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Hellenes – Ancient Greece



Play-acting had been developing at Athens since Peisistratus had introduced the Dionysia and the Panathenaea festivals; but to call it play-acting in the early stages gives a false impression. It was more like open air opera and ballet with a strong religious flavour. Originally there was a “chorus” of fifty men who chanted and danced in a dignified way. In the intervals an actor recited. Aeschylus added a second actor and the two actors, as well as conversing with each other, conversed with the chorus or its leader. All wore masks and impressive robes. Several plays were performed one after the other and the performance lasted all day. Later there were three actors, each of whom could play more than one part and a chorus of only fifteen. There were plenty of female parts, but they were always played by men. The little we know of the music makes it certain that we would have found it monotonous. It was usually provided by a man playing a kind of flute. Aeschylus grew up to the sound of poetry, but none of it was Athenian. Homer was Ionian; Hesiod was a Boeotian; so was Pindar (c. 522-442), who wrote odes in honour of victors in the Olympic games. Sappho, the woman lyric poet (c. 600 B.c.), was a native of Lesbos. Simonides, was from Ceos. There were many others, from the islands, from the mainland and even from Sparta. Aeschylus, however, is the first great Athenian poet of whom we know. The Persians was exceptional among tragedies in dealing with recent history. The characters in most tragedies were drawn from legend or the distant past, but Aeschylus was interested in the sin of getting above oneself, of getting too big for one’s boots and the conduct of Xerxes was an excellent …

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“Wooden Walls” and Salamis

Persian Soldier

After Thermopylae the Spartans were only interested in defending the Peloponnese. Their next line of defence was across the Isthmus of Corinth. The atmosphere on the two sides of that line was now very different. Much of the Peloponnese was still far from the war. At Olympia the four-yearly games were taking place as usual. (Who on earth was free to attend them? one wonders.) North of the Corinthian gulf, however, townsmen and countrymen alike knew that the Persian army would be on top of them any day now. Knowing this, what did they do? The men of Delphi routed the Persian force which hoped to plunder the treasures of their sanctuary. They were helped by a storm and probably by some hocus-pocus arranged by the resourceful priests of Apollo. The men of Baeotia, with its capital, Thebes, put up no opposition and submitted to Persian occupation. The Athenians evacuated Attica, moved their families over to Salamis, Aegina or the Peloponnese and waited to see what Themistocles and his ships would do. Themistocles had been with the Greek fleet at Artemisium, opposing the Persians at sea, while Leonidas fought them on land. He then moved south, inscribing propaganda slogans on the rocks, where he hoped the Ionians in the Persian fleet would read them and be moved to  but when the Persian fleet later passed that way (there had been a period of shore leave for the sailors to inspect and exult over the Spartan deed) no Ionian showed any sign of wanting to change sides. The Persian army advanced through Attica and entered Athens. The Delphie oracle had said that Athens would he kept safe by her “wooden walls” and a few diehards, refusing to take part in the evacuation, remained behind a wooden barricade on the Acropolis. They learned …

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The first narrow place where the Persians might have been held was the pass of Tempe in the north of Thessaly. A force was sent there but withdrew when news came that the Persians might take another route and outflank them. Thessaly was thus abandoned to the Persians; but they were not to be allowed farther south without a fight. The only route lay through the pass of Thermopylae. Here Leonidas the Spartan, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Greek forces, decided to make a stand, while the combined Greek fleet kept watch near Artemisium on the Persian ships, which were sailing along the coast in support of their army. Thermopylae is still a position vital to the defence of Greece, but it is no longer a narrow pass. The sea has retreated. When Leonidas and his men took up their position it came close to the foot of the mountains, leaving only a narrow passage between. Xerxes was surprised when he was told that the pass was held. He was inclined to be contemptuous when a spy reported that the enemy troops were engaged in gymnastics and were combing their hair. In fact the spy had been looking at the cream of the Greek force — three hundred Spartans. It was the Spartan custom to wear long hair and to prepare for battle in this apparently lackadaisical fashion. These same men had been warned that the arrows of the Persians would be so numerous as to darken the sun, to which one of them had replied: “Excellent. We shall have our fight in the shade then.” Xerxes did not attack for four days, since he still expected the Greeks to retreat without fighting. On the fifth day however he sent a force with orders to capture the Greeks and bring …

