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Hellenes – Ancient Greece

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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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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Herodotus, The Father of History


In 445, if tradition can be trusted, the Athenians must have felt more self-confident than ever; for it was then that Herodotus came to Athens, read aloud his history of the Persian wars and was given a reward. That the Athenians should have listened with interest as well as gratification is not surprising. The historian had done full justice to their distinguished part in the Persian Wars and in addition his work (9 books in all) contained all sorts of interesting details about countries like Egypt and Scythia (south Russia) which were only remotely connected with the war. Herodotus had travelled widely and produced a combined guide book and history covering most of the known world. No one had ever done anything of this sort before.  “My duty is to report all that is said”, wrote Herodotus, “but I am not obliged to believe it all alike.” There is no doubt that people told him some odd stories, but the bulk of Herodotus is reliable. His History ends in the year 478. We have no detailed continuous account of the period 478-432.  In 443 the Athenians founded a colony at Thurii in southern Italy and there Herodotus ended his days. Just when he went there is uncertain. We do not know whether he was still at Athens in 441 when a new dramatist, Euripides, won his first success, or in 440 when his friend Sophocles won a prize for his play Antigone (the name of the heroine).  The Antigone is a tender play, which sets the audience worrying about how difficult it is to do one’s duty — loyalty to a friend may mean disloyalty to one’s country. This is a very real problem, though one best not pondered by soldiers. Their first duty must be unquestioning obedience to orders. …

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The Athenian Empire

Cimon was rich and pro-Spartan, but generous. He kept open house and invited the public to make use of his garden and grounds. It was said that he got riches that he might use them and used them that he might get honour by them. This was in fact the course which Athenian Empire herself now began to adopt; but Cimon was not destined to steer her along it.  He had a rival, Pericles. In 461 the queer process of ostracism was once again brought into operation. (For the events leading up to this see) Every citizen scratched a name on a piece of broken pottery. When the count was made it became clear that fear of Sparta meant more to the Athenians than the use of Cimon’s garden. Cimon had to go. For the next thirty years Athenian Empire was guided by Pericles.  Pericles. He wears the ‘Corinthian’ type of helmet, which could be pulled down to cover the whole face for fighting. In 454 things went badly for Athens. She lost 200 ships which had been sent on an expedition as far afield as Egypt. What if the Phoenician vassals of Persia should choose this moment to raid Delos and rob the treasury of the League? They must not be given the chance. Once again, just as at the time when she had prevented the secession of Naxos, the action taken by Athens was very reasonable and at the same time very advantageous to herself. She removed the League’s accumulated wealth from Delos to Athens. Finally, in 451, rights of citizenship were restricted to men whose father and mother were Athenian born. This limited the number of those who were entitled to share in the spoils of what could now be called, not a confederacy, but an empire.  While …

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The Confederacy of Delos


Delos a Greek island in the Cyclades archipelago was an important religious centre in the Archaic and Classical periods. The island was also a major commercial and trading centre in the 2nd and 1st centuries CE. About the same time as the land victory at Plataea (479) the Greek fleet had beaten the Persians at Mycale on the coast of Asia Minor (478) and now that they were absolutely sure which was the winning side the Ionian Greeks of the coast and the islands gradually decided to change sides again, but they needed help. Persian garrisons had to be driven out.  The Spartans might have undertaken this. They had been the acknowledged leaders of Greece on land and during the campaign against Xerxes, but the Spartans were not enterprising enough and they were always afraid that the downtrodden Helots might revolt, while their masters were campaigning outside the Peloponnese. So it was Athens which seized the opportunity and formed a confederacy of Aegean towns and islands for defence against Persia. Some larger islands such as Chios, Lesbos and Samos provided ships, but most members of the league contributed money.  Aristides, old now but still renowned for honesty, decided how much each of the confederates should pay and the money was kept in earthenware jars at Apollo’s shrine on the island of Delos. From the first Athens was very much the leading partner and imposed strict discipline. When in 467, the year after the triumphant return of Theseus in his coffin, the island of Naxos tried to leave the Confederacy, it was forced to continue as a contributor. Athens insisted that since no Aegean city-state could help benefiting from the league’s activities, no state should be allowed to stay out of it. This is a reasonable enough argument, but one might have expected it to be used by …

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Theseus Comes Home


The annual festival of the Great Dionysia, in March of the year 468, was not only remarkable for the victory of twenty-seven year old Sophocles over the honoured and battle-scarred Aeschylus, who was now approaching sixty. There was something else. Owing to the excitement which the competition between youth and age had aroused, the official whose duty it was to appoint the judges had not yet dared to do so. He was about to solve the problem in the way Athens solved many problems — by drawing lots — when Cimon, an aristocrat, politician and admiral, entered the great open-air theatre with nine of his senior officers. They had just returned from a naval expedition, during which they had subdued the island of Scyros, the supposed burial place of Theseus. An oracle had said that the body of Theseus should be brought back to Athens and Cimon had brought it (or someone else’s; there were no archaeologists to put awkward questions). Cimon was therefore the hero of the hour.  The official in charge stood by the altar. (These drama festivals, were religious ceremonies, the god on this occasion being Dionysus.) With relief the official saw Cimon and his officers come in. Certain that his choice would be popular he led them to the altar and administered the judges’ oath. It was their decision which sent Aeschylus off to Sicily in a rage.  For our present purpose the point of interest in this story is the huge coffin, alleged to contain the body of the mighty Theseus, which the Athenians had greeted with such rejoicing. That sort of demonstration over a legendary hero takes place either when a people is in great danger, or when they become ambitious. Now although Athens was still at war with Persia, the Persians had left …

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