2. Geography. Europe fronts the Mediterranean with three peninsulas, two of them formed by the seaward intrusion of the continent’s mountain system. Geographically considered, Greece is the shattered southeastern end of the mountain core of southern and central Europe. J. B. Bury remarked that Illyricum in the E would have closely resembled Spain in the W if its structure had been cut off N of Thessaly. It would have been a solid mass of land almost touching Asia in the E, as Spain almost touches Africa in the W. But Greece, the southern and seaward extension of this land and mountain mass, has features of its own to mark it off geographically from Spain’s firm square and Italy’s spined ridge of land. Greece is a mountainous headland of tumbled terrain, narrow valley plains, ranges, peaks, broken from W to E across its midst by a deep rift, indented by the intruding sea, and scattered around by several groups of islands, notably those of the Ionian Sea (incongruously on the Adriatic shore though Ionia was in western Asia Minor), and of the Aegean (the Sporades, and the Cyclades). The Dodecanese islands and Crete, though not part of Greece proper, were geographically, ethnologically, and historically associated with the mainland. The geography of the whole area was determined by the submergence in the Mediterranean of a mountain complex that begins with the Alps, sweeps E, N and S and finds ultimate emphasis in the Taurus Range of Anatolia and in the strong E-W formations of Crete. In peninsula, upland, and island, as Bury said (History of Greece, p. 1), one can trace the ribs of a framework “which a convulsion of nature bent and shivered, for the service, as it turned out, of the human race.”
It is a notable fact that Gr. history cannot be extricated from its landscape. The rugged peninsula, where the tribes of the Hellenes found precarious lodging place, was no land made for unity. It drove its inhabitants into the arms of the sea. Island, narrow coastal plain, and river valley provided foothold and dwelling. The convulsions of nature that had tumbled the land, and almost divided it in two, had decreed of old that the Greeks should invent the city-state, and thereby democracy and dialectic philosophy, and that history in the dynamic little land should be fragmented, varied, and full of strife.
The very niggardliness of nature, sparing of topsoil and tilth land even before the human folly of deforestation, set ancient limitation on the size and growth of communities, and turned men’s eyes seaward to open highways of trade and colonization. Like the Phoenicians, hemmed between the mountains and the sea, with the incomparable cedar growing on Lebanon behind, and navigable water before, the Greeks became inevitably seafarers, colonists, internationalists. It was the fiat of geography born of geology.
3. Prehistory. Perhaps the beginnings of Gr. history proper can be set about the year 800 b.c., the date of the epic poems, when the Aegean world was emerging from a Dark Age of some four centuries. “Prehistory” covers the preceding twenty centuries, and those civilizations that have left their rich remains for archeology to recover and to leave traces of their history, their rise and fall, and their dominant personalities in myth, legend, and tradition.
Stone age cultures have left traces from the Thessalian plain in the N to Crete in the S. The Bronze Age came to the Aegean perhaps by way of Asia Minor in the third millennium b.c., and mass migration, prob. of the Indo-European peoples who colonized most of Europe, began at this period with wandering groups following the sun, and infiltrating the mainland and the archipelago.
The first civilization of consequence reached its full flower in the island of Crete, which from its geographical position was in contact with the eastern end of the Mediterranean and Egypt, as well as exposed to the human pressure of the N and the Aegean. This, the “Minoan” civilization, a name derived from the legendary king, Minos, was based on sea power and sea-borne trade. It was cultural, artistic, and influential. Spacious, unwalled palaces speak of the wealth, ability, and security of the islanders. In the excellence of the work of architect, painter, and goldsmith the Minoan culture rivaled Egypt. Two forms of script have survived. “Linear B” has been deciphered, and proves to be a primitive Gr., but it is impossible to say whether this fact does more than indicate the race of a dominant minority, or even a language of trade. If the Cretans were an early wave of Indo-European invasion, perhaps overlaying a neolithic or “Mediterranean” aboriginal stock, that would at least suggest a pattern that history is in the habit of repeating—for example, the successive waves of infiltration into Britain—the Belgae, Romans, Germanic tribes, Scandinavians, each divided into numerous ripples. The W coast of America, and the S Pacific islands can demonstrate the same periodicity of occupation. The Cretan civilization collapsed about 1400 b.c., somewhat mysteriously, and due perhaps to a complex of natural disaster, social upheaval, and invasion from the N.
4. The Mycenaean civilization. The infiltrating tribes of the third millennium before Christ took longer to organize on the mainland. In Crete, whether it was first settled, or only taken over and ruled by members of this Indo-European folk-wandering, the island itself imposed a certain unity, and a framework for development, which was rapid as far as such distant evidence can be read, and certainly distinguished.
The first mainland settlements were around Corinth, the Argolis, and on Aegina. From these focal points they spread N into the fertile Boeotian plain, where Thebes was later to be dominant, S to Messenia, and W to the Ionian islands, chiefly to Ithaca. This so-called Helladic civilization was not a high or affluent one, except that their pottery was of a fine quality. It is not certain whether these villagers and pastoralists spoke an Indo-European speech. They were not literate.
