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Hellenes – Ancient Greece

Socrates

Socrates

Socrates was short, ugly and brave. He served as a hoplite in the Peloponnesian war and on one occasion saved the life of a rich and handsome young recruit. It was the proper thing to do of course, but one’s admiration is tinged with regret, for the recruit whom Socrates rescued was Alcibiades. The time was now approaching when many Athenians would curse that name. The strange thing is that, throughout these first ten years of the Peloponnesian War and the worse ones which were to follow, one of the wisest and most lovable men who has ever lived was a citizen of Athens and saw service in her armies. Though Aristophanes guyed him in a comedy called the Clouds, Thucydides does not mention his name. He was not then thought to exercise an important influence upon the state’s affairs. Later, as will be seen, he was thought to exercise far too much. This man was Socrates, born in 468. His mother was a midwife, his father a stonemason and Socrates probably began life as a worker in marble or stone. There was a group of sculpture on the Acropolis which was said to be his work, but he soon gave up his trade and devoted himself to philosophy. The word “philosophy”, which is made up of two Greek words meaning “love of wisdom”, covered the whole of knowledge in those days. “Philosophers” included people we would call scientists or mathematicians (e.g. Thales and Pythagoras). Socrates was not one of those, nor was he one of the sophists, people who made money by giving lessons in debating. His method was informal conversation, unpaid. He would get people talking in a gymnasium (openair athletics centre) or in a workshop or in the agora (city centre and market) and by quiet, innocent-sounding …

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Peace

peace

Not everyone approved of this policy. The country people, whose farms were being devastated every year by the invading Spartans, were ready for peace. So was Aristophanes. In 424 he won first prize with the Knights, a comedy in which he himself played the part of Cleon. So savagely satirical were the lines he had written for this character that no one dared make him a mask to wear. So he smeared his face with red juice and went on the stage without a mask. Cleon for all his power, could not retaliate. In the following year (423) Cleon went campaigning against the Spartan Brasidas in Thrace, but luck deserted him. He had served as a general, but never in a lower rank, so he was bound to blunder sooner or later. He gave a wrong order, which exposed his men to the enemy and was killed as he tried to escape from the rout. His wounds were not in front. Two years later (421) peace was made. Prisoners and certain conquests were returned. There had been ten years of war and the turbulent Cleon was dead. Aristophanes wrote a comedy called the Peace, which looked forward to happier times. In fact there were depths of viciousness and folly which the Athenians had not yet explored.

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Cleon the Tanner

Cleon Tanner

Cruelty showed itself only two years after Pericles was dead. In 428, after the usual spring invasion by the Spartans and before the Olympic games, which were being held as usual, Lesbos had revolted. The Spartans had promised to help the Lesbians and in the following year their fleet at last arrived — a week too late. Mytilene, the capital of the island had already surrendered to the Athenians. The Athenian Assembly now had the people of Mytilene at their mercy. They voted that every man should be put to death, the women and children enslaved. A trireme was sent off to carry out this order. Next day the Assembly came to their senses and sent out a second trireme to countermand the instructions for massacre. It was only just in time. The person responsible for persuading the Assembly to take their first, disgraceful decision was Cleon, a tanner. The Athenian democracy had reached the point where what is now called “the common man” could obtain supreme power. The politicians, instead of being land-owners, were people who made things, they were people who bought and sold things. The 40,000 citizens of Athens, among whom small craftsmen and traders were the majority, had so far been content to enjoy their privileges (e.g. payment for jury service, payment for sitting on the Council of 500) while allowing an aristocrat, Pericles, to lead them. Now they wanted positions of power as well as privileges; and they got them. They had to struggle among themselves first. Dozens, hundreds perhaps, would have liked to exchange the petty power over a few slaves and apprentices, which they enjoyed in their workshops, for the position of one of the generals of the Athenian people. It was useless for them to try and reach that position by being …

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Pericles Dies

pericles dies plague

Before Pericles dies, the morale in Athens was low. For the second year in succession the Spartans had been allowed to lay waste to the countryside. This alone would have embittered public opinion. Now, in addition, there was the plague. People began to talk about suing for peace. Criticism of Pericles, already sharp enough in the previous year, now reached a point where it had to be answered. Pericles tries to appeal to the patriotism of the Assembly and then to their common sense. He said: “Let us be frank. What we have established is a kind of dictatorship. Perhaps we were wrong to do so, but we cannot risk turning back now.” He pointed out that his policy of avoiding a great land battle and trusting the navy had worked. The only factor he a had not foreseen was the plague. How could he have foreseen it? The fickle Athenians fined Pericles and then, not long afterwards, re-elected him as their general, but he never led them into battle again. In the summer of 429 the Spartans did not invade Attica. They besieged Plataea instead (Athens was bound by treaty to help Plataea, but did not do so. Two years later the town capitulated). In the autumn the Athenian admiral Phormio won a series of victories in the Corinthian Gulf, but by that time Pericles was very ill with a lingering form of the plague. It would soon be his turn for the funeral speech and procession. Soon his bier would be born through the streets preceded by hired mourners and flute players on its way to the pyre and he would lie on it with a coin pushed between his teeth, ready to pay the fare of Charon, the ferryman. People reminded him of his great victories, but …

