Published by K.S. Doig
A History of Ancient Greece
The Glory That Was Greece
The glory that was Greece," in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, was short-lived and confined to a very small geographic area. Yet it has influenced the growth of Western civilization far out of proportion to its size and duration. The Greece that Poe praised was primarily Athens during its golden age in the 5th century BC. Strictly speaking, the state was Attica; Athens was its heart. The English poet John Milton called Athens "the eye of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence." Athens was the city-state in which the arts, philosophy, and democracy flourished. At least it was the city that attracted those who wanted to work, speak, and think in an environment of freedom. In the rarefied atmosphere of Athens were born ideas about human nature and political society that are fundamental to the Western world today.
The Background: Aegean Civilization, 2000-1200 B.C.
Greek civilization was unique in so many ways that a student of history might infer that it developed free from outside influences, springing full blown from the mountains and plains of this small land. The Greek achievement, however, was preceded by an advanced civilization located on the lands surrounding the Aegean Sea. This Aegean civilization, which came into full flower about 2000 B.C. and collapsed suddenly following 1200 B.C., developed through two major periods.
Minoan And Mycenaean Phases
The first and longer phase of Aegean civilization, which ended about 1450 B.C., is called Minoan after the legendary Cretan King Minos. Crete was the center of Minoan civilization, which spread to the Aegean Islands, the coast of Asia Minor, and mainland Greece. The last period of Aegean civilization, the two and one-half centuries following 1450 B.C. when the center of Aegean political power and culture lay on the Greek mainland, is called Mycenaean after its most important site at Mycenae.
The narrow, 160-mile-long island of Crete was a stepping stone between
Europe, Asia, and Africa. Stimulated by immigrants from Asia Minor and by
contacts with Mesopotamia and Egypt, a brilliant civilization emerged here by
Minoan prosperity was based on large-scale trade that ranged from Sicily,
Greece, and Asia Minor to Syria and Egypt. The Minoans employed the first
ships capable of long voyages over the open sea. Chief exports were olive oil,
wine, metal ware, and magnificent pottery. This trade was the monopoly of an
efficient bureaucratic government under a powerful ruler whose administrative
records were written on clay tablets, first in a form of picture writing and
later in a syllabic script known as Linear A. As neither script has been
deciphered, our knowledge of Minoan civilization is scanty and imprecise; most
of it is derived from the material remains uncovered by archaeologists.
It was the epoch-making discoveries of the English archaeologist Sir
Arthur Evans that first brought to light this civilization, whose existence
had previously only been hinted at in the epics of Homer and in Greek legends
such as that of the minotaur, half bull and half man, who devoured youths and
maidens sent as tribute from Greece. Between 1900 and 1905 Evans unearthed the ruins of a great palace at Knossos, the dominant city in Crete after 1700 B.C.
Rising at least three stories high and sprawling over nearly six acres, this "Palace of Minos," built of brick and limestone and employing unusual downward-tapering columns of wood, was a maze of royal apartments, storerooms, corridors, open courtyards, and broad stairways. Furnished with running water, the palace had a sanitation system that surpassed anything constructed in Europe until Roman times. Walls were painted with elaborate frescoes in which the Minoans appear as a happy, peaceful people with a pronounced liking for dancing, festivals, and athletic contests. Women are shown enjoying a freedom and dignity unknown elsewhere in the ancient Near East or classical Greece. They are not secluded in the home but are seen sitting with men and taking an equal part in public festivities - even as toreadors in a form of bull
fighting. Their dresses are very elaborate, with gay patterns and colors,
pleats, puffed sleeves, and flounces. Bodices are open in front to the waist,
and hair is elaborately fashioned with ringlets over the forehead and about
The glory of Minoan culture was its art, spontaneous and full of rhythmic
motion. Art was an essential part of everyday life and not, as in the ancient
Near East, an adjunct to religion and the state. What little is known of
Minoan religion also contrasts sharply with conditions in the Near East: there
were no great temples, powerful priesthoods, or large cult statues of the
gods. The principal deity was the Mother Goddess; her importance reflected the
important position held by women in Cretan society. A number of recovered
statuettes show her dressed like a fashionable Cretan woman with flounced
skirts, a tightly laced, lowcut bodice, and an elaborate coiffure. She was
probably the prototype of such later Greek goddesses as Athena, Demeter, and
About 2000 B.C. or shortly thereafter, the first Indo-European Greek
tribes, collectively called Achaeans, entered Greece, where they absorbed the
earlier settlers and ruled from strongly fortified citadels at Mycenae, Pylos,
Athens, and other sites. By 1600 B.C. the Achaeans - or Mycenaeans, as they
are usually called - had adopted much of the advances culture of the Minoans.
