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A History of Ancient Greece

The Glory That Was Greece

Author:      Robert A. Guisepi

Date:        2001

 

 

 

The Peloponnesian War 

     In 431 B.C. the Peloponnesian War broke out between the Spartan League

and the Athenian empire. While commercial rivalry between Athens and Sparta's

major ally Corinth was an important factor, the conflict is a classic example

of how fear can generate a war unwanted by either side. The contemporary

historian Thucydides wrote:

 

          The real but unavowed cause I consider to

          have been the growth of the power of Athens,

          and the alarm which it inspired in Lacedaemon

          [Sparta]; this made war inevitable. ^12

 

[Footnote 12: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 1.23.]

 

     Several incidents served to ignite the underlying tension, and Sparta

declared war on the "aggressors."

 

     Sparta's hope for victory lay in its army's ability to besiege Athens and

lay waste its fields. Pericles, on the other hand, relied on Athens'

unrivaled navy to import foodstuffs and to harass its enemies' coasts. Fate

took a hand in this game, however. In the second year of the war a plague

carried off a third of the Athenian population, including Pericles. His death

was a great blow to Athens, for leadership of the government passed to

demagogues. In the words of Thucydides:

 

          Pericles, by his rank, ability, and known integrity,

          was able to exercise an independent control over the

          masses - to lead them instead of being led by them....

          With his successors it was different. More on a level

          with one another, and each grasping at supremacy, they

          ended by committing even the conduct of state affairs

          to the whims of the multitude. This, as might have been

          expected in a great imperial state, produced a host of

          blunders .... ^13

 

[Footnote 13: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.65.]

 

     Eight more years of indecisive warfare ended in 421 B.C. with a

compromise peace. During the succeeding period Athenian imperialism manifested

itself in its worst form through the actions of Pericles' less able

successors. In 416 B.C. an expedition embarked for Melos, a neutral Aegean

island, to force it to join the Athenian empire. Thucydides reports the

Athenian argument used to justify their naked imperialism; not until

Machiavelli's Prince (1513 A.D.) would power politics again be so

ruthlessly and candidly presented:

 

          We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a

          natural law, always rule where they are stronger. We

          did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it;

          we found it existing, and it will exist forever, after

          we are gone; and we know that you and anyone else as

          strong as we are would do as we do. ^14

 

[Footnote 14: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 5.105.]

 

The Athenians executed Melians of military age and sold the women and

children into slavery.

 

     The war was resumed in 415 B.C. with an Athenian expedition against

Syracuse, the major Greek state in Sicily, that ended in disaster. Acting on

the invitation of states that feared Syracusan expansion, the Athenians hoped

to add Sicily to their empire and so become powerful enough "to rule the whole

of the Greek world." ^15 But ill luck and incompetent leadership resulted in

two Athenian fleets and a large army being destroyed by the Syracusans,

supported by Sparta. The war dragged on until 404 B.C., when Athens

capitulated after its last fleet was destroyed by a Spartan fleet built with

money received from Persia in exchange for possession of the Greek cities in

Ionia. At home, Athens had been weakened by the plots of oligarchic elements

to whom Sparta now turned over the government. The once great city-state was

also stripped of its empire and demilitarized.

 

[Footnote 15: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 6.90.]

 

Aftermath Of The War

 

     Anarchy and depression were the political and economic legacies of the

Peloponnesian War. Having ended the "tyranny" of Athens over Greece, the

Spartans substituted their own form of rule which made the Athenian empire

seem mild in comparison. Everywhere democracies were replaced by oligarchies

supported by Spartan troops. The bloody excesses of these oligarchs soon led

to democratic revolutions at Athens and elsewhere. As one of their generals

admitted, the Spartans did not know how to govern free people. Incessant

warfare between a bewildering series of shifting alliances filled the fourth

century B.C. The alliances were usually financed by Persia, which wanted to

keep Greece disunited and weak.

 

     Political instability in turn contributed to the economic and social ills

that plagued Greece during this period. Commerce and industry languished, and

the unemployed who did not go abroad as soldiers of fortune supported

demagogues and their radical schemes for the redivision of wealth. The

wealthy, for their part, became increasingly reactionary and uncompromising.

Even most intellectuals - including Plato and Aristotle - lost faith in

democracy and joined with the wealthy in looking for "a champion powerful in

action" who would bring order and security to Greece. They found him, finally,

in the person of the king of Macedonia.

 

The Macedonian Unification Of Greece

 

     To the north of Greece lay Macedonia, inhabited by hardy peasants and

nobles who were related to the Greeks but were culturally inferior to them.

Macedonia became a centralized, powerful state under the able and crafty

Philip II (359-336 B.C.), who created the most formidable army yet known by

joining the crack Macedonian cavalry of nobles with the infantry phalanx used

by the Greeks. In his youth, Philip had been a hostage at Thebes, where he

acquired an appreciation of Greek culture, an understanding of Greek political

weakness, and a desire to win for Macedonia a place in the Hellenic world.

 

     After unifying Macedonia - including a string of Greek colonies that had

been established along its coast during the earlier centuries of Macedonia's

weakness - Philip turned to the Greek city-states, whose wars afforded him the

opportunity first to intervene, then to dominate. Demosthenes, the great

Athenian orator and democratic leader, warned in vain that "democracies and

dictators cannot exist together" and urged the Athenians and other Greeks to

stop Philip before it was too late. Belatedly, Athens and Thebes acted, but

their combined forces were shattered at Chaeronea in 338 B.C. Philip then

forced the Greeks into a league in which each state, while retaining

self-government, swore to "make war upon him who violates the general peace"

and to furnish Philip with men and supplies for a campaign against Persia. Two

years later, before setting out for Asia Minor, Philip was assassinated by a

noble with a personal grudge, leaving the war against Persia as a legacy for

his gifted son Alexander.

 

     Incapable of finding a solution to the anarchy that tore their world to

shreds, the Greeks ended as political failures and at the mercy of a great

outside power, first Macedonia and then Rome. They retained their cultural

leadership, however, and the culture of the new Hellenistic Age and its

successor, the world of Rome, was to be largely Greek.

