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The Rise of Greek Civilization
In all history, nothing is so surprising or so difficult to account for as the sudden rise of civilization in Greece. Much of what makes civilization had already existed for thousands of years in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, and had spread thence to neighbouring countries. But certain elements had been lacking until the Greeks supplied them. What they achieved in art and literature is familiar to everybody, but what they did in the purely intellectual realm is even more exceptional. They invented mathematics and science and philosophy; they first wrote history as opposed to mere annals; they speculated freely about the nature of the world and the ends of life, without being bound in the fetters of any inherited orthodoxy. What occurred was so astonishing that, until very recent times, men were content to gape and talk mystically about the Greek genius. It is possible, however, to understand the development of Greece in scientific terms, and it is well worth while to do so.
Philosophy begins with Thales, who, fortunately, can be dated by the fact that he predicted an eclipse which, according to the astronomers, occurred in the year 585 B.C. Philosophy and science -- which were not originally separate -- were therefore born together at the beginning of the sixth century. What had been happening in Greece and neighbouring countries before this time? Any answer must be in part conjectural, but archeology, during the present century, has given us much more knowledge than was possessed by our grandfathers.
The art of writing was invented in Egypt about the year 4000 B.C., and in Babylonia not much later. In each country writing began with pictures of the objects intended. These pictures quickly became conventionalized, so that words were represented by ideograms, as they still are in China. In the course of thousands of years, this cumbrous system developed into alphabetic writing.
The early development of civilization in Egypt and Mesopotamia was due to the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, which made agriculture very easy and very productive. The civilization was in many ways similar to that which the Spaniards found in Mexico and Peru. There was a divine king, with despotic powers; in Egypt, he owned all the land. There was a polytheistic religion, with a supreme god to whom the king had a specially intimate relation. There was a military aristocracy, and also a priestly aristocracy. The latter was often able to encroach on the royal power, if the king was weak or if he was engaged in a difficult war. The cultivators of the soil were serfs, belonging to the king, the aristocracy, or the priesthood.
There was a considerable difference between Egyptian and Babylonian theology. The Egyptians were preoccupied with death, and believed that the souls of the dead descend into the underworld, where they are judged by Osiris according to the manner of their life on earth. They thought that the soul would ultimately return to the body; this led to mummification and to the construction of splendid tombs. The pyramids were built by various kings at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. and the beginning of the third. After this time, Egyptian civilization became more and more stereotyped, and religious conservatism made progress impossible. About 1800 B.C. Egypt was conquered by Semites named Hyksos, who ruled the country for about two centuries. They left no permanent mark on Egypt, but their presence there must have helped to spread Egyptian civilization in Syria and Palestine.
Babylonia had a more warlike development than Egypt. At first, the ruling race were not Semites, but "Sumerians," whose origin is unknown. They invented cuneiform writing, which the conquering Semites took over from them. There was a period when there were various independent cities which fought with each other, but in the end Babylon became supreme and established an empire. The gods of other cities became subordinate, and Marduk, the god of Babylon, acquired a position like that later held by Zeus in the Greek pantheon. The same sort of thing had happened in Egypt, but at a much earlier time.
The religions of Egypt and Babylonia, like other ancient religions, were originally fertility cults. The earth was female, the sun male. The bull was usually regarded as an embodiment of male fertility, and bull-gods were common. In Babylon, Ishtar, the earth-goddess, was supreme among female divinities. Throughout western Asia, the Great Mother was worshipped under various names. When Greek colonists in Asia Minor found temples to her, they named her Artemis and took over the existing cult. This is the origin of "Diana of the Ephesians." Christianity transformed her into the Virgin Mary, and it was a Council at Ephesus that legitimated the title "Mother of God" as applied to Our Lady.
Where a religion was bound up with the government of an empire, political motives did much to transform its primitive features. A god or goddess became associated with the State, and had to give, not only an abundant harvest, but victory in war. A rich priestly caste elaborated the ritual and the theology, and fitted together into a pantheon the several divinities of the component parts of the empire.