They remained warlike, however, and plied the seas as raiders as well as
traders. Mycenaean women adopted Cretan fashions and added a variety of
sumptuous jewelry from bracelets to earrings.
Some of the wealth accumulated by the kings of Mycenae - the greatest
single hoard of gold, silver, and ivory objects found anywhere before the
discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb - was unearthed in 1876 by Heinrich
Schliemann, fresh from his even more sensational discoveries at Troy. The
royal palace on the acropolis, or citadel, of Mycenae had well-proportioned
audience rooms and apartments, fresco-lined walls, floors of painted stucco,
and large storerooms. Noteworthy also were the royal "beehive" tombs,
constructed of cut stone and covered with earth.
The expansive force of Mycenaean civilization led to the planting of
colonies in the eastern Mediterranean (Hittite sources refer to Achaeans in
Asia Minor) and to the conquest of Knossos about 1450 B.C. The latter event
was made possible by the destruction of the labyrinthian palace at Knossos by
fire - the aftereffect, it is now conjectured, of a great tidal wave caused by
the eruption of the small volcanic island of Thera (Santorini) eighty miles
north of Crete. The palace at Knossos was rebuilt by the Mycenaeans (to be
destroyed finally about 1380 B.C. by earthquake and fire), and the center of
Aegean civilization shifted to the Greek mainland.
This story of Achaean-Cretan relations was unclear until after 1952 when
a young English architect, Michael Ventris, startled the scholarly world by
deciphering a type of Cretan script known as Linear B, many examples of which
had been found by Evans at Knossos and by later archaeologists at Pylos,
Mycenae, and Thebes. When Linear B turned out to be an early form of Greek
written in syllabic characters, it followed that the rulers of Knossos after
1450 B.C. must have been Achaean Greeks who had adopted the Cretan script to
write their own language.
The Linear B texts, which are administrative documents and inventories,
greatly add to our knowledge of Mycenaean life. The Mycenaean centers were
fortified palaces and administrative centers and not, as in Crete, true
cities. The bulk of the population lived in scattered villages where they
worked either communal land or land held by nobles or kings. The nobles were
under the close control of the kings, whose administrative records were kept
daily by a large number of scribes. Prominent in these records are details of
the disbursement of grain and wine as wages and the collection of taxes in
kind. The most important item of income was olive oil, the major article in
the wide-ranging Mycenaean trade, which was operated as a royal monopoly.
Perhaps it was their role as merchantmonopolists that led the Achaean kings
about 1250 B.C. to launch the famous expedition against Troy in order to
eliminate a powerful commercial rival.
Troy, Site Of Homer's Iliad
The city of Troy occupied a strategic position on the Hellespont (the
strait from the Aegean to the Black seas now known as the Dardanelles). Thus
Troy could command both sea traffic through the straits and land caravans
going between Asia and Europe. For many years scholars thought this city
existed only in the epic poems of Homer. Henrich Schliemann (1822-1890), a
German romantic dreamer and amateur archaeologist, believed otherwise. As a
boy, he had read Homer's Iliad, and thereafter he remained firmly
convinced that Troy had actually existed. At the age of forty-eight, having
amassed a fortune in the California gold rush and in world-wide trade,
Schliemann retired from business to put his persistent dream of ancient Troy
to the test.
In 1870 Schliemann began excavations at the legendary site of Troy, where
he unearthed nine buried cities, built one on top of another. He discovered a
treasure of golden earrings, hairpins, and bracelets in the second city (Troy
II), which led him to believe that this was the city of Homer's epics.
Excavations in the 1930s, however, showed that Troy II had been destroyed
about 2200 B.C., far too early to have been the scene of the Trojan War, and
that Troy VIIa, clearly destroyed by human violence about 1250 B.C., was
probably the one made famous by Homer.
Neither the view that Troy was the victim of commercial rivalry nor the
other widely held theory that it was destroyed by Achaean pirates seeking
booty corresponds to Homer's view that the Trojan War was caused by the
abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, by the Trojan prince Paris. Led by
Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, the wrathful Achaeans besieged Troy for ten long
years. Homer's Iliad deals only with a few weeks during the tenth year
of the siege.
The Fall Of Mycenaean Civilization
About 1200 B.C. a new wave of Indo-Europeans, the Dorian Greeks,
materially aided by weapons made of iron instead of bronze, invaded Greece.