 

The Greek Genius

 

     The Greeks were the first to formulate many of the Western world's

fundamental concepts in politics, philosophy, science, and art. How was it

that a relative handful of people could bequeath such a legacy to

civilization? The definitive answer may always elude the historian, but a good

part of the explanation lies in environmental and social factors.

 

     Unlike the Near Eastern monarchies, the polis was not governed by a

"divine" ruler, nor were the thoughts and activities of its citizens limited

by powerful priesthoods. Many Greeks, and most notably the Athenians, were

fond of good talk and relished debate and argument. As late as the first

century A.D., St. Paul was welcomed by the Athenians because they "liked to

spend all their time telling and listening to the latest new thing." (Acts

17:21)

 

The Greek Character

 

     The Greeks felt a need to discover order and meaning both in nature and

in human life. This quest for order produced exceptional results in science,

art, and philosophy. Beginning with Hesiod, the Greeks stressed the virtue of

sophrosyn (moderation, self-control) as the key to happiness and right living.

Its opposite was hubris, meaning pride, arrogance, and unbridled ambition. The

result of human excesses and lying at the root of personal misfortune and

social injustice, hubris invariably provoked nemesis, or retribution.

According to the Greeks, an inexorable law would cause the downfall or

disgrace of anyone guilty of hubris. The Athenian dramatists often employed

this theme in their tragedies, and Herodotus attributed the Persian defeat by

the Greeks to Xerxes' overweening pride, for "Zeus tolerates pride in none but

himself." ^16

 

[Footnote 16: Herodotus History of the Persian Wars 7.10.]

 

     The Greeks exhibited human frailties and failings - at times they were

irrational, vindictive, and cruel. But at their best they were guided by the

ideals that permeate their intellectual and artistic legacy. The philosopher

Protagoras is credited with the statement, "Man is the measure of all things"

- a saying that sums up the outstanding feature of Greek thought and art.

 

Greek Religious Development

 

     Early Greek religion abounded in gods and goddesses who personified the

forces of nature. Thus Demeter (literally "Earth Mother"), was the earth and

giver of grain; Apollo, the sun and giver of light; and Poseidon, who dwelled

in the sea, was the ruler of the waters. Other deities had special functions,

such as Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Dionysus, the god of fertility and

wine; and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and guardian of Athens. The Greeks of

Homeric times believed in humanlike deities, capable of malice, favoritism,

and jealousy, and differing from ordinary people only in their immortality

(the result of a special diet) and their possession of supernatural powers.

Zeus, the king of sky, earth, and human beings, ruled the world from Mount

Olympus with the aid of lesser deities.

 

     By the time of Hesiod, a religious reformation had begun that changed the

vengeful and capricious gods of Homer into austere arbiters of justice who

rewarded the good and punished the wicked. From the famous oracle at Delphi

the voice of Zeus' son Apollo urged all Greeks to follow the ideal of

moderation: "Nothing in excess" and "Know thyself" (meaning "know your

limitations").

 

     A century after Hesiod, the Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults emerged

as a new type of Greek religion. Their initiates (mystae) were promised an

afterlife of bliss in Elysium, formally the abode after death of a few heroes

only. The basis of Orphic cult was an old myth about Dionysus as a son of Zeus

who was slain and eaten by the evil Titans before Zeus arrived on the scene

and burned them to ashes with his lightning bolts. Orpheus taught that Zeus

then created man from the Titans' ashes. Human nature, therefore, is composed

of two disparate elements: the evil titanic element (the body), and the divine

Dionysian element (the soul). Death, which frees the divine soul from the evil

body, is therefore to be welcomed. "Happy and blessed one!" reads a typical

Orphic tomb inscription, "Thou shalt be god instead of mortal."

 

Early Greek Philosophy

 

     What the Greeks were the first to call philosophy ("love of wisdom")

arose from their curiosity about nature. The early Greek philosophers were

called physikoi (physicists) because their main interest was in investigating

the physical world. ("It is according to their wonder," wrote Aristotle, "that

men begin to philosophize, pursuing science in order to know.") Only later,

beginning with Socrates, would the chief concern of philosophy be not in

natural science but in ethics - how people ought to act in the light of moral

principles.

 

     The Mesopotamians, as noted in chapter 1, were skilled observers of

astronomical phenomena which, like the Greeks of Homer's time, they attributed

to the action of gods. The early Greek philosophers, beginning with Thales of

Miletus around 600 B.C., changed the course of human knowledge by insisting

that the phenomena of the universe be explained by natural rather than

supernatural causes. This rejection of mythological explanations and the use

of reason to explain natural phenomena has been called the "Greek miracle."

 

     Called "the father of philosophy," Thales speculated on the nature of the

basic substance from which all else in the universe is composed. He concluded

that it was water, which exists in different states and is indispensable to

the maintenance and growth of organisms. Thales' successors in Ionia proposed

elements other than water as the primal substance in the universe. One called

it the "boundless," apparently a general concept for "matter"; another

proposed "air," out of which all things come by a process of "rarefying and

condensing"; a third asserted that fire was the "most mobile, most

transformable, most active, most life-giving" element. This search for a

material substance as the first principle or cause of all things culminated

two centuries after Thales in the atomic theory of Democritus (c. 460-370

B.C.) To Democritus, reality was the mechanical motion of indivisible atoms,

which differed in shape, size, position, and arrangement but not in quality.

Moving about continuously, atoms combined to create objects.

 

     While these and other early Greek philosophers were proposing some form

of matter as the basic element in nature, Pythagoras of Samos (c. 582-500

B.C.) countered with the profoundly significant notion that the "nature of

things" was something nonmaterial - numbers. By experimenting with a vibrating

cord, Pythagoras discovered that musical harmony is based on arithmetical

proportions, and he intuitively concluded that the universe was constructed of

numbers and their relationships. His mystical, nonmaterial interpretation of

nature, together with his belief that the human body was distinct from the

soul, greatly influenced Plato.

