Why America is more like Athens than Rome

I've been having an interesting email conversation with Elizabeth Bowen, who's been lurking on this site for some time, I suspect, without ever making a comment. I'm going to out her (with permission) because she had some interesting things to say about why people learn Roman history more than Greek, the core of which is:
That prevalence -- at least, in the United States -- probably has a lot to do with the parallels between Rome and America. History teachers here (the ones who still bother to teach the classics) tend to drive home this point that the Romans were the Americans of antiquity. (Modest, I know.) So Rome is something people feel they can relate to, whereas Greece can seem a little more remote.
Here are my reasons why America is closer to Athens than Rome. Feel free to tell me how totally wrong I am! (In fact, I'm sort of looking forward to it.)
  1. America is a very strong democracy. Athens was a very strong full democracy. Rome wasn't. (Yes, they had elections, which did have some effect. But the Senate was essentially an oligarchy, and come the Roman Empire, any democratic pretense was gone.)

  2. Any modern democracy has a lot to learn from how the course of the democracy ran in Athens. It's hard to say the same of Rome. Fun though it might be to study the power politics, the correspondence just isn't there.

  3. Pax Romana was implemented by conquering and subsuming anyone who caused trouble. Pax Americana (such as it is) is implemented through economic dominance and diplomatic alliances. This is much closer to how Athens dominated its world. America+NATO is structurally most similar to Athens+Delian League.

  4. The geographic influence of Rome was vast. So also for America. Score one for the Romans. In fact, this is the only close similarity between the two. But also the one everyone notices.

  5. The Athenians were hyper-enthusiastic about their system of government and their culture. So too Americans! The Athenians usually liked to install democracies in any city they conquered (with a few notable exceptions). American behaviour is virtually the same. The Romans were sort of meh on the whole thing and simply imposed their own rule on the countries they captured and never left. (Yes I realize there are some sensitivities with current issues, but if you think back over the last 100 years, particularly around WW2, it's clear US policy is Athens-like, not Roman.)

  6. Athens was a hugely innovative and artistic culture. So too America. Rome was outstanding at implementing stuff, but innovative is not an adjective most people would apply.

  7. America has the most powerful navy in the world. Athens had the most powerful navy in the world. Romans loathed getting wet.
I therefore claim modern America has more lessons to learn from Athens than Rome.

Okay, your turn...


CKHB said...

Like my Greek husband needs more encouragement about his people doing everything first...


Gary Corby said...

There you go! That's the enthusiasm I mentioned...

Amalia T. said...

The biggest similarity between Rome and America, in my opinion, is in the societal decay. Rome's citizen army became outsourced when Romans decided they didn't want to do the work themselves anymore. Military resources were stretched to the max. They entertained and distracted themselves from the societal problems with circuses and food.

America's citizen army is sorely pressed to keep up its numbers. People just don't WANT to go do three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan (Stop loss anyone?). We're distracting ourselves from the real issues we don't want to deal with (like healthcare) with video games, blockbuster movies, and potato chips, oh and I guess these incessant military campaigns too, which just happen to be stretching our diminishing military (and monetary) resources to the max.

We might have been built on Athens, but we're going to FALL like (western) Rome.

Otherwise, I don't really disagree with you at all. I think we don't pay nearly enough attention to Athens in history. But, to be fair, in New York State, the curriculum has reduced the entirety of the Roman Empire to two questions on Julius Caesar and the crossing of the Rubicon. Classical history is a footnote, and I'd rather people be taught at least about Rome and skim Athens than learn NOTHING, which is where we're headed. (And Rome, one would think, is required reading to understand WWII. I mean, Third Reich really doesn't have meaning if you don't know what the first two were, right?) I better stop here before I start ranting about the ridiculousness of cutting Classics from world history.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Okay, so I'm a history teacher and teach both Greece and Rome (and Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, Dynastic China and lots of other ancient civilizations).

When I teach Greece, the students learn that it's the birthplace of Western civilization and democracy. America's government is much closer to ancient Greece's, but Greece had a direct democracy whereas America uses a representative democracy. (This is when my students eyes glaze over. Poor fourteen year old hormonal squirrels. Then I make them dress up as Greeks and all sorts of other fun stuff.)

Rome's government was definitely not like America's. If our president sucks we just have to wait four years to oust the guy. No such luck for Caligula and Nero.

