On November 19th Intelligence Squared hosted the ultimate clash of civilisations: Greece vs Rome. It was also the ultimate clash of intellectual titans. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and ardent classicist, made the case for Greece; while Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge and redoubtable media star, championed Rome.
As Boris argued, the Greeks got there first: in literature, history, art and philosophy. The Iliad and the Odyssey are the earliest surviving epic poems, the foundations on which European literature was built. The Greek myths – the tales of Oedipus, Heracles and Persephone, to name but a few – contain the archetypal plot elements of hubris and nemesis on which even Hollywood films depend today.
It was in ancient Athens that the birth of democracy took place under the leadership of the great statesman Pericles. And in that political climate with its love of freedom and competition, and passion for argument, the great cultural flourishing of classical Athens occurred: the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle; and the marble and stone wonders of the Parthenon. Nothing before or since has matched that explosion of talent in a slice of Mediterranean coast smaller than Gloucestershire, with a population the size of Bristol’s.
But as Mary Beard reminded us, Greece eventually lost out to Rome. Little Athens, with its loose-knit, short-lived empire, had nothing to rival Rome’s scale. From Hadrian’s Wall to north Africa, from Spain’s Atlantic coast to Babylon, the Romans stamped a permanent legacy on architecture, language, religion and politics.
Although nothing can detract from the brilliance of Greek literature, the great Roman writers have an immediacy unmatched by any other ancient culture. Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, while invoking Homer, conveys an ambiguity towards war that appeals to modern sensibilities; Catullus’s taut analysis of his own complex emotions and the scatological insults he hurls at his rivals make him seem like the kind of clever and amusing friend we all wish we had. These poets reach out to us with voices that make the intervening 2,000 years vanish.
While Athens declined into a forgotten backwater, Rome became the eternal city, home to the greatest classical buildings on earth – the Colosseum, the Pantheon and Trajan’s column. It is thanks to a Roman emperor, Constantine, that Christianity became both the presiding European religion and the force that shaped the Renaissance. Europe is still built in Rome’s image, despite the fall of the Roman Empire.
Some say that if Mary Beard had been in charge, the Roman Empire would never have fallen. Others say Boris is soon to be the Pericles of Downing Street. Who gets your vote?