 

     An important consequence of early Greek philosophical speculation was the

undermining of conventional beliefs and traditions. In religion, for example,

Anaximander argued that thunder and lightning were caused by blasts of wind

and not by Zeus' thunderbolts. Xenophanes went on to ridicule the traditional

view of the gods: "If oxen and lions had hands, ... they would make portraits

and statues of their gods in their own image."

 

     The eroding of traditional views caused Greek inquiry to turn away from

the physical world to a consideration of human values and institutions. During

the last half of the fifth century B.C., professional teachers, called

Sophists ("intellectuals"), taught a variety of subjectsthe nucleus of our

present arts and scienceswhich they claimed would lead to material success.

The most popular subject was rhetoric, the art of persuasion, or how to take

either side of an argument - "the sort of thing one learns today in law

school." The Sophists submitted all conventional beliefs to the test of

rational criticism. Concluding that truth was relative, they denied the

existence of universal standards to guide human actions.

 

Socrates, A Martyr To Truth

 

     The outstanding opponent of the Sophists was the Athenian Socrates (c.

470-399 B.C.). Like the Sophists, Socrates turned from cosmic to human

affairs; in the words of the Roman statesman Cicero, Socrates was the "first

to call philosophy down from the heavens and to set her in the cities of men,

bringing her into their homes and compelling her to ask questions about life

and morality and things good and evil." ^17 But unlike the Sophists, Socrates

believed that by asking salient questions and subjecting the answers to

logical analysis, agreement could be reached about ethical standards and rules

of conduct. And so he would question passers-by in his function of "midwife

assisting in the birth of correct ideas" (to use his own figure of speech).

Taking as his motto the famous inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi,

"Know thyself," he insisted that "the unexamined life is not worth living." To

Socrates, human excellence or virtue (arete)i is knowledge, and evil and error

are the result of ignorance.

 

[Footnote 17: Quoted in M. Cary and T. J. Haarhoff, Life and Thought in the

Greek and Roman World, 5th ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1959), p. 200.]

 

     In time Socrates' quest for truth led to his undoing, for the Athenians,

unnerved by their defeat in the Peloponnesian War, arrested him on the charge

of impiety and corrupting the youth. By a slim majority a jury of citizens

condemned Socrates to die, a fate he accepted without rancor and with a last

request:

 

          When my sons are grown up, I would ask you, my friends,

          to punish them, and I would have you trouble them, as I

          have troubled you, if they seem to care about riches, or anything,

          more than about virtue; or if they pretend to be something

          when they are really nothing, then reprove them, as I have

          reproved you, for not caring about that for which they ought

          to care, and thinking that they are something when they are

          really nothing. And if you do this, both I and my sons will

          have received justice at your hands. ^18

 

[Footnote 18: Plato Apology 41.]

 

Plato And His Theory Of Ideas

 

     After Socrates' death, philosophical leadership passed to his most famous

disciple, Plato (427-347 B.C.). Like Socrates, Plato believed that truth

exists, but only in the realm of thought, the spiritual world of Ideas or

Forms. Such universals as Beauty, Good, and Justice exist apart from the

material world, and the beauty, good, and justice encountered in the world of

the senses are only imperfect reflections of eternal and changeless Ideas. The

task for humans is to come to know the True Reality - the eternal Ideas -

behind these imperfect reflections. Only the soul, and the "soul's pilot,"

reason, can accomplish this, for the human soul is spiritual and immortal, and

in its prenatal state it existed "beyond the heavens" where "true Being

dwells." ^19

 

[Footnote 19: Plato Phaedrus 247.]

 

     Disillusioned with the democracy that had led Athens to ruin in the

Peloponnesian War and had condemned Socrates to death, Plato expounded his

concept of an ideal state in the Republic, the first systematic treatise

on political science. The state's basic function, founded on the Idea of

Justice, was the satisfaction of the common good. Plato described a kind of

"spiritualized Sparta" in which the state regulated every aspect of life,

including thought. Thus those poets and forms of music considered unworthy

were banished from the state. Private property was abolished on the grounds

that it bred selfishness. Plato believed there was no essential difference

between men and women; therefore, women received the same education and held

the same occupations as men, including "the art of war, which they must

practice like men." ^20 Individuals belonged to one of three classes and

found happiness only through their contribution to the community: workers by

producing the necessities of life, warriors by guarding the state, and

philosophers by ruling in the best interests of all the people.

 

[Footnote 20: Plato Republic 451.]

 

     Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the famous school that existed from

about 388 B.C. until A.D. 529, when it was closed by the Christian emperor

Justinian. Here he taught and encouraged his students, whom he expected to

become the intellectual elite who would go forth and reform society.

 

Aristotle, The Encyclopedic Philosopher

 

     Plato's greatest pupil was Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who set up his own

school, the Lyceum, at Athens. Reacting against the other worldly tendencies

of Plato's thought, Aristotle insisted that Ideas have no separate existence

apart from the material world; knowledge of universal Ideas is the result of

the painstaking collection and organization of particular facts. Aristotle's

Lyceum, accordingly, became a center for the analysis of data from many

branches of learning.

 

     To us today, Aristotle's most significant treatises are the Ethics

and the Politics. They deal with what he called the "philosophy of human

affairs," whose object is the acquisition and maintenance of human happiness.

Two kinds of virtue (arete), intellectual and moral, which produce two

types of happiness, are described in the Ethics. Intellectual virtue is

the product of reason, and only people like philosophers and scientists ever

attain it. Much more important for the good of society is moral virtuevirtues

of character, such as justice, bravery, and temperance - which is the product

less of reason than of habit and thus can be acquired by all. In this

connection Aristotle introduced his Doctrine of the Mean as a guide for good

conduct. He considered all moral virtues to be means between extremes;

courage, for example, is the mean between cowardice and rashness.

 

     In the Politics Aristotle viewed the state as necessary "for the sake of

the good life," because its laws and educational system provide the most

effective training needed for the attainment of moral virtue and hence

happiness. Thus to Aristotle the viewpoint popular today that the state stands

in opposition to the individual would be unthinkable.

