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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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Rivalries in the Middle East 1856 – 1912


THE MIDDLE EAST where Europe, Asia and Africa meet had long been known as one of the great crossroads of the world. Most of its people were Moslems, but among them were many Christians and Jews. They spoke languages as different as Arabic and Latin, Slavic and Turkish. They had little in common except that they were all subjects of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire — so called after its early founder, Othman — was the last of several empires to rule over a large part of Islam. Unlike the earlier empires, it was dominated not by Arabs, but by Turks. Centuries before, the Turks had fought their way west from Central Asia and founded a new homeland in the West Asian peninsula of Turkey. From there, they had pushed outward, conquering lands and peoples. In 1699, however, they had lost Hungary to the Austrians. After that, while the nations of western Europe grew stronger, the Ottoman Empire became weaker. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Ottoman sultans had to combat enemies both within and without their empire. Their foreign enemies were the European powers, which snatched up their outlying lands. Their enemies at home were the subject peoples, especially in the Balkan Peninsula of southeast Europe, who demanded their freedom. Unrest was chronic and the Ottoman Empire, which was usually called simply Turkey, came to be known as “the sick man of Europe.” By the 1850’s, Turkey had lost lands north of the Black Sea to Russia and Algeria‚ in North Africa, to France. Of its former Balkan holdings, Greece was independent and both Serbia and Rumania had some freedom. A native Arab dynasty ruled much of Arabia. In Egypt, a former Turkish governor had set himself up as hereditary khedive, or viceroy, …

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Gentlemen, Scholars and Princes 1400 – 1507

One day in the fifteenth century, the Turkish potentate of Babylonia decided to send gifts to the greatest ruler in Italy. He consulted his counselors and men who had traveled widely in Europe, asking them who best deserved this honour. They agreed that one Italian court outshone the rest and that his court must surely be the home of Italy’s mightiest sovereign. They did not name Milan, the home of the proud Sforza, nor Florence, the city of the clever Medici. The most magnificent court in Italy, they said, was at Ferrara, the capital of the dukes whose family name was d’Este and to Ferrara the Turkish potentate’s ambassadors carried the presents. Ferrara was small, a mere toy state in comparison to Milan or Florence. Actually, it was not an independent state at all. Like several of its neighbours in central Italy, Ferrara had for centuries belonged to the Church. Its duke paid an annual tribute to the pope for the privilege of governing his family dukedom himself. Even so, the Turkish potentate’s advisers had made no mistake. No court in Italy could match the splendor of the court commanded by the dukes of little Ferrara. During the Renaissance, there were many such small cities that won fame. It all depended on their rulers — the ambitious dukes or counts or sometimes, commoners who had gained riches and power. With their money, they, too, hired fine artists, sculptors and architects; they, too, collected manuscripts and things of beauty. So the small cities were as much part of the new age as Florence or Milan. In that new age, Ferrara was a place of old fashioned grandeur. Its dukes, the d’Estes, had come to power in the last days of chivalry. In 200 years, the d’Estes had turned Ferrara into a …

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The Sound of Bells and Trumpets in Europe 1300 – 1600


Bells and trumpets sounded across Europe in the time that men would call the Middle Ages. Knights in glistening armour rode forth to serve God and their kings; life was like a stately procession winding through a landscape marked by castles and cathedrals. Each man knew his place. He was a prince, a knight, a squire, a priest, a craftsman, or a serf. He wore the clothes that belonged to his rank — the armour and family emblems of a nobleman, the robes of a churchman, or the rough wool jerkin of a serf. He lived according to an age-old set of rules — the knightly code of chivalry, the vows of a monk, or the duties of a serf to the lord who owned the land he farmed. Such, it was said, was the will of God. It seemed impossible to imagine that life could ever be any different and indeed, almost no one remembered that it had been different in the past. In Athens, once the most beautiful and exciting city in the world, the palaces and temples of the Greeks were vacant ruins, overgrown with weeds. In Rome, the vast arenas and the Senate House were silent. The Forum, the ancient gathering place of Roman throngs and center of the greatest empire man had known was now a cow pasture. Hidden away in the castles and cathedral libraries, manuscripts that held the science, poetry and wisdom of two thousand years of life and discovery lay dusty and unread. All this, too, it was said, was the will of God. To the men of the Middle Ages, ruins taught a lesson: life was short, the works of mankind soon fell to dust and a man’s time on earth should be spent only in preparing for death and what came …

