What can the Ancient Greeks do for us?
No 5: Greeks and others
guardian.co.uk, 5 August 2011 22.00 BST
We talk about "ancient Greece" and yet this can be misleading: there was no ancient Greek nation state, but rather a collection of numerous independent "city states" or poleis scattered through the Mediterranean from the south of France to the Turkish littoral. What made Greeks Greek, wrote the historian Herodotus in the 5th century BC, was a sense of shared religion, language and customs. On the other hand, the Greek poleis might often be at war with one another; they might have totally different political institutions, even different calendars and names for the months.
Still, Greeks were Greek and the rest were barbarians – barbaroi, those people who speak foreign languages that sound like "bar, bar, bar". Despite that rather binary classification of the world, the seafaring Greeks were vividly interested in the lands beyond. At the fountainhead of Greek literature come Homer's salt-caked tales of Odysseus's fantastical travels.
Herodotus collected travellers' tales from places as distant as the steppes of Scythia and Ethiopa. He reported admiringly on Egyptian culture. He did not really believe in the existence of the Tin Islands (a possible echo of traders' voyages to Britain) but a 4th-century Greek called Pytheas, from Marseille, circumnavigated Britain and wrote about it in his lost work On the Ocean.
Archaic Greece soaked up influence from its neighbours to the east. One of the earliest surviving Greek poems, Hesiod's Theogony, is marinated in Babylonian creation myths. In turn, centuries later, the rising power that was Rome fell in love with Greece (often a rather tough love, as the Roman army reduced the great city of Corinth to rubble) importing and imitating her great art, philosophy and literature.