First of all, Greeks were funny. We don’t usually think of them that way. We think of them as marbled patriarchs in togas, Important Men from the Dawn of Time, whom we are supposed to revere for some reason.
Admittedly, we don’t usually think of them at all; after being a cultural standard for most of the last 25 centuries, referenced by writers and thinkers ever since, they’ve almost disappeared from modern pop culture. Occasionally a television character name-drops an Aristotle or Plato, demonstrating that they are the Brainy Character and can rattle off exposition. Schoolbook blurbs on ancient poets or philosophers bounce off an overstimulated generation; suggest to young rappers that they could listen to poetry, or to anguished teens that they learn philosophy, and you are likely to get nothing but horse laughter. Our cultural allergies run deep.
In fact, though, the ancients were fantastic; lusty, flirtatious, petty and noble, and often dryly comic, witnesses to a world as dramatic as any fantasy epic or crime thriller today. A modern adult needs to tune in to the writing style, admittedly – and the legalistic translations often don’t help – so when I teach them to my ten-year-old, I compress the text down, Reader’s Digest-style, and we act out the characters. The other night, we read Plutarch’s biography of Solon, for example -- the man most credited for inventing democracy in Athens – and acted out his defiance of the Athenian dictators.
With sticks for swords, we re-enacted the Athenians’ battle for the island of Salamis, and their humiliating defeat by the Megarians. After that, I explained, the lords of Athens forbade any Athenian from mentioning Salamis – they didn’t want to be embarrassed anymore.
“What, so everyone had to pretend like nothing was wrong?” my daughter said indignantly. “When everyone secretly knew otherwise?” Yes, I said – just like today.
“Couldn’t they complain to the rulers if they didn’t like the laws?” she said. No, I told her, lords and emperors didn’t need to take responsibility for anything. They had taken a step toward democracy a generation before, I told her, when a man named Draco created their first set of laws – but the penalty for everything was death. That news delighted my daughter, and soon we acted out a new scene of our impromptu play: Mr. Average Athenian litters on the street, meets Draco.
So you see, I said, that Solon was risking his life by defying the ban.
“What did he do?” my daughter asked.
He sat down and wrote an epic poem – a song, really – about the defeat at Salamis, put on his best hat, walked to the market, stood on a pedestal in front of the entire city, and sang the entire story of the defeat. He couldn’t say it, so he sang it.
“What happened to him?”
The rulers were pressured to take back the island, I said – and the people of Athens figured out a way to win this time. It was …
“Yes?” she asked.
I paused, not sure how to proceed. Well, I told her, you remember that part in Bugs Bunny where he dresses up like a woman, and his antagonist drops everything to come over and flirt with Bugs?
“Right?” she asked.
Well, I said, the Athenians did that.
There was a quiet pause. “You’re joking,” she said.
No, really, I said – according to Plutarch, they had their youngest, beardless soldiers dress up as girls and flirt with the Megarians, and when the Megarians jumped off their ships and ran onto the beach after them, the other Athenians leaped out with swords and yelled, “A-HA!” Or something to that effect.
After talking about the zaniness of these strategies for a while, I explained that Solon’s reputation continued to spread; he became so famous for his wisdom that he began attracting other great minds from nearby places. He became friends with Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greeks to come up with theories about how the world worked. He became friends with Aesop, who wrote the fables, and with Periander of Corinth.
He even attracted the attention of a Scythian --- Scythia included what we now call Russia, on the far side of the Black Sea, so a world away in those days. The Scythian was Anacharsis, I told my daughter, who wanted to meet Solon so badly that he travelled all the way from Russia to Greece to meet him.
We acted out the scene: Solon hears a knock at the door, and opens it to find a strange foreigner greeting him. We had just seen 1938’s You Can’t Take it With You, so she acted the part of Solon as played by Jimmy Stewart, and I played Anacharsis like Russian character actor Mischa Auer.
Solon! I said in my best Russian accent, playing Mischa Auer playing Anacharsis. I have travelled all the way from Russia to meet you! You are famous there as great thinker – I am great thinker too! We should be friends!
“You know,” my daughter said, playing Jimmy Stewart playing Solon, “around here we have a saying – if you want to make friends, you should start at home.”
Anacharsis slowly looked around. Is this your home? He asked.
“Um … yes,” Solon replied.
Then you can be friends with me! Anacharsis said exuberantly.
All this provides some bedtime fun for my ten-year-old, of course, but by doing this, we learn the stories that inspired later Greeks like Socrates and Aristotle, who inspired Romans, who inspired a thousand years of monastic traditions, and so on. We take the thread of civilisation that wound through so many centuries and spin it anew.