America's attitude of conquest is similar to Rome's, although we started with an empty continent. (Except for those Native Americans we decided would all get along swimmingly in lovely states like Oklahoma. Ugh.) Once Manifest Destiny was complete we started looking elsewhere. Most places Rome expanded into were already populated, usually with folks who weren't thrilled with the idea of being Rome (hello Carthage).

And I just had another point that I totally forgot. I'll probably be back.

K.M. Cruz said...

While I can see the parallels, and being a classics major myself. I feel a very good case for our own government being closer to an oligarchy than a democracy could be made. Which is why I believe America is closer to Rome than we'd like to think.

Aven said...

Ok, here goes!
1)I really can't get over the distinct difference between direct democracy and representative democracy; that means, to me, that Rome is a much closer parallel than Athens (the Republic, of course; I grant you that the Empire is not a good comparison). And I may be cynical, but I agree with K.M. Cruz that America is essentially an oligarchy (and always has been), or perhaps better, a plutocracy (which usually works out to the same thing); not only do a small number of families provide a large number, comparatively, of the top officials, but also the cost of candidacy is so extreme and prohibitive that even those outsiders that do become officials are beholden to a small cadre of financial backers. And as for an engaged and enthusiastic electorate -- although Americans may be proud of their system, with a voting turnout of about 30%, even at the national level, it's far, far below Athenian participation rates; large parts of the population are effectively disenfranchised, as was true in Rome (mainly because of distance from the city). And the wealthy have disproportionate weight in determining the outcome of elections, by their spending on campaigns, just as the wealthiest could essentially buy the Roman voters with games etc. Not to mention, of course, the deliberate modelling of parts of the American system on the Roman Senate and governors etc...

2) I agree, to some extent, with your analysis of the non-military empire, though I disagree about the Athenian empire: they certainly used military force to maintain and expand their empire, with punitive actions against rebellious states, etc. (Cf. the Melian dialogue, for instance). And in some ways the American "empire" resembles the Roman pattern in the mid-Republic, when they relied on diplomacy, auctoritas, and strategic interference to control their "client kings", especially in the Greek world and the eastern Mediterranean. Think of American actions in central and south America, where leaders or oppositions are supported with military supplies or American approval, regardless of the internal conditions in the country. Much of their middle Eastern policy worked like that for a while, too.

Um, I don't know how long these comments can be; I think I'll start another one, since I have lots more to say!

Matthew Delman said...

I see your points, and I'll raise you another for the side of America is Rome:

We (meaning the U.S.) have troops stationed in a little over 100 countries around the world. We've gotten to the point where we're using contractors (mercenaries) to do work that our own soldiers can't or won't do, and thus results in further weakening of our armed forces.

Why is this important? Well, because I have a theory that someday the US will be invaded, and all our soldiers will be overseas in other countries when we need them here.

Precisely the thing that happened to Rome.

Elizabeth said...

Lurking sounds so very stalker-y. :) But yeah, I have been hanging around for a while. It's so hard to find other people who are obsessed with dead Greeks and Romans!

Anyway, I'm glad our conversation led to such an interesting post. Some reactions, in no particular order:

1) Technically, we're a republic, though we've become much more democratic over the years. The framers of the Constitution actually wanted to avoid too much democracy, which is why we have things like the electoral college. (Poorly understood even by most Americans.) The framers looked to both Athens and Rome when creating our government system (as well as to the British government), but a lot of the lingo -- Senate, checks and balances, census -- came to us via Rome. I think that's one reason why people see more of Rome than Athens in our government.

Alas, I think we're becoming more oligarchic. Money talks here. Way too much. (I wish it would shut up, frankly.)

2) Conquest vs. economic dominance: I think this is quite an astute point. However much some people want to paint Americans as imperialists, most Americans are wary of foreign adventures. We refused to help the French during their revolution, despite appeals for aid; we were reluctant to enter both world wars; and Vietnam and Iraq were entered without a formal declaration of war and without support from at least half the country. Our most hard-fought and devastating war was our Civil War against each other.

3) Hyper-enthusiasm: Ha! Yes, and this is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Our system has done so well by us that we think it should work for everybody, without realizing that our system is the product of centuries upon centuries of a political, legal, and cultural inheritance that most of the world doesn't share.

4) Innovative and artistic culture -- This is the most interesting part of your post, because artistic achievement isn't something we're often given credit for. (Not by our own commentators, at least.) We're accused of being cultural pirates -- more Roman than Athenian. We're also accused of exporting trash to the world. (And when I hear some pop music, it's hard to argue.)