 

     Aristotle's writings on formal logic, collectively known as the Organon

("Instrument"), describe two ways in which new truths can be acquired. The

first, induction, moves from particular facts to general truths. Deductive

logic, on the other hand, moves from the general to the particular. To

facilitate deductive reasoning from general truths, Aristotle devised the

syllogism, a logical structure requiring a trio of propositions. The first two

propositions (the major and minor premises) must be plainly valid and

logically related so that the third proposition, the conclusion, inevitably

follows. For example, (1) all Greeks are human; (2) Socrates is a Greek; (3)

therefore Socrates is human.

 

     There have probably been few geniuses whose interests were so widespread

as Aristotle's. He investigated such diverse fields as biology, mathematics,

astronomy, physics, literary criticism, rhetoric, logic, politics, ethics, and

metaphysics. His knowledge was so encyclopedic that there is hardly a college

course today that does not take note of what Aristotle had to say on the

subject. Although his works on natural science are now little more than

historical curiosities, they held a place of undisputed authority until the

scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But in no

important sense are his humanistic studies, such as the Ethics and the

Politics, out of date.

 

Medicine

 

     Superstitions about the human body blocked the development of medical

science until 420 B.C., when Hippocrates, the "father of medicine," founded a

school in which he emphasized the value of observation and the careful

interpretation of symptoms. Such modern medical terms as "crisis," acute," and

"chronic" were first used by Hippocrates. He was firmly convinced that disease

resulted from natural, not supernatural, causes. Writing of epilepsy,

considered at the time a "sacred" or supernaturally inspired malady, one

Hippocratic writer observed:

 

          It seems to me that this disease is no more divine

          than any other. It has a natural cause just as other

          diseases have. Men think it supernatural because they

          do not understand it. But if they called everything

          supernatural which they do not understand, why, there

          would be no end of such thing! ^21

 

[Footnote 21: Quoted in M. Cary and T. J. Haarhoff, Life and Thought in the

Greek and Roman World, p.192.]

 

     The Hippocratic school also gave medicine a sense of service to humanity

which it has never lost. All members took the famous Hippocratic Oath, still

in use today. One section states: "I will adopt the regimen which in my best

judgment is beneficial to my patients, and not for their injury or for any

wrongful purpose. I will not give poison to anyone, though I be asked...nor

will I procure abortion." ^22

 

[Footnote 22: Quoted in A. R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece, p. 272.]

 

     Despite their empirical approach, the Hippocratic school adopted the

theory that the body contained four liquids or humors - blood, phlegm, black

bile, and yellow bile - whose proper balance was the basis of health. This

doctrine was to impede medical progress until modern times.

 

The Writing Of History

 

     If history is defined as "an honest attempt first to find out what

happened, then to explain why it happened," Herodotus of Halicarnassus

(484?-425? B.C.) deserves to be called the "father of history." In his highly

entertaining history of the Persian Wars he discerned the clash of two

distinct civilizations, the Hellenic and the Near Eastern. His portrayal of

both the Greeks and Persians was eminently impartial, but his fondness for a

good story often led him to include tall tales in his work. As he stated more

than once, "My duty is to report what has been said, but I do not have to

believe it."

 

     The first truly scientific historian was Thucydides (460-400? B.C.), who

wrote a notably objective chronicle of the Peloponnesian War. Although he was

a contemporary of the events and a loyal Athenian, a reader can scarcely

detect whether he favored Athens or Sparta. Thucydides believed that his

history would become "an everlasting possession" for those who desire a clear

picture of what has happened and, human nature being as it is, what is likely

to be repeated in the future. His belief was based on his remarkable ability

to analyze and explain human behavior. (Two examples - his definition of

statesmanship and his account of Athenians justifying their empire on grounds

of power alone - have been quoted on page 51.) In describing the character and

purpose of his work, Thucydides probably had Herodotus in mind:

 

          The absence of romance in my history will, I fear,

          detract somewhat from its interest; but I shall be content

          if it is judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact

          knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the

          future, which will according to human nature recur in much

          the same way. My history has been composed to be an

          everlasting possession, not the show-piece of an hour. ^23

 

[Footnote 23: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22.]

 

Hellenic Poetry And Drama

 

     Greek literary periods can be classified according to dominant poetic

forms that reflect particular stages of cultural evolution in Greece. First

came the time of great epics, followed by periods in which lyric poetry and

then drama flourished.

 

     Sometime during the eighth century B.C. in Ionia, the Iliad and the

Odyssey, the two great epics attributed to Homer, were set down in their

present form. The Iliad, describing the clash of arms between the Greeks and

Trojans "on the ringing plains of windy Troy," glorifies heroic valor and

physical prowess against a background of divine intervention in human affairs.

The Odyssey, relating the adventure-filled wanderings of Odysseus on his

return to Greece after Troy's fall, places less stress on divine intervention

and more on the cool resourcefulness of the hero in escaping from danger and

in regaining his kingdom. These stirring epics have provided inspiration and

source material for generations of poets in the Western world.

 

     As Greek society became more sophisticated, a new type of poetry, written

to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre, arose among the Ionian Greeks.

Unlike Homer, authors of this lyric poetry sang not of legendary events but of

present delights and sorrows. This new note, personal and passionate, can be

seen in the following examples, in which the contrast between the new values

of what is called the Greek Renaissance and those of Homer's heroic age is

sharply clear. Unlike Homer's heroes, Archilochus of Paros (seventh century

B.C.) unashamedly throws away his shield and runs from the battlefield:

 

          My trusty shield adorns some Thracian foe; I

          left it in a bush - not as I would! But I have

          saved my life; so let it go. Soon I will get

          another just as good. ^24

 

[Footnote 24: Quoted in A. R. Burn, The Lyric Age of Greece (New York: St.

Martin's Press, 1960), p. 166.]

 

And in contrast to Homer's view of an unromantic, purely physical attraction

between Paris and the abducted Helen, Sappho of Lesbos (sixth century B.C.),

the first and one of the greatest of all female poets, saw Helen as the

helpless, unresisting victim of romantic love:

 

          She, who the beauty of mankind

          Excelled, fair Helen, all for love

          The noblest husband left behind;

          Afar, to Troy she sailed away,

          Her child, her parents, clean forgot;

          The Cyprian [Aphrodite] led her far astray

          Out of the way, resisting not. ^25

 

[Footnote 25: Quoted in A. R. Burn, The Lyric Age of Greece, p. 236.]

