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on 17 June 2013
Quite astonishing what Thomas Cahill has to reveal in Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea. Why the Greeks Matter. I wish my history lessons at school had looked something like this, but maybe this knowledge is rather reserved for the advanced and intrepid readers - in all modesty! As much as Arrian's book on the Campaigns of Alexander the Great is the key reading for everybody interested in Alexander, this book by Thomas Cahill is the one to get an overall view of our Western civilization, including an in-depth understanding of Alexander, of course.

This book is in fact Part Four of Cahill's series published under the global name of "The Hinges of History", comprising:
1. How the Irish saved civilization - The untold story of Ireland's heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of Medieval Europe
2. The gifts of the Jews - How a tribe of desert nomads changed the way everyone thinks and feels
3. Desire of the everlasting hills - The world before and after Jesus
4. Sailing the wine-dark sea - Why the Greeks matter.
5. 6. 7. Are still under construction.

So many aspects of Greek life are being treated here that I can only mention a handful of the most striking or pertinent elements, like for instance Herodotus' remark that "No one is so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace children bury their fathers, while in war fathers bury their children". Nothing new under the sun, you'll say as it applies to today's circumstances as it did thousands of years ago.

One aspect that is being examined is that for the first time in history the Greeks invented an alphabet containing vowels meaning that reading was no longer a gamble, as opposed to the old Phoenician, Persian and even Arab words that had no vowels. This new written Greek language was so clear that even women (!), children and slaves could learn to read and write. The "secrecy" of written language suddenly disappears, the curtain is lifted and suddenly a whole world becomes available to everybody. As a consequence, the centuries old oral communities (not knowing writing) that needed to do things together and required much more imagination, is now thanks to the written text replaced by individuals able to think for themselves, which in turn leads to rational analysis. All very logical, but I never thought of it ...

And then there is the Iliad! Cahill states that it was a very daring enterprise for Homer to write a book that covered only the last four days of a war that lasted ten years! Yes, that is what surprised me too when I first read the Iliad, but it is even more amazing to find that the feeling of a ten-year-long war is so much alive in the book. After Homer we have to wait several centuries for new books to appear, especially longer works and extensive writings. This is simply due to the fact that it took a long time to import enough light-weighted papyrus from Egypt, so that the new texts could be "transported".

Another aspect that is being highlighted is the Greeks' thrive for competition, one that is still running through the blood of today's population I feel. Their need for competition arose in many different fields and not only during festivals or games. It was a way to catch the attention of the general public. This meant that one potter would take it up against an other, one stone-cutter against the other, and also the one poet against the other. The choruses singing the background tale during a theatre performance needed poets to write their partitions. Athletes paid fortunes to have their prowess praised by a good poets. The burial ceremonies of important men needed poets to perform "funeral games" to sing hymns of praise that would surpass any previous one.

And then there is the subject of music in old Greece. It seems they knew something called "moods", what we in our modern Western world limit to minor (sad) and major (happy). The old Greeks seem to have known five of such moods: Doric that was warlike, Phrygian that expressed contentedness, Ionic that sounded tempting, Eolian and Lydian. For the ancient Greeks, to live without music meant as much as being dead - that is what Sophocles said anyway. Looking at it from that point of view, it is evident that theatre with its choruses is only a stone's throw away.

Thomas Cahill also spends time to explain the Greek "symposia", the event where men with the same interests met in order to philosophize and drink together. [The Greek symposion, became the Latin symposium, the plural in both cases being symposia - literally "a joint drinking"]. Clearly a happening that was not exclusively known in Macedonia, although they may have been or probably were rougher than what happened in civilized Athenian circles... These kinds of banquets were held in someone's home, in a special room called andron, literally "men's room", while the idea was more that of a men's club from the upper-class. The gentlemen were stretched on comfortable couches, wide enough to accommodate two or three guests together. They wore floral crows (Oliver Stone must have had a very close look to portray the banquet held in honour of Philip's wedding to Eurydike), ate from tables loaded with all kinds of food, and were treated to music while wine was carried around by servants - usually teenage boys or female heatairai, literally "companions" in the style of geisha's or call-girls. Young girls were generally kept away from these parties, at least in good society.

From the overall stories, one would expect the Greeks to eat lots of meat because meat was always used in the sacrifices to the gods, either sheep, goat, pork or beef. Yet nothing is further from the truth as the daily meals were simply fish (including shellfish) and bread. In fact nothing has changed much over the centuries since in antique Greece cuisine as in those days they appreciated artichokes fried in olive oil, or spitted fowl, fresh greens, fruit, nuts and even fat Sicilian cheeses (if they were lucky). It all was washed down with diluted wine - the amount of water to be added was the responsibility of the host.

On these occasion, beside the contribution of each individual guest, professional entertainers were called in to set the tone for a diverting and enjoyable evening. Soon the guests would rise from their couches to dance through the night, arm in arm, pounding their feet in a fashion not too remote from Zorba the Greek's dance. This is described in a lyric way as if "there was a soul struggling to carry away his flesh and cast itself like a meteor into the darkness". By the way, the word "lyric" was first used by Homer because this poetry was usually sung to a lyre.