First of the Mycenaean strongholds to fall was Pylos, whose Linear B archives
contain numerous references to hastily undertaken preparations to repel the
invaders. We find orders directing women and children to places of safety;
instructions to armorers, "rowers," and food suppliers; and a report entitled
"How the watchers are guarding the coastal regions." ^2 The preparations were
in vain, however. Pylos was sacked and burned, and the destruction of the
other major Mycenaean citadels soon followed. Mycenaean refugees found a haven
at Athens and in Ionia on the western coast of Asia Minor.
[Footnote 2: See Leonard R. Palmer, Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory
in the Light of the Linear B Tablets (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), ch. 5,
"The Last Days of Pylos."]
The Rise Of Hellenic Civilization, 1150-500 B.C.
The four centuries from c.1150 to 750 B.C., the Greek Dark Ages, were
marked by the disappearance of the major characteristics of Mycenaean
civilizationcentralized and bureaucratic administration, wide-ranging
commerce, sophisticated art forms (including monumental architecture), and
writing. Yet while the Dorian invasion was an undoubted catastrophe, it was
also vital to the ultimate rise of a unique Hellenic (from Hellas, the
Greek name for Greece) civilization that was not largely an offshoot of the
Near East, as was Aegean civilization. A fresh start now had to be made.
The Influence Of Geography
Geographical factors played an important part in shaping the events of
Greek history. The numerous mountain ranges that crisscross the peninsula,
which is about the size of Maine, severely hampered internal communication and
led to the development of fiercely independent city-states and the failure of
the Greeks to unite into a single state. The mountains cover two thirds of the
surface, and along the west coast they come close to the sea, leaving few
harbors and arable plains. Elsewhere the deeply indented coast provides many
natural harbors that invite maritime adventure. The major cleft is the Gulf of
Corinth, which made southern Greece almost an island - hence, it was called
the Peloponnesus ("Pelop's island"). The indented coastline and the many
islands offshore stimulated seagoing trade, and the rocky soil (less than a
fifth of Greece is arable) and few natural resources encouraged the Greeks to
establish colonies abroad.
The Homeric Age
Most of our information about the Greek Dark Ages, which followed the
Dorian invasion, is derived from the epics put in final form during the last
century of this period and attributed to the blind Ionian poet Homer.
Controversy surrounds the question of Homer's existence and whether he or
several poets composed the Iliad and Odyssey. The Homeric epics retain
something of the material side of the Mycenaean period. Yet in filling in the
details of political, economic, and social life; the religious beliefs and
practices; and the ideals that gave meaning to life; the poet could only
describe what was familiar to him in his own age.
The values that gave meaning to life in the Homeric Age were
predominantly heroic values - the strength, skill, and valor of the preeminent
warrior. Such was the earliest meaning of aret, "excellence" or "virtue," a
key term throughout the course of Greek culture. To obtain aret - defined by
one Homeric hero as "to fight ever in the forefront and outvie my peers" - and
the imperishable fame that was its reward, men welcomed hardship, struggle,
and even death. Honor, like fame, was a measure of arete, and thei greatest of
human tragedies was the denial of honor due to a great warrior. Homer makes
such a denial the theme of the Iliad: "The ruinous wrath of Achilles that
brought countless ills upon the Achaeans" when Achilles, insulted by
Agamemnon, withdraws from battle.
To the Homeric Greeks, the gods were plainly human. Zeus, the king of the
gods, was often the undignified victim of the plots of his wife Hera and other
deities, and he asserted his authority through threats of violence. Hades, the
abode of the dead, was a subterranean land of dust and darkness, and Achilles,
as Homer tells us in the Odyssey, would have preferred to be a slave on
earth than a king in Hades.
Society was clearly aristocratic - only the aristoi ("aristocrats") possessed aret - and the common man was reviled and beaten when he dared to question his betters. Yet the common man had certain political rights as a member of the assembly that was summoned whenever a crisis, such as war, required his participation. Two other instruments of government described by Homer were the tribal king and his council. The king was hardly more than a chief among his peers, his fellow nobles, who sat in his council to advise him and to check any attempt he might make to exercise arbitrary power. The economy was that of a simple, self-sufficient agricultural system much like that of the early Middle Ages in western Europe.
The City-State: Origin And Political Evolution
The polis, or city-state, the famed Greek political unit, did not exist
in the Greek Dark Ages. The nucleus of the polis, was the elevated, fortified
site - the acropolis - where people could take refuge from attack. In time
this defensive center took on added significance as the focus of political and
religious life. When commerce revived in the eighth and seventh centuries
B.C., a trading center developed below the acropolis. The two areas and the
surrounding territory, usually smaller than a modern county, formed the polis,
from which our word "politics" is derived.