The first recognizable Greeks came with fire and sword, if the archeological record of conflagration and ruin is read aright, c. 2000 b.c. They may be called the Achaeans, and it is not certain whether they came through Asia Minor or down the Balkan peninsula. It was the contact of this Middle Helladic civilization with Crete that, from 1600 b.c. onward, produced the Mycenaean civilization. It was a fruitful union in which some have sought to see “Minoan imagination yoked to Helladic restraint and order.” The phrase might mean more, if there were more certain knowledge of the ethnic relationships of the tribes and peoples concerned.
The Mycenaean civilization takes its name from the great fortress of Mycenae in the eastern Peloponnesus, and the period of its greatness is notable for the building of great palaces and mighty fortifications, the development of a strong militaristic feudalism, and vast wealth. The fact that Linear B script is found on the mainland and in Crete may mean that by the 15th cent. Mycenae had actually conquered Crete. Certainly the destruction of the Cretan civilization about 1400 b.c., which prob. followed the ruin of Crete from antural causes, such as earthquake, and internal strife, can hardly have been other than the work of Mycenaean invasion.
About 1200 b.c. occurred an event difficult to assess, the Trojan war, which, as Rom. Horace wrote, found a poet who has lived in the imagination of the world. Troy lay on an escarpment with a narrow intervening coastal plain on the Asiatic shore of the Dardanelles. It was an old post of power, as the stratified remains of nine Troys heaped on the site indicate. The story of Helen and the great expedition to recover her, need not concern the reader. The Trojan conflict certainly concerns a clash of nations, or a vast internecine upheaval, the interpretation depending upon who they were who held the Trojan stronghold. The orthodox view is that the subsequent decline of the Mycenaean civilization was due to the blood-letting, the destruction, and the social strain of this great military adventure. The divided, broken, and weakened culture was ripe for the so-called Dorian invasion.
This was another wave of the same folk-migration that had marked the last millennium. The orthodox view is that the more primitive Dorians like the Saxons, assaulting a weakened Roman-Britain, came in as a destructive force, and gave Greece and the Aegean a Dark Age of four centuries, across which the Homeric poems look, preserving for another age the folk memories of epic strife in which Myceneae went down before the Dorians.
Professor Rhys Carpenter, late of Bryn Mawr, has suggested another view. His climatological studies, linked with the archeology of the period, seems to indicate that the Mycenaean civilization died of drought when the rain belts of southern Europe, determined by the meteorological and climatological conditions in the Sahara area, moved N. In consequence the great centers of Mycenae were slowly depopulated, as a weakened people sought the rainier coasts and westward-facing slopes watered by the Zephyr winds. The Dorians inherited an empty land, if this thesis can be maintained, and a good land, as the more favorable and moist weather pattern gradually reestablished itself in Greece and the Aegean. The final answer to this question of history awaits further knowledge.
5. The city-states. From 800 b.c. onward, Greece was reorganizing itself. Civilization, recovering from the trauma of invasion, was building new patterns of life. The city-states emerged as scattered villages syncretized for protection. The villages of Attica, for example, merged their strength under the masters of the Acropolis, and the power of Athens began its momentous growth; so, too, Thebes and Sparta. In the process, monarchy passed to oligarchy. In the process, too, individual “tyrants” arose. In the Greek sense of this word, which appears to be merely a Lydian term for “ruler,” a tyrant was not necessarily a cruel despot. But since “power corrupts,” as Lord Acton put it, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” there came the coloring that the word inevitably took on.
In this period, the history of Greece is necessarily varied and fragmented. Athens successfully resisted “tyranny” in 630 b.c., and Solon, a rich member of an emerging industrial class, in 594 b.c. was given power to institute constitutional reforms on broadly democratic lines. After another crisis of tyranny from 561 to 528 b.c., finally in 507 b.c., one Cleisthenes introduced a genuinely democratic constitution in which the assembly of citizens had sovereign power. Sparta, meanwhile, in which a Dorian group sought over a long period to maintain a kind of “apartheid” over a subject population, organized herself on the basis of the savage code of the half-legendary Lycurgus—a rigid, uncultured, military society, whose most lamentable achievement was the destruction of Athens in the great war of 431 to 400 b.c., a conflict from which Athens never quite recovered.
All the city-states functioned independently in all the processes and relationships of peace and war. They present a picture of universal history in microcosm. Whereas it is true that there is properly no history of Greece, but rather the history of the Gr. states, it is also true that, despite this ultimately fatal political disunity and dismemberment (with the local jealousy and debilitating petty nationalism that made it impossible for Greece to face Persia, then Macedon, and finally Rome, as a unit of power), there was a consciousness of spiritual oneness. The great sanctuaries of Olympia with its pan-Hellenic games, and Delphi with its oracle, called the “common hearth of Greece,” stand for a sense of common origin, common heritage, and common destiny, which, had it found wider political expression, might have changed European history. The world today faces the same vast problem, and Greek history assumes challenging significance.
6. Colonization. Greek migration to islands and more remote spots along the Mediterranean coastline began with the pressure of the Dorian inroads, or the climatological changes that are alleged to have played their simultaneous part. In discussing the geography of Greece, it was pointed out that the limits imposed by nature on the arable land available enforced emigration. The process continued over several countries. It was, after all, only the maritime extension and projection of the migratory movements that had populated the Mediterranean basin.
