Ancient Greece, at its peak in the fourth century bce, fostered Homeric ideals of heroism that inspired writers and philosophers of the classical age to portray the human condition against the world’s uncertainties. Greek contributions in science, philosophy, art, literature, religion, and politics thus spread far and wide. European humanists in the fourteenth century revived interest in Greek culture and ideals, which still color contemporary thought.
The civilization of ancient Greece twice effected important changes in world cultural balances, first when Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, 356–323 bce) conquered a vast empire in western Asia, Egypt, and northwest India, spreading Greek ideas and customs far and wide, and a second time, beginning about l400 ce, when well-to-do citizens first in Italy and then also in northwestern Europe found that ancient Greek literature provided a useful guide and enrichment for their own lives.
What made Greek patterns of civilization so attractive was that for a few generations a handful of Greek cities mobilized intense and widespread popular participation in politics and war, while also combining monumental public art with market economics. They called this unusual mix “freedom,” and the literary expressions of Greek freedom in poetry, history, and philosophy appealed to intellectually restless citizens in other times and places as both admirable and practical. Freedom continues to figure in contemporary politics, so the Greek example still echoes in our public affairs, though less strongly than it did before 1914, when the study of Greek (and Latin) literature dominated the schooling of Europe’s political leaders and many of those who supported them. Revival of the Olympic Games in 1896 was a late example of how ancient Greece continued to offer a model for Europeans to emulate, and by now Olympic competition has become worldwide.
How did ancient Greece achieve its distinctive character? For more than a thousand years after 2000 bce, when Greek-speaking invaders began to filter in from the north, changes in Greece closely paralleled what was happening elsewhere. The initial invasions, for example, were part of a general expansion of herdsmen from the grassy steppes of Eurasia that brought Aryans to India, Persians to Iran, Hittites to Anatolia, and Slavs, Germans, Latins, and Celts to other parts of Europe. The newcomers had the advantage of warlike habits arising from the necessity of protecting their flocks and herds from raiders and from attacking neighbors in retaliation. Moreover, these warrior tribesmen had a superior diet, thanks to the milk and milk products they consumed, making them bigger and stronger than the grain farmers they displaced.
Dry summers prevail in most of Greece and are bad for grass, so the invaders had to depend more on grain farming and to cut back on herding by sending flocks to high mountain pastures in summer. This brought Greek society into line with the contemporary scene in western Asia, where steppe invaders had overrun somewhat larger populations of farmers and the urban centers they supported. Accordingly, by about 1600 bce, closer encounters with centers of civilization in Crete, Egypt, and western Asia brought familiarity with royal government, bronze weapons and armor, chariots, writing, and monumental stone construction to Greece. Mycenae became the principal seat of wealth and power, where a massive lion gate and large beehive tombs attest to the greatness of the kings for whom they were built. Rural taxpayers, sometimes conscripted for work on such buildings, together with booty from sea raids along the shores of the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean sustained the kings of Mycenae and rulers of a handful of similar fortress-palaces in other parts of Greece. But chariots as well as bronze weapons and armor were scarce and expensive, so fully equipped warriors remained very few. Hence, about 1200 bce, when a second wave of Greek-speaking invaders, known as Dorians, armed with comparatively cheap and abundant iron weapons, advanced from the north, the superior number of their fighting men overwhelmed the old order of society. The newcomers promptly destroyed and abandoned Mycenae and the other palace-fortresses of Greece.