The political development of the polis was so rich and varied that it is
difficult to think of a form of government not experienced - and given a
lasting name - by the Greeks. Four major types of government evolved: (1)
monarchy, limited by an aristocratic council and a popular assembly, as
described in the Homeric epics; (2) oligarchy ("rule of the few"), arising
when the aristocratic council ousted the king and abolished or restricted the
popular assembly; (3) tyranny, imposed by one man who rode to power on the
discontent of the lower classes; (4) democracy ("rule of the people"), the
outstanding political achievement of the Greeks, which emerged after the
tyrant was deposed and the popular assembly revived and made the chief organ
of government. After dissatisfaction with democratic government be-came
widespread in the fourth century B.C., many of the city-states returned either
to oligarchy or to one-man rule.
From Oligarchy To Tyranny
By the middle of the eighth century B.C., the nobles, who resented the
power wielded by the tribal kings, had taken over the government, ushering in
an age of oligarchy. Ruthlessly exercising their superior power, the nobles
acquired a monopoly of the best land, reducing many commoners to virtual
serfdom and forcing others to seek a living on rocky, barren soil.
The hard lot of common people under oligarchy produced the anguished
protest of Hesiod's Works and Days (c. 700 B.C.). A commoner who had been
cheated out of his parcel of land by his evil brother in league with
"bribe-swallowing" aristocratic judges, Hesiod was the prophet of a more
exalted conception of the gods and a new age of social justice. To establish a
just society, Hesiod argued, people must learn to pursue moderation
(sophrosyne) in all things - apparently the first expression of this famous
Greek ideal - and realize that "far-seeing" Zeus and the other gods punish
evildoers and reward the righteous. In contrast to Homer with his aristocratic
heroes, Hesiod defined human excellence, or arete, in a way to make it
attainable for commoni people. Its essential ingredients were righteousness
and work - honest work in competition with one's fellows being a form of
strife in moderation. "Gods and men hate him who lives without work," Hesiod
insisted. "His nature is like the drones who sit idle and eat the labor of the
bees." Furthermore, "work is no shame, but idleness is a shame," and "esteem,"
"glory," and "riches" follow work. ^3 All this sounds much like the Protestant
ethic of disciplined restraint, sobriety, frugality, and industry taught by
John Calvin and his followers.
[Footnote 3: Quoted in Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), vol. 1, p. 70.]
Hesiod's new ideals of moderation and justice were slow to take root. The
poor found relief only by emigrating to new lands overseas. As Plato later
noted, the wealthy promoted colonization as a safety valve to ward off a
threatened political and economic explosion:
When men who have nothing, and are in want of food, show a disposition to
follow their leaders in an attack on the property of the rich - these, who are
the natural plague of the state, are sent away by the legislator in a friendly
spirit as far as he is able; and this dismissal of them is euphemistically
termed a colony. ^4
[Footnote 4: Plato Laws 5.735. In The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett
(New York: Random House, 1937), vol. 2, p. 503.]
From 750 to 550 B.C. the Greeks planted colonies throughout much of the
Mediterranean world, a development often compared with the expansion of Europe in modern times. Settlements sprang up along the northern coast of the Aegean and around the Black Sea. So many Greeks migrated to southern Italy and
eastern Sicily that the region became known as Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.
Colonies were also founded as far west as present-day France - at Massilia,
modern Marseilles for example - and Spain and on parts of the African coast.
Unique was Naucratis in Egypt, not a true colony but a trading post whose
residents gained extraterritorial rights (their own magistrates and law
courts) from the Egyptians.
In time colonization ameliorated Greece's economic and social problems.
By 600 B.C. economic progress and the use of coined money, learned from the
Lydians, had created the beginnings of a middle class. The Greek home states
gradually became "industrialized" as a result of concentrating upon the
production of specialized wares - vases, metal goods, textiles, olive oil, and
wine - for export in exchange for foodstuffs and raw materials. But before
this economic revolution was completed, the continuing land hunger of the
peasants contributed to a political revolution.
After 650 B.C. tyrants arose in many Greek states and, supported by the
aggrieved peasantry and rising merchant class, seized the reins of government
from the nobility. They were supported by a new heavy-armed infantry (the
hoplite phalanx), composed of middle-class citizens wealthy enough to furnish
their own equipment. These tyrants (the word meant simply "master" and did not
at first have today's unfavorable meaning) not only distributed land to the
peasants but, by promoting further colonization, trade, and industry,
completed the Greek economic revolution.
Athens To 500 B.C.