From 770 to 550 b.c., with trade vigorous in the inland seas, the process of colonization assumed immense significance for human culture and future European history. Colonies were planted, in the familiar form of city-states, on the coasts of Spain, of Southern France, the whole of southern Italy and Sicily, the Black Sea, and the African coast to the Gulf of Syrtis from almost the Nile Delta. Greek colonies generally did not penetrate or seek to subdue the hinterland. They remained independent, and some of them, Massilia, Tarentum, Syracuse, for example, became powerful states. Rome, in its early growth, and southern Italy generally, were strongly influenced by the transplanted Greek civilization of what came to be called Magna Graecia, the complex of Greek city-states right around the western and southern coasts of Italy from Cumae to Tarentum.
7. The Persian wars. Ionia was the name given to the Greek settlements on the western end of Asia Minor. In the 7th cent., these city-states, in which Greek art, science, and philosophy had struck their first roots, fell under the control and domination of Lydia, the inland empire based on Sardis. In 546 b.c. Lydia fell under the expanding power of Persia, which was reaching for the Aegean, as it was also pressing into India and Egypt in one of history’s great movements of imperialism. In 499 b.c. the Ionian cities rose in revolt against Persia, and Athens, helping the rebels in their hopeless fight, incurred the wrath of Darius, the Pers. king. He attacked Attica from the sea in 490 but was repulsed at his point of landing, at Marathon, by the Athenians.
Ten years later, Xerxes, Darius’ successor, dispatched by land and sea a mighty army determined to overwhelm Greece. Halted for a brief time at Thermopylae, by the famous Spartan Three Hundred, the great armada rolled into Attica and burned Athens, whose population had withdrawn to the island of Salamis. In the strait of Salamis, in one of the decisive battles of the world’s history, the Greek fleets, about half Athenian, shattered the Pers. naval arm, upon which the vast expedition depended for communications and supply. Xerxes could do nothing else but withdraw. He left a strong army in Boeotia, and the Greeks, attaining an unusual measure of unity, mustered 110,000 men and broke the remaining remnant of the Pers. invasion at Plataea. Salamis and Plataea were decisive. Asia was not to dominate Europe. The Turks were the only comparable foe, twenty centuries later. A remnant of the Pers. fleet was broken up at Mycale, also in 479 b.c., and Greece was free to continue her system of government, which found its most significant expression in Athens.
8. The Confederacy of Delos. After their victory at Mycale, the confederate Greeks decided to pursue the war against Persia and liberate the Asiatic Greeks. A fleet was fitted out and placed under the command of the Spartan Pausanias. The Spartans had from the first shown a strong disinclination to incur responsibilities on behalf of the Asiatic Greeks, or to embark on maritime enterprises. In 476 the allies, disgusted with the arrogance of Pausanias, transferred the command to the Athenians, and Pausanias was recalled to answer to charges of treasonable correspondence with Persia. His successor’s orders were disregarded, and Aristeides, the Athenian, was acknowledged as admiral, an arrangement in which the Spartans were forced to acquiesce. The Peloponnesian squadron returned home, and Athens, now left to take the lead, entered into a compact with the allies. This was the origin of the Confederacy of Delos. Its object was the expulsion of the Persians from Europe and the security of the Greeks of Asia Minor and the adjoining islands. A definite obligation, either in ships, men, or money, was imposed upon every member, and general conditions were regulated in a common synod, appointed to meet annually in the temple of Apollo at Delos, where the treasure was placed. Special officers collected the money, ships being sent around the Aegean every spring for this purpose. The first assessment of tribute amounted to 460 talents, payable partly in ships, partly in money.
Such was the Confederacy, at first, without doubt, a just league for resisting the Persians and protecting the Aegean Sea against piracy—a league due to the fear of the Ionians, not to the ambition of Athens. How the transition from leadership to empire took place is not difficult to conjecture, for in any confederacy where there is one member unusually prominent, such a result must follow.
Within ten years the Persians had been driven from Europe and restricted to the inland of western Asia Minor. Then, as the danger from Persia became more remote, the necessity for personal service seemed to many of the allies no longer imperative, and their distaste for its duties led them to commute it for a money payment. The result of this was to put Athens in possession of a steady revenue for a constantly increasing navy, and to inspire her citizens with the idea that they were military overlords with a body of tribute-paying subjects. This change in the relations between Athens and the allies became further intensified when the treasure was removed from Delos to Athens about 455 b.c., and the management of the affairs of the Confederacy fell almost exclusively into Athenian hands. Even before this, however, there had been revolts and attempts to secede, all of which had been sternly suppressed by Athens; these became increasingly frequent, as the rule of Athens grew more despotic and her misappropriation of the tribute to her own needs became more open. Under the administration of Pericles, discontent reached a dangerous height. The tribute now amounted to 600 talents, not an excessive sum considering the number of members. The only outgoings, for many years, had been the support of sixty Athenian triremes in the Aegean; there was a surplus of nearly 10,000 talents in the Athenian acropolis, and vast sums had been expended by Pericles on the beautifying of Athens and other purely Attic interests. It was useless for Pericles to urge in answer that, as long as Athens secured the safety of the allies, she was justified in dealing with the surplus revenue as she chose. Clearly, the original object of the Confederacy had been lost, and Athens had become—partly from force of circumstances, and later from design—the mistress of the 249 cities whose names stood upon her tribute lists in the time of Pericles; of these Chios, Samos, and Lesbos alone still possessed navies.