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The First Palm Sunday A.D. 29


IT WAS the Sunday before Passover. The soft greens of spring and patches of wild flowers brightened the hills above Jerusalem. The holy days of the Passover, celebrating the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, would not begin until the following Friday at sundown. But people were already busy preparing for it. The roads leading into the Holy City were crowded with Jews coming to attend the rites in the Temple. On the roads were also herds of cattle, flocks of sheep and carts loaded with cages of turtledoves. These were being brought to the Temple to be sold for sacrifice on the altar of God. Each Jew, according to his ability, would make a burnt offering in thankfulness and praise to the Lord for delivering his ancestors from the hands of the Egyptians. In Jerusalem, bakers were busy baking flat cakes of hard bread, which was known as unleavened bread because it was made without yeast. Unleavened bread was the only kind the Jews were allowed to eat during the Passover. It was a reminder that their ancestors had eaten unleavened bread during their flight from Egypt, for then there had been no time to let the dough rise before baking. The Jews were not the only ones busy with preparations. In the great marble fortress of Antonia, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea was regrouping his soldiers for special duty throughout the city. With hundreds of thousands of Jews expected for the Passover, a large force of guards had to be held in readiness to deal with any emergency. Ruling over the Jews was no easy matter. They were stubborn‚ willful, independent; not at all like other conquered peoples. Palestine had been an occupied country for almost five centuries. The Jews had been conquered, in …

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The City of Aeneas 1000 B. C. – 500 B. C.


The minstrels who wandered from country to country in the ancient world told a legend of Aeneas, a Trojan prince. According to the story, Aeneas escaped the Greeks who broke through the walls of Troy and fled to his ships with a little band of warriors. Rowing out onto the Hellespont, they watched while a great fire destroyed their city and they knew that they could never return to Troy. Then, the storytellers said, the gods spoke to Aeneas, telling him to turn his ships west. They commanded him to sail away from the Hellespont and the Aegean Sea, past Crete and the country of the Greeks, into the unknown western ocean. There he would find a new land and build a new Troy, a mighty city that would conquer the Greeks and all the world. Aeneas obeyed the gods and sailed west; but before he came to the place where his new city would be built, he knew many years of adventure and hardship. A storm wrecked his ships on the coast of Africa, where he was found by Dido, the queen of a great city called Carthage. Dido took Aeneas to her palace and told her people to greet him like a prince. While he lived in the palace, waiting for new ships to be built, the queen fell in love with him. She begged him to give up his wandering and his dreams of a new Troy. She would make him king of Carthage, if only he would stay with her. When he refused, she killed herself, calling on the gods to grant her curse: “May Carthage and the city of Aeneas be enemies, make war on one another and live in hatred forever.” Aeneas sailed on, until he came to Italy and the ancient Greek city …

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The Greek Way of Life 700 B. C. – 343 B. C.


In the first years of Spartan peace, Greece was filled with wandering soldiers. Their little cities needed them no more. The new governments, which Spartans appointed, looked on them as men who might make trouble and were quick to get rid of them. Homeless and with no way to earn a living, the old campaigners roamed from place to place. They became soldiers of fortune, men who fought for any general or city that offered pay and three meals a day. In 401 B. C., ten thousand of them hired themselves out to Cyrus, a prince of Persia, who hoped to steal his brother’s throne. The Army of Ten Thousand was an odd lot. There were officers and men from a dozen or more Greek states, soldiers who had fought with and against each other during the thirty years of war that had torn Greece apart. Yet, under a foreign commander, they worked well together. They made a strong force which no Asian army could begin to match. Cyrus led them far into Persia and wherever they went they were victorious. Then Cyrus was killed in battle and the Greek officers were tricked and treacherously murdered. The great army suddenly found itself stranded, with neither money nor leaders. The men were not even sure where they were, except that it was hundreds of miles from the coast of Greece. Election of Xenophon The Persian king waited for them to lose heart and surrender, as any Asian army did when it had no officers to give it orders. The Army of Ten Thousand was Greek. After a day of confusion, the soldiers called an Assembly and elected a new general, Xenophon, a young Athenian who had been the assistant of one of the dead officers. For four months he led them …

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Gods and Heroes 800 B.C. – 550 B.C.


