Greece: Wonders of an Ancient Empire

  • Trip Type: Land
  • 11 Days | Round-trip Athens
  • Group Size: Max 25

Q&A with Nat Geo Expert


Author, historian, and educator Diane Harris Cline has investigated the creativity and innovation of the ancient Greeks for 35 years. As the author of National Geographic’s The Greeks: An Illustrated History, she collaborated with the filmmakers who produced the PBS/National Geographic video series The Greeks and led 14 tours of the exhibition while it was in Washington, D.C. She has traveled extensively in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas as an expert study leader. As an associate professor of classics and history, Diane teaches courses on Greek history, religion, mythology, literature, and culture at George Washington University. In her research, she is a pioneer in the digital humanities, applying social network analysis to the ancient Greek personalities of Pericles, Socrates, and Alexander the Great. National Geographic staffer, Coral Keegan, caught up with Diane while traveling on the Greece: Wonders of an Ancient Empire expedition.

Q: How did you get into classics? Did you have an ah-ha moment?

Diane: When I was in high school my dad took me to Greece and I swore then and there that I would “devote my life” to understanding these creative and brilliant ancient people. When we came home, I got a tutor from the university to start learning ancient Greek. Once you get used to the alphabet, the magic begins. Every Greek word is so rich and complex that it needs two or more English words to translate it. I majored in classics, and then earned my Ph.D. in classical archaeology. I got to live in Greece for three years and have visited at least a dozen times since. During the school year I teach courses such as the history of ancient Greece and a seminar on Alexander the Great. And when I get lucky, I serve as an expert on a National Geographic Expedition to Greece. It has been such a fulfilling and exciting career.

Q: How did you get involved with the National Geographic/PBS series The Greeks?

Diane: The National Geographic Museum planned a magnificent exhibit called “The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” that brought together hundreds of objects from 22 different museums in Greece. Such a show deserved a television three-part series—and they wanted a book companion to the series. Someone recommended me to the book division and it just clicked. Scholars have very little opportunity to take the wide view and publish a book so all-encompassing. I loved the chance to share what I have been so fascinated with for 40 years. It is extremely unusual to get to write a book with over 200 color illustrations. My book emphasizes the cultural heritage of the ancient Greeks and reconstructs their lives from their writings and what they have left behind. Unlike the book, the video series included a lot of material about modern Greece. I think the way they made the connections between the ancient and modern cultures was really beautifully done.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your current work?

Diane: I’ve been wondering about what made the ancient Greeks so innovative and creative compared to so many other civilizations. Their geography and natural resources were similar to other cultures in the eastern Mediterranean, but somehow they invented democracy, political science, theater, athletic track and field, writing history, philosophy, lyric poetry, Greek architecture, sculpture, and so on! So what was their “secret sauce”? I believe it is in their tightknit social networks, and I am using software to conduct social network analysis on the relationships we know from history. When we graph the relationships we can literally see how rapidly new ideas could pass through society. My new book is on social networks and creativity in ancient Greece.

Photo by Coral Keegan.

Q: What are the most recent discoveries in the field of classics?

Diane: One amazing find from the Bronze Age comes to mind, a spectacular tomb from the western Peloponnese near Pylos. A team of archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati found “the tomb of the Griffin” which turns out to be an unlooted tomb from around 1500 BCE. Many objects in the tomb came from neighboring civilizations like the Egyptians. Amber beads came all the way from Afghanistan! The site is associated with King Nestor from Homer and this tomb is comparable to some of the tombs at Mycenae. Continue reading about the tomb of the Griffin.

Another surprising discovery is a giant tumulus near the town of Amphipolis in northern Greece. It was the final resting place of a Macedonian prince or queen who was related to Alexander the Great! In 2014, Greek archaeologists entered the enormous chamber and found three rooms with mosaic floors and sculptural decorations. Continue reading about the giant tumulus.

Q: What is the most impressive fact you have learned about the Greeks and the Greek civilization?

Diane: A small group of people with few natural resources can do extraordinary things when they put their minds to it. The Greek education involved three equal parts: Literature and philosophy for the mind, athletics and competition for the body, and music for the soul. When we talk about education cuts today in K-12, it pains me to think we can eliminate PE and the arts programs without any impact. That’s two-thirds of a Greek education! The ancient Greeks remind me how important creativity is for problem-solving and progress for humanity.

Q: If there is one thing you want travelers to know about the Greeks, what would it be?

Diane: The more we know about Ancient Greece the more awesome we realize they were. They figured out how to fill their daily lives with The Beautiful: marble columns, bronze statues, the tragedies of Sophocles, the music of the lyre. An environment rich in the arts promoted creativity and innovation, and that is something we can definitely learn from and incorporate into our own lives. I always hope our travelers will go home, read my book, and go on to try Thucydides, Euripides, or Plato. Why not?

Photo by Coral Keegan.

Q: What’s your favorite part of the "Greece: Wonders of an Ancient Empire" itinerary? Why would you do a trip like this (only mainland Greece) over the islands?

Diane: This trip should be everyone’s itinerary for their first visit to Greece. The sites we visit are the greatest hits – they’re the ones in all the history books, such as Athens, Corinth, Olympia, Delphi – the major city-states and sanctuaries excavated in Greece. One of my favorite moments is entering the best-preserved ancient theater at Epidaurus, with seats for 10,000 people. One of our travelers recited a chorus from Oedipus Rex and we listened to her voice in a theater with perfect acoustics. Another moment that stands out for me is an impromptu race we had in the great stadium at Olympia where the games for Olympian Zeus were held.

My favorite site to visit is the oracle at Delphi. There is a clear boundary wall between the secular and sacred spaces and the view from above the temple of Apollo is just indescribable. It is highly unusual for a tour group to keep walking beyond the theater, but the National Geographic guide led us all the way to the stadium and it was a very special experience.

Q: What makes this NG trip different from others that you have led?

Diane: Travelers who choose National Geographic Expeditions are lifelong learners. Sure there is time for shopping and relaxing but everyone is there to learn, and to experience everything offered. I was impressed at the wide range of our travelers, from mid-20s to 70s, which made for many entertaining conversations because of their diverse backgrounds and life experiences. From my view behind the scenes, in preparation through execution, National Geographic Expeditions has triple layers of backstops for anticipating and solving issues to provide a seamless traveler experience. It helped me feel confident in doing my job, sharing my knowledge with travelers and making sure no questions are left unanswered!

Learn more about our Greece: Wonders of an Ancient Empire expedition.

Photo by Coral Keegan.