Thus was the scene set for the clash with Sparta that came inevitably in 431 b.c. and ended the period of Athenian greatness, and half a cent. of astounding creativity, to which a paragraph must be devoted.
9. The Golden Age. It is the fate of empires to be viewed differently by their immediate beneficiaries, and by those who pay, or imagine that they pay the bill. So it was with Rome and Britain, and with Athens. Athens, first gratefully accepted as a leader, became the burdensome imperialist. At the same time, in the eyes of the Athenians, and all who from then till now have been entranced by the spectacle of her achievement in the realms of art, thought, lit., and the mind’s creativity, a Golden Age was enjoyed.
The Greeks had emerged from a day of grimmest peril in the wars with Persia. The Athenian response to this challenge was an outburst of spiritual energy scarcely paralleled in history. In a mood of exaltation that believed all things possible to the conquerors of Persia, the people of Attica set to work. They equipped their farmlands with buildings which, three generations later, their Theban enemies found it worthwhile to dismantle and transfer bodily to Boeotia. They rebuilt their shattered city and filled it with monuments, some of which have survived the battering of twenty-three centuries, and stand today a monument to the worth of human effort when willing hands work as one under the inspiration of a grand idea. “In this work,” says a modern historian, “Periclean Athens displayed a vitality far superior to that of postwar France. When the French recovered the battered shell of Rheims Cathedral, they performed a pious restoration of each shattered stone and splintered statue. When the Athenians found the Hekatompedon burned down to the foundations, they let the foundations lie, and proceeded, on a new site, to create the Parthenon” (A. J. Toynbee, The Study of History, II, p. 110).
Socially, the characteristics of that age were two. There was first a notable union between culture and democracy (we are not concerned at the moment with the differences between Athenian democracy and ours, nor to assess the part slave labor played in Athenian culture and self-expression). In 5th cent. Athens, democracy, in a real and significant form, was certainly known. That reality found a voice in lit. The partnership between culture and the Athenian way of life was no artificial product of such patronage as that by which Maecenas rallied the pens of Rome to the service of a new regime. The praise was spontaneous, an undercurrent rather than a stream.
When Aeschylus, for example, wrote his Prometheus Bound, he had primarily no political end in view. His theme was the vast problem of suffering and pain. He was hazarding the bold solution of a doctrine of perfectibility applied to God Himself. It was the ancient question of the prophet Habakkuk that the poet had in mind in his tremendous drama of the tormented demigod. And yet the notions of freedom that filled the air and the writer’s mind color the whole picture and find involuntary expression in the passing remark, the aside, the ejaculation. For instance:
For tyranny, it seems, is never free
From this distemper—faithlessness to friends.
Wilt thou thus kick against the pricks, aware
That our harsh monarch owes account to none?
is it plain to you?—
The tyrant of the gods is violent
In all his ways
But who shall strip his tyrant sceptre from him?
Himself by his own empty-headed counsels.
Nay, let him reign supreme and work his will
For his brief day—he shall not rule for long.
The same passion for freedom and hatred of all tyranny color the characterization. It marks Hermes as the cunning menial of a royal court; Io as the maiden victim of the unbridled selfishness of kings; Oceanus, so confident and comfortable, as the compromising lover of soft ease, on whose acquiescence all dictatorship is built; and Oceanus’ daughters as the unexpected opposition, whose innocence and ignorance, when fired with knowledge, are ready to face death for a name and an ideal.
The first two books of Thucydides present the same phenomenon. In the reported words of friend and foe, this historian depicts Athens. The climax is the funeral oration, whose words are carved on a thousand war memorials. It was the first winter of the Peloponnesian War, that conflict a generation long that closed the ch. of Athens’ greatness. The bones of those who had died in battle were carried to the Cerameicus beyond the Dipylon Gate. There, as the custom was, an orator spoke in praise of the dead. On this occasion Pericles mounted the platform. Whether Thucydides reported his speech, paraphrased it, or transformed it, matters little. Under Pericles’ name, its moving sentences stand in the historian’s pages as a tribute of love and patriotism difficult to match in lit. “Athens alone of cities when put to the test excels her reputation. She alone gives her foes no reason to grudge her victory, and her subjects no cause to complain of an unworthy mistress....we shall need no Homer to sing our praise nor poets, whose verse may delight for the moment but whose fancies will be destroyed by fact...For such a city these men have nobly fought...This land in which for generations the same people has ever dwelt, through the merits of our ancestors was handed down to us as a land of liberty....We live under a political system which does not seek to emulate the institutions of our neighbors....We are indeed an example to some, but an imitation to none....We have a deep respect for those in authority and for the laws, especially those which have been ordained for the benefit of the oppressed, and for those unwritten laws which disgrace the breaker of them in the eyes of his fellow men....We put our trust in the readiness of our stout hearts for the deeds demanded of us....To sum up, I declare our city to be the education of Hellas” (Thuc. 2.)
Illustration might proceed. The early plays of Euripides show the same burning patriotism. Athens in these dramas is ever the refuge for the broken and oppressed. Even a Medea may find asylum there, much more the persecuted children of Heracles and the broken Heracles himself. Athens’ very people tread more nobly:
The sons of Erechtheus, the olden,
Whom high gods planted of yore,
In an old land of heaven upholden,
A proud land untrodden of war.
