How was politics financed in ancient Greece

Memories of the cradle of our culture

Konrad Adam: "The ancient Greeks". Rowohlt Verlag, Berlin 2006, 192 pages, 16.90 euros

The Acropolis in Athens (AP)

Our understanding of politics, art and science was significantly shaped by ancient Greece - not least because democracy was invented here. Given the dwindling trust in our form of government, it seems appropriate to go on an educational trip back to ancient Athens with Konrad Adam.

Those who know nothing about classical Greece know little about their own culture. This is at least true for citizens of the western world, because their understanding of politics, art and science has ancient Greek roots. After all, ancient Greece invented democracy - and lived it full of enthusiasm: between 800 to 400 BC in Corinth, in Sparta, in Athens.

However: the interest in antiquity is fading more and more in this country, says Konrad Adam. And that's why he wants to remind us of the Greek polis as the cradle of our culture. This is a civic reflection book: What is Classical Greek about our culture? But also: What is completely un-Greek, where are the Greeks strangers to us? Or become a stranger - to our advantage or to our disadvantage.

We have all heard that before: the Greek polis is the mother of democracy. The Greeks invented the citizens' assembly: freedom and equality, every citizen had a vote, the majority decided where to go. These are the democratic rules of the game to this day. And then we also know that a lot of people were excluded from democracy at the time (women, slaves, barbarians ...). Ergo, many believe that today's democracy is better, more progressive, "more developed" than that of ancient Greece.

That's right if you look at the number of people involved, says Konrad Adam. As far as the quality of democracy is concerned, however, we have now lost a few institutions (and above all attitudes) that the Greeks took for granted: the Greeks asked their citizens to do much more than vote every few years.

The Athens das Perikles had around 20,000 citizens. State offices (over 1000) were generally awarded by lot, only military leaders were elected, and they were amateurs too. In other words, every citizen had to be able to cope with every office in the state: whether finance, culture or the military, and in the course of his life everyone was also involved at some point. In the Greek polis, public interest clearly came before self-interest. The Greeks invented a word for citizens who are not interested in politics or in the good of the community: "idiot". Under Pericles all "idiots" were banished from Athens.

The wealth tax, highly controversial in this country, was taken for granted in ancient Athens. So the ancient Greeks were slave owners and equality fanatics. Anyone who was known to be wealthy was - in addition to the normal tax - permanently obliged to pay special taxes: Sponsoring was not voluntary, but compulsory citizenship. For example, they had to equip a warship, finance a theater festival or pay for a new temple to the gods. This has ruined many a wealthy man. - To be a citizen in ancient Greece meant being there for the community. At any time. With full commitment. Under all circumstances. On your own account and at your own risk.

One chapter is called "Panorama of Life. Greek Art." It's about theater, sculpture, music, architecture. Another deals with Greek philosophy, a third deals with the relationship of the Greeks to nature ... - Overall, Konrad Adam tries to give his reader a picture: What was the classical Greek way of life?

Konrad Adam knows how to teach us. Our culture often invokes ancient tradition, but it avoids taking a closer look. Basically, according to Adam, the ancient way of life is pretty alien to us.

There are many examples of this: Even today, young doctors swear the Hippocratic oath and place themselves in the tradition of the ancient art of healing. But consider: Hippocrates ’main principle of treatment was:
"First of all: Do not harm! A doctor should absolutely avoid experiments and risks of all kinds." Hippocrates, according to Konrad Adam, was minimal medicine for the benefit of the patient. Surgical intervention was like a last resort for him. - The author literally says: "This is almost the opposite of the mania for treatment and intervention with which today's medicine usually goes to work."

The book is well written and compelling. Konrad Adam is a specialist who has studied ancient languages ​​and history - and he has worked as a journalist for decades. You can see all of this in this book. An instructive reading pleasure.

The reader should know, however, that the author's relationship to Greece is very reminiscent of Friedrich Nietzsche. There is a lot of admiration for the beautiful, the plump, the strong life in ancient Greece - and a little contempt for the Christian culture that came later and has buried the Greek. Wherever Christianity is mentioned in this book, Christianity comes off badly.

You may or may not appreciate this hymn to pre-Christian antiquity. - But even if you don't like Konrad Adams' disdain for Christianity (after all, Christianity has "invented" such "ungreek virtues" as compassion and forgiveness): this remains an exciting educational journey back to ancient Athens.

Reviewed by Susanne Mack

Konrad Adam: The ancient Greeks
Rowohlt Verlag, Berlin 2006
192 pages, 16.90 euros