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Taking a long look at the Greek elephant in the room
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Taking a long look at the Greek elephant in the room

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The elephant is not a real elephant, Greek or otherwise. It is a pachyderm in name only; in reality, it is a book of 500+ small-type pages, written about 500 years BC. My Barnes & Noble paperback copy of “The Histories,” translated by G.C. Maculay has been resting on my book shelf for several years; it’s time I cracked it open. It may take me several weeks to wade through it. Give me strength and preserve my eyesight!

I retrieved the book from its resting place because my son gave me a book for Christmas titled, “The Way of Herodotus,” by Justin Marozzi, (2008), a popular overview of the classic book by Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE), a man regarded by many as “The Father of History.”

As I regard myself as a local historian — note the small “H” on historian — I should have read this weighty tome before now.

When you think about it, and I encourage you to do so, we owe the Greeks for Western Civilization. Their influence is all around us, though sometimes shrouded. Drive through downtown Statesville and look at the many banks and churches that are fronted by porticos and columns, just like the Greek temples of old, with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian capitals atop the fluted columns.

It was the Greeks who first moved medicine out of mumbo-jumbo. Newly-minted doctors intone the Hippocratic Oath, “I swear by Apollo, Healer, that I will ….” The caduceus, the medical symbol of the staff and the entwined snakes, was associated with the Greek god, Apollo.

Our ideas about beauty and the human form came from the Greeks. Theater comes from the Greek ideas of comedy and tragedy. No, comedy is not just pratfall, chuckles and slapstick. The Greek idea of comedy was when the protagonist (the main character) was successful, had a “happy ending.” About a fourth of the plays attributed to Aristophanes have survived. He is regarded as the “Father of Comedy.”

A tragedy was a drama demonstrating the protagonist’s undoing by the gods because of some fatal flaw in his or her character, usually called “hubris” (excessive pride, or as we would say these days, being too big for their britches), which would lead to nemesis, or downfall. Plays by the tragic trio of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles are still performed and studied.

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It was the Greek mathematician, Eratosthenes, also known as the “Father of Geography,” who first figured out how large the Earth really is. His percent of error was around 2 percent of the real measurement. Euclid gave us the branch of math called geometry (literally “earth measure”), although he probably got the basics from Egyptians. Strabo wrote one of the first geography books.

Democracy (rule by the “demos” or people) got its start in Greece. Although democracy sometimes stumbles as we saw Wednesday, it is better than rule by someone claiming to be a descendant of a god, like Xerxes. Such ideas and ideals as we cherish today would never have been developed had the Persians under Xerxes, Cyrus and other Oriental potentates been successful in conquering Greek hoplites way back when. You may thank Leonidas and some 300 Spartans for giving their all at a mountainous pass called Thermopylae.

Let us not forget the Greek philosophers Socrates (and the Socratic method), the genius polymath Aristotle, and Plato. Pythagoras, besides giving us the Pythagorean Theorem, was also a philosopher and is credited with the very word “philosophy,” from two Greek words for “lover of” and “wisdom.”

Democritus proposed what today we would call “atomic theory,” that all matter is made up of extremely small bits of matter, called “atoms.”

Homer’s contributions to world literature were “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” The story of Odysseus (“Ulysses” to the Romans) is considered by some to be the world’s very first novel. Aesop’s fables are still told; his tales “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Fox and the Grapes,” with their morals, are still told. I could go on with mention of Strabo, Galen, Solon, Epicurus, Thucydides and others.

My personal favorite ancient Greek? That would have to be that famous writer, Anonymous, who is credited with many varied works.

***

After I finish “The Histories,” and after reading some John Sanford mystery novels to clear my mind, I just might take a crack at reading Edward Gibbons’ “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”

I bought the three-volume set my freshman year at UNC Charlotte, thinking that it might be required reading for the history department. It wasn’t, but the set has looked impressive on my bookshelf now for more than 50 years.

O.C. Stonestreet is the author of “Tales From Old Iredell County,” “They Call Iredell County Home” and “Once Upon a Time ... in Mooresville, NC.”

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