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A History of Ancient Greece
The Glory That Was Greece
Author: Robert A. Guisepi
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
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
[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
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
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
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
[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.
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
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
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
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
No bloodier spirit between heaven and hell. ^28
[Footnote 28: Sophocles Medea, trans. Gilbert Murray, Ten Greek Plays, pp.
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.]
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.]