5) "Romans loathed getting wet" -- HA! Have you ever read The Cartoon History of the Universe? The part about the Roman navy is hilarious.

There's more I'd like to say, but it'll have to wait. Thanks for the post and the shout-out, and hi to everyone here. :)

Matthew Delman said...

Aven --

I did some math on the voter turnout numbers awhile back -- hearing 30% of the population is kind of a false negative as a number.

Consider perhaps that each of those 100 million voters has one child. Your population hits 200 million, but that child can't vote because they're under the age of 18. You need only include those who don't vote, those who aren't registered, and every other class you can think of to hit the nearly 300 million people who do live in the U.S.

Also, Gary, didn't you do a post awhile back that said only Athenian men who were considered "Adults" could vote to make decisions?

It's the same thing really. So you see, the U.S. can't be a "pure" democracy because everyone who lives here is counted population-wise, but not everyone who lives here is eligible to vote.

Aven said...

Right. Onward...

3) I also agree with AmeliaTD about the army; the change from citizen to professional army is similar to the Roman experience, and the growing proportion of the American army staffed by those from the poorest classes of American society is also strongly reminiscent of Rome in the late Republic, unlike the hoplite army which had a property qualification. Though that argument founders somewhat on the use of mercenaries by Athens in the later stages of the Peloponnesian War, and the growing importance of the landless rowers in the navy, so I'll call that a draw.

4) One of the biggest differences from Athens, in my mind, and similarities to Rome, is the ethnic fluidity of America. Athens was a basically ethnically pure state, in which you had to be born to 2 Athenian parents (under the Periclean law) to have citizenship, and almost no one else could gain citizenship, least of all their subject states in the empire. Rome, on the other hand, was open to 'immigrants' (to be a bit anachronistic) at all times, granting citizenship remarkably freely, and eventually extending it to large numbers of people outside its historical borders. And, crucially, much of Rome's population was descended from freed slaves; and though the circumstances are obviously vastly different, and resulted in very different social situations, America's population is also made up of a large number of descendants of freed slaves, who came to the country against their will, but have become (somewhat) integrated and in some cases have risen to economic and political prominence.

5) I won't argue with your point about cultural production and originality; I think that's generally right. Though I will point out that certain aspects of American society seem very similar to the Roman fascination for bloodsports, and willingness to be distracted from important issues by entertainment and festivals of various sorts.

Er, I think that's everything that occurs to me right now. Oh, other than to say that part of the reason, of course, that Rome has been taught more than Greece for the last hundred or so years is the *British* perception of their Empire as similar to the Roman Empire; that perception is also flawed, of course, but there are many ways in which it does make sense.

No comparison or parallel will be completely accurate, of course; there are aspects of America that are like Rome (at various periods), aspects that are like Athens, and many aspects that are like neither. But it's a fun game to play, to make the comparisons -- thank you for giving me the opportunity to do so!

(Oh, and full disclosure of potential bias: I'm a Latinist and a Canadian!)

Aven said...

Matthew --

I'll grant you that the voter turnout figure was plucked from my memory (it tends to be bandied about whenever Canadian voter turnout drops: "uh oh, look how bad our turnout is!" "yeah, but it's still better than the US" (we have our own cultural issues!)). But I thought that it was 30% of *eligible voters*, not of the entire population. I know that in Canada, we've historically managed around 60-65% voter turnout, as measured as a percentage of eligible voters, though the number's dropped in each of the last few elections.

As for the many people who were not allowed to vote; that's true, but it's just as true of Athens as of Rome, if not more so, since resident aliens and freed slaves could become citizens, with the ability to vote, at Rome, but not at Athens. But in both states only adult men could vote, and at various times both states had property qualifications for voting and/or standing for office (though I'll grant that at the height of the radical democracy at Athens, those property qualifications were abolished).

Gary Corby said...

Wow, I'm stunned at how erudite you all are! But not surprised, especially in Aven's case since she happens to be a Classics Prof!

Matthew, the answer to your pseudo-question is Athenian male citizens weren't fully legal adults until their Dads were dead, but they had the franchise from the day they turned 18.

Melos is the case I was thinking of when I said there were notable exceptions to Athens installing democracies.

Mercenaries are a time-honored system of beefing up an army, and if anything, I would have thought the US forces run a very low percentage compared to historical norms? The British were also very chary of mercs and I guess

You've got me on social fluidity. Joining the club in Athens was very difficult. Rome was very easy to join.

It never occurred to me the US view might be inherited from the British, but of course it's almost certainly true.

