Even around Christmas, interesting cultural events still get to be staged in Canberra. A case in point is the National Museum of Australia's latest blockbuster exhibition, featuring ancient Greek artefacts and artworks normally housed in the British Museum in London.
This exhibition, which opened December 17, showcases items - weapons, heroic statues, armour, shields - that exemplify a competitive and virile ethos. These ancient Greeks are presented as warriors, heroes and fierce athletes.
The present author definitely does not belong to any of the above three categories, and yet the exhibition still spoke strongly to him.
At secondary school, as a result of studying ancient distory, I latched on to the importance of applying an historical perspective to world events.
Studying the two great ancient Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, if only in translation, turned up something interesting. Back in their day, it was clear, the Greek domain extended far beyond the narrow bounds of the modern Greek state.
Something major had happened to cause this disparity in size. This shapeshifting involved an epic process of colonisation, which flowed out and then ebbed away.
Greek colonisation was covered off in the standard textbooks of the time. Importantly, though, these textbooks were written by genteel Oxbridge types, which meant that they referred to ancient Greek expansiveness in an eminently respectful way.
And yet what we can witness at this exhibition featuring the ancient Greeks and their cultural objects is clearly a case of, to use the current academic expression, settler colonialism - a term which these days is laden with grief and regret.
The ancient Greeks who feature in the exhibition knew all about overseas expansion. Cursed with poor soil at home and being good seafarers, they turned out to be mighty colonisers. Trade - including the slave trade - morphed into colonisation as they forcibly settled in areas where there was greater access to fertile land, natural resources and good harbours.
From about 734 BCE, as the exhibition informs us, Greek settlements spread across the Mediterranean from Spain all the way to the shores of the Black Sea.
Hundreds of colonies were established by the fifth century BCE. Eventually almost half the entire Greek population in the classical era lived in a former colony.
But this expansion did not occur in a vacuum. There is no such thing as terra nullius. The early Greek colonists had no compunction in subduing the indigenous population in the spots where they settled. They got their way through a mixture of warfare, compromise and diplomacy.
For a time, dispossession went unchecked. Most Greek colonies became independent entities. They in turn established their own colonies, on spots also stolen from native inhabitants. These indigenous people, because they did not speak Greek or worship Greek gods, were treated as lesser beings and were reduced to silence.
The Greek settlers built magnificent temples that last to this day to show who was in charge.
The colonies became and remained almost as Hellenistic as the cities and tiny kingdoms back home. The expressions of vitality that enliven the exhibition - drinking cups, sports paraphernalia, nobly adorned pottery, religious objects, statuettes and so on - formed part of a shared dominant culture.
The two great ancient Greek historians exemplify the diaspora in bloom. Herodotus was a footloose colonial from Halicarnassus, a place now in Turkey. Thucydides was a toff from Athens.
Thucydides lived at the height of Athenian glory. There was such a sense of superiority around. Outsiders were disdained as barbarians. This complacency bred bad behaviour. Sporting contests sought to absorb violence through ritual but there was plenty of aggression left over. Taking their neighbours for granted, the Greek states engaged in frequent wars and feuds among themselves without regard for the destructive consequences.
Such hubris led in time to the ancient Greeks, now weakened by their internal divisions, being supplanted by Macedon and then Rome. The dispossession of local communities along the Mediterranean and into Asia continued, but this time it was done by other bands of colonisers - and the Greeks were the victims and not the perpetrators.
The Greeks slumped ever further as their rivals thrived. The nadir came in the 15th century of the modern era, when the holy city of Constantinople - originally just another Greek colony - was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.
The modern Greek state, when it was established as a byproduct of great power politics early in the 19th century, represented only a fraction of the much wider Hellenic world that had been created by an extremely abrasive society some 2500 years before.
The exhibition at the National Museum allows us to see how this earlier, breathtakingly unapologetic settler colonial world operated, and indeed flourished mightily.
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