Athens and Sparta, the city-states destined to dominate the history of
Greece during the classical period (the fifth and most of the fourth centuries
B.C.), underwent markedly different developments during the period prior to
500 B.C. While Athens' political, economic, and social evolution was typical
of most other Greek states, Sparta's development produced a unique way of life
that elicited the wonder and often the admiration of other Greeks.
During the seventh century B.C., the council of nobles became supreme in
Athens. The popular assembly no longer met, and the king was replaced by nine
aristocratic magistrates, called archons, chosen annually by the council to
exercise the king's civil, military, and religious powers. While the nobles on
their large estates prospered, the small farmers and sharecroppers suffered.
Bad years forced them to borrow seed from their rich neighbors, and when they
were unable to repay they were sold into slavery. To the small farmers' clamor
for the cancellation of debts and the end to debt slavery was added the voice
of the landless for the redistribution of land.
When the Athenian nobles finally realized that their failure to heed the
cry for reform would result in the rise of a tyrant, they agreed to the policy
of compromise advocated by the liberal aristocrat Solon. In 594 B.C. Solon was
made sole archon with broad authority to reconcile the lower classes. Inspired
by the ideals of moderation and justice promoted by Hesiod a century earlier,
Solon instituted middle-of-the-road reforms that have made his name a byword
for wise statesmanship.
For the lower classes, Solon agreed to canceling all debts and forbidding
debt bondage, but he rejected as too radical the demand for the re-division of the land. His long-range solution to the economic problem was to seek full employment by stimulating trade and industry. To achieve this goal, Solon required fathers to teach their sons a trade, granted citizenship to foreign artisans who settled in Athens, and encouraged the intensive production of olive oil for export.
Moderation also characterized Solon's political reformsthe common people
were granted important political rights, but not equality. While laws
continued to originate in a new aristocratic Council of Four Hundred, they now
had to be ratified by the popular assembly, which Solon revived. And since
wealth, not birth, became the qualification for membership in the Council and
for the archonships, wealthy commoners acquired full political equality.
Furthermore, the assembly could now act as a court to hear appeals from the
decisions of the archons and to try them for misdeeds in office.
Unfortunately, Solon's moderate reforms satisfied neither party. The poor
had received neither land nor full political equality, while the nobles
thought Solon a radical who had betrayed his class. Deeply discouraged, Solon
described what is too often the lot of moderate reformers: "Formerly their
eyes sparkled when they saw me; now they coldly scorn me, no longer friends
but enemies." ^5
[Footnote 5: Plutarch Lives "Solon" 16.]
Solon had warned the Athenians to accept his reforms lest "the people in
its ignorance comes into the power of a tyrant." He lived to see his
prediction fulfilled. In 560 B.C., after a period of civil strife,
Pisistratus, a military hero and champion of the commoners, usurped power as
tyrant. He solved the economic problem by banishing many nobles, whose lands
he distributed among the poor, and by promoting commerce and industry.
Together with extensive public works and the patronage of culture - thus
starting Athens on the road to cultural leadership in Greece - these reforms
gave rise to a popular saying that "Life under Pisistratus was paradise on
Pisistratus was succeeded by his two sons, one of whom was assassinated
and the other exiled after he became suspicious and cruel. When the nobles,
aided by a Spartan army, took this opportunity to restore oligarchy,
Cleisthenes temporarily seized power in 508 B.C. and put through
constitutional reforms that destroyed the remaining power of the nobility. He
disregarded the old noble-dominated tribes and created ten new ones, each
embracing citizens of all classes from widely scattered districts. The popular
assembly soon acquired the right to initiate legislation and became the
sovereign power in the state; there could be no appeal from its decisions. A
new and democratic Council of Five Hundred, selected by lot from the ten
tribes, advised the assembly and supervised the administrative actions of the
archons. Cleisthenes' final reform was the peculiar institution of
ostracism, an annual referendum in which a quorum of citizens could vote
to exile for ten years any individual thought to be a threat to the new
Athenian democracy. (A quorum consisted of 6000 of the 50,000 male citizens
over the age of eighteen. The average attendance at an Athenian assembly,
whose ordinary meetings were held every ten days, was about 5000.) The 2500th
anniversary of the establishment of the Athenian democracy will be celebrated
Sparta To 500 B.C.
In sharp contrast to Athens was its rival Sparta. Sparta had not joined
the other Greek cities in trade and colonization but had expanded instead by
conquering and enslaving its neighbors. To guard against revolts by the state
slaves (helots), who worked the land for their conquerors, Sparta deviated
from the normal course of Greek political development and transformed itself
into a militaristic totalitarian state. Aristotle called the government of
Sparta a "mixed constitution"; for the small minority of ruling Spartans, it
was a democracy, but for the great mass of subjected people it was an
oligarchy. The government included two kings, an aristocratic council, and an
assembly of all 9000 Spartan citizens. Great power resided in five magistrates
called ephors ("overseers"), created originally as an aristocratic check on
royal authority, but later elected annually by the assembly.