They are hungered and, lo, their desire
With wisdom is fed as with meat;
In their skies is a shining of fire,
And joy in the fall of their feet.
(Euripides, Medea 824-833 [Murray])
Such ideals sanctified the Athenian struggle with Sparta in its opening years. They could not fail to find a response in the heart of Euripides. The strong awareness of the faults of democracy, and of his own democracy in particular, which was later to inspire satiric portraits of soldiers, and the horror at Athens’ own crimes that was to find expression in the Trojan Women and ultimately in Euripides’ own secession, had not yet gained control. The mood of the Medea was unchanged. In that play, the kindly man of Athens, his heart swifter than his head when moral right became a challenge, gave unthinking sanctuary to a criminal. The Heracleidae, written in the fourth year of the war is set in the temple of Zeus at famous Marathon. In these precincts, so redolent of Athenian memories, the children of Heracles sat as suppliant refugees. An Argive herald demanded their surrender. It was as simple as that. On such an issue Athens went to war. The play is vibrant with patriotism. Athena moves behind the scenes wrought in the gold and ivory of every democratic excellence. Athens appears as the home of liberty.
Says Iolaus, guardian of the refugees:
God’s altar shall prevail,
And the free land whereunto we have come...
And the chorus to the arrogant ambassador:
Thou shouldst have shown respect to this free land...
And Iolaus again:
If this shall be, if she but ratify
Thine hests, free Athens then no more I know.
Nay, her sons’ nature know I, know their mood:
They will die sooner, for in brave men’s eyes
The honour that feels shame is more than life...
Demophon concluding all argument:
This city which I hold
Is not to Argives subject, she is free...
There, too, a man could speak his mind:
King, this advantage have I in your land,
I am free to speak and in my turn to hear.
None, as from other lands, will first expel me.
Ever she chooseth, this our land,
To help the helpless ones in justice’ cause.
So hath she borne for friends unnumbered toils.
Such an attitude is based, sings the chorus in a song that has the simplicity of a Heb. psalm, on truest piety:
thy path is in justice
O never abandon
thy fear of the Lord.
Who denieth it in thee
close rideth to madness,
when these signs are showing.
For behold God revealeth
clear tokens. He taketh
away evermore the high mind
of the wicked.
These illustrations must suffice to indicate the reality of the partnership between culture and democracy. The quiet grandeur of Sophocles with its suggestion of a spirit at rest in its environment, and the still perfection of 5th-cent. art displaying life and not reaching painfully for the hidden and the unknown, might illustrate the same theme.
The second characteristic, noted by Pericles in the passage already quoted, was the ability of the age to produce noble leadership and the willingness of the mass to follow. It is not for nothing that the age bore the name of Pericles. With the death of Pericles, says Thucydides, there vanished the outstanding moral example of the time. He had never been led by personal ambition to a pursuit of selfish ends. He was incorruptible. He knew how to restrain the multitude without infringing liberty. He led because he would not flatter, daring, when occasion called, even to provoke. “Thus Athens became a democracy in name, but in fact a monarchy of the foremost citizen,” the historian declares.
The achievements of the age were tremendous. Here is the record in brief. Of the world’s four supreme tragic artists, three of them appeared in 5th-cent. Athens—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. “When the spirit of enquiry meets the spirit of poetry,” says Macneile Dixon, “tragedy is born.” They met in the vigor of those days. And yet it is difficult to realize that those who watched the half-Shavian drama of Euripides were the sons and daughters of those who saw the first performance of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. In Euripides is realism, the study of such characters as the streets of Athens knew—the self-satisfied husband, the embittered foreign bride, the children of a broken home in time of war, the shellshocked boy, the epileptic, the ambitious soldier, the cold athlete. The ruler, faced with problems beyond his understanding, the phenomena of religious revival, the moral wreck of war, and the woes of the conquered, live intensely on his stage. In Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Ezekiel are combined. Imagine the fruitful mingling of the tragic power of the dramatist with the spiritual insight and religious fervor of the prophet. Imagine a gift of language that combined the daring and richness of the Englishman’s speech with the color of the Hebrew. Such variety made Aeschylus, and such variety of genius marked Athens’ tragic stage.
The age produced the finest of the world’s historians. In granting this palm to Thucydides, cold, detached, scientific, yet brilliantly imaginative, one should not forget Herodotus, the mighty traveler and collector of facts. There is a sense in which the two were spiritual kin. They both ransacked the world for facts. They both sought a law behind phenomena. The validity of Herodotus’ generalizations on the Envy of the Gods is beside the point. The quest for the principle puts him into the ancestry of Spengler and Toynbee. Herodotus was the first Gr. to seek behind events for the forces that determine them. He shared the honor with the prophets of Israel.
