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Classics is no longer seen as a cutting-edge discipline, but two centuries ago German scholars devoted to the “cult of the Greeks” created the modern university when they developed new methods in philology and installed Altertumswissenschaft, the science of antiquity, at the center of the curriculum. Ancient Greek culture provided ancient foundations for the modern West, a Western civilization that could take leave of Christendom.

Devotion to Greece was a cult indeed. The Prussian education reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt insisted that Greek language and culture represented an “ideal of that which we should like to be and produce.” Students of Greece are enriched with “something more than earthly—almost godlike.” Fleet-footed, godlike Greece had more potential to renew German society than what they saw as an exhausted Protestantism. For German Romantics and their descendants throughout Europe, classics was more than a discipline.

To serve as a divine ideal, Greece had to be isolated from the rest of ancient civilization. Early classicists made much of the Greeks’ supposed cultural and racial purity. Humboldt restrained his historicism to make a special place for a timeless Greece. Investigation of ancient Greece is “a matter quite different from our other historical studies. For us the Greeks step outside the circle of history.” We are all indebted to Greece, but the Greeks bore no debts.

Of course, the Greeks were within the circle of history, as indebted as the rest of us. Greece didn’t spring fully formed from the head of Homer. It started somewhere, and since Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the cultures of the near east were older than Greece, it seems reasonable to think that the Greek civilization learned a thing or two from them. Through the eighteenth century, everyone believed that they had, and found plenty of evidence to support that idea. It was the cult of the Greeks that killed what had long been common sense.

Common sense is making a comeback. Leading classicists like Walter Burkert, M. L. West, Jan Bremmer, and others have recently begun to recognize Greece’s debt to earlier civilizations.

Burkert, for instance, has traced the transmission of oriental art and religion to Greece during the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. Archeologists have exhumed friezes decorated with near-eastern “Tree of Life” motifs at Greek shrines, and images of lion-hunting have been discovered at other Greek sites. Greeks began building altars and temples under near-eastern influence. Burkert concludes that there was “no Greek temple proper antedating the eighth century, the period of the impetus of eastern craftsmanship.”

Mythology also migrated west. Greek and ancient near-eastern mythologies portray a society of specialized gods, divided between heaven and the underworld. In both mythologies, the gods assemble on mountains and manifest themselves in radiant light. In the Iliad, the gods cast lots to divvy up the cosmos, as the gods do in the Akkadian epic Atrahasis. M. L. West points out that in Hurrian, Babylonian, and Greek mythologies, there are “parallel sequences of gods: Anu, Kumarbi, Tessub; Anu, Ea, Marduk; Ouranos, Kronos, Zeus. In each case the first is the personified Sky, and the third, besides being the present king of the gods, has the character of a storm-god.”

Some similarities are so precise that they point to direct literary borrowing. Burkert concludes from a reference to the mother goddess Tethys in the Iliad that Homer must have had access not only to the story but to the text of the Babylonian Enuma Elish. From the other side of the academic spectrum, ancient near-east specialist Cyrus H. Gordon argued that the Iliad had roots in the Ugaritic legend of Kret and that the Egyptian legend of Wenamon follows the general story line of the Odyssey.

Contemporary classicists are catching up not only with premodern scholarship but with the ancient Greeks themselves, many of whom admitted that their culture derived from older ones. Herodotus claimed that the Greeks learned to worship Dionysus from the Egyptians, and Aristotle said that Egypt was the source of all philosophy and mathematics. In this respect, at least, the devotees of the cult of the Greeks have been right all along: We are dwarfs among giants, and it turns out that the giants know their ancestry better than we.

The details might seem tedious, but the stakes are high. Since this idealization and isolation of Greece was one of the founding assumptions of the modern university and of the modern view of Western civilization, today’s scholarship poses something of a cultural identity crisis. If Greeks had debts to earlier civilizations, those civilizations are not other than ourselves but part of our own past. As they reveal a more dynamic and accurate view of Greece and its place in the ancient world, cutting-edge classicists are showing that we have debts to worlds older than and other than Greece. And they force us to reconsider the historical roots of our own civilization.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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