With these invasions, a ruder, more egalitarian age dawned. Writing disappeared, so did monumental building. But bards who recited their poems to the sound of a lyre kept memories of the Mycenaean past at least dimly alive, especially among descendants of pre-Dorian Greek-speakers, known as Ionians. Soon after 700 bce Homer gave lasting form to this oral tradition by composing a pair of epic poems. One, the Iliad, described a critical episode during a sea raid that Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, perhaps (even probably), led against the city of Troy; its twin, the Odyssey, recounted the perilous return of Odysseus from Troy to his home in Ithaca. Homer’s poems were soon written down in a new alphabetic script imported (with adjustments) from Phoenicia, and they became fundamental to subsequent Greek assumptions and ideas about how men ought to behave. Homer’s heroes seek and attain glory by risking death in war, knowing ahead of time that sooner or later they will be defeated and die. Moreover, according to Homer, the gods play games with men, favoring some, defeating others whimsically; yet the very fact that the gods were immortal meant that they could not be truly heroic by risking life and limb. Instead, according to Homer, they were often merely spiteful and were ultimately subject to Fate—the nature of things—mysteriously spun out in detail by enigmatic, silent supernatural beings. Oddly, therefore, by risking everything, heroic humans surpassed the gods, at least morally, while sharing with them a common subordination to Fate.
The unexamined life is not worth living.Socrates (469–399 bce)
This unusual twist diminished the power of priests and conventional religion among the ancient Greeks and opened a path to all sorts of speculation seeking to anatomize Fate and penetrate more deeply into the nature of things, including, ere long, the nature of human society and of morals. No other ancient civilization centered so much on merely human affairs or unleashed human imagination and reasoning from sacred traditions so recklessly. That is why in later times urban populations among whom local versions of sacred doctrine had worn thin from too many encounters with persons of different religious background so often found Greek high culture powerfully attractive.
Greek civilization further enhanced its attractiveness when Homeric heroism was transformed from an individual, personal pursuit into collective heroism in defense of small city-states, into which Greece eventually divided. Greek city-states had their own complex development from older migratory and tribal forms of society. Ionian Greeks, fleeing from Dorian invaders across the Aegean to found new settlements on the coast of modern Turkey, led the way. Kinship ties crumbled among haphazard groups of refugees, who consequently had to improvise new ways of keeping peace and order among themselves. Elected magistrates, holding office for a limited time (usually one year) and administering laws agreed upon by an assembly of male citizens, proved maximally effective. When such self-governing communities began to thrive and, after about 750 bce, started to found similar new cities in Sicily, southern Italy, and around the shores of the northern Aegean and Black Sea, an enlarged Greek world began to emerge, held together by shipping and trade, a more or less common language and the distinctive public institutions of the polis, to use the Greek term for a locally sovereign city-state.
In Greece proper, the polis supplanted older kinship arrangements much more slowly. In the wake of the Dorian invasions, as people settled down to farm the same fields year after year, local hereditary kings, assisted by councils of noble landowners, began to emerge. They much resembled contemporary local rulers of western Asia. Population growth soon provoked a painful process of differentiation between noble landowners and dependent rent- and tax-paying peasants. This process went unchecked in Asia and quickly led to the emergence of new empires and kingdoms, like the biblical kingdom of David. In Greece, however, for something like three hundred years, a different pattern prevailed.
The critical difference hinged on the emergence of phalanx warfare among the Greeks. Beginning about 650 bce, well-armored farmers, trained to keep in line so each man’s shield helped to protect the man next to him, proved superior to disorganized personal combat of the sort Homer had celebrated. When such men, equipped with spears and swords, arrayed themselves six ranks deep to form what the Greeks called a phalanx, their concerted charge easily swept less disciplined and closely packed opponents before it. Once this simple tactic proved uniformly successful, every Greek city had to maintain and if possible increase the size of its phalanx to be able to protect itself against its neighbors.
Since fighting farmers had to arm themselves for the phalanx with income from the family farm, radical steps were necessary to prevent them from losing their land by going into debt to richer landowners. In Sparta, a (perhaps mythical) lawgiver named Lycourgos (Lycurgus) was credited with setting up a system of military training that required the “equals,” as Spartan citizens officially called themselves, to live in barracks between the ages of 20 and 30, practicing military skills and eating together. Family life became correspondingly marginal. Conquered helots in neighboring Messenia supplied the equals with the food they consumed, so Spartan citizens, specialized for war, became an unusual kind of upper class by exploiting the helots collectively. Prolonged military training soon made the Spartan phalanx superior to others, and by 490 bce Spartans had compelled most other city-states of southern Greece to become their allies.
