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All beginnings are lost in obscurity, including those of a race or people. Still, the social foundations of Greek life, namely, marriage and the family and property rights, appear to have been present already in pre-Hellenic times; they were certainly present among the Hellenes and Greco-Italic people before they differentiated into sub-groups. They must have been shaped by a primal religion which, bestowed a central role on the ancestral cult as well as on the hearth. Ancestor worship also imposed monogamy, found in Greece at the very beginning, as evidenced by elaborate marriage rites and the severe punishment adultery entailed. And, likewise, the right to own land was causally related to veneration of the hearth and graves.
According to Diodorus, the hearth taught man the art of building houses. Originally, Greek houses were separated from each other; there were no rows of houses with partition walls between them. The family burial site was located on one's own land; therefore, this property could not be alienated. The duties deriving from ancestor worship also imposed the right of inheritance. The son inherited the land, the daughters being left out. But, to guarantee the continuation of sacrifices to the dead, daughters as inheritors were married to the next of kin, and adoption was permitted. Paternal power must have been very comprehensive.
In historical times the genos, i.e., the racial community in the old sense, was present only as a vestigial remnant, surviving nowhere in its original form. The genos appeared as a recollection, as an awareness of a common ancestry, and in a communal worship of the dead, the grave site being the only property held in common. The relation of the later lines of descent to the ancestral lineage remains in question; the accession of slaves and hired hands also had a complicating effect on the racial groupings. The interrelation of the racial stocks and tribes baffles conception and is purely hypothetical. We simply cannot tell whether families formed phratries, phratries phylae, and phylae tribes, or whether, on the contrary, the tribe was first and it broke up into phylae, phratries, and sub-groups. Whether it was a process of subdivision or of amalgamation cannot be ascertained.
In any event, a remnant of gray antiquity towers like an ancient mountain peak above alluvial plains–the phylae. The marked changes in the social structure and in the usage of words have here, as elsewhere, greatly encumbered our grasp of the original affairs.
The population of the Doric states tended to be composed of three phylae–Pamphylians, Dymaneans, and Hyllosians. Pamphylus and Dyman were sons of King Aegimius and grandsons of Dorus, while Hyllus was the son of Heracles, who once helped Aegimius in combat against the Lapithae. This third branch must somehow have been the favored one, for it provided the leaders, the Heraclidae, under whom the Dorians set out on their renowned migrations and laid the foundation of states.
In Attica, and likely also in other Ionic states, there were four phylae: Geleontes, Argadeis, Aegicoreis, and Hopletes, heroes who were ostensibly the sons of Ion. Antiquity supposed that these names stood for various modes of life–roughly, landowners, tradesmen, shepherds, and a knightly nobility. Not until subsequent historical times did each of the phylae comprise eupatrids and ordinary citizens of every sort. The phylae became elective bodies and, after Solon's constitution, each one contributed one hundred members to the council. It can not be determined whether the phylae in their early stages lived each in a separate place or not. Later, to be sure, they all lived together; it sufficed to know to which phyle one belonged. The names of the Athenians who fell at Marathon were recorded on the gravestones set on the large burial mound, according to phylae and, indeed, according to the new ones with which Cleisthenes replaced the old ones.
Are we to say that originally the Dorians were divided into three phylae and the Ionians into four? Or rather that the Dorians took their rise from the combining of three phylae, the Athenians from the combining of four? A fiery smelting process inconceivable to us gives rise to a race of people, whose individual states quite consistently reflect their common origins.
Originally, phylae were based on descent rather than occupation, as suggested by the examples adduced, for later phylae were artificially created in new settlements. When misfortune befell Cyrene, Demonax was called from Arcadia to restore order; he created three phylae out of the main components of the population: the first of emigrants from Thera and their neighbors, the second of men from the Peloponnese and Crete, and the third of men from the islands.
In its three original tribus Rome perhaps possessed a far older arrangement than it realized, namely, proto-Greeks and Italians living together, as may well be supposed they did in that area. It is commonly agreed that, although tradition makes Ramnes, Tatian, and Luceres centuries [subdivisions of tribus] instituted by Romulus, they were originally names of tribus. In Rome, indeed, there flourished a counter legend, according to which three population groups came together in the city only many years after it had been founded–Latins, Sabines, and some Etruscans. Dionysius of Halicamassus, born a Greek, was the only one to detect that all three tribus were native there and that those who came later, Sabines and whoever else, were subsequently incorporated among the tribus already existing.