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Hippocrates and Disease

In Hippocrates’ time, if death was the end, what could be done to stave it off? Deprived of what we would now call the comforts of religion, could the Athenian at least rely on an efficient medical service? Herodotus describes a doctor called Democedes who (in the 6th cent.) was hired by three states in turn – Aegina, Athens and Samos – each offering a higher salary than the last. So there may have been some sort of state medical service. Army doctors appear as early as “the Trojan War and a wounded Athenian in the Peloponnesian War would be efficiently bandaged. Ointments would be applied, broken limbs set, herbal remedies administered. That was something, but medicine cannot progress without dissection. Unlike the Egyptians, the Greeks did not dissect bodies and find out how they worked. A doctor bleeding a patient into a large flat howl. Another patient with a bandaged arm waits to be treated. Walking sticks are carried and the men wear the ‘himation’, a long oblong garment which was wound round the body leaving the right arm bare. There were no pockets. Some things could he carried in the folds of the himation. Small change was carried in the mouth. (Working men and youth: wore a belted tunic — chiton. Women wore a larger version of this.) Hippocrates of Cos was alive at the time of the Peloponnesian War. His careful study of the symptoms of patients suffering from certain diseases (e.g. epilepsy and tape-worm) was an advance at a time when many people still thought that cures could best be effected by sacrificing to the god Asklepios or lying in his shrine.Hippocrates may have had a good influence on the behaviour of doctors, e.g., in preventing them revealing private matters which they had learned in the …

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Athenian Death

athenians and death

Athenian deaths were now a shadow of the past. When Aeschylus, in his play, the Persians, thanked the gods for the victory of Salamis, he was writing for an audience who still had religious faith, but in the years of prosperity which followed, although bigger statues of the gods and more splendid temples went on being put up, piety did not keep pace. On the contrary, the philosophers argued about the gods, Euripides made jokes about them in his plays and the ordinary man bothered much less about them, now that life had become so much safer and more prosperous. Women, who on the whole had a thinner time, perhaps worshipped more sincerely. There were of course plenty of religious festivals (e.g., the Panathenaea and the Great Dionysia) and plenty of religious customs (e.g., after dinner men would each pour some wine out of their cups in honour of Zeus) and it must also be remembered how difficult it is in any age to find out people’s feelings about religion. This much, however, can be said with certainty: the Athenians who embarked upon the Peloponnesian War were not a pious people. How then did they face Athenian death? Not cheerfully. Even the faith of older generations could not help them. The aged Charon, so ran the story, ferried you across the river Styx to Hades, where you lived out a shadowy, unhappy existence till the end of time. Charon was now a joke; but the dreaded, shadowy eternity remained. No one, except perhaps the select few who took part in the secret Eleusinian Mysteries, had any hope to offer. So the Athenian deaths generally meant they burned their dead, put the ashes in an urn made of pottery, buried it and placed some food for the departed spirit on the …

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The Peloponnesian War Begins

The Peloponnesian War

The Peloponnesian War began because Pericles was running our of time. In the first place Athens insisted on backing Corcyra in a quarrel with Corinth (435). Corcyra was a Corinthian colony and the mother-city resented interference in the dispute, particularly since it brought Athenian ships round to the western coast of Greece where they could interfere with the trade route to southern Italy.  The second trouble-centre was also a Corinthian colony, though a tribute paying member of the Athenian Empire — Potidaea in Thrace. Now that Athens saw trouble brewing with Corinth she insisted (432) that Potidaea should get rid of the Corinthian magistrates who came year by year from the mother-city, should give hostages and knock down the city wall. The Potidaeans then revolted. They received support from Corinth, while the Athenians sent a force to subdue them.  Corinth was a member of the Spartan alliance, so the Peloponnesian War had in fact begun. The only remaining question was whether it could be localized — confined to N.W. and N.E. Greece. The Spartans called together their allies — all the Peloponnesian states (except Argos); Corinth, Megara and Boeotia (except for Plataea) — and decided for general war.  Pericles on his side made no great effort to preserve the peace. On the contrary, he insulted and injured the Peloponnesian alliance by excluding all Megarian produce from the Athenian Empire.  He did not want war in order to obtain personal success as a general. He had had plenty of that when he was younger and he was now over sixty. He wanted Athens to remain powerful and he believed that she must therefore not only protect what she already had — her Aegean Empire, but must also reach out westwards towards Italy and Sicily. Rather than abandon his plans he was prepared …

