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Greece v Rome Debate: Boris Johnson v. Mary Beard

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On November 19th Intelligence Squared hosted the ultimate clash of civilizations: 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?





Here is a delightful and civil debate comparing the virtues and influences of Ancient Greece (presented by former London Mayor Boris Johnson) v. Ancient Rome (presented by historian Mary Beard).


Mr. Johnson's emphasis was on the great Ancient Greek plays, philosophy, and culture as well as the democracy of Ancient Athens.


I admit I am not a Grecophile and I do not appreciate Ancient Greek plays and philosophy as do many others.


As far as democracy in Athens, let's ask Socrates, "How did that work out?" Socrates faced a trial with a jury of 500 fellow Athenians. He was charged with "refusing to recognize the gods" and "corrupting the youth." He was later condemned to death and forced to commit suicide.


Democracy without civil liberties is dangerous populism. As Ms. Beard emphasized, majority rule (democracy) only works when there is protection of individual rights and civil liberties.


I always remember the old adage: "Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner."



To be continued .....

Edited by guy

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I always remember the old adage: "Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner."


Populism is sweeping the world with ignorant and harmful consequences, I guess accelerated by social media/news. The US founders tried to remedy excesses of Greek democracy and even Roman republicanism, but even that is overturned now. Education has become indoctrination. Science is only quoted in bits that agree with ideology. Nationalism may seem backsliding, but something needs to address excesses of robo-globalism. I used to read and like Boris' articles before he became a public figure, but I may have to line up with Mary (even though her writings on Romans carries whiff of eccentric sensationalism).

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... Part II


I have great respect for Mary Beard’s taking on noted rhetorician Boris Johnson in this debate. I feel that Mary Beard presented a persuasive and entertaining rebuttal to Boris Johnson's colorful argument for Ancient Greece and his passionate Athenian apologia. As a Romanophile and someone who admires Ms. Beard's work, I am very reluctant to criticize her.


I, however, felt very uneasy when she insisted that the events of AD 212 should be idealized.


The date, AD 212, was significant for Caracalla's offering citizenship (by the Constitutio Antoniniana) to all free men in the Roman empire.


Ouch. I am sure that Ms. Beard realizes better than I that the ruthless, fratricidal psychopath Caracalla did not extend citizenship for altruistic or idealistic reasons. According to Cassius Dio, he did this to increase tax revenue. Nothing noble, indeed. Whatever Caracalla’s motivation to extend citizenship, the failure to fully integrate a large unassimilated population into mainstream society was just one more step in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Caracalla’s raising taxes, debasing the currency, and corrupting the military accelerated Ancient Rome’s death spiral. Ancient Rome’s almost inevitable collapse in the third century was barely averted by some later competent and skillful emperors.



Ms. Beard also promoted the greatness of Rome by mostly citing the efficiency and tolerance of the Roman Empire. I, on the other hand, agree with the American Founding Fathers who felt that it should be the Roman Republic and not the Roman Empire that should be admired and emulated. It was the Roman Republic (and to a much lesser extent, the early Roman Empire) that respected the rights and civil liberties of its citizens.



By Caracalla’s time, however, the Roman Empire had degenerated into an authoritarian state that could barely maintain the façade of respecting the rights of Roman citizens. During Caracalla’s rule, the principate’s death rattle was being heard throughout the ancient world. Would Ms. Beard be as generous with her praise on the late Soviet Union? The Soviet Union could also be described as a (superficially, at least) efficient multicultural state … at the expense of civil liberties and individual rights, of course.


At 1:10:00 of the video, Ms. Beard makes the interesting comment that the collapse of the Roman Empire could be better characterized as a "disaggregation," with the creation of a new set of "mini-Romes." I feel a better term for this breakup and fragmentation of the Roman Empire would be the "Balkanization" of the Roman Empire. I feel that this process partially resulted from an Empire that was either unable or unwilling to both protect the Empire’s distant provincial citizens and integrate the impoverished immigrant populations. This failure of the central government to maintain cohesiveness allowed the mounting centrifugal pressures (incessant rebellion, barbarian invasions, runaway inflation, devastating disease, etc.) to tear the empire apart.


A closer look at events doesn’t allow for a sanitized and romanticized history of Ancient Roman.


Nevertheless, it is always good to bring discussions about Ancient Rome to the modern audiences.





guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy
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Don't know how this one got by me , but it is indeed a fascinating discussion.  While Rome was replete with flaws as both a Republic and an Empire, I still think, in both stages, Roman civilization eclipsed that of ancient Greece on multiple levels.

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