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The Second Persian Invasion


Darius I died in 486. In the last years of his life he had no need of the slave who had whispered. “Sire, remember the Athenians.” He remembered Marathon all too well and was making preparations for another attack on Greece. These preparations were continued after Darius’s death by his son Xerxes. By the year 480 an enormous force had assembled at Sardis and a fleet was ready to sail in support. This “Persian” army and fleet was in fact made up of contingents drawn from all over the vast Persian Empire, including Ionian Greeks. The march out of Sardis was a gorgeous and gigantic pageant. Dark Ethiopians had come in leopard skins from their mysterious country in the far south. Indians in a light cotton uniform represented the easternmost territories of the Empire. From the north came Scythian bowmen in long trousers and pointed caps. Xerxes himself rode in a chariot with picked Persian cavalry and spearmen marching in front and behind. Xerxes might well feel confident. The expedition had been carefully planned. Food and supplies had been collected along the route and a canal had been cut through the promontory of Mount Athos, so that the fleet might avoid the stormy passage round the end of it. Even the problem of crossing the Hellespont had been solved, though not without some unpleasantness. Two bridges consisting of hundreds of ships placed side by side had been built across the mile-wide strait, but they were soon destroyed by a storm. This infuriated Xerxes, who decided that the Hellespont should be brutally punished. Its waters were to receive three hundred lashes, to be branded, loaded with chains and ceremonially cursed. The penalty imposed on the builders of the bridges was less complicated. They simply had their heads cut off. Their successors …

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The Rivals


After a battle there is a great deal of clearing up to be done. A small part of the Athenian force had been left behind to do this. The general in command was Aristides. “The Just”. There was no fear of his taking any of the rich Persian spoil for himself. He had gained a reputation for scrupulous honesty, for putting country before self and for modest behaviour. These qualities were rare. Perhaps as he returned to the  Athenians after completing his task at Marathon, he felt that he had a good chance of occupying a powerful position such as had been held by Cleisthenes, whom he had known and admired. Far from it. A few years later Aristides was ostracised. On the day when the votes were cast it is said that an illiterate citizen, who did not even know Aristides by sight, came up to him and asked for help in marking the piece of broken pottery which served as a voting paper. The citizen wanted “Aristides” written on his. The owner of the name was a little surprised and asked the citizen whether Aristides had injured him in any way. “Oh no,” was the answer. “I haven’t even met him. But I’m tired of hearing him called ‘The Just’.” Aristides did not argue but wrote his name on the piece of pottery. If he had had less high principles and more sense of humour he would have written the name of his rival – Themistocles. Themistocles was pushy and boastful. In the company of artistic people he said, with slimy mock-modesty: “I’m sorry I can’t play any musical instrument. All I can do is to make a small city into a great one.” When a visitor from one of the Aegean islands belittled the fame Themistocles had …

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Both Sparta and Athens were determined to fight, — so determined that they had behaved outrageously towards Persian ambassadors who had visited them to demand submission. The traditional way of doing this was to ask for “earth and water” but when the ambassadors made this demand in Athens they were thrown into the pit where criminals were put. “Get earth from there”, yelled the citizens. At Sparta the ambassadors were plunged into a well. “Get water from there”, they were told. Throughout history the person of an ambassador has been held sacred and if the Persians had won at Marathon the Greeks would no doubt have been quick to attribute defeat to the anger of the gods, aroused by Spartan and Athenian insolence. However, when news of the Persian landing reached Athens, nobody was worrying about how the Persian ambassadors had been treated. There were two vitally important things to be done. An army had to be put into the field and the Spartans had to be summoned. The story of the summoning of the Spartans is famous but strange. It says that a runner called Pheidippides made the journey (140 miles) on foot in two days. Seventy miles a day. We would consider that quite good going on a bicycle. Perhaps he was given a lift for part of the way. Why not have sent a horseman? The fact that a runner was preferred is a reminder of the hilliness of Greece and of the independence of the city-states. Nobody was interested in building a good road and making the journey from Athens to Sparta as easy as the journey from Susa to Sardis. On the contrary, it was in the interest of both Athenians and Spartans to keep the route rough. A hoplite. He wears a metal cuirass …

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The Ionian Greeks

ionian greeks

The Ionian Greeks, who lived on the coast of Asia Minor and the adjoining islands, had produced some of the leading poets and thinkers of the Greek world. Thales of Miletus (640-546 B.C.) predicted an eclipse of the sun and introduced geometry to the Greeks. Pythagoras of Samos (c. 500) won fame as a philosopher and mathematician, although it is not now thought that he discovered the geometrical truth which bears his name (i.e. that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides). Thales was interested in politics as well as mathematics and tried to unite the cities of Ionia into a federation. Each city-state would have renamed independent but would have sent representatives to a council to discuss affairs of common interest. This scheme did not succeed. The Ionian cities of the mainland (except for the largest, Miletus) became subject to Lydia and later, when Cyrus conquered Croesus (p. 21), they all became subject to Persia. Even some of the islands succumbed. Polycrates, the fabulously wealthy tyrant of Samos, whose position was such that he could enter into a treaty with the king of Egypt, was enticed by the Persians onto the mainland and killed (522). In the year 522 a pretender had seized the throne of Persia and some nobles, of whom Darius was one, joined in assassinating him. They then decided that they would ride out early in the morning and that the one whose horse neighed first after the sun rose should be King. Darius’s groom saw to it that his master’s horse neighed first and Darius became King of Persia. Neither fate nor the other nobles punished him for cheating in this way. He ruled Persia until 485, by no means …

