Us & Them: Some Lessons From the Ancient Greeks

23/04/2013 14:45 BST | Updated 21/06/2013 10:12 BST

What are we? English? Welsh? British? Are we bothered? Most of the time our "identity", national, religious or whatever, probably isn't at the top of our list of concerns. But sometimes circumstances come along which make us less secure in ourselves, less able to take our place in the world quite so much for granted. At times like those we feel a compulsion to pin down what we are, to insist we're Welsh not English, British not European, Protestant Christians not Catholic ones, etc. Some might say those circumstances exist for many of us in the UK today. Urgent contemporary issues like Europe and immigration and community relations often come down to identity, that sense of belonging somewhere, or perhaps of not belonging.

We're talking about a pretty basic herd instinct here, one that's been with us since before we were human, so it's not surprising that the Ancient Greeks were just as subject to it as we are. Historically, the thing that did most to make a motley collection of competitive mini-states into Hellas, "Greece," was an external threat, an on-off conflict with the Persian Empire. This convinced the inhabitants of Greece that they had something in common with each other, and they also coined a word for non-Greeks that we still use today: barbaroi, barbarians. The word came to encompass the Greeks' deepest fears and prejudices about unfamiliar peoples, and their sense of their own natural superiority. The philosopher Aristotle quotes approvingly a line of poetry, "It is fitting that Greeks should rule over barbaroi," on the grounds that the barbarian and the slave were by nature the same.

In the fourth century BC Aristotle's pupil Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire, and advanced with his army as far as India. In the process Alexander led his Greek soldiers to entirely alien territory, as far from their homeland as an ancient mind could conceive. And it played tricks on their minds. Once, when Alexander was having his tent pitched beside the river Oxus (now the northern border of Afghanistan) "a spring of oily and fatty liquid" burst out of the ground, "seeming to differ neither in odour nor flavour from olive oil, and in sheen and lustre quite indistinguishable." Olive oil, the staple of Greek day-to-day existence, coming out of the ground?! It was a great omen, Alexander concluded, and it's easy to see why. This strange, unfamiliar land was offering them the tastes and smells of home, bidding them welcome. Except, of course, it wasn't olive oil: it was petroleum.

One consequence of Alexander's campaigns was that Greeks came to settle permanently in Afghanistan. At Ai Khanum on the river Oxus a Greek city has been excavated, and one of the most exciting finds tells a similar story of Greeks doggedly clinging to Greekness in their new and strange environment. It isn't much to look at, an unprepossessing lump of stone, but it has two inscriptions carved on it, one a piece of wisdom from the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi in central Greece, and the other a little poem which explained how that piece of wisdom had got to Ai Khanum. A man named Clearchus, a philosopher (another pupil of Aristotle, in fact), had copied wise sayings down at Delphi, travelled the 4,000 km to Ai Khanum, and set them up, "shining from afar".

Apollo, the god of Delphi, is a bit like olive oil. He somehow encapsulated what the Greeks felt made them Greek. Apollo embodied what (the Greeks believed) was special about them, their superior understanding of the human condition, their rational civilization. He was also a god of the sun, and the Greek word telauge, "shining from afar", which describes the wisdom that Clearchus brought from Apollo's shrine, combines these ideas: this Greek wisdom is like the sun, giving light and life to everyone it touches. Well, Clearchus obviously felt that the Greeks living in Afghanistan needed reminding they were still Greeks, some home-spun life advice from Delphi, but we find this notion that Greek culture is like sunlight (and life as a non-Greek is scrabbling around in the dark) elsewhere as well. Here's a Greek writer regretting that Alexander had died as young as he did:

"If the god that sent down Alexander's soul into this world of ours had not recalled him quickly, one law would govern all men, and they all would look toward one system of justice as though toward a common source of light. As it is, that part of the world which has not looked upon Alexander has remained without sunlight."

The Greeks hung on in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) for a surprisingly long time, but they never lost their acute sense of "us", the Greeks, and "them", the barbaroi. A Greek king called Euthydemus used a gobstopper of a Greek word to explain what would happen if he didn't prevent "hordes of nomads" encroaching on his kingdom from the north. "The country will certainly be ekbarbarothesesthai, overwhelmed by barbarians."

Given time, those nomads did take over. The Greek kings retreated bit by bit until finally, around the time of Christ, Greek control was reduced to a tiny kingdom near modern Lahore, Pakistan. The coins issued by the beleaguered king Strato II tell us very clearly how dire things got.

So with the Greeks in retreat and barbarians in the ascendant, did darkness fall? Did the whole area collapse into chaos? Not quite. Some of those nomads Euthydemus was so afraid of were buried at Tillya Tepe, an archaeological site which yielded an amazing hoard of gold in the 1970s, the pride of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. A century or so later, and these nomads forged themselves into the Kushan Empire, which presided over an extended period of peace and prosperity in this part of world. One beneficiary of that stability was Buddhism, widespread across Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time, which enjoyed a golden age under the Kushans reflected in the famous Gandharan style of art, a blend of eastern and western artistic influences.

So what happened to Greekness? Did it disappear, eclipsed for ever as the hordes of Barbary swept through? Not at all, but it was transformed into something else, something rich and strange and beautiful. The way the sculptor has managed to convey the fall of the Buddha's thin cloak in stone would be unthinkable without the influence of Greek art. And that's the thing with wanting to belong, to keep things the way they've always been, to cling to what you know.

It can get in the way of something amazing.