Inspired by thrilling debates between great minds on who did it best, the Greeks or the Romans, I would like to write down my thoughts on the matter so that we might learn together what made these two historical nations stand out in the crowded world of our human history. I want to learn about not only what made them great but how they got there. I want to look into their laws, cultures, political system, wars, and religions, to get to the bottom of it. This has been done in the past, and I could recommend a series of books and videos on the topic. However, I want to talk about these fascinating histories from a South African perspective. Perhaps it will provide a unique insight into how our country works and how the ideas that govern us today came to be.
I want to start by discussing perhaps one of the most important pieces of literature ever written. It is, of course, Homer’s Iliad. It is an epic poem set during the siege of Troy, the city made famous in modern times by the terrible Hollywood film with the same name. The Iliad acknowledges or makes reference to several of the Greek legends about the siege, although the story covers some few weeks in the final year of the military campaign; the prior happenings, such as the assembling of armies for the siege, the catalyst of the war, and related matters, tend to appear near the start. The epic story then moves on to prophesied events in the future, such as Achilles’ impending death and the destruction of Troy, albeit the story concludes before all these events occur. Nevertheless, since these occurrences are more vividly foreshadowed and referred to, the poem concludes with a more or less complete account of the Trojan War.
The key reason we look at the Iliad is due to its lessons on leadership and the resulting consequences. During the poem, Agamemnon (A King leading the Greek Army) refuses to release Chryseïs (a captive) for a ransom to her father, a priest of Apollo. It’s a blunder that will come back to haunt him. It’s caused by his vanity and dread of relinquishing a valuable trophy, making him appear inferior to those who maintain their war treasure. Since he stands to receive a large payment, this sensation of deprivation is entirely in his head. A person’s perspective can often make a situation appear much worse than it is. Agamemnon did not assess how a leader might change the impression of the result to suit his goals. He eventually is persuaded to release her after a plague is inflicted upon the Greek army by Chryseïs father.
Agamemnon is also regarded as a weak leader since he permits his desire to assert his supremacy over Achilles to jeopardize the Greek enterprise. He does this by demanding that Achilles also release his captive, Briseis, a woman Achilles had grown to like, and intended to make his wife. Agamemnon’s Leadership style (which uses violence and dominance to exert authority) creates hardships for his men as his refusal to compromise leads to many being killed. Agamemnon refuses to accept reality for the fear that he will lose face.
This work of art may not seem significant at the surface. Still, we live in the 21st century where servant-style leadership is prevalent (although the covid age maybe it’s undoing – especially in the now dangerously authoritarian Australia), but Homer wrote the Iliad in the 8th century. A Greek poet is writing about the failure of Greek leadership, criticizing the wisdom of the king, a hero that disobeys orders. It’s astonishing; Homer teaches us about challenging leadership, one of the founding tenets of western Judeo-Christian democracies. One has to remember; we think the way we do (conservatives) due to lessons we learn from Judeo-Christian scripture and the classics, Greek and Roman Philosophy.
The two go hand in hand. After studying biblical texts (most of which were written in Greek), the creators of western democracy learned that humans are inherently evil. Modern democracy didn’t just happen, the founding fathers of America were students of these texts, and such they knew that to create a functioning society, they had to build a system that was based on moral values (the bible) and what we are looking at here, political accountability, brought to us by the Greeks. As a result, they chose a system, democracy (invented by the Greeks), that provided the only method yet discovered where the citizens held their leaders to account efficiently. The Greeks could only discover this system because they had opened up to free thought, philosophy, and, most importantly, criticism. This is demonstrated in the Iliad, which is why it is so significant for us to study.