[MGSA-L] "The classical legacy: How the West used Greece and Rome to justify empire"

Saffo Papantonopoulou papas949 at newschool.edu
Tue Dec 3 15:06:25 PST 2013

>From here:

I thought people might find this article interesting.

A few excerpts:

In *Homer’s Turk*, the classicist Jerry Toner explores how the “classics”
and the memory of Greco-Roman antiquity shaped the way westerners
envisioned the lands of the Middle East and South Asia.

When Britons ventured into the Orient, they carried the classical world in
the front of their minds. They filtered their experience of unfamiliar
places through the ephemera of their expensive educations. The struggles of
Homeric heroes, the feats of Alexander the Great, the achievements and
failures of the Greek city states and the rise and dissolution of the Roman
empire all attained new life and meaning in the British encounter with the

“For centuries,” Toner writes, “the classical past has helped … the English
and the English-speaking world, throughout the many upheavals they have
undergone, to find in their images of the East new values and identities to
meet their immediate social and political needs.”

The residue of this mode of thought remains apparent today. Samuel
Huntington, the controversial American scholar, rooted his theory of the
“clash of civilisations” in the classical world. “The key cultural elements
which define a civilisation,” he wrote, “were set forth in a classic form
by the Athenians when they reassured the Spartans that they would not
betray them to the Persians.”

Ever since the advent of Islam, Europeans referred to the classics to make
sense of the strange new faith. The monk Bede, shivering in his monastery
in the north of Dark Ages England, described Islam as the cult of
“Venus-worshippers”. Medieval Christian writers imagined Islam as a pagan
faith, beholden to the ancient ecstatic power of the gods of drunkenness,
love and beauty. This stereotype of Muslims as licentious and carnal owed
much to earlier classical descriptions of the peoples of the Middle East,
associating the heat of the desert climate with the heat of their desires.
It is a strikingly opposite view to that currently prevailing in the West,
which sees Islam as a puritanical faith at odds with looser western

The rise of the Ottoman empire as an influential player on the European
stage made the task of comprehending Oriental peoples all the more urgent.
Invariably, the classics were harnessed in the quest to demystify the Turk.

Fretting about the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Italy, the
15th-century Cardinal Bishop Basilios Bessarion compared the Ottoman sultan
Mehmet II to the great enemies of ancient Rome: the Gauls, King Pyrrhus,
Hannibal, the Huns and so on.

More often, European writers claimed that the Turks traced their ancestry
to the Trojans of Homeric times. Driven into exile after defeat by the
Greeks, the Trojans had nursed their wounds in the wilderness, regained
their strength, and returned for retribution. In this way, the 15th-century
Italian writer Mario Filelfo could describe the Ottoman conquest of Greece
as the latest chapter of the Trojan War; finally, the Trojans had got their

Depicting the Turks in these terms also had the effect of taming the
otherwise ominous prospect of Ottoman power. However mighty the Trojans,
however accomplished the foes of Rome, they were all beaten. Casting the
Turks in the shadow of Troy burnished their classical pedigree, but it also
scripted their demise.
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