Something else I thought of later: I believe Jefferson was a gifted classicist and that surely must have influenced him.

Amalia T. said...

Oh haven't you heard? Texas is writing Jefferson out of American history with along with all his hogwash about "separation of church and state" so he's no longer making the cut as a founding father. (I wish I were kidding.)

That though, is probably a bit off topic...

Bane of Anubis said...

I'm definitely in line w/ Amalia T -- thanks for putting it better than I ever could have.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Bane, as far as I can see everyone's put their points with amazing skill. It's a good sign for the future, IMHO, that people have obviously thought this stuff through so deeply.

RWMG said...

It was very much a cliche when I was being taught classics at school in Britain in the early to mid 1970s that Britain was Greece giving America (Rome) a much needed injection of culture.

Loretta Ross said...

Thanks for another excellent post, and one that's led to a fascinating discussion. I have little to add except to note that the single thing that always annoyed me most about Greek culture is the same thing that most annoys me about American culture.

I'm talking about the pursuit of physical perfection. In Ancient Greece it meant anatomically incorrect (ha!) statues of athletes and maidens and impossibly beautiful paintings of gods and goddesses. Now it means anatomically incorrect fashion dolls (Barbie, anyone?) and airbrushed magazine photos of anorexic celebrities.

I agree, btw, that America is rapidly becoming an oligarchy and I, too, wish that money would shut the hell up already!

Elizabeth said...

Amalia T: The biggest similarity between Rome and America, in my opinion, is in the societal decay.

I once made a list of Edward Gibbon's reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Then I passed the list out to my classmates and asked them to name the country the list described. Every single person said America. Ouch.

Amalia T: We might have been built on Athens, but we're going to FALL like (western) Rome.

See, I've always thought we're more like late Republican Rome than late Imperial Rome. We're facing plenty of problems, but we're still an incredibly powerful and prosperous society. Our problems don't get addressed because our political class is dysfunctional -- so much like the Roman political class when Julius Caesar was a young man.

Amalia T: I better stop here before I start ranting about the ridiculousness of cutting Classics from world history.

Rant away -- I'll cheer you on. History in general is being cut. All the humanities are. Usually, I think it's just because the powers that be don't know any better. But sometimes it seems like a calculated scheme to turn us into mindless little worker bees. Whenever I hear people talk about how a classic liberal arts education should be replaced with "practical" vocational training, I want to scream.

Stephanie Thornton: Then I make them dress up as Greeks and all sorts of other fun stuff.

Fun! I loved doing re-enactments in school. So much better than busy work. :)

Stephanie Thornton: Rome's government was definitely not like America's. If our president sucks we just have to wait four years to oust the guy. No such luck for Caligula and Nero.

One reason why I think we're more like Republican than Imperial Rome. Our system's still in place, even if it's being battered from all sides.

Aven: And in some ways the American "empire" resembles the Roman pattern in the mid-Republic, when they relied on diplomacy, auctoritas, and strategic interference to control their "client kings"

Yes. I think a Roman from the mid-Republic would see a lot that's familiar in our foreign policy.

Gary: Mercenaries are a time-honored system of beefing up an army, and if anything, I would have thought the US forces run a very low percentage compared to historical norms?

Yes. And I believe there are strict rules about the role of contractors in combat -- i.e., they're not supposed to be there, and they're not part of the military. I'm not a fan of using contractors even for auxiliary functions, but at least we're not filling our ranks with them. (Yet.)

Gary: I believe Jefferson was a gifted classicist and that surely must have influenced him.

A lot of the founders were. Hamilton and Madison made frequent references to classical history in the Federalist Papers (which they published under a Latin pseudonym!).

Loretta Ross: I have little to add except to note that the single thing that always annoyed me most about Greek culture is the same thing that most annoys me about American culture.

I'm talking about the pursuit of physical perfection.

This interests me, because that's something I admire about the Greeks. The idea that a whole person is one who pursues excellence in mind, body, and character is due for a revival, I think.

But then, I love sports. :)

Loretta Ross said...

But there is a difference, don't you see, between "excellence", especially excellence in sports, and the demand that human beings meet an arbitrary set of specifications labelled "perfection".

First, this "physical perfection" is something that many, many people can never even aspire to. You must be this tall and no taller than that. Your features must be regular. You must weigh no more than this. You must have been born an endomorph or mesomorph and Gods help you if you are an ectomorph. This kind of thinking makes virtues and shames out of things that are not in any wise under a person's control.