Through association with government, the gods also became associated with morality. Lawgivers received their codes from a god; thus a breach of the law became an impiety. The oldest legal code still known is that of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, about 2100 B.C.; this code was asserted by the king to have been delivered to him by Marduk. The connection between religion and morality became continually closer throughout ancient times.
Babylonian religion, unlike that of Egypt, was more concerned with prosperity in this world than with happiness in the next. Magic, divination, and astrology, though not peculiar to Babylonia, were more developed there than elsewhere, and it was chiefly through Babylon that they acquired their hold on later antiquity. From Babylon come some things that belong to science: the division of the day into twenty-four hours, and of the circle into 360 degrees; also the discovery of a cycle in eclipses, which enabled lunar eclipses to be predicted with certainty, and solar eclipses with some probability. This Babylonian knowledge, as we shall see, was acquired by Thales.
The civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia were agricultural, and those of surrounding nations, at first, were pastoral. A new element came with the development of commerce, which was at first almost entirely maritime. Weapons, until about 1000 B.C., were made of bronze, and nations which did not have the necessary metals on their own territory were obliged to obtain them by trade or piracy. Piracy was a temporary expedient, and where social and political conditions were fairly stable, commerce was found to be more profitable. In commerce, the island of Crete seems to have been the pioneer. For about eleven centuries, say from 2500 B.C. to 1400 B.C., an artistically advanced culture, called the Minoan, existed in Crete. What survives of Cretan art gives an impression of cheerfulness and almost decadent luxury, very different from the terrifying gloom of Egyptian temples.
Of this important civilization almost nothing was known until the excavations of Sir Arthur Evans and others. It was a maritime civilization, in close touch with Egypt (except during the time of the Hyksos). From Egyptian pictures it is evident that the very considerable commerce between Egypt and Crete was carried on by Cretan sailors; this commerce reached its maximum about 1500 B.C. The Cretan religion appears to have had many affinities with the religions of Syria and Asia Minor, but in art there was more affinity with Egypt, though Cretan art was very original and amazingly full of life. The centre of the Cretan civilization was the so-called "palace of Minos" at Knossos, of which memories lingered in the traditions of classical Greece. The palaces of Crete were very magnificent, but were destroyed about the end of the fourteenth century B.C., probably by invaders from Greece. The chronology of Cretan history is derived from Egyptian objects found in Crete, and Cretan objects found in Egypt; throughout, our knowledge is dependent on archeological evidence.
The Cretans worshipped a goddess, or perhaps several goddesses. The most indubitable goddess was the "Mistress of Animals," who was a huntress, and probably the source of the classical Artemis. She or another was also a mother; the only male deity, apart from the "Master of Animals," is her young son. There is some evidence of belief in an after life, in which, as in Egyptian belief, deeds on earth receive reward or retribution. But on the whole the Cretans appear, from their art, to have been cheerful people, not much oppressed by gloomy superstitions. They were fond of bull-fights, at which female as well as male toreadors performed amazing acrobatic feats. The bull-fights were religious celebrations, and Sir Arthur Evans thinks that the performers belonged to the highest nobility. The surviving pictures are full of movement and realism.
The Cretans had a linear script, but it has not been deciphered. At home they were peaceful, and their cities were unwalled; no doubt they were defended by sea power.
Before the destruction of the Minoan culture, it spread, about 1600 B.C., to the mainland of Greece, where it survived, through gradual stages of degeneration, until about 900 B.C. This mainland civilization is called the Mycenaean; it is known through the tombs of kings, and also through fortresses on hill- tops, which show more fear of war than had existed in Crete. Both tombs and fortresses remained to impress the imagination of classical Greece. The older art products in the palaces are either actually of Cretan workmanship, or closely akin to those of Crete. The Mycenaean civilization, seen through a haze of legend, is that which is depicted in Homer.