While the Athenian state required only two years of military training for
young men, the Spartan system - traditionally attributed to a legendary
lawgiver named Lycurgus - was designed to make every Spartan a professional
soldier and to keep him in a constant state of readiness for war. To this end,
the state enforced absolute subordination of the individual to its will.
State officials examined all newborn children, and any found sickly or
deformed were abandoned to die. At the age of seven a boy was taken from his
family and placed in the charge of state educators, who taught him to bear
hardship, endure discipline, and devote his life to the state. At twenty the
young Spartan enrolled in the army and lived in barracks, where he contributed
food from his allotment of land granted by the state and worked by helots. At
thirty he was allowed to marry, but he continued to live in barracks, visiting
his wife only at night. Finally, at sixty, he was released from the army and
could live at home with his family.
This lifelong discipline produced formidable soldiers and inspired them
with the spirit of obedience and respect for law. Plutarch reports that
Spartan training "accustomed the citizens to have neither the will nor the
ability to lead a private life, but, like bees, to be organic parts of their
community, clinging together around their leader, forgetting themselves in
their enthusiastic patriotism, and belonging wholly to their country."
Although many Greeks admired the Spartan way of life, the typical Spartan
was crude and aggressive, took few baths, and spoke few words. According to
One may judge their character by their jokes;
for they are taught never to talk at random,
nor to utter a syllable that does not contain some thought.
For example, when one of them was invited to hear a man
imitate the nightingale, he answered, "I have heard the
[Footnote 6: Plutarch Lives "Lycurgus" 20.]
Spartan girls also received state training in order to become healthy
mothers of warrior sons. Clad in short tunics, which other Greeks thought
immodest, they engaged in running, wrestling, and throwing the discus and
javelin. As their men marched off to war, Spartan women bade them a laconic
farewell: "Come back with your shield or on it."
According to Plutarch, the Spartans
did away with all seclusion and retirement for
women, and ordained that girls, no less than boys,
should go naked in processions, and dance and sing
at festivals in the presence of the young men....
This nakedness of the maidens had in it nothing disgraceful.
It was done modestly, not licentiously, and it produced
habits of simplicity and taught them to desire good health
and beauty of body, and to love honor and courage no less
than the men. This it was that made them speak and think as
Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, is said to have done. Some
foreign lady, it seems, said to her, "You Spartan women are
the only ones who rule men." She answered, "Yes, for we are
the only ones who give birth to men."
While Sparta developed the finest military machine in Greece, it remained
backward culturally and economically. Trade and travel were prohibited because
the city fathers feared that alien ideas might disturb the status quo. Sparta
is a classic example of how intellectual stagnation accompanies rigid social
conformity and military regimentation.
To provide additional assurance that its helots remained uncontaminated
by democratic ideas, Sparta allied itself with oligarchic parties in other
Peloponnesian states and aided them in suppressing their democratic opponents.
The resulting Spartan League of oligarchic states, in operation by the end of
the sixth century B.C., was shortly to be faced by an Athenian-led union of
Unity And Strife In The Hellenic World, 500-336 B.C.
The leaders of the Greek economic and cultural revival after 750 B.C.
were the Ionian Greeks, descendants of the Mycenaeans who had fled the Dorian
invaders and settled the Aegean coast of Asia Minor and its offshore islands.
Influenced by contacts with Phoenician traders (from whom they borrowed the
alphabet in the eighth century B.C.), neighboring Lydia, and Egypt, the
Ionians "first kindled the torch of Hellenism." They were also the first
Greeks to face the threat of the great powers of the Near East.
[See Greek Alliances: Greek political alliances about 431 BC]
The Persian Wars
When the Persians conquered Lydia in 547 B.C., they also annexed Ionia,
which had been under nominal Lydian rule. Chafing under Persian-appointed
tyrants, the Ionian cities revolted in 449 B.C., established democratic
regimes, and appealed to the Athenians, who were also Ionians, for aid. Athens
sent twenty ships, but to no avail. By 494 B.C. Darius I had crushed the
revolt, burning Miletus in revenge.
