21 Jun

Is the U.S. Facing the Same Risks as Ancient Greece?


The Ancient World of Greece

I recently returned from a fascinating and educational trip in Greece. We traveled to Athens and four of the islands in The Cyclades–Mykonos, Delos, Paros and Santorini– plus Crete. We also traveled through time back 4000 years as we visited antiquities and ancient excavations of the Bronze Age.

Blue Mediterranean Sea as viewed from Santorini, Greece

Another view of Santorini, coastal hillside dwellings









Since I am not a historian, I will not go into detail about these ancient civilizations. However, as we visited the ancient sites of the Minoan civilization (2000-1450 BCE), I was impressed by their architecture and expressive culture and the art which decorated their palaces. In these sites on Santorini and Crete we saw “well-appointed, monumental structures with large courts, colonnades, staircases, religious crypts, light-wells, drainage systems, extensive storage magazines and even ‘theatre’ areas for public spectacles.” Amazing architecture created 4000 years ago!

What Can We Learn for Today?

Sign pointing to site of Akrotiri in Greece, destroyed by eruption of volcano Thera in ancient times.

Unfortunately, these magnificent cities were either destroyed by the eruption of the volcano Thera which destroyed Akrotiri on Santorini between 1650-1550 BCE or by the more aggressive and militaristic Mycenaean culture. And, according to our guide, Minoan culture was more creative and expressive, perhaps even advanced. I found myself asking, as we in the U.S.  struggle with our definitions of “greatness” and the role of our leadership in the world, what can we learn from these cultures that have risen and fallen in the past?

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, have eliminated flourishing civilizations and advanced cultures for millennia around the world. Aggression and militaristic invasions by stronger cultures have undermined societies providing cultural, social or economic leadership, and set back cultural advancement for centuries. During the period we refer to as the “Dark Ages,” European cultures retreated and lost the benefit of many Roman innovations for centuries.

Will We Wither and Fail?

Ancient Greek artifacts, remnants of furniture

Do we face these risks in the U.S now? We are divided about our definitions of “greatness” as well as what our leadership role means. Global warming threatens our planet. Yet, if we don’t take action or don’t take action fast enough, “natural” disasters are likely to weaken and destroy cities and towns in our own country, or bring out international aggressive pursuit of water rights where drought threatens. Or, the mixed signals of the US role in international agreements, diplomacy and world leadership, might result in the use of nuclear weapons in the Middle East or the Korean Peninsula. Many other issues can also be listed. Will the U.S. also wither and fail to maintain our democratic, technological and political leadership in the world?

What is your definition of “greatness” for the U.S.? Will we go the way of other failed or weakened civilizations? Or, will we be able to salvage our leadership and establish a better and more progressive role in the future?



  • I don’t want to get in a political exchange with others but my idea of greatness is not what our current leadership expresses. You have asked some intriguing questions and I feel some have their heads in the sand and are not facing reality. I do hope we will have some respected leadership down the line to halt the degrading of our country.

  • Greatness: When society works for the many, not for the few. When the many have resources that serve their homes, work, learning, and health. When social order is maintained by values such as loving kindness, compassion, balance, and joy at the success of others.

    We are not going in the direction of greatness. Thinking that “success” is a zero-sum game hurts our vision that this can be a win-win society. The pie is ever increasing when everyone gets a slice. The pie shrinks when only a few get a piece.

  • Hi Helen,
    I couldn’t agree more. Let’s hope for more respected and respectful leadership.

  • (Sharing this response from Mark Hetts)