There is much uncertainty concerning the Mycenaeans. Did they owe their civilization to being conquered by the Cretans? Did they speak Greek, or were they an earlier indigenous race? No certain answer to these questions is possible, but on the whole it seems probable that they were conquerors who spoke Greek, and that at least the aristocracy consisted of fair-haired invaders from the North, who brought the Greek language with them. The Greeks came to Greece in three successive waves, first the Ionians, then the Achaeans, and last the Dorians. The Ionians appear, though conquerors, to have adopted the Cretan civilization pretty completely, as, later, the Romans adopted the civilization of Greece. But the Ionians were disturbed, and largely dispossessed, by their successors the Achaeans. The Achaeans are known, from the Hittite tablets found at Boghaz-Keul, to have had a large organized empire in the fourteenth century B.C. The Mycenaean civilization, which had been weakened by the warfare of the Ionians and Achaeans, was practically destroyed by the Dorians, the last Greek invaders. Whereas previous invaders had largely adopted the Minoan religion, the Dorians retained the original Indo-European religion of their ancestors. The religion of Mycenaean times, however, lingered on, especially in the lower classes, and the religion of classical Greece was a blend of the two.
Although the above account seems probable, it must be remembered that we do not know whether the Mycenaeans were Greeks or not. What we do know is that their civilization decayed, that about the time when it ended iron superseded bronze, and that for some time sea supremacy passed to the Phoenicians.
Both during the later part of the Mycenaean age and after its end, some of the invaders settled down and became agriculturists, while some pushed on, first into the islands and Asia Minor, then into Sicily and southern Italy, where they founded cities that lived by maritime commerce. It was in these maritime cities that the Greeks first made qualitatively new contributions to civilization; the supremacy of Athens came later, and was equally associated, when it came, with naval power.
The mainland of Greece is mountainous and largely infertile. But there are many fertile valleys, with easy access to the sea, but cut off by the mountains from easy land communication with each other. In these valleys little separate communities grew up, living by agriculture, and centering round a town, generally close to the sea. In such circumstances it was natural that, as soon as the population of any community grew too great for its internal resources, those who could not live on the land should take to seafaring. The cities of the mainland founded colonies, often in places where it was much easier to find subsistence than it had been at home. Thus in the earliest historical period the Greeks of Asia Minor, Sicily, and Italy were much richer than those of the Greek mainland.
The social system was very different in different parts of Greece. In Sparta, a small aristocracy subsisted on the labour of oppressed serfs of a different race; in the poorer agricultural regions, the population consisted mainly of farmers cultivating their own land with the help of their families. But where commerce and industry flourished, the free citizens grew rich by the employment of slaves -- male in the mines, female in the textile industry. These slaves were, in Ionia, of the surrounding barbarian population, and were, as a rule, first acquired in war. With increasing wealth went increasing isolation of respectable women, who in later times had little part in the civilized aspects of Greek life except in Sparta.
There was a very general development, first from monarchy to aristocracy, then to an alternation of tyranny and democracy. The kings were not absolute, like those of Egypt and Babylonia; they were advised by a Council of Elders, and could not transgress custom with impunity. "Tyranny" did not mean necessarily bad government, but only the rule of a man whose claim to power was not hereditary. "Democracy" meant government by all the citizens, among whom slaves and women were not included. The early tyrants, like the Medici, acquired their power through being the richest members of their respective plutocracies. Often the source of their wealth was the ownership of gold and silver mines, made the more profitable by the new institution of coinage, which came from the kingdom of Lydia, adjacent to Ionia. Coinage seems to have been invented shortly before 700 B.C.
One of the most important results, to the Greeks, of commerce or piracy -- at first the two are scarcely distinct -- was the acquisition of the art of writing. Although writing had existed for thousands of years in Egypt and Babylonia, and the Minoan Cretans had a script (which has not been deciphered), there is no conclusive evidence that the Greeks knew how to write until about the tenth century B.C. They learnt the art from the Phoenicians, who, like the other inhabitants of Syria, were exposed to both Egyptian and Babylonian influences, and who held the supremacy in maritime commerce until the rise of the Greek cities of Ionia, Italy, and Sicily. In the fourteenth century, writing to Ikhnaton (the heretic king of Egypt), Syrians still used the Babylonian cuneiform; but Hiram of Tyre (969-936) used the Phoenician alphabet, which probably developed out of the Egyptian script. The Egyptians used, at first, a pure picture writing; gradually the pictures, much conventionalized, came to represent syllables (the first syllables of the names of the things pictured), and at last single letters, on the principle of "A was an Archer who shot at a frog." This last step, which was not taken with any completeness by the Egyptians themselves, but by the Phoenicians, gave the alphabet with all its advantages. The Greeks, borrowing from the Phoenicians, altered the alphabet to suit their language, and made the important innovation of adding vowels instead of having only consonants. There can be no doubt that the acquisition of this convenient method of writing greatly hastened the rise of Greek civilization.