Well, these are only a few facets of the many which Cahill is treating in his book which is in fact a true and thorough analysis of the Greek way of thinking and being. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea is composed of seven distinctive Chapters:

The Warrior - How to Fight, examining the "Iliad"
The Wanderer - How to Feel, treating the "Odyssey"
The Poet - How to Party, mainly centred on the poetess Sappho
The Politician and the Playwright - How to Rule, handling politics and theatre plays with Solon, Aischylos, Sophocles, Euripides, etc
The Philosopher - How to think, a scientific chapter with geniuses like Thales, Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Herodotus, Thucydides, etc
The Artist - How to see, about Greek statues starting with male figure to which female figures were added in a later stage
The Way they went - Greco-Roman Meets Judeo-Christian, which evidently treats religion.

To summarize, this is the ultimate book handling all facets of the Classic Greek world - extremely captivating reading!
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HALL OF FAMEon 30 January 2004
A rollicking journey through time and culture. Cahill follows the taproot of Western Civilization from today through the Enlightenment to ancient Greece. The tree is comprised of branches on how to make war, what is valuable in literature, the arts, philosophy and religion. It was the Greeks, through Enlightenment thinkers, who provided the seeds of American democratic ideals. Cahill's irreverent prose, hopefully shocking to some, reads like a sophomoric rebellion against his Jesuit mentors. Sex plays a major role in nearly every aspect of Greek society [and what's novel about that?] and Cahill delves into it with gusto. Even here, the Greeks seem to have shown more restraint than Cahill.
Cahill is always a challenging and invigorating read. He holds your attention through dazzling prose and iconoclastic concepts. By dividing the book conceptually instead of simply chronologically, you are given time to pause and reflect on his ideas. For a man relating history, Cahill projects unrelaistic modern values to ancient times. He deems the Greeks "classicist, racist and sexist". Yet these modern terms would puzzle any Greek of the period. He extols their intellectual accomplishments without inquiring how the leisure time to pursue these hobbies was achieved. Slavery was the labour-saving device of the day. No-one then challenged its existence, why does Cahill do so now? Slavery and division of resources bred a social hierarchy allowing the arts to flourish and democracy to evolve. Only anarchy and pure communism can do otherwise - neither lead to arts or stable rule. To call the Greeks "sexist" while admiring their presentation of the human form, whether male or female, seems a bit thin. Given his presentation of goddesses, muses, and Sappho herself, his stance is almost false.
Cahill's title is interesting in view of how little attention he gives the Greek empire. Their forays around the Mediterranean are but sketchily noted. Greek settlement on Sicily is mentioned, but little else. There is allusion of cultural imports from Egypt, but these might have been obtained from Egyptians or Levant peoples bringing them in as much as the Greeks seeking innovation from outside. The focus here is Athens, almost to the point of exclusion of the remainder of Greece. Sparta's militarism is touched on in contrast to the more democratic and urbane Athens. 'How Greek was Macedonia?', Cahill enquires, then dismisses the question. Yet, it was Macedonia's Alexander, as Cahill himself notes, who extended the "Greek Ideal" further afield than the Athenians could envision.
If the reader can recognise that this book can only represent a small step toward understanding ancient societies, particularly that of the Greeks, then this book may be considered a good start. Although sprinkled with notes, coyly marked with Greek letters instead of numbers or asterisks, this is hardly a scholarly effort. The use and definition of Greek words that migrated into other European languages is useful, but tedious to transcribe. It's not clear why the Greek alphabet is included, but the Pronouncing Glossary is truly only a recapitulation of the "cast of characters" for which the Index could suffice. The Notes and Sources are a good reading list, focussing on recent works where possible. There is no discussion of ontending ideas among scholars studying the period here or in the text. A collection of photos enhances and expands on some of the text, and the one map is useful if you don't have an atlas. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 20 August 2014
Thomas Cahill is always a pleasant companion to dig out of my beach bag. This fourth book in his "Hinges of History" series of inquiries, though profound in so many places, reads more like solid journalism rather than dry research findings and analysis. Nonetheless, his insights into history are connected well to the background and context of the story being told, as well as related in terms of their influence throughout subsequent history and the roles that Cahill believes that they play to this day in our thinking and behavior. This is made explicit in the subtitle of this volume, "Why the Greeks Matter."

Why? In a very real sense, the Greeks of ancient times set the borders of Europe in terms of political invention, philosophical thought, literary and artistic expression. The author makes it clear how subsequent European civilizations both depended on and deviated from the original and continuing cultures of Greece. We only need to reflect on how ongoingly our political ideals of democracy repeatedly attempt to ground themselves, for example, in the Athenian experience. It was the language of Greek philosophers informed the shape of Christianity both in its expansion throughout the Greco-Roman world, and its revival via Arab scholars and libraries of Western thinking in the medieval universities and finally blossoming again in the Renaissance and classical periods of our literature.

