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Discovering Greece before getting there

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I’ve been fascinated by Greece ever since I first heard of the great poet Homer, and since then subconsciously I’ve thought of Greece as ‘the land of Homer’, romanticizing the idea of his two epic poems as carrying the soul of this phenomenal ancient civilisation.

Why Greece is special

The ancient world is deeply fascinating to me, and Greece, Egypt and India appear to be the three most interesting places in a historical sense. Egypt lived so far back in time that only some of her outer life – her architecture and sculpture survive, her social and political thought and her mystic discoveries of Truth are for the most part lost to our day and age. India, while it is a civilisation extending back thousands of years, has left fewer visible traces of her phenomenal march through Time – no iconic amphitheaters or pyramids from its distant past; One can surely make the case that in contrast to Greece and Egypt, it is an unbroken living civilisation, and that greater destinies await being written. Yet, to someone seeing the ‘outer’ history of India, there remain at best a few records from its last two millennia – some temples and almost no works on canvas. In contrast, even though Greece actually flourished only for a brief couple of centuries, much of that significant period still remains for the world to see. Visually, this is what makes Greece so interesting, because so much of its material past survived – despite Roman conquest. 1

Epidaurus theater

A magnificent amphitheater in Epidaurus, Greece dating back 2,400 years. Audiences of up to an estimated 14,000 have long been able to hear actors and musicians – unamplified – from even the back row of the architectural masterpiece.

 

“..he who made the material conquest is conquered by the spirit of the vanquished.” 2

Greece succumbed to the Roman empire, but Greek thought and culture invaded all of Rome – splendidly. The later Roman conquest of Gaul embedded Greek civilization in France and western Europe. So it happened that Europe preserved its ties to this fountainhead of modern Western society and polity. Through the last century or two, all of Europe and America have made substantial efforts to unearth, recreate and preserve their common heritage from the ruins of Greece.

But how do we really get to the heart of ancient Greece?

The plaques and short stories at the archaelogical sites don’t help – they’re so dense that they seem to be meant for researchers taking field notes than for those searching for meaning. What Greece is, post the financial crisis, is clear to anyone who has read the news, but what Greece ‘once was’ is not so clear without a genuine study.

So a few months before our trip, I began with this in mind – to try and prepare for this wonderful journey; to try and find some bit of the essentials, and to avoid getting lost in externalities. I also wanted to understand Greece as a civilisation vis-à-vis India.

I relied upon the writings of someone who was not only

“most profoundly, most perfectly an embodiment of India”,

but yet

“within whom Greece lived with a power not only intimate but also creative as in few moderns of the West”.

Someone who was fluent enough in Italian and German to read Dante and Goethe in the original, who had a mastery over French, and Latin and yes, even Greek. Mastery enough to have read Plato’s Republic and Symposium – in Greek, when he was a student at Cambridge. A Seer, who not only wrote extensively in Sanskrit, but who also wrote a sequel to Homer’s Iliadthe Ilion, in Homer’s poetic form, no less, and wrote plays based on Greek and Indian themes. It is from this towering personality’s writings that I sought a light to guide me in this discovery.

I realized that a study of this kind, however brief would be a non-linear process, and that no subject can truly be studied in isolation. This brief survey of Ancient Greece inevitably touches upon Rome, Europe, and India – in ways I could have never imagined.

On to it, then!

 

  1. We may equally claim that much of Greek sculpture did not in fact survive, the works of Phidias are for the most part – lost. But there is still incredible work to be seen in Italy – and most of it was directly inspired by Greek art. In a sense, what Greece lost to time can often be found in the museums of Italy. But the spirit of Greek polity and culture can be found practically all over Europe
  2. Mirra Alfassa, Collected Works, Vol 5 – p 342

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