The first notable product of the Hellenic civilization was Homer. Everything about Homer is conjectural, but the best opinion seems to be that he was a series of poets rather than an individual. Probably the Iliad and the Odyssey between them took about two hundred years to complete, some say from 750 to 550 B.C., while others hold that "Homer" was nearly complete at the end of the eighth century. The Homeric poems, in their present form, were brought to Athens by Peisistratus, who reigned (with intermissions) from 560 to 527 B.C. From his time onward, the Athenian youth learnt Homer by heart, and this was the most important part of their education. In some parts of Greece, notably in Sparta, Homer had not the same prestige until a later date.
The Homeric poems, like the courtly romances of the later Middle Ages, represent the point of view of a civilized aristocracy, which ignores as plebeian various superstitions that are still rampant among the populace. In much later times, many of these superstitions rose again to the light of day. Guided by anthropology, modern writers have come to the conclusion that Homer, so far from being primitive, was an expurgator, a kind of eighteenth-century rationalizer of ancient myths, holding up an upper-class ideal of urbane enlightenment. The Olympian gods, who represent religion in Homer, were not the only objects of worship among the Greeks, either in his time or later. There were other darker and more savage elements in popular religion, which were kept at bay by the Greek intellect at its best, but lay in wait to pounce in moments of weakness or terror. In the time of decadence, beliefs which Homer had discarded proved to have persisted, half buried, throughout the classical period. This fact explains many things that would otherwise seem inconsistent and surprising.
Primitive religion, everywhere, was tribal rather than personal. Certain rites were performed, which were intended, by sympathetic magic, to further the interests of the tribe, especially in respect of fertility, vegetable, animal, and human. The winter solstice was a time when the sun had to be encouraged not to go on diminishing in strength; spring and harvest also called for appropriate ceremonies. These were often such as to generate a great collective excitement, in which individuals lost their sense of separateness and felt themselves at one with the whole tribe. All over the world, at a certain stage of religious evolution, sacred animals and human beings were ceremonially killed and eaten. In different regions, this stage occurred at very different dates. Human sacrifice usually lasted longer than the sacrificial eating of human victims; in Greece it was not yet extinct at the beginning of historical times. Fertility rites without such cruel aspects were common throughout Greece; the Eleusinian mysteries, in particular, were essentially agricultural in their symbolism.
It must be admitted that religion, in Homer, is not very religious. The gods are completely human, differing from men only in being immortal and possessed of superhuman powers. Morally, there is nothing to be said for them, and it is difficult to see how they can have inspired much awe. In some passages, supposed to be late, they are treated with Voltairean irreverence. Such genuine religious feeling as is to be found in Homer is less concerned with the gods of Olympus than with more shadowy beings such as Fate or Necessity or Destiny, to whom even Zeus is subject. Fate exercised a great influence on all Greek thought, and perhaps was one of the sources from which science derived the belief in natural law.
The Homeric gods were the gods of a conquering aristocracy, not the useful fertility gods of those who actually tilled the soil. As Gilbert Murray says:
"The gods of most nations claim to have created the world. The Olympians make no such claim. The most they ever did was to conquer it....And when they have conquered their kingdoms, what do they do? Do they attend to the government? Do they promote agriculture? Do they practise trades and industries? Not a bit of it. Why should they do any honest work? They find it easier to live on the revenues and blast with thunderbolts the people who do not pay. They are conquering chieftains, royal buccaneers. They fight, and feast, and play, and make music; they drink deep, and roar with laughter at the lame smith who waits on them. They are never afraid, except of their own king. They never tell lies, except in love and war."
