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In any careful study of the lives and times of the ancient Greeks two points become abundantly clear. The first is that they are so like us in so many fundamental ways. The second is precisely the opposite: that they are so unlike us in so many fundamental ways. It is as an attempt to embrace both sides of the equation with equal firmness that this new biographically-slanted account is offered and should be judged.
Consider, as a first test case, our English language of politics. The word "language" itself we take from the Romans, in silent acknowledgment of the Roman empire's massive impact—truly a thousand-year Reich—and outreach. But the alphabet we use to write that language is, like the word "alphabet" itself, originally Greek. That it was transmitted to us by the Romans is one of the nicest illustrations of their key role in mediating our Hellenic or ancient Greek heritage. Few clearer examples of our deep debt to that heritage present themselves than the whole sphere of politics. Not only is the word itself ancient Greek in origin, but it carries with it such everyday political terms as "democracy" (People-power, literally) and, at the opposite extreme, "monarchy" (rule by a single individual) and "tyranny" (rule by an unac- countable, non-legitimate despot).
Yet our modern, Western ideas of democracy and monar- chy are actually quite different from those of the ancient Greeks. What we call democracy, a system under which we hand over the direction of public affairs to a few representa- tives who are rarely subject to our immediatecontrol, the ancient Greeks would regard as oligarchy—yet another Greek-derived political word meaning the rule of a few. What we call monarchy, they would not have recognized as a le- gitimate and meaningful form of political rule at all. Identity of vocabulary can both indicate a shared cultural inheritance and disguise a deep cultural gulf.
There lies one of the perennial fascinations of studying the ancient Greeks, and especially their politics, within the wider context of their culture and society. Whereas we mostly think of politics today as happening in a specific, rather remote place— the Houses of Parliament or Congress—the Greeks saw politics everywhere and saw everything as having a political dimen- sion. It was politics that gave shape, structure, and meaning to all aspects of their everyday lives. They even identified them- selves as "political animals," in Aristotle's famous phrase from the first book of his Politics (composed in the 330s B.C.E.).
The Greek word from which all these ancient and modern uses of "political" are ultimately derived is polis, which is usu- ally translated as either "city-state" or just "city." In all, there were well over a thousand of these, perhaps as many as fif- teen hundred, scattered from the eastern end of the Black Sea (in what is now Georgia) to the southern and eastern coasts of Spain at the western end of the Mediterranean. They ranged in territorial size from Sparta in the Pelopon- nese of mainland Greece (eight thousand square kilometers, three thousand square miles) through Syracuse in Sicily (four thousand square kilometers), and Athens (twenty-five hundred) down to Corinth (ninety) and even smaller states. Their populations typically numbered only a few thousand, though that of Athens may have reached a quarter of a million at its peak in the late fifth century B.C.E. They governed themselves in a wide variety of ways, but although by no means all of them were always, or ever, democratic, the important thing was that they governed themselves.
The essential criteria of a community's counting as a true polis were that it was not ruled directly by a foreign power, even another Greek one, and that it chose its own mode of self-government. However, for military purposes above all, the principles of independence and autonomy were not incompatible in practice with membership in a multi-state alliance such as the Peloponnesian League headed by Sparta, or even in a federal "superstate" such as Boeotia (headed by Thebes). Sometimes these principles were honored more in the breach than the observance. For conspicuous instance, the fifth-century empire of the Athenians represented a notable infringement of polis autonomy, notwithstanding all its counterbalancing positive virtues.
Within any one Greek city by no means were all Greeks rated equal—that is, equally meriting full enjoyment of the city's political privileges. Apart from the under-age and the foreign and of course the unfree, who were debarred from virtually all of the citizens' entitlements by definition, adult women too were excluded from many of them by reason of their gender. In an important sense the Greek city was a sort of men's club, even if the high wall erected in theory between men and their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters might sometimes be scaled or even quite radically undermined.
Despite an obviously diverse political and cultural landscape, the majority of the inhabitants of ancient Greece did share a common cultural bond. This common Hellenic culture was expressed most vividly through religion. As they met each other, or competed against each other, at one of the great panhellenic ("All-Greek") religious festivals such as the Olympic Games, they were doing at least three things: competing for personal glory (or watching the contests), worshipping their gods, and—not least—celebrating their common Greek identity. At Delphi, the supposed navel of the ancient Greek universe, the oracle of Apollo speaking through the mouthpiece of his priestess provided an alternative focus for this shared heritage. The great fifth-century historian Herodotus summed it up in a sentence, as only a connoisseur and advocate of panhellenic identity could: common language (if with different dialects), common customs and mores (especially religious), and common "blood" (shared descent both in historical reality and in commonly accepted myths of origin). These three components went to make up "the fact of being Greek."
Such Hellenism or Greekness by no means always caused Greeks to automatically pull together in common causes, even in crises; in fact, it all too rarely did that, because of the Greeks' fierce attachment to their primary political polis-identity. But it was always there in the background and it did crucially help them to define their ethnic identity. As often as not, this was done by way of distinction from, or outright opposition to, all non-Greeks. These they labeled collectively, and often derogatorily, as "barbarians," originally so called because they were speakers of unintelligible, "bar-bar"-sounding languages.
This Greek-Barbarian opposition is present in Homer, the Greeks'—and the Western world's—first major literature, but it is not especially marked there nor is it entirely negative. Two or three centuries later, however, in the time of Herodotus, it had become firmly established, culturally foundational, and predominantly pejorative. Two historical factors were chiefly responsible for this sea-change in "national" self-consciousness.
