The ancient Greeks had placed great emphasis on public competition as a means of demonstrating both physical and intellectual prowess. Expectations were high and punishments severe. Egalitarian principles were proclaimed but poorly observed. The physically strong and intellectually gifted were deeply admired and sought out, while the weak, uneducated, or retiring individuals were avoided as idiotes
(hence our word idiot). In the city of Sparta weak babies were abandoned on the hillsides as a practice of infanticide – approaching eugenics in its effect. In Athens wives of powerful men were confined to the house. If they strayed, then pure bloodlines could be polluted. However, in Sparta women competed in athletic competitions like the men.
Symposia, which we tend to think of as drinking parties, were also tests of manners and etiquette that included strict religious observance and ritual. There was constant attention to personal bearing and skill in discussion. In imperial England similar values were reflected in strict religious observance (regardless of actual beliefs) notably the school ‘assembly’. A sense of fair play, team spirit, and physical courage were fostered on the elite school sporting fields, which were treated as a metaphor for the wider game of life itself, especially the world game of politics . . . ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’
In Greece only free, land-owning, native-born men could become citizens entitled to the full protection of the law in their city-state. In Athens the population was divided into four social classes based on wealth.
The culture that gave us the idea of democracy (different from present-day idea) was also one that practiced slavery: it was democracy only amongst the privileged elite. In Sparta, all male citizens were given the title of equal only on the proviso that they finished their education. This privileged elite was a profoundly male-dominated culture based on heroic manhood proved through military conquest and athletic prowess. Part of the business of manhood entailed a rich sexual menu that included, for a period, same-sex sexual relations between adult men and adolescent boys known as pederasty or ‘boy love’. This had later echoes in the ‘fagging’ system of elite male British private (‘public’ in a British sense) boarding schools, as a tradition that only ended in the 1970s and 1980s when it was no longer accepted that younger students should act as personal servants to the senior boys in a relationship that could entail sexual abuse and harsh corporal punishment as vividly described in the book Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes. This book was published in 1857 at the height of the British Empire and it drew attention to some of the seedier aspects of the Classics-based education system that created Britain’s imperial leaders, a classical tradition no doubt echoing one of Plato’s most powerful ideas developed in the Republic, his Utopia of philosopher kings. The British cabinet, up to recent times, was comprised almost entirely of men educated at Britain’s elite boarding schools.
So, along with the staggering intellectual achievement of ancient Greek society, we must also come to terms with its ambiguities, contradictions, and shortcomings. It was a world of privileged elites (male patricians), domestic servants, slaves, and male-domination. Wives of administrators played little role in society being largely confined to house and garden. Among men, great emphasis was placed on honour, which perpetuated a desire for individual heroism and a collective militaristic imperialism. One area where this tradition is still evident today is in the emulation of the athletic contests that were so popular in the Greek gymnasia and which were so much part of the school life of the British imperial elite (See Sport). The impressive monuments and engineering we associate with Classical culture were consructed using slave labour. Slavery (whether the slaves were abused or treated with consideration) was an unquestioned part of the social structure.
The cultivation of this social elite gave the British leaders an absolute conviction of moral and social superiority and an overwhelming desire to ‘civilize’ their colonial subjects, to present their subjects with a Pax Britannica. It was an attitude that led governing British to acquiesce in the face of slavery and racial atrocities although public pressure in the later stages of empire compensated for this through the Abolitionist movement and a phase of Christian zeal. Intrepid colonial explorers thrived (all Britain admired the plucky adventurers who peopled the empire and penetrated its darker recesses), and missionaries poured into the colonies, especially Africa, to spread the gospel, education, and medicine.
So, from Classical society came not only sharp intellects but also the tradition of domestic servants, sexual inequality, an upstairs/downstairs social structure, and a conviction of intellectual, moral and racial superiority.