Homer's human heroes, equally, are not very well behaved. The leading family is the House of Pelops, but it did not succeed in setting a pattern of happy family life.
"Tantalos, the Asiatic founder of the dynasty, began its career by a direct offence against the gods; some said, by trying to cheat them into eating human flesh, that of his own son Pelops. Pelops, having been miraculously restored to life, offended in his turn. He won his famous chariot-race against Oinomaos, king of Pisa, by the connivance of the latter's charioteer, Myrtilos, and then got rid of his confederate, whom he had promised to reward, by flinging him into the sea. The curse descended to his sons, Atreus and Thyestes, in the form of what the Greeks called ate, a strong if not actually irresistible impulse to crime. Thyestes corrupted his brother's wife and thereby managed to steal the 'luck' of the family, the famous golden-fleeced ram. Atreus in turn secured his brother's banishment, and recalling him under pretext of a reconciliation, feasted him on the flesh of his own children. The curse was now inherited by Atreus' son Agamemnon, who offended Artemis by killing a sacred stag, sacrificed his own daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess and obtain a safe passage to Troy for his fleet, and was in his turn murdered by his faithless wife Klytaimnestra and her paramour Aigisthos, a surviving son of Thyestes. Orestes, Agamemnon's son, in turn avenged his father by killing his mother and Aigisthos."
Homer as a finished achievement was a product of Ionia, i.e. of a part of Hellenic Asia Minor and the adjacent islands. Some time during the sixth century at latest, the Homeric poems became fixed in their present form. It was also during this century that Greek science and philosophy and mathematics began. At the same time events of fundamental importance were happening in other parts of the world. Confucius, Buddha, and Zoroaster, if they existed, probably belong to the same century. In the middle of the century the Persian Empire was established by Cyrus; towards its close the Greek cities of Ionia, to which the Persians had allowed a limited autonomy, made a fruitless rebellion, which was put down by Darius, and their best men became exiles. Several of the philosophers of this period were refugees, who wandered from city to city in the still unenslaved parts of the Hellenic world, spreading the civilization that, until then, had been mainly confined to Ionia. They were kindly treated in their wanderings. Xenophanes, who flourished in the later part of the sixth century, and who was one of the refugees, says: "This is the sort of thing we should say by the fireside in the winter-time, as we lie on soft couches, after a good meal, drinking sweet wine and crunching chickpeas: 'Of what country are you, and how old are you, good Sir? And how old were you when the Mede appeared?'" The rest of Greece succeeded in preserving its independence at the battles of Salamis and Plataea, after which Ionia was liberated for a time.
Greece was divided into a large number of small independent states, each consisting of a city with some agricultural territory surrounding it. The level of civilization was very different in different parts of the Greek world, and only a minority of cities contributed to the total of Hellenic achievement. Sparta, of which I shall have much to say later, was important in a military sense, but not culturally. Corinth was rich and prosperous, a great commercial centre, but not prolific in great men.
Then there were purely agricultural rural communities, such as the proverbial Arcadia, which townsmen imagined to be idyllic, but which really was full of ancient barbaric horrors.
The inhabitants worshipped Pan, and had a multitude of fertility cults, in which, often, a mere square pillar did duty in place of a statue of the god. The goat was the symbol of fertility, because the peasants were too poor to possess bulls. When food was scarce, the statue of Pan was beaten. (Similar things are still done in remote Chinese villages.) There was a clan of supposed were-wolves, associated, probably, with human sacrifice and cannibalism. It was thought that whoever tasted the flesh of a sacrificed human victim became a werewolf. There was a cave sacred to Zeus Lykaios (the wolf-Zeus); in this cave no one had a shadow, and whoever entered it died within a year. All this superstition was still flourishing in classical times.
Pan, whose original name was "Paon," meaning the feeder or shepherd, acquired his better known title, interpreted as meaning the All-God, when his worship was adopted by Athens in the fifth century, after the Persian war.