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Why Did Athens Fight Sparta

Athens fight Sparta

In spite of the fact that they had fought as allies against Persia, Sparta and Athens did not like each other any better when the war was over. In 478, when the Athenians started to rebuild their fortifications, Sparta objected and Themistocles had to arrange for negotiations to drag on until the walls were finished. There followed the Spartan failure to lead the Ionians against Persia, while Athens founded the Delian League.  In 464 the long dreaded revolt of the Helots began, following an earthquake which had laid the town of Sparta in ruins. After some savage fighting the Helots were forced to take refuge on the hill of Ithome, where they managed to hold out for the next ten years. The Helot revolt provided a chance for Athens either to win Spartan gratitude by helping to capture Ithome, or to take advantage of her old enemy’s embarrassing situation. She tried both.  Since Cimon, was pro-Spartan and an aristocrat, it was natural for him to support an upper against a lower class. He persuaded the Athenians to send him with a strong force in response to the Spartan appeal for help (462). But a quarrel arose when the force reached Ithome and the Spartans asked the Athenians to leave again. This insult enraged the Athenians. Cimon was ostracised and Athens formed an alliance with Argos, Sparta’s traditional rival in the Peloponnese. When the Helots finally surrendered (454), on terms which allowed them to leave the Peloponnese, Athens settled them at Naupactus, a harbour commanding the passage up the Corinthian gulf. Sparta was still the most formidable land power in Greece and in 445 a Spartan army reached the walls of Athens, but there was no battle. On this occasion, Pericles and the Spartan King concluded a thirty years peace. Athens …

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Thucydides

Thucydides

When Herodotus read his history in public, it is said that a youth called Thucydides was so moved that he burst into tears. Herodotus congratulated the young man’s father upon having so appreciative a son.  Thucydides grew to be a rich man. He owned gold mines in Thrace. During the Peloponnesian War he commanded a squadron of Athenian ships but, having failed to accomplish the mission assigned to him, he went into exile (424). He used his enforced leisure to work on a history of the war which he had planned. He only reached 411 (the War went on till 404), but he produced a remarkable work. It is less chattv than that of Herodotus because the author’s aim was different. He was determined to write what we would now call scientific history. He took care about dates, grouping each year’s events together. He checked facts and weighed up one account of an event against another. He travelled in order to collect information and during his exile had access to both sides in the struggle.  On the other hand, when he came to the reporting of speeches, Thuycides made a point of not being scientific. The speeches he put into the mouths of many of his characters were far more than a digest of what had been said. They contained the historian’s own views on why men had acted as they did and what were the rights and wrongs of the question. These views were often wise.  Thus, though the Peloponnesian War was small in comparison with many of the wars of ancient history, we know a great deal about it. Further, because of the quality of Thucydides’s writing, we can feel a great deal about it. Though he was not himself a tragic poet, Thucydides well understood the tragedian’s business. His …

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The Parthenon

parthenon today

In the year 437 the Parthenon, which had been begun ten years before, was far enough advanced to contain a gigantic statue of Athena by the sculptor Pheidias. Enough of the Parthenon still survives to give an idea of how it must have looked when it was new and a visit to the British Museum will fill in the details. Here some of the sculptured figures which adorned the temple may be seen. They are known as the ‘Elgin Marbles’ because Lord Elgin brought them back from Greece in 1802-4 to save them from Turks, who then ruled the Greeks. Now that the danger is past, the Greeks would like them back. Pheidias, who supervised their construction, would not necessarily have regretted that Athens had lost them. The Athenians treated him very badly. After his work was finished he constructed the statue of Zeus at Olympia (one of the ‘seven wonders of the world’) and thereafter returned to Athens. Enemies of Pericles, whose friend Pheidias was, then tried to attack Pericles through him. He was accused of impiety. It was alleged that he had introduced his own likeness and that of Pericles into the scene of Athenians fighting Amazons (tough mythical women) with which the shield of Athena’s statue was decorated. It was not a flattering portrait. He had represented himself as a bald old man about to heave a stone. He was put in prison and died of disease there in 432, the year in which the Parthenon was finished. The name ‘Parthenon’, by which Pericles’s famous temple later came to be called, is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘maiden’. It was dedicated to the Maiden Goddess, Athena and the gigantic statue of her was its greatest treasure. No trace of this statue now remains, and perhaps this is …

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