Hecuba, Queen of Troy

Hecuba, Queen of Troy

In the year when the expedition sailed to Sicily (415) Euripides put on a play, the Trojan Women, in which the wives of the defeated heroes of Troy were shown in the first bitterness of enslavement. When he wrote, Euripides was burning with the shame of the massacre of Melos; but now to those among the parched and ragged remnant of the Athenian expedition to Sicily who remembered his words they must have seemed like prophecy. As they shuffled towards the slave market or the stone quarries these once proud citizens of Athens might well recall the despairing cry which Euripides had put into the mouth of Hecuba, Queen of Troy: God! 0 God of Mercy! . . . Nay: Why call I on the Gods? They know, they know, My prayers, and would not hear them long ago. (Gilbert Murray’s translation.) Athens had suffered the most crushing defeat in her history and Hecuba never recovered. The year 413 was the evening of the great day which had dawned at Marathon, seventy-seven years before. Make no mistake about it, despite all their cruelties and follies those years were great. No one reads with exultation about the failure of the Athenian expedition. It is tragic, in the most serious sense of the word. For the “tragedies” which Athenian dramatists gave to the world were plays which moved the audience to pity and terror over the inscrutable workings of fate. They were no melodramas in which good enjoyed a simple triumph over evil. No character in them was quite right or quite wrong and none was petty. Tragedy meant that what was great and noble somehow tumbled into the dust. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and many other writers had known how to write it. In the end, as we have seen, the Athenians …

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Hermes, Sicily

Sicily

Greeks had first settled round the coasts of Sicily during the colonising period and in 480 they had united to defeat a Carthaginian attempt to oust them from Sicily. Their unity, however, like that of the mainland Greeks against the Persians, did not last long and already in 427 the town of Leontini had asked for help from Athens against the Corinthian colony of Syracuse. Already settled in Sicily, now, in 416, another enemy of Syracuse, Segesta, appealed to Athens. The Athenians sent ambassadors to Segesta. These ambassadors were impressed by the wealth of the place, which the Segestans exaggerated by sending round the same set of gold and silver plate to each house at which the ambassadors were entertained. Alcibiades looked at it this way. With the massacre of Melos the last resistance in the Aegean had been disposed of. If Athens was to go on extending her maritime Empire she must look westwards. No matter if the Segestans had to be accepted as allies on an equal footing until Syracuse was conquered. None knew better than the Athenians the steps by which an ally might be changed into a subject. There was also the point that the sympathies of Syracuse, since she was a Corinthian colony, inclined towards the Spartan alliance to which Corinth belonged. If therefore Syracuse should decide to join in the quarrel which, in spite of the Peace of Nicias, still divided mainland Greece, she would join the enemies of Athens. Far better, then, to strike at her first. Sicily, to illustrate the Athenian Expedition Nicias believed neither in the possibility of a new Athenian Empire in the west, nor in the risk of Syracuse allying herself with Sparta; but the Assembly preferred the arguments of Alcibiades, aged 35, to those of the elderly, timid, …

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Alcibiades

Alcibiades

Alcibiades was the nephew of Pericles. As well as being rich and handsome, he was amusing, clever, insolent and unreliable. He was about twenty when Socrates saved his life at Potidaea in the first year of the Peloponnesian War (432). He fought in other battles and also found time to lead a gay life in Athens, to talk to Socrates and to race chariots in the Olympic Games. It was not till after the death of Cleon that he became a leading politician and general. It may seem surprising that the place of a tanner should have been taken by an aristocrat, but the Athenian Assembly had never been opposed to rich men. Rich men financed the plays at the great festivals and paid for the maintenance of ships. The Assembly did not dispute their right to be rich, nor did it try to divide up their estates. What the citizens wanted was that Athens should be powerful and wealthy, so that there should be plenty of markets for their goods and plenty of paid service on juries and on the Council. Alcibiades said he could show them how to keep Athens powerful and make her wealthy again after the huge expenditure of the first ten years of war. So they gave him their votes and did not grudge him his wealth. The peace made in 421 was called after Nicias, who was now the most powerful rival of Alcibiades. He too was a rich man. He was one of those who rented state-owned silver mines at Laurium and worked them by slave labour at a profit. He was not ambitious hence, his championing of the peace; but neither he nor Athens was destined to be at peace for long. In spite of the treaty, Athenian troops fought in the …

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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 Tanner

Cleon the 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 plague

Pericles Dies

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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athenians and death

Athenian 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

The Peloponnesian War Begins

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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