Darius knew that Ionia was insecure as long as Athens remained free to
incite its kin to revolt, and thus in 490 B.C. a Persian force about 20,000
strong sailed across the Aegean and debarked on the plain of Marathon near
Athens. Darius' aim of forcing the Athenians to accept the exiled son of
Pisistratus as a pro-Persian tyrant was frustrated when the Athenian army,
half the size of the Persian, won an overwhelming victory, killing 6400 of the
foe while losing only 192.
The battle of Marathon was one of the most decisive in history. It
destroyed the belief in Persian invincibility and demonstrated, in the words
of the Greek historian Herodotus, that "free men fight better than slaves."
The victory also gave the Athenians the self-confidence that would soon make
their city the leading Greek state.
Ten years later the Greeks were well prepared for a new Persian invasion
under Xerxes, Darius' successor, whose objective was the subjection of all of
Greece. Athens now had 200 ships, the largest fleet in Greece, and Sparta had
agreed to head a defensive alliance of thirty-one states.
The Persian army - reckoned by Herodotus at 1,700,000 but more likely
150,000 or so - was too huge to be transported by ship. Crossing the
swift-flowing, mile-wide Hellespont near Troy on two pontoon bridges - a
notable feat of engineering - the army marched along the Aegean coast
accompanied by a great fleet carrying provisions. The Spartans wanted to
abandon all of Greece except the Peloponnesus to the invaders but finally
agreed to a holding action at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. Here 300
Spartans and a few thousand other Greeks held back the Persians for three
days, until a Greek traitor led them over a mountain path to the rear of the
Greek position. The Spartans fought magnificently until all were slain,
together with 700 other Greeks. The Spartan dead were immortalized on a
monument erected at the pass: "Go tell the Spartans, you who pass us by, that
here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
The Persians then burned Athens, whose inhabitants had fled, for they
placed their faith in "wooden walls" - their fleet. Their faith was not
misplaced; in the Bay of Salamis the Greek fleet, largely Athenian, turned the
tide of victory with the shout: "On, sons of the Greeks! Set free your country,
set your children free, your wives, the temples of your country's gods, your
fathers' tombs; now they are all at stake." ^7 With 200 of his 350 ships
destroyed and his lines of communication cut, Xerxes had no alternative but to
retreat to Asia, although he left a strong force in Greece. The following
summer (479 B.C.) the Greek army, with the Spartan contingent in the vanguard,
routed the Persian force at Plataea, and Greece was for the time being safe
[Footnote 7: A. R. Burn, trans., The Pelican History of Greece (Baltimore:
Penguin Books, 1966), p. 186.]
Culmination Of Athenian Democracy
The part they played in the Greek victory over the mighty Persian empire
exhilarated the Athenians and gave them the confidence and energy that made
them the leaders of the Greek world during the remainder of the fifth century
B.C. During this period, known as the Golden Age of Greece, the Athenians
"attempted more and achieved more in a wider variety of fields than any nation
great or small has ever attempted or achieved in a similar space of time." ^8
[Footnote 8: C. E. Robinson, Hellas: A Short History of Ancient Greece
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 68.]
For more than thirty years (461-429 B.C.) during this period, the great
statesman Pericles guided Athenian policy. In Pericles' time the actual
executive power no longer resided in the archons who were chosen by lot, but
in a board of ten elected generals. This board operated much like a modern-day
governmental cabinet. The generals urged the popular assembly to adopt
specific measures, and the success or failure of their policies determined
whether they would be reelected at the end of their annual term. Pericles
failed of reelection only once, and so great was his influence on the
Athenians that, in the words of the contemporary historian Thucydides, "what
was in name a democracy was virtually a government by its greatest
[Footnote 9: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.65.]
To enable even the poorest citizen to participate in government, Pericles
extended payment to jurors (a panel of 6000 citizens chosen annually by lot)
and to members of the council. While his conservative opponents called this
political bribery, Pericles insisted that it was essential to the success of
Our constitution is named a democracy, because it is in the
hands not of the few but of the many. But our laws secure
equal justice for all in their private disputes, and our public
opinion welcomes and honours talent in every branch of
achievement, not as a matter of privilege but on grounds of
excellence alone.... [Athenians] do not allow absorption in
their own various affairs to interfere with their knowledge of
the city's. We differ from other states in regarding the man
who holds aloof from public life not as "quiet" but as useless;
we decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of
policy, holding, not that words and deeds go ill together, but
that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken
[Footnote 10: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.37, 40.]
The majority of the inhabitants of Athens, however, were not recognized
as citizens. Women, slaves, and resident aliens were denied citizenship and
had no voice in the government. Legally, women were first the property of
their fathers, then of their husbands. They could not possess property in
their own name, or, as the law expressly stated, "make a contract about
anything worth more than a bushel of barley."