Cleisthenes may have divided the four phylae of Attica into ten in order to equalize matters. The four old phylae which Solon used as a basis may well have become lopsided in power during the agitated century between Solon and Cleisthenes. Such arrangements are veritable Janus heads; one face turned toward ancient processes and foundations from which the whole complex descended, the other turned toward the basis of representative government in states and hence often altered and deliberately reshaped.
Before the Greeks, the Phoenicians had already founded poleis, i.e., city communities, city states, with bodies of laws. The power of the kings was limited by a council whose membership apparently was made up of the chiefs of privileged families. These city states were able to settle colonies that copied the organization of their mother cities. These poleis differed from the ancient royal strongholds of the Orient, which in each nation represented the central point of the whole; they differed from the gigantic army encampment of the Assyrian dynasties on the Tigris, differed from Babylon founded as a common stronghold for property and the gods, differed from the three alternating residences of the Achaemenids, differed from the great mercantile centers associated with oriental trade, and from the temple cities of Egypt: essentially, they were civil strongholds.
Would the honor of the Greeks suffer if one assumed that the Phoenician poleis influenced them? In many other respects the early impact of Phoenician culture on Greek life is recognized; we may assume that Thebes was originally a Phoenician city on what later became Boeotian territory. At all events, the Greeks must have had early knowledge of the cities along the Phoenician coast and of the colonies they planted.
For a long time they lived in the form of a multitude of smaller and larger tribes under chieftains called kings. Single tribes or their royal members must have taken over or built cities and citadels here and there. Thucydides supposed that the ancient cities, both on the islands and on the mainland, were built at some distance from the sea because of piracy. For only later, with the rise of Greek shipping, there were built strongly walled cities on the coasts and on the headlands, for commerce and defense against neighboring powers. Mycene and Tiryns are much older than any polis.
But, in that ancient period, people making up a tribe lived mostly in hamlets. It is not known whether these settlements were politically organized and how they were officially represented in the tribal government, nor to what extent common shrines and customs and mutual self-defense tended to unite neighboring settlements. If the people had access to strongholds in their communities or territories, they must have used them as common citadels, as refuges against pirates from land and sea. The ancient Sikanians in Sicily lived exclusively in fortified places on elevations, because of pirates. Still, it is said they lived in hamlets, although the term poleis is already in the offing for these settlements.
The ancient Greek tribes must have somehow been possessed of stronger impulses than the other Indo-Europeans. Their subsequent vitality and energy was, as it were, prefigured in the migrations, settlements, and intermingling of the old individual groups, which must often have been on the move for long periods. Accounts of these events are quite numerous but so tangled and confused that they only occasionally serve for a precise historical reconstruction. Every little clan has its own migration legends, whereas among the Germanic tribes only broad outlines were known. The Greeks are keenly aware of their origins and their settlements, even though they express this awareness in myths. They personify their past by means of tribal heroes who flee and later achieve new dominion; they weave these legends into the general body of myths. The legends, graves, and cults centered about these heroes are an earnest of the strong vitality later expressed in the poleis. Bards recited heroic lays; in addition, a more general body of poetry, at once genealogical and ethnographical, might arise, like that of the E(h)oiae, Homer's catalogue of ships, and similar epic material. These migration legends set no limits on the exploits the tribes perform, and children and children's children recount these exploits with defiant exultation.
The polis is the definitive form of the Greek state, a small independent state comprising a central city and surrounding territory; it tolerated no competing stronghold and no independent citizenry. The Greeks never thought of the polis as having developed gradually, but only as the product of a single creative act. Greek fantasy teems with notions of cities being founded full-fledged and, as whim had no part in shaping these cities, so the life in them is wholly under the aegis of necessity.
The Greeks had, above all, a city-state outlook. When the Achaeans, driven out of the southern Peloponnesus, settled in their new locality in Achaea on the bay of Corinth, they could certainly have established a unified state; indeed federation was at hand, but they had no penchant for it. Instead, they established twelve poleis where the Ionians had hitherto lived in hamlets scattered over twelve little districts, and actually their communal activities rarely went beyond periodic sacrifices and festivals, as those in the sacred grove of Zeus at Hamarion not far from Aegae. And the Ionians, who had fled from the Achaeans, went under Athenian leadership to the west coast of Asia Minor. There, they naturally founded a series of twelve poleis.