 

     Drama (in verse) developed from the religious rites of the Dionysian

mystery cult in which a large chorus and its leader sang and danced. Thespis,

a contemporary of Solon, added an actor called the "answerer" (hypocrites, the

origin of our word "hypocrite") to converse with the chorus and its leader.

This made dramatic dialogue possible. By the fifth century B.C. in Athens, two

distinct forms - tragedy and comedy - had evolved. Borrowing from the old

familiar legends of gods and heroes for their plots, the tragedians

reinterpreted them in the light of the values and problems of their own times.

 

     In reworking the old legends of the heroic age, Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.)

sought to spread the new values of the religious reformation, first expressed

by Hesiod, by showing how the old pre-moral beliefs cause suffering. In his

trilogy, the Oresteia, for example, he concerned himself with hubris as

applied to the murder of the hero Agamemnon by his queen following his return

from the Trojan War, and then proceeded to work out its ramifications - murder

piled on murder until people through suffering learn to substitute the moral

law of Zeus for the primitive law of the blood feud. Like the prophets of

Israel, Aeschylus taught that while "sin brings misery," misery in turn leads

to wisdom:

 

          Zeus the Guide, who made man turn

          Thought-ward, Zeus, who did ordain

          Man by Suffering shall Learn.

          So the heart of him, again

          Aching with remembered pain,

          Bleeds and sleepeth not, until

          Wisdom comes against his will. ^26

 

[Footnote 26: Aeschylus Agamemnon. In Ten Greek Plays, trans. Gilbert Murray

and ed. Lane Cooper (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), p. 96.]

 

     A generation later, Sophocles (c. 496-406 B.C.) largely abandoned

Aeschylus' concern for the working out of divine justice and concentrated upon

character. To Sophocles, a certain amount of suffering was inevitable in life.

No one is perfect; even in the best people there is a tragic flaw that causes

them to make mistakes. Sophocles dwelled mainly on the way in which human

beings react to suffering. Like his contemporary, the sculptor Phidias,

Sophocles viewed humans as ideal creatures - "Many are the wonders of the

world, and none so wonderful as Man" and he displayed human greatness by

depicting people experiencing great tragedy without whimpering. It has been

said that to Sophocles - and to Shakespeare - "tragedy is essentially an

expression, not of despair, but of the triumph over despair and of confidence

in the value of human life." ^27

 

[Footnote 27: Joseph Wood Krutch, The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt Brace

Jovanovich, 1956), p. 84.]

 

     Euripides (c. 480-406 B.C.), the last of the great Athenian tragedians,

reflects the rationalism and critical spirit of the late fifth century B.C.

Gone is Sophocles' idealized view of humanity. To Euripides, human life was

pathetic, the ways of the gods ridiculous. His recurrent theme was "Since life

began, hath there in God's eye stood one happy man?" For this he has been

called "the poet of the world's grief." Euripides has also been called the

first psychologist, for he looked deep into the human soul and described what

he saw with intense realism. His Medea, for example is a startling and moving

account of a woman's exploitation and her retaliatory rage. When Medea's

overly ambitious husband discards her for a young heiress, she kills her

children out of a bitter hatred that is the dark side of her once passionate

love:

 

                                             He, even he,

          Whom to know well was all the world to me,

          The man I loved, hath proved most evil. Oh,

          Of all things upon earth that bleed and grow,

          A herb most bruised is woman.

          ... but once spoil her of her right

          In man's love, and there moves, I warn thee

               well,

          No bloodier spirit between heaven and hell. ^28

 

[Footnote 28: Sophocles Medea, trans. Gilbert Murray, Ten Greek Plays, pp.

320, 321.]

 

Far more than Aeschylus or even Sophocles, Euripides strikes home to us today.

 

     Comedies were bawdy and spirited. There were no libel laws in Athens, and

Aristophanes (c. 445-385 B.C.), the famous comic-dramatist and a conservative

in outlook, brilliantly satirized Athenian democracy as a mob led by

demagogues, the Sophists (among whom he included Socrates) as subversive, and

Euripides as an underminer of civic spirit and traditional faith. Another

favorite object of Aristophanes' satire was the youth of Athens; in the

following lines from The Wasps, they are lampooned by the chorus of old men:

 

          Yes, we may be poor old crocks,

          But the whiteness of our locks

          Does the City better credit, I would say,

          Than the ringlets and the fashions

          And the pederastic passions

          Of the namby-pamby youngsters of today. ^29

 

[Footnote 29: Aristophanes The Wasps 1065-1070 in Aristophanes: The Frogs and

Other Plays, trans. David Barrett (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), p.77.]

 

 

Hellenic Architecture

 

     In the sixth century B.C. architecture flourished in Ionia, Greece, and

the Greek colonies in Sicily and Italy with the construction of large temples

of stone. Their form was a development from earlier wooden structures that had

been influenced by the remains of Mycenaean palaces. Architecture reached its

zenith in Athens during the fifth century B.C., the height of the city's power

and wealth.

 

     The Parthenon, the Erechtheum, and the other temples on the Athenian

Acropolis exhibit the highly developed features that make Greek structure so

pleasing to the eye. All relationships, such as column spacing and height and

the curvature of floor and roof lines, were calculated and executed with

remarkable precision to achieve a perfect balance, both structurally and

visually. The three orders, or styles, usually identified by the

characteristics of the columns, were the Doric, which was used in the

Parthenon; the Ionic, seen in the Erechtheum; and the later and more ornate

Corinthian.

 

     Located where everyone could see and enjoy them, Greek temples afford an

interesting comparison with those of Egypt. Whereas the Egyptian temple was

enclosed and mysterious, the Greek temple was open, with a colonnade porch and

an inside room containing a statue of the god. Sacrifice and ritual took place

outside the temple, where the altar was placed.

 

     Other types of buildings, notably the theaters, stadiums, and gymnasiums,

also express the Greek spirit and way of life. In the open-air theaters the

circular shape of the spectators' sections and the plan of the orchestra

section set a style that has survived to the present day.