Athens was distinctly a man's world. A wife's function was to bear
children and manage the home, where she was restricted to the women's quarters
when her husband entertained his friends. Men did not marry until they were
about thirty, and they usually married girls half their age. Marriages were
normally arranged by the families, and prospective brides and bridegrooms
seldom met before their betrothal. Families were rather small, and
infanticide, usually by exposure, of unwanted infants (especially girls) was
practiced as a primitive form of birth control. The average life expectancy
was little more than thirty years.
Athenian society sanctioned a double moral standard, and the philandering
of a husband was not the occasion for adverse public comment. A peculiar
institution, catering to the needs and desires of upper-class Athenian males,
was that of the "companions" (hetaerae). These females were normally
resident aliens and therefore not subject to the social restrictions imposed
on Athenian women. A few of the hetaerae, such as Aspasia, the mistress
of Pericles, were cultivated women who entertained at salons frequented by
Athenian political and cultural leaders. Generally speaking, however,
champions of the social emancipation of Athenian women were rare, and the
women themselves accepted their status. Aside from a few cases in which wives
murdered their husbands (usually by poison), married life seems to have been
stable and peaceful. Attic gravestones in particular attest to the love
spouses felt for one another. The tie to their children was strong, and the
community set high store by the honor owed by sons and daughters to their
Male homosexuality is frequently pictured on Athenian vases and mentioned
in literature. Socially acceptable was "boy love," a homosexual relationship
between a mature man and a young boy just before the youth attained puberty.
This relationship was viewed as pedagogicala rite of initiation into adult
society. Like initiation rites in general, it contained a strong element of
humiliation. Adult male homosexuality and homosexual prostitution, however,
were not socially acceptable. Such relationships were looked upon as "contrary
to nature," and the Athenian government issued stringent legal prohibitions
No ancient society did without slaves, although their importance is often
overstated; almost everyone, free as well as slave, had to work for a living.
In fifth-century Athens it is estimated that one out of every four persons was
a slave. Some were war captives, others were children of slaves, but most came
from outside Greece through slave dealers. No large slave gangs were employed
on plantations, as they were in Roman times and in the American South before
the Civil War. Small landowners owned one or more slaves, who worked in the
fields alongside their masters. Those who owned many slavesone rich Athenian
owned a thousandhired them out to private individuals or to the state where
they worked beside Athenian citizens and received the same wages.
Other slaves were taught a trade and set up in business. They were
allowed to keep one sixth of their wages, and many of them were able to
purchase their freedom. Although a few voices argued that slavery was contrary
to nature and that all people were equal, the Greek world as a whole agreed
with Aristotle that some people - non-Greeks in particular - were incapable of
full human reason; thus they were by nature slaves who needed the guidance of
The victory over Persia had been made possible by a partial unity of
Hellenic arms; but that unity quickly dissolved when Sparta, fearful of helot
rebellion at home, recalled its troops and resumed its policy of isolation.
Because the Persians still ruled the Ionian cities and another invasion of
Greece seemed probable, Athens in 478 B.C. invited the city-states bordering
on the Aegean to form a defensive alliance called the Delian League. To
maintain a 200 ship navy that would police the seas, each state was assessed
ships or money in proportion to its wealth. From the beginning, Athens
dominated the league. Since almost all of the 173 member states paid their
assessments in money, which Athens was empowered to collect, the Athenians
furnished the necessary ships.
By 468 B.C., after the Ionian cities had been liberated and the Persian
fleet destroyed, various league members thought it unnecessary to continue the
confederacy. In suppressing all attempts to secede, the Athenians were
motivated by the fear that the Persian danger still existed and by the need to
maintain and protect the large free-trade area so necessary for Greek - and
especially Athenian - commerce and industry. The Athenians created an empire
because they dared not unmake a confederation. By aiding in the suppression of
local aristocratic factions within its subject states, Athens both eased the
task of controlling its empire and emerged as the leader of a union of
To many Greeks - above all to the members of the oligarchic Spartan
League and the suppressed aristocratic factions within the Athenian empire -
Athens was a "tyrant city" and an "enslaver of Greek liberties." Pericles, on
the other hand, justified Athenian imperialism on the ground that it brought
"freedom" from fear and want to the Greek world:
We secure our friends not by accepting
favours but by doing them....We are alone
among mankind in doing men benefits, not on
calculations of self-interest, but in the fearless
confidence of freedom. In a word I claim that
our city as a whole is an education to
Hellas .... ^11
[Footnote 11: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.40, 41.]
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.]
Author: Robert A. Guisepi