The ancient world had become the criteria of civilization, and the West was its diffusor throughout the world. Classical architecture, the Classical capital and the Classical temple become symbol of European and American power in the world. Everywhere Westerners went, they brought with them these Classical features. The European colonial mission of the 19th century was justified as a continuation of Rome’s mission in the Western Mediterranean.
As a result of such identification, everything that did not conform to the ways practiced in the West was seen as wrong and degenerate. Even Greek became victim of this pretension: the British scholar Roger Ascham wrote concerning the pronounciation of modern Greek that
all sounds in Greek are now exactly the same, reduced, that is to say, to a like thin and slender character, and subjected to the authority of a single letter, the iota; so that all one can hear is a feeble piping like that of sparrows, or an unpleasant hissing like that of snakes.
This statement may leave one astonished, if we consider the irony there is in an Englishman pretending to speak Greek better than Greeks themselves! Such had become the state of the Western mind.
Coming back to Dietler, then. He argues that Europe (the West in general), in its mission to civilize the world through colonization, had also colonized the world of Antiquity itself. Because the West has seen–and continues to see–itself as the pinacle of civilization, it has sought to impose its model upon the rest of the world. By doing so, it has also imposed itself upon its own past, seeing in Antiquity a forrunner of the West, or, in other words, seeing itself as the continuation of Antiquity. Rome was understood as a civilizing power, while Greece–in fact Athens–was now singly elevated to “European” rank.
The West wanted to see Greece and Rome, whom it saw as teachers and ancestors, as the West itself was. This is why we want to see in Greece the cradle of reason versus religion, in Athenian democracy the direct ancestor of modern democracy, in the ‘barbarian’ of the Greeks the same ‘savage’ of colonial times, in Rome the model of civilizing power, in ancient science the direct forrunner of modern science, etc., even if all of this is not necessarily so simple. There is something of a narcissic attitude in it. The West wants to see itself in the two civilizations it has admired most, Greece and Rome. But by doing so it has refused to see them as they actually were. One can simply wonder why the West has spent so much energy to invent this myth of direct continuation. This is perhaps the symptom of a culture that has not been able to find its roots, a culture that has wanted to depart so much from its past that it had to create a myth to justify itself, to testify to its own existence as a reality. Today, as we have abandonned even this myth, we have given up even our only raison d’etre.