Athens, the other city whose internal history mattered most in later times, never attained internal stability to compare with Sparta’s under the Lycourgan constitution. In 594 bce, for example, Solon, after being elected chief magistrate with extraordinary powers, set out to check the decay of the Athenian phalanx by canceling debts and prohibiting debt slavery. But Solon’s efforts to invoke justice and “good law” did not make friction between rich and poor disappear. Half a century later a noble usurper, Peisistratus, seized power by force of arms and with popular support, then exiled his rivals so that his sons retained control until 510 bce. Two years after their forcible overthrow, another nobleman, Cleisthenes, instituted a more democratic regime in Athens. Rivalry between democratic Athens and Sparta’s mix of radical equality among a citizen elite and harsh repression of disfranchised helots became overt only after the Persian invasion (490–489 bce), when a precarious alliance of about twenty Greek cities, led by Sparta, managed to defeat the imperial army of perhaps sixty thousand men that Xerxes I, king of Persia and ruler of the largest empire Asia had yet seen, led against them. This surprising victory proved to the historian Herodotus (d. c. 425 bce) that free men, obedient to law, fought willingly and therefore better than unfree Persians subjected to a king. More generally, the victory gave an enormous fillip to Greek self-confidence and inaugurated what in retrospect seemed a golden age of creativity, concentrated especially in Athens.
At the time, however, uncertainty and divided councils prevailed and ceaseless warfare continued to disturb civil society. Those who lived through that tumult would surely be surprised to know how reverently later generations looked up to their accomplishments. For in Athens, self-government by elected magistrates and an assembly in which all citizens could vote provoked perpetual dispute, and war mobilization required ever increasing effort. New thoughts and new dilemmas distracted people in private and public life, while sculpture, architecture, drama, history and philosophy all attained what later generations recognized as classical expression.
This remarkable efflorescence of Greek, and especially of Athenian, civilization was sustained by an expanding market economy. Greek cities began to mint silver, copper, and even iron coins in small denominations, so everyone could buy and sell items of common consumption. Expanding markets, in turn, allowed specialized producers to achieve new levels of efficiency, thus enriching society at large. The most significant of these was specialized farming of olives (for oil) and of grapes (for wine). Beginning not long before 600 bce, production of wine and oil for sale spread ever more widely through southern and central Greece, wherever climate and soil allowed. That was because olive oil and wine commanded a ready market throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea coastlands, where barbarian chieftains mobilized local peoples to supply grain, fish, timber, and other raw materials in exchange for the wine and oil they desired. For a long time terms of trade strongly favored the Greeks, so that the yield from an acre of land under vines or olive trees could be exchanged for far more grain than the same land in Greece could produce. As a result, throughout the classical age commercially specialized farming in Greece sustained free and more or less equal citizens far more comfortably (and in larger numbers) than could have been done by raising their own grain locally. In western Asia cities drew grain from their immediate hinterlands in the form of unrequited rents and taxes, but in Greece ships allowed cities to draw grain and other resources from far greater distances, in return for the oil and wine their farmer-citizens brought to market each year.
Export of specialized artisan products—decorated Greek vases for example—supplemented this fundamental agricultural and raw-materials pattern of exchange. Artisans, too, specialized and rapidly improved the quality and quantity of their output. Thus, for a few generations, increasing wealth and skill concentrated in a few commercial cities, of which Athens was the most active. Eventually, when farmers in other parts of the Mediterranean learned how to raise olives and vines, Greeks lost their initial advantage. Greek rural prosperity waned correspondingly, and the expansive buoyancy of the classical age, when Greek population and wealth grew steadily, soon faded away. Yet it was political contradictions inherent in polis ideals of heroism and justice that brought an abrupt end to the Greek classical age in 338 bce, when a semibarbarian conqueror, Philip of Macedon, deprived Greek cites of their cherished freedom. Until then, Greek freedom triumphed on every front, restlessly, ruthlessly, amazingly.