From island to island and town to town, across the wide new world of the Greeks, the minstrel wandered, with a harp slung across his back and a batch of stories in his hand. When he knocked at the gate of a palace or great house and offered to sing for his supper, he was never refused. There were no shows to see and no books to read. The people relied on the minstrels to entertain them and to tell their stories of the past, which otherwise might be forgotten. The minstrel’s stock of stories was a mixture of tall tales, half-remembered history and myths, the stories of the gods. He collected them wherever he travelled, usually from other minstrels. As the stories were passed along from singer to singer, the history grew a little fuzzier and the tales grew a great deal taller. In the great hall of a palace, where the lord and his guests gathered in the evening, the minstrel was given a place of honour. After dinner, he was invited to sing. Most of his songs began with the Achaean attack on Troy. First, he reminded his listeners of the reason for the war: Paris, a prince Troy, stole Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta, Menelaus and the most beautiful woman in the world. The minstrel told about Agamemnon’s call to arms and the fleet that was made ready to sail. Then he listed the famous heroes who boarded the ships. Each had his own adventures and the minstrel chose different ones to tell about every evening. He might sing about Agamemnon, who came home from Troy victorious, only to be killed by his wife; or Achilles, the greatest of Greek warriors, who slew the Trojan champion Hector; or Odysseus, the craftiest of the …

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The Power of Minos 2200 B.C. to 1400 B.C.


Far to the south of the Greek Peninsula lay the large island of Crete. It was the home of a nation of sea-warriors – cruel, dark, handsome men, who claimed the eastern Mediterranean and all the Aegean Sea as their own. For eight hundred years — from 2200 to 1400 B. C. —  they made good on their claim. The Cretan seamen strutted about the decks in loincloths and high bools. They wore clanking jewelry of finely worked gold, curled their long hair and rubbed their bodies with perfumed oil so that they glistened in the sunlight. They were fighters and they knew every trick of sailing and of piracy. With the sharp bronze prows of their warships, they smashed the sides of the ships which dared to meet them in battle. No one could remember when they had first come to Crete. Perhaps they had once been Asians, but the island had been their home as far back as 4000 B. C. At first,  they had been farmers. Then they had discovered the gold that waited at the ends of the sea lanes. They began to settle pottery and olive oil to the rich Egyptians. As they grew more daring, they were trading along the coasts of the Aegean Sea. By 1700 B. C., their sleek merchant ships were the best vessels afloat and their battleships were the strongest. By 1600 B. C., when the Greeks were cautiously trying out clumsy little boats that wobbled in the waves, the king of Crete would call the whole Aegean Sea his private empire. As soon as the little towns in Greece seemed wealthy enough to make good customers, the Cretan merchants came calling with things to sell – delicate pottery, brightly painted with flowers and sea creatures; leather armour with bronze …

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A New People, a New Faith 650 B. C. – 330 B. C


BABYLON, the final capital of Mesopotamia civilization, had fallen to warrior tribesmen from the east, the Medes and Persians. The Medes and Persians were descended from the Aryan peoples who for centuries had been moving out of the grasslands of central Asia with their horses and herds. Some of the Aryans settled in the valleys and slopes of the mountains surrounding the great arid plateau between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. From them the region took its name, Iran, or Land of the Aryans. The Aryans who lived in the mountains northeast of Mesopotamia were the Medes, familiar to their prosperous neighbours as breeders of horses and as raiders of cities and trade caravans. Other Aryans settled south of the Medes, in the region of Parsa along the valleys, foothills and plains of the Zagros Mountains and these people became known as Persians. About 650 B. C., one of the Persian chieftains, Achaemenes, organized a small kingdom. His descendant, Cyrus, later brought the various tribes of Persians and Medes under his rule and led the united forces into Babylon. Before Cyrus formed the Persian nation, a man appeared who would influence the Persians in another way. He was Zoroaster or Zarathustra, who around 600 B. C. began to preach a new religion to the people of Iran. The Aryans had always worshipped many gods, especially Mithra the sun god and they often sacrificed animals. The priests who supervised the many rituals became a privileged group. Among the Medes, these priests were known as the Magi. Zoroaster introduced no new rituals and started no new priesthood; he was a prophet and reformer. Zoroaster was most active in eastern Iran, perhaps as a priest of the old Aryan religion, but he soon withdrew from society and went to live on …

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