To maintain rule over larger territories and not expose individual settlements to perpetual struggle against invasion, either a Spartan militarism or an exceptionally favorable location was necessary, like that of the people of Attica. Attempts to federate into larger groups succeeded only temporarily, in wartime; they were never lucky or powerful enough to achieve permanence. In the long run the hegemonies of Sparta and Athens aroused terrible hostilities, and whoever has learned to know the polis will know how uninclined it was to treat fairly its weaker allies, however expedient it might have been to do so. The clue to the whole unhappy history of Boeotia lies in the perpetually repeated attempts to embrace that territory in a federal union.
In creating the polis, the vital elan takes the form of the so-called synoikismos, the joining together of hitherto separate settlements in a fortified city–on the sea wherever possible. The motives of commerce, material prosperity, and the like would only have created a polisma, a ptoliethron; but the polis is something more than that.
Without question, the Dorian migration was largely the external motive force that gave rise to the polis. Both, those who migrated and those who were able to ward off the invaders, were ripe for an organization that promised increased permanent power in defense as well as attack, constituting the real purpose of their existence.
When people lived in hamlets, say seven or eight to a district, they were exposed to tribal hardships, but their way of life was more innocent than later. They had to defend themselves against pirates and land robbers, but still they carried on as peasants. Now, polis began to compete with polis for existence and political power. And without doubt more land was cultivated originally, for when people concentrated in a city they began to neglect the outlying acres within their bounds. Synoikism may well have been the beginning of the laying waste of Greece.
Political thought of a later age has depicted the synoikism of the people of Attica as having been brought about in mystical times by Theseus. He first dissolved the prytanies (presidencies) and archonships in the twelve settlements into which Cecrops had gathered the people of Attica for the sake of safety, and then permitted only one buleterion (council hall) and one prytany in Athens. The people might live in the country on their holdings, but henceforth they had only one polis which Theseus was able to hand down to descendants as great and powerful, since everybody paid tribute into a common treasury. This was the ideal desired everywhere, and the whole of Greek life pressed toward this, its final form–the polis–with–out which the higher Greek culture is inconceivable.
To be removed from his ancestral graves must have spelled a misfortune for the Greek. For then he either had to neglect his ancestral rites or perform them only with difficulty; at any rate he no longer had the ancestral burial site daily before his eyes. Being forcibly removed to a new place of residence was an act that caused more sorrow and grief than any other, even in the entire later history of the polis.
Accounts of the founding of cities are numerous. In the Peloponnesus, Mantinea, already mentioned in Homer, became a polis through the uniting of five communities. Only after the Persian Wars was Elis made into a city out of several communities. During the Peloponnesian War, the Mytileneans wanted to transplant all the inhabitants of Lesbos into their own city; whereupon the people of Methymna appealed to Athens and so prevented the whole venture. In 408 B.C. Lindus, Ialysus, and Cameirus voluntarily united to establish the magnificent city of Rhodes destined for a truly splendid future; it is not difficult to imagine, however, with what feelings the people abandoned their age-old cities.
During the Peloponnesian War, Perdikkas II of Macedonia persuaded the inhabitants of the peninsula of Chalcidice to forsake their coastal towns and settle in Olynthus, a migration that likewise entailed withdrawal from Athenian hegemony. The state of Argos was especially notorious for having carried out synoikism by use of force, even though it was done for the sake of strengthening its position against Sparta. In the face of an enemy like Sparta, Epaminondas himself knew of no better stratagem except to persuade a goodly number of weak little Arcadian settlements to move together into a large center, Megalopolis. The inhabitants of Trapezus, refusing to join in the colonization of Megalopolis, were attacked, and they fled to the city of Trapezus on the Euxine. After the battle at Mantinea, many wished to leave the Megalopolis but were forced to return and remain in the large city by the rest of the Megalopolitans with Athenian help. Part of the abandoned settlements later lay fully deserted while some of them became villages occupied by Megalopolitans who cultivated the adjacent land.
Why were smaller places not left to carry on as country towns represented by elected officials in the council of the polis? Simply because in the long run they would not have been content to remain towns but would have exerted all the power they possibly could to remain independent and so become poleis themselves.
Excerpted from History of Greek Culture by JACOB BURCKHARDT, Palmer Hilty. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted June 28, 2014