the name of a kind of literary syndicate.
Everyone wants to read — or at least to have read — the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epics are translated afresh each year and performed universally, riffed on and retold in an array of genres. The body of Greek literature — from Sophocles to Herodotus — is part of our world. But who reads Roman comedian Plautus? When was the last time you rushed out to a play by Seneca?
The words drama, theatre, tragedy, chord, harmony, melody, tone, hyperbole, metaphor, economic, critic, physical, rhetoric, academy, astronomy, ethical, physical, theology and theory are all Greek in origin.
In contrast, English words expressing the idea of authority such as chief, command, control, dictator, dominion, empire, master, officer, rule and subordinate are all Latin-based. Rome was about the external world; Greece the internal.
French author Marguerite Yourcenar captures this idea in her fictionalised biography of the emperor Hadrian: “It is in Latin that I have administered the empire; my epitaph will be composed in Latin upon the walls of my mausoleum beside the Tiber; but it is in Greek that I shall have thought and lived.”
Johnson had all this at his fingertips. He should have won at a canter. The audience that day came predisposed, narrowly, to the Greek view. And Boris lost them. What was missing that day in Johnson’s rhetorical armoury? I suspect that lack of gravitas was his achilles heel. If he wants to be taken seriously, he will need to get serious.