There was, however, in ancient Greece, much that we can feel to have been religion as we understand the term. This was connected, not with the Olympians, but with Dionysus, or Bacchus, whom we think of most naturally as the somewhat disreputable god of wine and drunkenness. The way in which, out of his worship, there arose a profound mysticism, which greatly influenced many of the philosophers, and even had a part in shaping Christian theology, is very remarkable, and must be understood by anyone who wishes to study the development of Greek thought.
Dionysus, or Bacchus, was originally a Thracian god. The Thracians were very much less civilized than the Greeks, who regarded them as barbarians. Like all primitive agriculturists, they had fertility cults, and a god who promoted fertility. His name was Bacchus. It was never quite clear whether Bacchus had the shape of a man or of a bull. When they discovered how to make beer, they thought intoxication divine, and gave honor to Bacchus. When, later, they came to know the vine and to learn to drink wine, they thought even better of him. His functions in promoting fertility in general became somewhat subordinate to his functions in relation to the grape and the divine madness produced by wine.
At what date his worship migrated from Thrace to Greece is not known, but it seems to have been just before the beginning of historical times. The cult of Bacchus was met with hostility by the orthodox, but nevertheless it established itself. It contained many barbaric elements, such as tearing wild animals to pieces and eating the whole of them raw. It had a curious element of feminism. Respectable matrons and maids, in large companies, would spend whole nights on the bare hills, in dances which stimulated ecstasy, and in an intoxication perhaps partly alcoholic, but mainly mystical. Husbands found the practice annoying, but did not dare to oppose religion. Both the beauty and the savagery of the cult are set forth in the Bacchae of Euripides.
The success of Bacchus in Greece is not surprising. Like all communities that have been civilized quickly, the Greeks, or at least a certain proportion of them, developed a love of the primitive, and a hankering after a more instinctive and passionate way of life than that sanctioned by current morals. To the man or woman who, by compulsion, is more civilized in behaviour than in feeling, rationality is irksome and virtue is felt as a burden and a slavery. This leads to a reaction in thought, in feeling, and in conduct. It is the reaction in thought that will specially concern us, but something must first be said about the reaction in feeling and conduct.
The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant. This habit began to be important with the rise of agriculture; no animal and no savage would work in the spring in order to have food next winter, except for a few purely instinctive forms of action, such as bees making honey or squirrels burying nuts. In these cases, there is no forethought; there is a direct impulse to an act which, to the human spectator, is obviously going to prove useful later on. True forethought only arises when a man does something towards which no impulse urges him, because his reason tells him that he will profit by it at some future date. Hunting requires no forethought, because it is pleasurable; but tilling the soil is labour, and cannot be done from spontaneous impulse.
Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion. This check it inherits from barbarism, but it makes it less instinctive and more systematic. Certain acts are labelled criminal, and are punished; certain others, though not punished by law, are labelled wicked, and expose those who are guilty of them to social disapproval. The institution of private property brings with it the subjection of women, and usually the creation of a slave class. On the one hand the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to his future.
It is evident that this process can be carried too far, as it is, for instance, by the miser. But without going to such extremes, prudence may easily involve the loss of some of the best things in life. The worshipper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, physical or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every-day preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called "enthusiasm," which means, etymologically, having the god enter into the worshipper, who believed that he became one with the god. Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication, some sweeping away of prudence by passion. Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence versus passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party.
In the sphere of thought, sober civilization is roughly synonymous with science. But science, unadulterated, is not satisfying; men need also passion and art and religion. Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination. Among Greek philosophers, as among those of later times, there were those who were primarily scientific and those who were primarily religious; the latter owed much, directly or indirectly, to the religion of Bacchus. This applies especially to Plato, and through him to those later developments which were ultimately embodied in Christian theology.
The worship of Bacchus in its original form was savage, and in many ways repulsive. It was not in this form that it influenced the philosophers, but in the spiritualized form attributed to Orpheus, which was ascetic, and substituted mental for physical intoxication.
Orpheus is a dim