Secondly, demanding a uniform standard of beauty undermines the incredible variety of the human race.

Finally, an illusion of perfection is something that I, personally, can simply never relate to. In this I'm speaking primarily of fictional characters. I'll take a protagonist with a broken nose and a nasty temper over one who's charming and gorgeous any day. Perfect people simply don't ring true to me.

Matthew Delman said...

I love discussions like this.

Also, re: voter turnout numbers. I checked the stats again for recent American presidential elections, in case anyone's interested:

133 million people voted in the US presidential election of 2008, out of a total of 213 million who were eligible. This results in a total voter turnout of 62.36%.

Which is significantly better than the 30% that people keep bandying around. In fact, this website has more detail on the figures for recent elections.

Elizabeth --

I'm with you on hating it when people deride a liberal arts education. My degree's in journalism, but my first and last loves in academia are English and History. 'Course, I'm a storyteller at heart so that shouldn't surprise anyone :).

One of the things that's bothered me for ages is that we're taught to analyze novels and poems in rote, and forced to read complex tales that we might not have the life experience to understand quite yet.

I've said in other places that I didn't like Hemingway when I read him in college; that might be different now because I'm older and thus more likely to get what he's talking about.

A classics education shouldn't go away, but it does need to change.

Joanna said...

Wow. The responses here are wonderful, and some...a little depressing albeit true.

Amalia T. is correct--the latest generations of students aren't learning much at all about classical society and history. My only memory (prior to college) is an assignment we were given in sixth grade to pick an ancient civilization and rebuild it. We were given a list of cities to choose from. Rome and Ancient Egypt were picked first. I sat in the back, so by the time I got up to choose, I was stuck with Ur (although I do pride myself on my modern-day slogan for the Sumerian mall: Ur Mall is YOUR mall!--but hey, I was 11)

The only reason I studied classical Greek in college at all is because I was the type of kid who had to wait for her mom at the library everyday after school. So I discovered it on my own.

And after seeing all of these very astute comparisons to both Athens and Rome, I'm starting to question our educational system even more so. Will the next generation even hear of Athens at all? Thanks to Caesar, I think Rome will always be a footnote, but...well, I guess it's just a little frightening.

As for the debate at hand, I've come in so late in the game and read over all of the comments, that I'm finding it hard-pressed to come up with something new to add (aside from my embarrassing childhood memory above), so I'm just going to say that very, very good arguments were made on both sides, and my intellectual curiosity has received a jump start this morning. So thank you!

Great post, Gary!

Gary Corby said...

What's scary for me is next time I sit down to write in the blog, I'm going to know there are all these seriously well educated and clever people reading it. Hope I can keep up with you.

Can I point out, for all the depressing thoughts about the future of education, that Elizabeth is obviously barely out of the system, and if it can produce someone of her insight then something must be working right! Stephanie and Aven are teaching as hard as they can go. All is not lost!

Amalia T. said...

Just a few notes:

Jefferson and the other founding fathers were educated men-- Higher education at that time WAS a classics education. That used to be THE education! A foundation in Latin and Greek and the Classics was thought essential for all further education, regardless of how it might or might not be applied in the real world. Obviously this is no longer the case today, as we've moved toward vocational and specialized training as our industry has become more highly specialized. I was at a writer's conference a few years ago which was themed with writers who come from scientific and medical backgrounds, and THEY said that Medical schools are dying for students who have some background in liberal arts as well as the sciences because those people are more innovative/able to think outside of the box. This is something that ALL specialized fields are losing by stripping away the arts. You can't raise up Science without the arts to support it and create new solutions to old problems, imho.

Re: perfection
I disagree that America pursues this, or at the very least that it is one of our major drives as a culture. Sure, everyone wants to be pretty, and sure, supermodels and actresses are pretty well popularized as an impossible standard, but we rejected Eugenics as a nation, and I think we've learned from the mistake of the perfect master race. Standards of beauty change over time, and even now they/we are taking the first steps toward more natural looks by forbidding people under a certain wait from modeling and forcing these starved women to eat. It isn't at all fixed, but as HEALTH conscious as the world is becoming, I have plenty of faith that it will get there. Also, crazy thin supermodels and impossible standards of beauty are NOT limited to America. And lets not forget that until recently the Chinese bound the feet of their girls so that they couldn't grow properly to achieve a "perfect" beauty-- and I would dare to suggest that China was not really all that influenced by Rome or Greece.