The age produced the noblest European mind. Plato was at once the greatest thinker and the greatest writer of Athens and the ancient world. Plato, like Paul, was as “one born out of due time.” He survived the cent. that gave him birth. Most of his work is 4th cent., not 5th; and the 4th cent. was ushered in by a judicial crime, rare in the annals of Athens—the murder of Socrates. The tragedy of 399 b.c. was proof that the glory was departing, and if the mind of Plato, like the mind of Thucydides, lived on and found bitter food for thought in a twilight era, that is Plato’s misfortune and the world’s. One sees through Plato’s personal crisis into the crisis of ancient society. That is why his work is a document of decadence, an utterance of opposition. If Plato lacked the serenity of a happier past, those who seek for truth in our own anxious day will have the deepest sympathy for his preoccupations, for truth was Plato’s quest. It is that passion that made him one with the Athens of calmer years. As he drew to the end of his Republic, described by Sir Richard Livingstone in 1947 as “the greatest secular prose work of all time,” he wrote significant words: “Is there not another quality which philosophers should possess?” “What quality?” “Truthfulness: they will never intentionally admit falsehood to their minds...and is there anything more akin to wisdom than truth?” “How can there be?” “Can the same nature be a lover of wisdom and a lover of falsehood?” “Never!”
The 5th cent. produced some of mankind’s noblest art. Much of the revolt against classical Gr. art is the reaction of a dissatisfied and unhappy age against the serenity of a more stable society that believed it knew where perfection lay and expressed itself with confidence.
In language, itself an art, Athens produced what is perhaps the most perfect instrument of human expression in the history of speech. Words are the symbols of creative thought. Language reflects the quality of the minds that give it shape and form. If the spirit of Athens at her best was permeated with the passion for truth, one should expect to find that mood tr. into the forms of speech—the amazingly subtle verb, the rich facilities of the article, the brilliant invention of the particle that Attic Gr. carried to final perfection—that enabled the written sentence without stage directions to express irony, deprecate, cock an eyebrow, curl the lip, shrug the shoulders, and represent, in short, to the reading eye the animation of the living voice. These are only three of the many qualities that made Attic speech perhaps the world’s most powerful and exact linguistic medium. For vivid conversation and the expression of abstract thought this is most certainly true.
10. The collapse. This glory withered in a generation. Its monuments remained in stone and written speech. Personalities survived like people “left on earth after a judgment day.” Looking back one can see, nevertheless, that the disastrous Twenty-seven Years’ War with Sparta was a conflict in which “one unhappy generation of Hellenes dealt their own Hellas a mortal blow, and knew that her blood was on them and their children” (Toynbee, op. cit. 3.292). Those who watched thought of Aeschylus and Herodotus, and murmured three Gr. words that were part of the century’s contribution to historical thought—κόρος, ὕβρις, ἄτη. With considerable loss of moral content the words may be tr. “surfeit,” “arrogant behavior,” and “disaster.” The first suggests the demoralization that comes with prosperity or too complete success, the relaxing of the moral fiber in the favored of fortune; the second implies the consequent loss of mental and moral balance reflected in over-confidence and outrageous action. The third word, also oddly Hebraic in force, contains the notion of the mad blind impulse, by which the spirit, morally ripe for disaster and in the grip of sin unpardonable, is driven into the catastrophic folly of attempting the impossible. However differently the thought of another age may view the relations of cause and effect, the formula covers Athens.
The war with Sparta revealed the ravages of decay. It becomes obvious, as the record proceeds, that “Ichabod” was written, and that Athens was in full career for the sorry days half a cent. later that felt the lash of Demosthenes’ tongue. The marks of decadence are worth studying.
There first appeared the divorce of culture and democracy. The phenomenon may be illustrated by the thought of three penetrating minds. First take Plato, last though he was in time of the three. Plato’s last work, the Laws, was inspired by a profound hostility to Athenian democracy. It was democracy, in Plato’s view, that brought devastation by its crazy militarism upon the very world in which Athenian culture found its air and nourishment.
To turn from the philosopher to the historian and the dramatist is to find in both similar phenomena of opposition. During the summer and winter of 416 b.c., occurred an event of small military importance to which Thucydides sees fit to devote no fewer than twenty-six paragraphs of his fifth book. The Athenians had besieged and captured the little island of Melos, massacred its men, and enslaved its women and children. The island was in no sense a vital strategic base. It was without natural wealth. Why then this bulky place in the historian’s narrative? Because Thucydides saw that society was a moral phenomenon, that what men think determines what men do and are, that systems and institutions form, maintain themselves, and fall with the growth, subsistence, and decay of an “êthos.” In the Melos crime, Thucydides saw Athens passing from ὔβρις to ἄτη. As his manner was, Thucydides proceeded to reveal the moral background of the episode by means of speeches. The debate he reported between the Athenian envoys and the Melian Council had no doubt a solid basis in fact, but its truth is rather psychological than factual. In cold deliberate words, the Athenians explained to the little Senate that it suited their convenience that Melos should join the Athenian bloc. They did not suggest that the Melians had in any way wronged them, nor indeed did they lay claim to any shadow of right in such a demand. It was simply Athens’ policy that the islands should submit to her. Melos therefore had to make her choice. She was free to submit or be destroyed.
Is it safe, the Melians answered in bitter irony, for Athens thus to flout all morality? Empires after all are mortal and there is world opinion. “We shall risk that,” the Athenians answered. The Melians pleaded their neutrality, threatened Spartan intervention, expressed their determination to die rather than be slaves. “A lamentable error of judgment,” said the Athenians. The cynical exposition of immoral power politics fills page after page.