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Athenian Democracy

The heroism of Harmodius and Aristogeiton was a myth, but Athenian democracy was not. In the two great wars of the fifth century — the Persian and the Peloponnesian — the Athenians clearly felt they had what would now be called a “way of life” which was worth fighting for. Cleisthenes, although he was of nobler blood than Solon, gave more power to the poor than Solon had done. Nearly all Athenian citizens now had a vote in the Assembly, a body which approved laws discussed in the Council of Five Hundred. The Five Hundred were elected by the citizens and anyone over thirty could be a member. As well as taking his share in lawmaking and government a citizen also played his part as a juryman in seeing that justice was done. Even the archons could be brought to trial when their year of office was over, if they were thought to have misused their power. There was a kind of police force consisting of Scythian archers which Peisistratus had set up. But they were the citizens’ servants, not his masters. There is often a good deal of argument about what is meant by a “free” country. A useful test is to ask: Can police knock on the door in the middle of the night and take people away to death or imprisonment without a public trial? If this “knock on the door” question is asked about fifth-century Athens the answer to it would be: No. There were no secret police and there were no mysterious disappearances in the middle of the night. These privileges of citizenship, however, were not shared by everyone living in Attica. “An Athenian citizen” does not mean the same as “a resident in Athens”. Neither women nor slaves might vote and immigrants from other …

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A Tyrant Who Was Not Tyrannical


A tyrant’s first problem was to seize power. Peisistratus had to solve this problem three times. In 560 he came before a meeting of the Assembly wounded and bleeding, alleging that his political opponents had attacked him. Sympathisers voted him a body-guard, with the aid of which he was able to seize power, but his opponents soon forced him to take flight. His next descent on the city was made in a chariot, in which he was accompanied by a handsome woman dressed up as Athena. He alleged that his companion was in fact Athena and that she had chosen him to rule her city. No doubt this escapade, if it really took place, impressed the simpler supporters of Peisistratus and amused the wiser ones. Anyway he again established himself as tyrant and after another short spell of power was again thrown out. This time he stayed away ten years. When he returned for the third time, in 546, he made a less spectacular entry than on previous occasions, but remained to rule until his death in 527. During that period his talent for display found a more useful outlet. He organised the annual spring festival of Dionysus, at which the great tragic dramas of the following century were performed and the Panathenaea, a festival in honour of Athena, which included the recitation of poetry as well as athletics and drew competitors from all over Greece. He saw to it that Athens had buildings and sculptures worthy of her guests. We have become so accustomed to thinking of Athens as the most splendid city in Greece that it is hard to realise how insignificant she was before about the year 600. Solon having prepared the way, Peisistratus put Athens on the map, not only by skillful showmanship but also by …

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One of the young Athenians who must have taken a good deal of interest in Draco’s writing down of the laws was Solon. He came of a good family. His father had been extravagant and this had prompted Solon to become a foreign trader in order to repair the family fortunes. There was no question of his considering himself one of the oppressed. He was a “have” not a “have-not”. Yet Solon was destined to repeal almost all of Draco’s laws and to set Athens on the road to democracy. We first meet Solon as a poet, patriot and soldier. The possession of the island of Salamis was in dispute between Megara and Athens. Athens, to Solon’s disgust, renounced her claim. Solon rushed into the market place and recited a poem in which he appealed to the Athenians to reverse their decision and conquer the island. The poem had the desired effect. Solon was chosen to lead the attack and eventually Salamis became part of Attica. A little over a century later the decisive sea-battle of the Persian wars was fought in the stretch of water which separated Salamis from the mainland.   Meanwhile discontent due to poverty and debt, had reached such a pitch, that the need for firm action was clear. Solon was liked and trusted. When he was elected archon in 594 B.C. he was able to begin a programme of reform. Solon’s first act was to free all those who had enslaved themselves on account of debt and make it illegal for any citizen to do so again in the future. Other measures were aimed at checking extravagance. For instance, not more than a certain sum might be spent on funerals or on the dowry of a bride. Last of what may be called Solon’s restrictive …

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