 

Hellenic Sculpture And Pottery

 

     Greek sculpture of the archaic period (c. 700-480 B.C.), although crude

in its representation of human anatomy, has the freshness and vigor of youth.

Influenced partly by Egyptian models, the statues of nude youths and draped

maidens usually stand stiffly with clenched fists and with one foot thrust 

awkwardly forward. The fixed smile and formalized treatment of hair and

drapery also reveal the sculptors' struggle to master the technique of their

art.

 

     The mastery of technique by 480 B.C. ushered in the classical period of

fifth-century Greek sculpture whose "classic" principles of harmony and

proportion have shaped the course of Western art. Sculpture from this period

displays both the end of technical immaturity and the beginning of

idealization of the human form, which reached its culmination in the dignity

and poise of Phidias' figures in the continuous frieze and pediments of the

Parthenon. Carved with restraint and "calm exaltation," the frieze depicts the

citizens of Athens participating in the Panathenaic procession in honor of

their patron goddess Athena, which took place every four years.

 

     The more relaxed character of fourth-century B.C. Hellenic sculpture,

while still considered classical, lacks some of the grandeur and dignity of

fifth-century art. Charm, grace, and individuality characterize the work of

Praxiteles, the most famous sculptor of the century. These qualities can be

seen in his supple statues of the god Hermes holding the young Dionysus and of

Aphrodite stepping into her bath.

 

     The making of pottery, the oldest Greek art, started at the beginning of

the Greek Dark Ages with crude imitations of late Mycenaean forms. Soon the

decayed Mycenaean motifs were replaced by abstract geometric designs. With the

advent of the archaic period came paintings of scenes from mythology and daily

life. From surviving Greek pottery and mosaics, we can get an idea of what

Greek painting, now lost, was like.

 

The Hellenistic Age, 336-30 B.C.

 

     The Hellenistic Age is a 300-year period from Alexander the Great to

Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Alexander conquered the Near East up to the

borders of India. Following his death, three large empires were carved from

his conquests. The Hellenistic Age was a period of economic expansion,

cosmopolitanism, striking intellectual and artistic achievements, and the wide

diffusion of Greek culture.

 

Alexander The Great

 

     When Philip of Macedonia was assassinated in 336 B.C., his crown fell to

his twenty-year-old son Alexander who proved himself a resolute king at the

very beginning of his reign by crushing rebellion in the Greek League, which

had been founded by his father. As an object lesson, Alexander destroyed the

city of Thebes and sold its inhabitants into slavery. The Greeks were

horrified and cowed.

 

     Alexander soon repented this atrocity for, having been tutored by

Aristotle, he was alive to the glories of Hellenic culture. Reveling in the

heroic deeds of the Iliad, which he always kept beside his bed, Alexander saw

himself as a second Achilles waging war against barbarians when he planned to

revenge the Persian attacks on Greece. In 334 B.C., he set out with an army of

35,000 soldiers recruited from Macedonia and the Greek League. In quick

succession he subdued Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Then the young

leader marched into Mesopotamia and there, in 331 B.C., defeated the last

powerful army of Darius III, the Persian monarch. Alexander ventured as far

east as the rich river valleys of India, where his weary soldiers forced him

to turn back. In 323 B.C., while he was planning the circumnavigation of

Arabia, Alexander fell ill with a mysterious fever, following a long bout of

heavy drinking, and died suddenly at the age of thirty-two. With the Greeks

now masters of the ancient Near East, a new and distinctly cosmopolitan period

in their history and culture began - the Hellenistic Age.

 

     Alexander the Great is a puzzling figure to modern historians. Some view

him as a ruthless conqueror who never lost a battle and a despot who ordered

even his European subjects to prostrate themselves when in his presence.

Others, however, influenced by Greek and Roman writers and by their own

humanitarian outlook, picture him as an idealistic visionary seeking to unite

East and West in one world.

 

     Some of Alexander's military and administrative policies sought to unify

the lands he conquered and to promote what he himself called "concord and

partnership in the empire" between easterners and westerners. He blended

Persians with Greeks and Macedonians in his army and administration; he

founded numerous cities - seventy, according to tradition - in the East and

settled many of his followers in them; and he married two oriental princesses

and encouraged his officers and men to take foreign wives. Finally, for

egotistical and political reasons, he ordered the Greek city-states to accord

him "divine honors."

 

     Alexander was a remarkable blend of the romantic idealist and practical

realist, contrasting traits that he inherited from his parents. His fiery and

emotional mother, Olympias, who practiced the orgiastic rites of primitive

religions and claimed to be a descendant of the Greek hero Achilles, instilled

in her son a consciousness of a divine mission that drove him onward, even to

seeking the end of the earth beyond India. From his father he inherited his

remarkable abilities as military commander, expert diplomat, and political

administrator. Alexander was an egocentric idealist who was excited by

challenges, but meeting those challenges forced him to take actions that were

practical and pragmatic. For example, he could not merely conquer the king of

Persia, he had to act as his successor as well. Alexander ruled for only

thirteen years, but the world was never the same again.

 

[See Alexander's Empire: About 323 BC]

 

The Division Of Alexander's Empire

 

     For several decades following Alexander's sudden death, his generals vied

for the spoils of empire. Three major Hellenistic kingdoms emerged and

maintained a precarious balance of power until the Roman conquests of the

second and first centuries B.C.: Egypt, ruled by Ptolemy and his successors;

Asia, comprising most of the remaining provinces of the Persian empire and

held together with great difficulty by the dynasty founded by Seleucus; and

Macedonia and Greece, ruled by the descendants of Antigonus the One-Eyed.

 

     While the Antigonids in Macedonia followed the model of Alexander's

father Philip in posing as national kings chosen by the army, the Ptolemies

ruled Egypt as divine pharaohs, and some of the Seleucids became deified

"saviors" and "benefactors." Ptolemaic and Seleucid administrations were

centralized in bureaucracies staffed by Greeks, an arrangement that created a

vast gulf between rulers and ruled:

 

          "What a mob!" [the Greek poet Theocritus has a Greek woman

          residing in Alexandria say to her friend], "They're like ants,

          no one can count them. Ptolemy, you've done many good things ....