Re: Voting statistics
Matt, the 2008 election had a historic turnout from what I knew-- What are the numbers for 2004? That might be a more correct assessment of an average election.

Bane: I am flattered! But also certain if you had gotten to it first, your response would have taken the words out of my mouth.

I think that's all for now... I might be back for more later.

Matthew Delman said...

Amalia --

Interesting historical tidbit from my wife (who knows ridiculous amounts of facts about WWII and the Holocaust): U.S. scientists were the first ones to craft the theories behind Eugenics. The Nazis only apparently got the idea for the "Master Race" after they saw the presentation at the World's Fair in the 1930s.

I already mentioned this separately, but I'll say it here for everyone else -- voter turnout in 2004 was 60.71% of those eligible.

Amalia T. said...

Matt: I know-- but ultimately we didn't pursue it to that extreme end (though we were sterilizing insane people along with the rest of the world for longer than I'd like to admit), and when we saw other people carrying it too far, we helped put a stop to it (belatedly perhaps but still) and I don't think that the world would tolerate a recurrence by anyone.

I researched Eugenics practices and insane asylums of the early part of the 20th century for a book I'm working on, and man, it is horrifying. But like I said, we've rejected that kind of behavior now on the whole.

Aven said...

I don't think I can reply to everything that's been said -- it's all very interesting, though! -- but here are a few thoughts:

Matthew: I cheerfully withdraw my comment about US voter turnout, which was plucked from my terminally faulty memory and should therefore be discarded. I don't know, offhand, how the actual figures would compare to either Greece or Rome.

Elizabeth: I completely agree about the Late Republic as being the closest parallel period for the US, as I see it. Which may be why I have no trouble seeing those connections -- my area of work is the late Rep. and early Augustan periods, so that's what I naturally think of when I think of Rome (unlike many, who probably think of the longer-lasting Empire).

Re: physical perfection in Greece, again that's partially a result of the basic ethnic homogeneity of the culture. Although the ideal proportions weren't possible for most people even in Athens, at least they were based around the same type of body structure as most citizens had. In the US, or any of the more heterogeneous societies today, such a monolithic model is absurd (though that doesn't stop it from existing, of course). I think the question about whether the US, and other cultures, are pursuing "perfection" or "excellence" or "health" is a complex question, and though there may be parallels to the Greek world, it's a lot more complicated than that. (And issues of race, class, gender, etc. are so important to that discussion, and culturally specific).

Finally, re: Classics in school, you don't have to convince me of the utility/desirability, of course! But while the humanities in general are under threat right now, I actually don't see a huge change in the amount of Classics being taught in Canadian schools, anyway, from 10-20 years ago; ever since Latin stopped being mandatory, there hasn't been a huge amount taught, in most places, but it's available at university, and actually the Myth and Civilization courses are not at all badly enrolled, usually. So it's not all doom and despair... yet...

Pam Harrison said...

Ha! Great comments, magnificent dialogue. Great article. Loved Elizabeth's reference to The Cartoon History of the Universe. I'm proud to say my son loves that book, he has read it numerous times, quite literally because he says it covered a lot more than was covered at his school. ;)

L. T. Host said...

I.... I feel inadequate to comment. I thought my grasp of the classics was strong, but clearly not as strong as the people that frequent your blog, Gary!

This has been an interesting read and debate.

Elizabeth said...

Wow! It's such a pleasure to read everyone's comments. I feel like I've stumbled on the 21st century equivalent of an Enlightenment salon. Thanks to Gary for starting the conversation and providing the forum to continue it.


I agree there's a difference between excellence and perfection, but I don't think there's anything wrong with the pursuit itself -- as long as you recognize your goal is impossible, and you're okay with that. "Better to shoot for the stars and miss than aim for the gutter and hit it." No human being can be perfect, and the vast majority of us will never have the success of Peyton Manning, J.K. Rowling, or Winston Churchill. That doesn't mean we shouldn't play football, write, or go into politics, and strive for the best while doing so.

And I know you're not saying people shouldn't strive, believe me! I'm just saying I see the pursuit of beauty as a pursuit like any other. Striving toward a worthwhile goal, even if it might not be attained.

As for what, exactly, beauty is -- well, it's different for everyone. Two of my brothers have a neverending debate about who's more beautiful, Jennifer Connelly or Scarlett Johansson. Listening to them argue about something so subjective is hilarious. :)

Elizabeth said...