“They put to death,” Thucydides quietly concluded, “all the Melians whom they found of man’s estate, and made slaves of the women and the children....” So ends one book. The peace of desolation descended on Melos. The next book begins: “And the same winter the Athenians sought to sail with a greater fleet than ever before and conquer Sicily....” Sail they did, in a burst of mad ambition, to ghastly and complete disaster.
In the same city, another brilliant mind was brooding over the same dark action. The next spring, when the shipyards of the Piraeus were roaring with preparation for the great Sicilian adventure, Euripides produced his most bitter and tragic play, the Trojan Women, which, to quote Murray, “set a flame of discord for ever between himself and his people.” This somber drama is a masterpiece of black tragedy, a passionate protest against the evils of war difficult to match in all lit. It is a picture of war from the point of view of babes and women set amid the very blood and mud and smoke of shattered Troy. It is the morning after the night of swords. It is conquest seen when the heat of battle is over, and nothing remains but to wait and think. The reader who turns the last page of this terrible drama is not surprised that a few years later Euripides abandoned the city whose glories he had once so movingly extolled, and went away to conclude his life’s work, an exile in distant Macedonia.
These three illustrations suffice to mark the reality of the contention that a significant feature of Athens’ decline was a revolt of noble minds and a dissolution of the partnership that once existed between culture and the Athenian way of life. Aristophanes might provide similar illustrations. The savage satire of his comedies, and the nostalgic praise of a vanished age that strews them, both reveal an indignant and discontented spirit at war with growing decadence.
The second mark of the age of decline was a collapse of morale. In his third book, Thucydides paused and drew up a balance sheet of war. It is difficult to realize that some of the words are twenty-three centuries old. His austere prophecy that such evils as he saw “will, according to human nature, happen again in much the same way,” has proved too unhappily true. He described the sanguinary end of the Corcyraean revolution, and continued: “Later the whole Hellenic world was convulsed, struggles being made everywhere by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the ruling class to introduce the Spartans. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties. The sufferings that revolution entailed were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur so long as human nature remain the same. In peace, states and individuals have better sentiments because they do not find themselves confronted suddenly by imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and proves a rough schoolmaster, that brings most men’s characters to the level of their fortunes....Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be the cloak for unmanliness, ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any....Oaths of reconciliation being proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand....The cause of all these evils was lust for power arising from greed and ambition, and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention....Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two” (Thuc. 3:82, 83).
The third mark of decadence was the deterioration of leadership. The entry of the “Man in the Street” upon the stage of Athenian history before the close of the 5th century b.c. is one of the unmistakable symptoms of social decline. Few will advocate an aristocracy of wealth but an aristocracy of character all healthy people must possess or perish.
The rise of the Athenian “Common Man” was no egalitarian process fostered in politics and education. The war, which ruined the landed aristocracy and exalted, as war does, the industrialist, doubtless played a leveling part; but the chief reason was the decay of social discipline and morality already noted. This was aided by a vast refugee problem and the pauperization that follows invasion. Character deteriorated over wide areas of the populace. Leadership became a quest for power and no longer a patriotic privilege. Party politics and class conflict naturally took shape. The “sailor crowd” of Plato’s and Euripides’ contempt emerged. This led, meanwhile, to a loss of all view of the common good and supported this leader or that in equal pursuit of selfish advantage. The proletariat so clearly pictured later in Demosthenes’ orations—selfish, emotionally unbalanced, venal, narrow-minded, self-assertive, irresponsible, and slothful—appears in clear outline in the documents. It bore the marks of mortal disease.
Athens lost her men of worth and leadership. She lost them in the spirit, she lost them in the flesh. The literal loss of blood in great wars and plagues has played a significant if unmeasured part in the decline of nations. The dilution of the old Rom. stock and the vast loss of life from Hannibal to Caesar contributed much toward the modification of the Rom. character and its ultimate deterioration. The gaps made at Passchendaele and on the Somme sixty and more years ago are still visible in public life, and today suffers from the human loss of yesterday. Athens’ heavy casualties in the generation’s war with Sparta and in the Great Plague may in the end have determined her failure to rise and triumphantly rebuild her battered greatness. Her talent was literally poured away. A brief return to comparative prosperity brought no resurgence of the spirit and no return to the old level of achievement.
In international politics, Athens’ failure to create a commonwealth was another and final decisive factor. The forces that shaped the globe did good and ill when they tumbled the geography of Greece in confusion. The atomization of the Gr. people produced the city-state, the medium in which individualism took shape, and this in turn produced philosophy and democracy. The sharp differences of outlook, which environment also determined, proved a barrier to unity. Enlightened Greeks talked of Hellenic unity, but in spite of abortive and halfhearted efforts, unity was never achieved until the sword achieved it—in the hands of the dictator of Macedon, and later of Rome. In the Delian League that Athens built by her naval power after the Pers. war, Athens had her opportunity. She failed to grasp it and secure even that measure of loyalty from subject allies that proved Rome’s narrow margin of salvation in the war with Hannibal. The modern world on which history has served notice to unite or perish should mark the fact. Athens missed her moment and it never came again.