          No more hoods creep up on you nowadays and do you in - an

          old Egyptian habit. The tricks those scoundrels used to play!

          They're all alike - dirty, lazy, good-for-nothings!" ^30

 

[Footnote 30: Theocritus Idyl 15, trans. Nels Bailkey.]

 

     Plagued by native revolts, dynastic troubles, and civil war, the

Hellenistic kingdoms soon began to crumble. Macedonia lost effective control

of Greece when Athens asserted its independence and most of the other Greek

states resisted Macedonian domination by forming two federal leagues, the

Achaean and the Aetolian. Their constitutions have long commanded the

attention of students of federal unions - including the founders of the

American constitution.

 

     The eastern reaches of Alexander's empire - Indian, Bactria, and Parthia

- gradually drifted out of the Seleucid sphere of influence. Pergamum, in

northwestern Asia Minor, renounced its allegiance to the Seleucids and became

an independent kingdom famous for its artists and scholars. In 200 B.C. the

new power of Rome entered upon the scene, and by 30 B.C. Rome had annexed the

last remaining Hellenistic state, Egypt.

 

[See Hellenistic Empires: About 300 BC]

 

Hellenistic Economy And Society

 

     The Hellenistic Age was a time of economic expansion and social change.

In the wake of Alexander's conquests, thousands of Greeks flocked eastward to

begin a new era of Greek colonization, ending the long economic depression

that followed the breakup of the Athenian empire. An economic union between

East and West permitted the free flow of trade, and prosperity was stimulated

further when Alexander put into circulation huge hoards of Persian gold and

silver and introduced a uniform coinage. The result was a much larger and more

affluent middle class than had hitherto existed.

 

     By the third century B.C. the center of trade had shifted from Greece to

the Near East. Largest of the Hellenistic cities, and much larger than any

cities in Greece itself, were Antioch in northern Syria and Alexandria in

Egypt. The riches of India, Persia, Arabia, and the Fertile Crescent were

brought by sea and land to these Mediterranean ports.

 

     Alexandria outdistanced all other Hellenistic cities as a commercial

center. Its merchants supplied the ancient world with wheat, linen, papyrus,

glass, and jewelry. Boasting a population of about a million, the city had a

double harbor in which a great lighthouse, judged one of the wonders of the

ancient world, rose to a height estimated at 370 feet. Its busy streets were

filled with a mixture of peoples - Greeks, Macedonians, Jews, and Egyptians.

As in all other Hellenistic cities in the Near East, the privileged Greeks and

Macedonians were at the top of the social scale and the mass of natives at the

bottom; the large Jewish population lived apart and was allowed a large degree

of self-government. Free labor was so cheap that slavery hardly existed in

Hellenistic Egypt. As a consequence, worker-organized strikes were frequent.

 

Hellenistic Philosophy

 

     Developments in philosophy reflected the changed environment of the

Hellenistic Age. With the growing loss of political freedom and the prevalence

of internal disorder, philosophers concerned themselves less with the reform

of society and more with the attainment of happiness for the individual.

"There is no point in saving the Greeks," is the way one Hellenistic

philosopher summed up the new outlook, quite in contrast to that of Socrates,

Plato, and Aristotle. This emphasis on peace of mind for the individual living

in an insecure world led to the rise of four principal schools of Hellenistic

philosophy, all of which had their start at Athens.

 

     The Skeptics and Cynics reflected most clearly the doubts and misgivings

of the times. The Skeptics achieved freedom from anxiety by denying the

possibility of finding truth. The wise, they argued, will suspend judgment and

not dogmatize because they have learned that sensory experience, the only

source of knowledge, is deceptive. The Skeptics were like modern pragmatists

in substituting probability for certainty and insisting that even the probable

must be tested by experience and exposed to the possibility of contradiction.

To drive the point home they were famous for arguing both sides of the same

question.

 

     The Cynics carried negativism further; their ideal was nonattachment to

the values and conventions of society. Cynic philosophers, like Diogenes,

wandered from city to city, haranguing the public to pursue a nonconformist

concept of virtue: "Look at me, I am without house or city, property or slave.

I sleep on the ground. I have no wife, no children. What do I lack? Am I not

without distress or fear? Am I not free?" ^31

 

[Footnote 31: Quoted in The Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge: The

University Press, 1936), vol. 11, p. 696.]

 

     More practical and popular were Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Athenian

Epicurus (342-270 B.C.) taught that happiness could be achieved simply by

freeing the body from pain and the mind from fear - particularly the fear of

death. To reach this dual goal, people must avoid bodily excesses, including

sensual pleasures, and accept the scientific teaching of Democritus that both

body and soul are composed of atoms that fall apart at death. Thus beyond

death there is no existence and nothing to fear. Epicurus maintained that the

finest pleasures are intellectual, and that the gods, if they exist, do not

concern themselves with humans but spend their time pursuing true pleasure

like good Epicureans.

 

     The Stoics, followers of Zeno (c. 336 - c. 264 B.C.), a Semite who

settled in Athens, argued in contrast to Epicureanism that the universe is

controlled by some power - variously called Destiny, Reason, Natural Law,

Providence, or God - which determines everything that happens. Fortified by

this knowledge, wise Stoics conform their will to the World Will and

"stoically" accept whatever part fortune allots them in the drama of life.

While the Epicurean retreated from worldly responsibilities, the Stoic urged

participation. Stoicism's stern sense of duty and belief in the equality of

all people under a single ruling force made it particularly attractive to the

Roman conquerors of the ancient world.

 

Science And Mathematics

 

     The Greek concern for rational, disinterested inquiry reached a zenith in

the Hellenistic period, particularly at Alexandria where the Ptolemies

subsidized a great research institute, the Museum, and a library of more than

half a million books. Emphasizing specialization and experimentation, and

enriched by Near Eastern astronomy and mathematics, Greek science in the third

century B.C. achieved results unmatched until early modern times.