Regarding fictional characters: this is probably something we'll have to agree to disagree on, because I'm the opposite! :) I love gorgeous and charming heroes. I agree annoyingly perfect characters are, well, annoying, but there's a difference between annoyingly perfect, and brilliant but flawed.

Take, for example, Enjolras in Les Miserables. He's brilliant. He's charming. He's so handsome, people call him Apollo. He's a natural leader; he can inspire people to action with a word.

And he uses his great gifts to lead his friends to their deaths. Because he's too young, too reckless, and too convinced in the rightness of his cause to be wise.

I love characters like Enjolras -- characters whose greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses. A fierce belief in yourself and your abilities is necessary for success, but it can lead you to tragically overestimate yourself. Self-doubt can keep you from pursuing a goal you value, but it can give you a healthy perspective of your limitations. Beauty can give you a great belief in your worth. But what happens when your beauty fades? Or when someone more beautiful comes along?

The problem with outstanding fictional characters isn't their greatness; it's the fact that so few writers understand that greatness comes with a hefty price. You can't give a character everything and expect that to have no consequences. At the very least, a gifted hero will have to deal with the envy of others. Gifted people also have to fight a constant battle with their own vanity and hubris, and that's a battle they usually lose: in real life, and in good fiction. (Look at Tiger Woods.) Milton's Lucifer -- brilliant, gorgeous, and compelling -- is one of the most fascinating characters in English literature. He had almost everything. He was the brightest, most beloved angel in heaven. But he became obsessed with the one thing he couldn't have -- absolute power -- and look how that turned out.

Julius Caesar, Alexander Hamilton, and Stephen Decatur were all brilliant, handsome, charming men, technically killed by rivals, but really undone by their own flaws. And if that happens in history, why shouldn't it happen in stories? I'm not a big fan of average, ordinary characters. I like characters who stand out in some way.

Of course, I'm a fairy tale reader. I think there are basically two kinds of readers: fairy tale people, and folk tale people. Fairy tale people are like me -- we like to see the extraordinary. Folk tale people like things that are grittier, closer to the ground. There's room in fiction for both kinds of stories, but I think the entertainment industry is going through a folk tale phase. I read lots of books about average people facing extraordinary problems. It's harder to find stories about extraordinary people in titanic struggles, not only with outside forces, but also -- most of all -- with themselves.

(Sorry for all the babble, but I love stories as much as I love history. Actually, I think I love history because it's really just one huge, epic story.)

Elizabeth said...


I love discussions like this, too! (Obviously.)

Thanks for pulling the numbers on voter turnout. I knew the numbers go up in presidential elections, but I wasn't sure what the actual stats were.

In education, I took a similar route you did; my degrees are in industrial/labor relations and law, but my real passions are English and history. I thought it best to get an undergraduate degree in something important that I wouldn't be inclined to study on my own. But my electives were almost all in the humanities. :)

I never had the horrific experience with "analyzing by rote" that so many others had, so I'm grateful I had outstanding teachers. No one ever taught me to hate the classics.


UR Mall is YOUR mall!

HA! Love the anecdote. :)


Hey, you started it. :) I don't think you have anything to be scared of!

And thank you for your kind comment. I will say, though, that I've had advantages other people don't have. My dad was the president of a state university for almost forty years (two state universities, actually), so I grew up in the shadow of both education and politics. I also had the tremendous luck to go to very fine schools.

Amalia T:

You can't raise up Science without the arts to support it and create new solutions to old problems, imho.

So very true. Science can't be our salvation, but it will be our destruction if we don't have a profound understanding of human nature. The kind of understanding that can't come from biology or genetics.


What a fascinating period to study and teach. I'm like you -- when I think of Rome, I think of the late Republic. That's probably because I came to Roman history via Julius Caesar -- I love biographies, so I usually start with a person, and then try to understand more about the era in which he or she lived.

My university had a healthy classics program, but it's the kind of university tailored to educate the privileged. What worries me is when I see people demanding that classics and other "impractical" programs be cut from state/public universities. Most people can't afford to attend an Ivy League school or a private liberal arts college: public universities are their only shot at a liberal arts education. I'd hate to see state universities become glorified trade schools. We created state universities precisely so everyone had access to an elite education. It's hard for me to believe so many people want to destroy that, and it's sad they don't have the historical perspective to understand what they're destroying.


They're great books, aren't they? I give them partial credit for my obsession with the ancient world. The volumes on Greece and Rome aren't just hilarious -- they're better history than you get from a lot of textbooks.

Gary Corby said...

I've never heard of The Cartoon History of the Universe but I can see I'll be reading it.