A lot of ink has been spilled and pixels poured in recent years in the attempts to delineate “the European identity”, discussions in which long-dead Greeks are very vocal participants. Cahill’s explanations are thus extremely useful for us as we try to understand a good deal of why and how Europeans are the way they are and European bias has colonized a great deal of the world seen as barbarian (βαρβαροι). See, even I had a couple years of Classical Greek in my high school studies and the best of Sappho still echoes in my memory:

Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα καὶ Πληίαδες…

There is almost a score of pages of illustrations of Greek architecture and art at the center of the book, a good part of it having to do with the vicissitudes of love and war, of sexuality, sexual identity and gender politics from earlier periods through the Periclean Golden age.

As an interculturalist, I particularly appreciate the wide range of Cahill's approach where everything from archaeology to politics to social structure to arts and science round out the picture.
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on 12 February 2015
The ancient Greeks looked at the world as it was and thought, ‘We can improve upon all of this. Just…all of it.’

Well, not really. But that’s what they ended up doing. Whether it was in ways of warfare, poetry, politics or philosophy–even how we thought about being alive and our place in the world–they had their hands in it and minds on it. They wound up creating Western civilization.

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea follows the Greeks from the time when they were separate, warring tribes with very different personalities to the era of Greece’s unlimited power, to its fall to Rome. It tracks the various movers and shakers of each movement through those times and makes them as real as if they were standing before you. (Pythagoras was a cult-having hippie and the politicians of the first democracy are as unscrupulous as the ones we know today. The more things change…)

Cahill provides translations of poetry and plays and speeches (some from Robert Fagles and some of his own) to illustrate the changing Greek mind over time. There are also images of sculpture, pottery and other types of artwork and architecture, showing the evolution of each of these throughout the golden age of Greece.

Entertaining and informative, Sailing the Wine Dark Sea is an excellent introduction to the history of ancient Greece and its contributions to Western civilization. At 352 pages it’s not for the established Greek scholar, but it is a good overview and gives some idea of the scope of their influence. For those reasons I give it 5/5
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on 5 September 2007
Thomas Cahill is doing a great service in making the basic tenets of Western European history available, readable and enjoyable. After a few decades of trying so hard to right the wrongs of centuries in which non-white, non-Christian peoples were left out entirely, now it seems the pendulum of good intentions has gone too far back, thereby forgetting the contributions of the cultures of the so-called "Dead White Males".

Forgetting this part of our shared history and culture is a disservice to everybody. Cahill reminds us of the highlights of the shared cultural history for all of us who live in the Western world, no matter where our ancestors came from.

Picking his work apart, as some reviewers have done, and stating that he doesn't delve into this or that major battle or expound on, for example, the importance of the trireme...that is exactly the type of dry academic history that drives off the reader who is wants a book to be interesting and to learn something new, not to pass a test. At this Cahill is excellent. I could quibble too, having my favorite time periods or persons skimmed over, but the idea is for these 5 books, the "Hinges of History" series (How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gifts of the Jews, The Desire of the Everlasting Hills, the Mysteries of the Middle Ages) to be light and quickly read.

This book on the Greeks gives us a quick look at their civilization, its arts, plays, (Homer rates a chapter unto himself as it should be, and in fact made me want to go read the translation by Fogle he quotes from extensively)...their warfare, recreation, philosophy, finally, how they "ended", when their they were conquered first by Alexander the Great and then by Rome. He then goes into how their unique culture was even further eradicated and extinguished by their absorption into Christianity which changed the uniqueness of what they were forever, for better or worse.

The Greeks invented democracy, not so little a thing when you think about it, and utilized it, really actually utilized it, for a long time. In group settings every "free male" (obviously very non-PC!) could talk, argue and vote. Nothing like it had ever been tried anywhere, so far as is known.

Eventually their political sytem too devolved into leadership by the "old patrician families" and then into a true tyranny, and then they were conquered by outsiders, but for a brief time in all of the long history of the past and among all cultures which have flourished on this planet, there was a small city-state which came up with this unbelievable idea, and put it into action. That, alone, would make them, as a people, memorable.

Yes, they had slaves, and treated women badly (no worse than most ancient cultures and many modern ones however.)

Their democracy--here Cahill is speaking only of Athen's and its' colonies for a span of about 200 years--- "Athens the world's first attempt at a democracy---a Greek word meaning "rule by the people"---still stands out as the most wildly participatory government in history. Never again would such a broadly based...model be attempted. And...it worked."

(Sparta, on the other hand,was "ruled by...a council of old men, was an airless, artless,nightmare of xenophobic military preparedness, the North Korea of its day.")

The Athenians idealized beauty, invented philosophical discussion, took mathematics and medicine from the ancient Egyptians and in the case of mathematics, kept on and on with it, tying it to philosophy and turning it something no longer earthbound, no longer just for the building of monuments for dead kings.

Rome which went on to rule much of the world and establish the western culture most of us are a part of, took many ideas from the early Athenians, used their theoretical mathematics to become the world's great engineers, and modelled the best of their culture on ancient Athens. In fact, in the ancient era to be able to speak Greek was to be able to communicate with most of the known world---Latin was for a long time a far distant second.

A worthwhile book, one that would hopefully introduce some people to the Greeks, reintroduce others, and perhaps help rehabilitate them again into our cultural legacy where they belong. Without them, none of us would be as we are, or live as we do.
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