    Hi Bev –
    Thoughtful piece on Greece and current events…
    This is pretty grim, but I am of the general persuasion that we are too late to reverse the worst scenarios (note: Horrendous heat wave in the West…). Here’s a sobering fact: If the entire world stopped emitting ALL carbon into the atmosphere today (in fact, emissions will continue to rise for the next decades even if all goes well and everybody worldwide is on board and trying), it would take more than a century for the atmosphere to return pre-industrial normals. Sea level rise is unstoppable, and speeding up beyond scientists’ earlier expectations and projections…
    My fear, and I think it’s real, is that the climate disasters will increase and droughts and over-the-top storms and and catastrophic floods are going to happen, going to create millions and millions of climate refugees (think Bangladesh, most of the country a few feet about tea level now). The current drought in Africa has already created millions of refugees, with famine and child mortality in the hundreds of thousands. Wars over water are already in motion there.
    I live and have lived (and think you have, too) a lovely, adventure-filled, productive life…I live in the Best Place on Earth, close to national parks and the ocean and wild places reachable in minutes. I could not be happier with my life now except for the incredible weight of sadness I have for humanity and the Earth itself with its dying oceans and crumbling coasts.
    I am so happy you have found a writing career and not only wish you the best, but hope your writing is helping move things toward care and compassion and justice. I think the best we can hope for at this point in history is to move the needle a little in the right direction. It may not save the Earth, but it may bring some care and kindness to living people.

  • Bev, the disasters you mentioned took place over a thousand years before the peak of classical Greek society. And if you consider Rome to be a continuation of Greek civilization, it lasted over two thousand years–longer in Asia Minor.
    The greatness of these civilizations did not depend on society working for the many, not the few, because slavery was a constant–even during those brief periods when there was a partial democracy. So it’s dangerous to draw lessons for our situation today from the experience of these societies.
    We have raised our sights on what we expect for people.
    Many of the problems that get headlines these days have engineering solutions–increasing temperatures and sea level, disease and hunger, fresh water and other resources. I think the biggest threat in advanced societies today is spiritual–losing gumption, losing belief that we can have what we want, having a belief that others should take care of us, a “what’s the use of working hard” attitude.
    Here’s a symptom of this. Up until the 1960s there were regular world’s fairs, where the glories of future society were portrayed. Then these stopped: there have been none since. Our portrayals of the future are dark, dystopian. It’s as if we have lost the ability to imagine a hopeful future.
    The downfall of the Roman Empire always perplexed me. Why did it happen? It seemed like a failure of leadership, a failure of the ability to renew the society, so that it gradually ran down. This I feel is the danger we face. I see it in the beliefs of both the Right and the Left. There are no optimistic strategic leaders or statesmen today.

    • Mike,
      I was not trying to advance the political greatness of the Minoan culture but to comment on their art and architectural accomplishments 4000 years ago. And yes, it was long before the peak of Greek and then Roman civilizations. This was not intended to be a history lesson. I was merely reflecting on how civilizations rise and fall and given what is happening in ours, I believe we risk our own fall from “greatness”

      • Bev, I can’t disagree that we risk our own fall from greatness. And no question, many great civilizations have fallen.
        My first point was continuity: Rather than looking at Minoan, Greek, and Roman societies as separate civilizations that collapsed before the next one came along, look at the continuity as one merged into the next.
        My second point was that I think our greatest hazard at the present time is spiritual–loss of nerve, loss of believe in ourselves and our culture, lack of belief in a positive vision of the future.
        This was demonstrated by another gentleman who posted, taking it for granted that climate change was an irreversible disaster that would bring us down.
        You ask what our definition of greatness is for the US. The thoughts come tumbling forth. Here are a few:
        — The spirit of entrepreneurship, taking a risk to improve your own position and provide a benefit to others. A government and culture that allows and encourages this for everybody.
        — Tolerance and acceptance of others who think differently. The media screeches all the exceptions to this, while most ordinary people live it every day.
        — The constant stream of people who want to come here from other countries leaving all behind, to live in a place where the first two are the norm.
        These are a few: I could go on all night.
        But these are threatened, from both the right and the left. It remains to be seen whether leaders will emerge that can inspire us to get back on that track.
        Otherwise, authoritarian, fearful China could become the new go-to model for the world.

        • Mike,
          I agree with your assessment of the greatest hazard…I think having a positive vision is pretty important and despite the news media, I think there is evidence of a positive vision in the Resistance movement…and probably a few other places too.

          • Oh lordy, Bev, I was hoping for something more than the Resistance Movement. I know that they resist Trump; but what are they for? Short-term things; rehashes of age-old policies. Where’s the vision for the 21st century? We’ve got to get beyond the ideologies of Left and Right here.
            How could we elucidate a positive vision for the rest of this century and beyond without parroting shibboleths of our two implacably divided political forces? That’s what it will take for the continuation of America’s unparalleled role.

So, what do you think?

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