Immediately after their victory over the Persians, Athens and Sparta went their separate ways. Athens had played a conspicuously heroic part in the Persian War. When Xerxes overran their city, Athenians fled to the island of Salamis nearby and refused to surrender. Athenian triremes (the specialized Greek fighting ship that relied on rams, affixed to the ships’ prows, to sink enemy ships) then helped to defeat the Persian fleet in the straits separating Salamis from the Attic mainland (480 bce), compelling Xerxes to withdraw from Greece with most of his army before the Persian remnant suffered final defeat at Plataea the next year. Thereupon, the Athenians chose to keep their fleet in action and continued the war by sending naval expeditions to liberate Greek cities from Persian rule around the shores of the Aegean and beyond. Peace did not come until 448 bce, by which time Athens had built an empire, first freeing cities from the Persians and then taxing them to help support the Athenian fleet that “liberated” them. Spartans at first held back, fearful of helot revolt at home and dismayed by the sudden surge of Athenian power.
Within Athens, the fleet’s annual campaigns swiftly altered internal balances. Citizens whose surplus younger sons lacked enough land to be able to buy armor and serve in the phalanx now had an attractive way to make ends meet by rowing in the fleet for a small wage, supplemented every so often by hauls of booty. In winter, when the fleet went ashore and stayed home, they were free to attend meetings of the assembly, whereas farmers, scattered across Attica, only attended when an unusual crisis arose. This gave a decisive advantage to property-less citizens and assured continuation of the aggressive overseas ventures upon which they had come to depend for a living. For a couple of generations, farmers served contentedly in the phalanx in summer when there was no work to be done in the fields, while a few wealthy aristocrats went along with the democracy, playing their own specialized part by refraining from conspicuous consumption in private life and competing instead for the honor of using their wealth for various public purposes, like equipping a trireme or financing one of the tragic performances that honored the god Dionysos (Dionysus).
Despite rapid population growth, Athenian citizens remained comparatively few. War losses were substantial, and about a dozen colonies, dispatched to consolidate their emerging empire, also removed several thousand landless citizens. At the city’s maximum, in 431 bce, adult male citizens numbered somewhere between 35,000 and 50,000, of whom as many as 20,000 drew salaries from the state for rowing in the fleet and for other forms of public service, such as serving on juries in the law courts. The total population of Attica was probably between 250,000 and 350,000 persons, almost half of whom were disfranchised foreigners and slaves. So as in Sparta, many though not all Athenian citizens had become militarized “equals,” disciplined to row and maneuver their triremes more swiftly and accurately than others, just as years of training allowed Spartan soldiers to prevail on land.
While the Athenian democracy thus concentrated on warfare, trade and artisan work fell mainly into the hands of resident foreigners. Slaves, too, played an important economic role as miners of newly discovered veins of silver ore in Attica. Silver from those mines financed the two hundred Athenian triremes that fought at Salamis; the mines also supplied silver for the Attic drachmae that soon became a standard currency throughout most of the Mediterranean coastlands.
Athens’s combination of economic and military power, based on oil and wine exports, other far-ranging market exchanges, and the personal participation in war by farmer-soldiers in the phalanx and landless rowers in the fleet, was unmatched elsewhere. Athenian polis-wide collaboration always remained somewhat precarious, but under Pericles, who dominated the city’s politics between 445 and 429 bce, the Athenians indeed converted Homeric individual heroism into collective heroism on behalf of their polis. Rich and poor alike pursued honor more than personal gain, and their willing cooperation brought unusual success.
Yet that success was profoundly ambiguous, since victorious Athenians became collective tyrants, suppressing the freedom of others. Accordingly, most Greeks (including some Athenians) came to feel that Athenian democratic and imperial policies were profoundly unjust. Invoking the “freedom of the Greeks” against unjust tyrants, whether home grown or coming from abroad, became and remained a heartfelt protest, long after the enlarged scale of war had made the freedom of separate cities unsustainable.
