Who is the father of ancient history

"To always be the best and to be distinguished from others", according to his father Peleus, that should be the goal of the Greek hero Achilles (Il.XI 784; see VI 208). In addition, this quote can also be seen as a fitting characterization of the ancient Greek mentality: Friedrich Nietzsche and the Swiss cultural historian Jakob Burckhardt characterized it as fundamentally competitive, or, in a word that refers to the Greek word for competition,agon,goes back, "agonal". It has even been said that for the Greeks life itself was oneagonwas. Constant excellence (arētē) to strive for recognition and honor (timē) was the ideal and goal of the Greek aristocrats and free citizens. This ambition (philotimia) also led to the fact that one always wanted to measure oneself with fellow citizens and aristocratic competitors and gain more honor than them. Only against this background can we Plato's (rep.465d) Understand statement that Olympic champions lived the happiest lives. In Olympia, as with most other agons, there was no equivalent to a silver medal; on the contrary: all who had not won, crouched shyly, "along the streets, far from the enemy, ... wounded by the bite of the misfortune" (Pind.Pyth.8, 86-87, translator O. Werner).

Describing Greek society as fundamentally agonal is not just about the fact that there were all kinds of competitions, from different sports to beauty competitions for men and spinning competitions for girls. Rather, there was a competitive mentality that was noticeable in all areas of society. The agonal was also expressed in political life, where competitive ambition often led to disputes or even coups. Especially in Athens, the court was another setting where a socialagon was fought: litigation was a popular activity of the Athenians and was conceived as a competition between the two parties, so much so thatagonwas also a common word for "process".

The competition was also omnipresent in the cultural field: classics of world literature such as the Athenian tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were written for the annual festival of Dionysia, where wealthy Athenians spent a lot of money to win the trilogy they sponsored. It was also popular to place the first great Greek poets, Homer and Hesiod, in a competitive relationship, although they were probably not really contemporaries. Even in science, philosophy, and medicine, there was constant competition, and doctors tried to defeat one another in public debates, even if they were utterly unsuccessful in medical practice. The scientific discourse of the Greeks was therefore extremely polemical. The Jewish historian Flavius ​​Josephus (c. Ap. I 25), partly trying to do exactly the same thing, criticizes the Greek historians: They selected their topics with the aim of outshining their predecessors and saw criticizing other historians as an opportunity to improve their own reputation.

Not all of these aspects of the agonal in Greek society will astonish the modern reader, but taken together they seem very remarkable nonetheless. The best way to visualize this is to imagine, on the basis of the material received, how strongly Greek cities were marked by memorials of honor and victory, or by considering how honorable the goal was to get better at almost any price be than anyone else. The modern Olympic motto, “Being there is everything”, would be completely incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks.

Alexander Meeus, June 9, 2017

Alexander Meeus is academic advisor at the Chair for Ancient History at the University of Mannheim.

More on this topic:

Lukian,Anacharsis(Text from the 2nd century AD, which explains the agonal very well).

A.E. Raubitschek, "The Agonistic Spirit in Greek Culture",The Ancient World7 (1983), 3-7.

I. Weiler, “Against and for the agonal principle - a Greek peculiarity? Aspects of the history of science and fundamental considerations ",Nikephorus19: 81-110 (2006). (critical research review)