Something I've learned here surprising to me is the extent to which our US friends feel the US is disenfranchised. That's not an impression I've ever had, looking from the outside. There's never in history been a state that had a 100% enfranchised population, but I would have thought all modern democracies are at the top end of the spectrum.

The voting turnout rate in Athens by the way is relatively easy to calculate. Their parliament, called the Ecclesia, consisted of every single voter. (Direct democracy means no representatives - everyone votes on every issue). The voters were every male citizen older than 18. The number of those is rubbery, but 30,000 is probably the max. Maybe as low as 20,000. The quorum for a meeting of the Ecclesia was 6,000. On a normal, boring day they had trouble making the quorum. So the minimum voter turnout was 20%. If something big was on, like a declaration of war, the turnout was close to every voter who was in Athens that day. But since lots of men were out on their farms that still wasn't everyone.

Aven said...

A little point about the enfranchisement/voter turnout issue; while the percentage voting on any one motion might not be terribly high at Athens, another crucial issue was the degree to which the entire citizenry participated in the actual government. With the use of the lot, annual magistracies, the plurality of almost all positions (multiple magistrates for each function), and the restrictions on repeating office, I've seen it estimated that almost every single adult male in Athens (at the height of the democracy) could expect to hold at least one office, and serve on at least one jury (which was also often in essence political). That degree of self-governance, literally, is something that is inconcievable in a modern democracy. In that sense, Rome, with its restricted governing class, more closely parallels (though with important differences, of course) modern Western democracies.

Gary Corby said...

Thank you. I've written before about office holding in Athens and should have thought to mention it here. The Athenians used limited-span public offices to prevent anyone gathering too much power. Every office lasted one year. Because there were so many jobs and relatively few citizens, almost everyone got a go at something.

A Roman Senator on the other hand held his position for life, as long as the censor didn't get him.

Modern politicians seem to last anything between 4 years to decades. So I suspect we're something between Rome and Athens on this one. Yes we're like Rome in the small percentage who hold office, but like the Athenians no one lasts a lifetime.

Loretta Ross said...

Elizabeth, I actually don't disagree with you at all. I feel like we're talking at cross purposes here and it's obviously because I'm not expressing myself very well.

T. Anne said...

Can I say here, here Amalia T.? Oh wait, I guess I just did. Thought provoking post Gary!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Wow. This is a fabulous discussion. Thanks to Gary for providing the forum!

I thought I'd chime in with my two cents on the Cartoon History of the Universe, simply for the fact that my students read the U.S. version today (we're on the Cold War). It's great! I've got one of the World volumes and the U.S. text. Highly recommended!

_*rachel*_ said...

Not that I had any particular opinion beforehand, but I'm convinced and will probably quote you on this.

Gary Corby said...

People might be interested to know 7,500 words have been written in comments. That is an amazing amount!

Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, Romans were great engineers, Greeks were great artists. It's likely that Americans these days feel more comfortable talking about the interstate highway system than about Jackson Pollock. Americans' anti-intellectual streak also does not suggest immediate parallels with Athens.

And "solons" is no longer acceptable American headlinese for "politicians."
 Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...

Elizabeth, Larry Gonick is one of my heroes.

Someone made the assertion that

"with a voting turnout of about 30%, even at the national level, it's far, far below Athenian participation rates"

If metics and slaves are factored, presumably the Athenian turnout would drop.

Comment, Gary?
 Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Gary Corby said...

Hi Peter! Quorum was 6,000 Athenians. There were between 20,000 and 30,000 voting citizens (all males 18+). Total city population is disputed but 200,000 as the rough average of the numbers people shout at each other.

So the percentage of enfranchosed Americans is very much higher.

But the average American votes maybe 30 times in their lives, I guess (figuring 15 times each for state and federal elections), whereas an Athenian voted 40 times a year, since every voter belonged to their parliament, for a rough total of 800 times in their lives.

Also, Aven pointed out before that it was almost impossible to be a citizen and not hold an official position at least once in your life, either as a magistrate or an archon or a city official. The jobs were rotated rapidly.

So the US enfranchisement is much higher, but the Athenian participation rate for those who qualified was astronomical.

Peter Rozovsky said...

One wonders what is the largest population for which direct, participatory democracy would still be practicable.
 Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Gary Corby said...

The largest on record is modern Switzerland, which is an interesting combination of direct and representative government.

In theory the internet allows direct democracy at almost any size. In practice I'm fairly sure such a system would collapse.