Sparta, where collective heroism dated back to Lycourgos, soon took the lead in challenging the emerging Athenian Empire. Two bouts of war ensued. The first, waged on and off between 460 and 445 bce, turned out to be a draw; but the next Peloponnesian War (431–404 bce), as the Athenian historian Thucydides called it, ended in the overthrow of Athenian Empire and democracy. Yet the victorious Spartans were compromised from the start, as they prevailed only after accepting Persian money to finance the creation of the mercenary fleet they needed to defeat the Athenians at sea. The scale and intensity of these struggles altered Greek society very rapidly. Fighting became professionalized and commercialized; both Athens and Sparta hired troops and sailors from outside the polis to supplement armies and navies of citizens. Within Athens, rich and poor parted company when conspirators twice (411 and 404 bce) overthrew the democracy. To be sure, democracy was soon restored in Athens, at least in form; but the solidarity between rich and poor in pursuit of collective greatness never came back. Instead, independent farmer-citizen-soldiers gave way to mercenaries, while Athens, and Greek society everywhere, divided more and more sharply between landowners and dependent tillers of the soil.
Simultaneously, commercial prosperity subsided as the Greeks lost their primacy in producing oil and wine for overseas markets. Politics changed to match, allowing larger landed property holders to monopolize what long remained vivacious political struggles among themselves at home and with neighboring cities. After 404 bce, the victorious Spartans quickly became even more unpopular than Athenians had been, before meeting defeat in 371 bce by the Thebans, who were in turn overthrown by Philip of Macedon in 338 bce. To keep the peace, Philip made himself commander-in-chief of a Hellenic league of cities. His son, Alexander, after ruthlessly suppressing a revolt, led a combined Macedonian and Greek army against the Persians in 334 bce. His victories brought the Persian Empire to an end, and after his death in 323 bce, Macedonian generals set up kingdoms of their own in Egypt, Asia, and Macedon. Greek cities nominally regained their freedom but in fact remained bit players in continuing great power struggles until 31 bce, when the Romans unified the entire Mediterranean coastline and its hinterlands in a more lasting empire.
Long before 31 bce, Athenian art and literature of the classical age, 480 to 338 bce, had become familiar to wealthy Greeks everywhere. Precisely because the freedom of the polis was slipping away from their grasp, they cherished the Athenian literary heritage for showing how free men ought to conduct their affairs and lead a good life. Later on, Romans, too, shared a similar nostalgia, for their republican liberty was also a casualty of empire. Accordingly, Roman art and literature borrowed themes and ideas from their Greek predecessors, and the resulting amalgam was what, almost fourteen hundred years later, inspired Italian and other European humanists to revive ancient glories by teaching the young to read, admire, and emulate Greek and Roman literature and art.
The power and complexity of Greek thought, and its concentration in Athens between 490 and 338 bce, remains amazing. Reason, imagination, doubt, hope, and fear all play their part in classical Greek literary exploration of the human condition. Fate, gods, and men interact, surprisingly, often inscrutably. Above all, classical Greek writers remained in thrall to Homer, portraying human beings heroically confronting the world’s uncertainties. Greek sculptors also portrayed both men and gods in heroic human form, and attained greater visual accuracy than art traditions of Asia or elsewhere had done before. Greek monumental architecture remained simple, featuring columnar façades and straight geometrical rooflines. But subtle curvature and proportion please modern eyes as much as they presumably did when first constructed. In later centuries, classical Greek styles of sculpture and architecture spread widely across Europe and Asia; they still affect many of our public buildings.
Yet there was more to the Greek cultural heritage than visual art, civic solidarity, and collective heroism. Rational argument, science, and philosophy burgeoned as well, rivaling traditional religious ritual and belief. This aspect of Greek society reflected the fact that religion in Greece had become a hodgepodge by the time written texts allow us to know anything about it. Ancient and secret fertility cults, like the one at Eleusis, promised eternal life to initiates. Such mysteries fitted awkwardly with Homer’s quarrelsome gods, living on top of Mount Olympus. In addition, Greeks engaged in ecstatic worship of Dionysos, god of wine, sought cures from Aesclapios (Asclepius) through dreams, and inquired about the future from oracles like that at Delphi, where fumes from the earth intoxicated the Pythia, making her babble in ways that priestly experts interpreted for inquiring visitors. The Greeks also honored the gods by stripping themselves naked to compete in athletic contests at Olympia and elsewhere at special festivals. This shocked others, but became a distinctive trait of Hellenism as it spread across western Asia in the wake of Alexander’s armies, rooting itself in new Greek-style cities founded by discharged veterans.