11. The fourth century. The story of the great war between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, whose two long episodes fill the last generation of the remarkable 5th cent., has not been told in detail. Athens struggled back to a measure of life, but the dash and vitality of her great days were gone, and the cent. was scarcely forty years old when Macedonia, considered heretofore the barbarous N. began to rise like a menacing cloud on the horizon.
Philip II of Macedonia was a dynamic dictator of the sort the first half of the present cent. has known. His northern kingdom was new, young, and potentially rich. It needed only ruthless leadership, and that Philip could give. It was not exhausted, like the rest of Greece, by war and tension. In natural resources, gold and timber, it was wealthy. Its men were raw, strong, and numerous.
Philip began to press into Thessaly, and menace the S. Athens had many spheres of influence and vital areas of control in his path, and her interests were menaced more than those of any other state. How Philip subverted Athenian strength, deceived, tricked, instigated revolt, softened morale by corrupted politicians and fifth columnists, and finally destroyed opposition in open war, is a story not unfamiliar to the 20th cent. Its gloom is relieved only by the heroism of the famous orator Demosthenes, who tried in his fine Philippic orations to rouse his weary and decadent people to rise and unite and beat back the menace to their liberty. Demosthenes’ light was soon put out. Athens and Thebes were defeated at Chaeronea in 338 b.c., and Macedonia was virtual master of Greece.
To unite Greece, now cowed by Macedonian imperialism, Philip took up the challenge of a great crusade against Persia. In the midst of preparation he was assassinated, but his son, Alexander, a cultured youth educated on the Athenian tradition by Aristotle, took up the legacy of his father.
12. The empire of Alexander. The project was not as mad as it might seem at first sight, and a curious event had some significance. At the beginning of the 4th cent. b.c., an army of 10,000 Gr. mercenaries had been stranded in Persia; the rebel governor for whom they had fought was dead, and his native army dispersed. Their officers were treacherously murdered. The rank and file took up the challenge, and cut their way out to the Black Sea, through the Armenian mountains and the snows. An Athenian named Xenophon wrote the stirring story in a book. There is little doubt that the tale had much to do with a decision of the dashing young Alexander, who succeeded his father as king of Macedon in 336 b.c. An empire out of whose heart and depths a little Gr. army could boldly march was ripe for conquest.
Alexander was right. He needed a cause to unify Greece, and the old sin of Persia—the invasion of a cent. and a half before—was as good an excuse as any for aggression. With his well-drilled military machine, which he led magnificently, Alexander marched through the loose-knit Pers. empire, and when he died at the age of thirty-two, he was master of a realm that stretched from the Ionian Sea to the Punjab, and from the Caucasus to the Libyan Desert and the borders of Ethiopia. Nor was there anyone to challenge it. Rome, still a city-state, was at grips with the petty problems of security in Italy.
13. Hellenism. Thus was Hellenism born. Alexander, with his strangely international outlook, might have done much with his vast empire. He died, and the great, amorphous mass of conquered territory was divided into four areas of control—metropolitan Greece and three kingdoms. Egypt, which had always been safely defined by the deserts that hemmed the valley of the Nile, fell into the hands of Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s marshals, and the dynasty he founded endured for three centuries, until the suicide, in fact, of Cleopatra last and most amazing of the line in 30 b.c.
The second successor-kingdom, which had much to do with Pal., was that of Seleucus, another general of Alexander, who eventually asserted his independence from metropolitan Macedon, and found himself in control of all the wide northern sweep of lands through which Alexander had marched. Seleucus’ boundaries were ill-defined, and wavered with the ebb and flow of strength at Antioch. At one period, a Gr. kingdom was carved out in the eastern marches, which covered modern Afghanistan and NW India. It disappeared in the flux of history, lying as it did beyond the ultimate reach of Rome; but coinage reveals a considerable realm that had its years of power. In the W, the kingdom of Pergamum, which its ruler bequeathed to advancing Rome in 133 b.c., was cut from the Seleucid realms. Other kingdoms, too, limited Antioch’s westward power from time to time. It was, indeed, a progressive disintegration of its ill-coherent mass that brought an end to Syrian imperialism, and, gradually restricting the borders of the old successor-empire of Seleucus, left Asia Minor and the Middle E finally a vacuum of power that invited and found Rome’s effective intervention. The successful revolt of the Jews under the Maccabees in the 2nd cent. is a recorded illustration of the gradual process by which the Seleucid empire declined.
Thus history brought Roman, Greek, and Jew together, made Paul of Tarsus with his triple culture possible, and set the scene for modern Europe. Each contribution was essential history. The Rom. peace provided the framework for the first activity of the Church. It was on a Jewish stage that the events of the gospels took place. It was Paul, a Jew, who first wrought out the synthesis of the Testaments, but a Jew steeped in Hellenic thought, and writing habitually in the language of the Greeks. Alexander thus brought Gr. and Jew together by opening the way for the second great movement of Gr. colonization. The culture of the Greeks penetrated as far E as Gr. arms had moved, and Hellenism—that subtle blend of language, way of life, and mode of thought—was a stimulus and a catalyst felt far beyond the limits of Gr. nationhood.
Bibliography (General only; see other headings, e.g., Alexander, Athens, Hellenism for special bibliographies); J. B. Bury, History of Greece (1913); CAH, vols. II to IX; H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks (1951); G. Dix, Jew and Greek (1953).