 

     The expansion of geographical knowledge resulting from Alexander's

conquests incited scientists to make accurate maps and to estimate the size of

the earth, which had been identified as a globe through observation of its

shadow in a lunar eclipse. Eratosthenes, the outstanding geographer of the

century, drew parallels of latitude and longitude on his map of the inhabited

world and calculated the circumference of the globe with only 1 percent error

(195 miles) by measuring the difference in the angles of the noonday sun's

shadows at Aswan and Alexandria.

 

     In astronomy, Aristarchus put forward the radical theory that the earth

rotates on its axis and moves in an orbit around the sun. Most of his

contemporaries adhered, however, to the prevailing geocentric theory, which

stated that the earth was stationary and the sun revolved around it. This view

was supported not only by the powerful authority of Aristotle, but it also

seemed to explain all the known facts of celestial motion. This was

particularly true after Hipparchus in the next century added the new idea of

epicycles - each planet revolves in its own small orbit while moving around

the earth. Aristarchus' heliocentric theory was forgotten until the sixteenth

century A.D., when it was revived by Copernicus.

 

     Mathematics also made great advances in the third century B.C. Euclid

systematized the theorems of plane and solid geometry, and Archimedes of

Syracuse, who had studied at Alexandria, calculated the value of pi, invented

a terminology for expressing numbers up to any magnitude, and laid the

foundations of calculus. Archimedes also discovered specific gravity by

noticing the water he displaced in his bath. And despite his disdain for

making practical use of his knowledge, he invented the compound pulley, the

windless, and the endless screw for raising water.

 

     The Hellenistic Greeks extended the advances in medicine made earlier by

Hippocrates and his school. By dissecting bodies of dead criminals, they were

able to trace the outlines of the nervous system, to understand the principle

of the circulation of the blood, and to ascertain that the brain, not the

heart, was the true center of consciousness.

 

Hellenistic Art And Literature

 

     The host of new cities that sprang up in Hellenistic times served as a

tremendous impetus to architecture. The new cities benefited from town

planning; the streets were laid out according to a rectangular plan. The great

public edifices were elaborate and highly ornamented; this was an age that

preferred the more ornate Corinthian to the simple Doric and Ionic orders.

 

     Hellenistic sculptors continued and intensified the realistic, dramatic,

and emotional approach that began to appear in late classical sculpture.

Supported by rulers and other rich patrons in Alexandria, Antioch, Rhodes, and

Pergamum, they displayed their technical virtuosity be depicting violent

scenes, writhing forms, and dramatic poses - all with a realism that could

make stone simulate flesh. Little evidence remained of the balance and

restraint of classical Greek sculpture. The famous Laocoon group and the

frieze from the altar of Zeus at Pergamum, with their twisted poses, contorted

faces, and swollen muscles, remind one of the Baroque sculpture of

seventeenth-century Europe, which replaced the classical art of the Italian

Renaissance.

 

     The quality of literature from the Hellenistic Age was generally inferior

to that of the Hellenic Age. Scholarship flourished, and we are indebted for

the preservation of much of Greek classical literature to the subsidized

scholars at the Alexandrine library - "fatted fowls in a coup," as a Skeptic

philosopher called them. They composed epics in imitation of Homer (one new

feature was romantic love, not found in Homer), long poems on dreary subjects

like the weather, and short, witty epigrams - all in a highly polished style.

These sophisticated scholars also invented a new type of romantic, escapist

literature: pastoral poetry extolling the unspoiled life and loves of

shepherds and their rustic maids. (Later, both Roman and modern poets and

painters would adopt this Hellenistic tradition of celebrating the charms of

unsophisticated country life.) The best of the new poetry was written by

Theocritus at Alexandria in the third century B.C. The following short

example, written by a contemporary, well illustrates its character and appeal:

 

          Would that my father had taught me the craft

               of a keeper of sheep,

          For so in the shade of the elm tree, or under

               the rocks on the steep,

          Piping on reeds I had sat, and had lulled my

               sorrow to sleep. ^32

 

[Footnote 32: Moschus Idyl 9, trans. Andrew Lang.]

 

The Hellenistic Contribution: The East

 

     The greatest contribution of the Hellenistic Age was the diffusion of

Greek culture throughout the ancient East and the newly rising Roman West. In

the East, the cities that Alexander and his successors built were the agents

for spreading Hellenistic culture from the Aegean Sea to India. Literate

Asians learned Greek to facilitate trade and to read Greek literature. In

Judea, upper-class Jews built Greek theaters and gymnasia and adopted Greek

speech, dress, and even names.

 

     For a time the Seleucid empire provided the peace and economic stability

necessary to ensure the partial Hellenization of a vast area. But with an

insufficient number of Greeks to colonize so large an area as the Near East,

the Greek city-states remained only islands in an Asian ocean. As time

elapsed, this ocean encroached more and more upon the Hellenized areas.

 

     The gradual weakening of the loosely knit Seleucid empire eventually

resulted in the creation of independent kingdoms on the edge of the

Hellenistic world. Bactria achieved independence in the middle of the third

century B.C. Its Greek rulers, descendants of Alexander's veterans, controlled

the caravan route to India and issued some of the most splendid Greek coins.

In 183 B.C. the Bactrians crossed into India and conquered the province of

Gandhara. One result was a strong Greek influence on Indian art (see chapter

4).

 

     In the middle of the third century, a nomad chieftain founded the kingdom

of Parthia, situated between the Seleucid and Bactrian kingdoms. Claiming to

be the heirs of the Persians, the Parthians expanded until by 130 B.C. they

had wrested Babylonia from the Seleucids. Although Parthia was essentially a

native Iranian state, its inhabitants absorbed some Hellenistic culture.

 

The Hellenistic Contribution: The West

 

     In the history of Western civilization there is little of greater

significance than Rome's absorption of Greek civilization and its transference

of that heritage to modern Europe. The stage on which this story began was the

cosmopolitan Hellenistic Age, which "longed and strove for Homonoia, Concord

between man and man ... [and] proclaimed a conception of the world as One

Great City." ^33 The process by which the Roman West was Hellenized will be

described in the next chapter.

 

[Footnote 33: G. Murray, Hellenism and the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press,

1953), pp. 56-57.]

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