Nothing resembling a coherent worldview emerged from such confusion, and when Greeks began to buy and sell overseas, they encountered an even greater confusion of religious ideas and practices in Egypt, Asia, and more northerly lands. Polis magistrates could and did reconcile the irreconcilable in ritual fashion by sustaining traditional rites and in some cases elaborating on them, as happened in Athens with the development of dramatic festivals honoring Dionysos. Athenian playwrights, notably Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, used drama to explore moral and political issues. Although they advocated civic institutions like justice and moral courage as healthy alternatives to the violent uncertainties of human life, they never came near to making the world as a whole make sense. That was left to a handful of philosophers, who, beginning in Ionia with Thales of Miletus (d. c. 546 bce), took the radical step of disregarding gods and spirits, surmising instead that just as men in the polis regulated their lives by invisible binding laws, nature too perhaps obeyed its own natural laws. Thales for example—perhaps drawing on Mesopotamian creation myths—said that everything came from water by rarification and condensation, with the difference that gods were erased, leaving water and other elements (earth, air, and fire) to behave lawfully. Others pursued this leap in the dark in different directions, proposing some notions that were destined to future significance, like the atomic theory of matter. Mathematics had special attraction for early Greek philosophers since geometrical demonstrations were logically certain and seemed universally true. Here, perhaps, was a model for natural law in general, of which polis law itself was only an instance. Pythagoras of Samos (d. c. 500 bce) carried such ideas to an extreme. He founded a secret brotherhood that was soon forcibly dispersed, and taught that the world was made of numbers and that studying their harmonies might permit human souls to survive death through reincarnation. Only fragments remain from the sayings and writings of Pythagoras and other early Greek philosophers, so modern understanding of their efforts to make the world make sense remain very uncertain and imperfect.
Philosophical discussion turned increasingly to human affairs, with the intense controversies surrounding the rise of democracy. Not surprisingly, Athens became the principal center of debate. A school of sophists made their living by preparing young men for political careers, teaching them how to argue a case—any case—convincingly. Some sophists taught that right and wrong were merely human inventions. That in turn provoked others, of whom Socrates (d. 399 bce) was the most influential, to argue that right and wrong, truth, beauty, honor, justice, and all the other ideas that citizens held dear, were unchanging and rooted in the nature of things, though Socrates was more successful in refuting those who disagreed with him than in explaining his own beliefs. Socrates wrote nothing, but his pupil Plato (d. 347 bce) pursued the same effort by writing a long series of dialogues that survive for our inspection and continuing delight. Plato wanted to believe in a world of unchanging immaterial ideas that somehow guaranteed truth; but, to judge by his later dialogues, never entirely convinced himself that such a world existed. Nevertheless, Plato’s dialogues raised questions for subsequent philosophers to examine endlessly. In addition, by founding the Academy, where young men gathered for advanced study and debate, Plato set up a lasting institutional framework for ancient philosophy. His pupil, Aristotle (384–322 bce), codified the rules of logic, and his other writings offered plausible answers to almost everything else his predecessors had argued about. Subsequent Greek and Roman philosophers continued to disagree until the Christian Emperor Justinian forcibly disbanded the Academy in 529 ce. All the same, pagan philosophers’ ideas provided an educated upper class of citizens in Hellenistic and Roman times with ready answers to a wide range of personal and scientific questions, independent of any sort of religious authority.
This body of learning—secular, rational, argumentative and complex—rivaled (and also suffused) later religious worldviews. It ranks among the most significant heritages passed on from Greek antiquity, for in later centuries Greek philosophy and natural science took on new life among both Muslims and Christians, and still colors contemporary thought.
In sum, science, philosophy, art, literature, war and politics throughout the world are still influenced by our complex and tangled heritage from ancient Greece.
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