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Happy Canada Day, barbarians

Dr. Pauline RipatUniversity of Winnipeg

As we celebrate Canada’s birthday on July 1st, enthusiasts of the Olympus exhibition at the WAG may be surprised to learn that there was no comparable day for the ancient Greeks. This is because there was no nation of Greece in antiquity, at least not in the sense that Canada and modern Greece are nations now. Instead, in antiquity there was the ‘Greek world,' the area of the Mediterranean (including the area of modern Greece, Sicily, the foot of Italy, and the west coast of modern Turkey) where Greeks lived—they lived not in one country, but in hundreds of politically independent communities.

What made someone Greek in the absence of ‘Greece'? According to the Greek historian Herodotus (who lived in the 5th century BC), common language, common religion, and common ‘habits’ were the hallmark of Greekness: Greeks spoke Greek, worshipped the same set of gods, and followed similar cultural practices. Everyone who was not a Greek was a barbarian (yes, that really is what Greeks called non-Greeks). Consider what a strange idea Canada would have been to someone like Herodotus: a geographical expanse where people claiming common citizenship speak different languages, follow different religious customs (or none at all!), and consider cultural diversity a source of pride? Few ideas could be more foreign to the Greeks of Herodotus’ time. And yet Canada has achieved a political unity that the classical Greeks did not.

Although they came close once.

For a fleeting few years in the early 5th century BC, the fiercely independent Greek communities worked together to repel foreign invaders, Persians led by the kings Darius and Xerxes. This Canada Day, celebrate our own national unity by reading about the brief flirtation ancient Greece had with the concept, as preserved for us by Herodotus in the nine action-packed books (really more like ‘chapters’) of his Histories. Herodotus’s work has it all: in Book One you will find unexpected romance (‘Candaules fell in love with his own wife’) and famous stories that you have probably heard of (‘rich as Croesus’), but didn’t know the source of; there are strange and stranger non-Greeks in Books Two, Three, and Four; secret codes and necromancy in Books Five; royal madness and gangrene in Book Six; and significant dreams and famous battles in Books Seven (Thermopylae!), Eight (Salamis!), and Nine (Plataea!). Herodotus was said to have ‘published’ his fascinating narrative in the late 5th century BC by reading it from beginning to end in one session to an audience gathered to watch the Games at Olympia. Fortunately for those of us who wish to take in Herodotus’s work in more than one sitting, his Histories are readily available in excellent translations in the Penguin Classics and the Oxford World Classics series. To whet your appetite, get a taste of Herodotus’s engaging, distinctive style here as a clever impersonator of Herodotus answers the ancient question of why the chicken crossed the road.

Happy Canada Day, barbarians.

Dr. Pauline Ripat, Associate Professor of Classics, University of Winnipeg.