First, there were the movement and settlement of Greeks away from the original Aegean heartland, to occupy most shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas between about 750 and 500 B.C.E. This movement is usually referred to as "colonization," but actually the new Greek foundations were from the start independent cities, not colonies as we understand that term today. Settlers had been attracted or driven to such foundations as Syracuse in Sicily and Olbia on the north shore of the Black Sea by a mixture of motives and conditions—poverty, greed, adventurism, a sense of religious destiny.
In some areas Greek settlers found themselves in contention with settlers of other nationalities, as for example with Phoenicians (from modern Lebanon) on Sicily and Cyprus. Sometimes, relations with the indigenous populations were good from the start, as at Megara Hyblaea in eastern Sicily and Massalia (modern Marseilles); usually they were bad at the start but improved. Sometimes, unfortunately, as at Taras (Taranto in the instep of Italy), they were bad from start to finish. In all cases these relations helped to define by opposition what it meant to be Greek, and colonial Greeks were soon to be found taking a prominent part in the panhellenic festivals celebrated back in the old country.
The second major factor in defining Greekness by negative opposition to barbarians was the attempt by a large number of barbarians—the Persians and their assorted imperial subjects—to conquer mainland Greece in the first two decades of the fifth century. In fact, a number of Greeks living on the Asiatic mainland or on Cyprus had been conquered by and incorporated into the Persian Empire as early as the 540s. Most of these had risen up in revolt in 499 but the revolts were crushed half a dozen years later. It was mainly Athens' involvement in this rising that led to the first of the two major Persian invasions of mainland Greece. This chiefly punitive seaborne expedition ordered by King Darius in 490 ended in the Athenians' remarkable victory at Marathon. The second invasion was a much larger expedition of both revenge and intended conquest, actually led in person by Darius' son Xerxes in 480. The impact of this on Greek identity was complex and decisive. Thereafter the barbarian negative stereotype, visible soon after in Aeschylus's tragedy Persians (472) and later in more subtle form in Herodotus's Histories, dominated Greek consciousness.
It also provided the psychological and spiritual underpinning of the next wave of Greek permanent emigration, launched by and following in the wake of the astonishing conquests of Alexander the Great (reigned 336 to 323). As a result Greeks and Greek culture penetrated the entire Middle East and extended their reach as far afield as central Asia in the northeast and Pakistan and India in the southeast. The consequences are still visible and palpable today—for example, in the beatification of Alexander within the Coptic Christian church of Egypt and his appearance in some seventy national literatures.
Alexander's empire and, of course, imperialism served as the main cultural bridge between West and East in antiquity. The so-called Hellenistic period (c. 323-30 B.C.E.) ensued, during which much of this new Greek world fell under the sway of a new Western empire, that of Rome. It ended with the defeat in 31 B.C.E. of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in northwest Greece by the first Roman emperor, Augustus.
In a sense, ancient Hellenism lived on through the Byzantine world founded by Christian emperor Constantine in the fourth century of our era, until that world, too, was brought to an end finally by the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Scholars fleeing from the fall of Byzantium contributed vitally to the Italian Renaissance, through which the heritage of Hellenism was channeled to our own day.
This tension of sameness and difference that strikes anyone examining the political life of the ancient Greeks is further evident in their culture, society, and economy.
The English poet Philip Larkin humorously claimed that sexual intercourse had been invented in 1963. The Greeks, who brought us "pornography" (meaning, literally, writing about or depicting prostitutes), would not have been slow to dispute that. Their ways of having sex are, of course, as much a defining part of their cultural identity as they are of any other people's. But in one respect, homosexuality, their sexual mores and practices have a further claim to fame and our attention. Highly contested and deeply controversial though it may be, Greek (male) homosexuality is the ultimate fount and origin of an important modern social practice and identity.
It is not so long ago that "Greek love" was a euphemism for what has become known as gay sexuality, and "lesbian" pays silent tribute to the poetry and life of Sappho of Lesbos, replacing the earlier euphemistic term "Sapphic." But it is worth recalling that homosexuality, the word, is only just over a century old. A "gay" today is not precisely what a "homosexual" was a hundred years ago, and in ancient Greece there were neither gays nor homosexuals as we would understand those terms. To take just three of our featured ancient Greeks: Sappho was probably in fact what we would call bisexual, though she may have passed from a predominantly homoerotic to a chiefly heterosexual (married) lifestyle. Socrates too got married, indeed was possibly married to two women simultaneously, but he did nothing to repress his strong homosexual proclivities, even if he seems not to have indulged them physically. Alexander, finally, seems to have married—again, twice—only for dynastic reasons; he was apparently a preferred homosexual. Similarity and difference, therefore, once again.
If ancient Greek homosexuality in some respects at least can plausibly be claimed as a cultural ancestor, that cannot easily be argued for ancient Greek pre-Christian or pagan religion. The Greeks did not have a single word corresponding to our "religion" (which comes from the Latin). They used instead various paraphrases, most often a formula meaning literally "the things of the gods." The plural, gods, was and is vital. For the Greeks, the whole world was full of a multiplicity of supernatural and superhuman powers, male and female or neuter, sometimes, when thought of in human form, called gods/goddesses, sometimes, when thought of more abstractly, called demons (daimonia).
The New Testament mentions some famous demons, especially those cast out by Jesus's miracle-working. But though written in (Hellenistic) Greek, the New Testament bears witness to a religion radically different from Greek paganism. It was a book, or series of books, composed by and for Hellenized Jews living in the eastern, Greek-speaking half of the Roman empire. Its main aim was to spread the new, Pauline gospel of the risen Christ (that Greek word translates the Hebrew "Messiah," meaning "the Anointed"). A skeptic might want to see more than a trace of pre-Christian polytheism lingering in the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity, not to mention the cult of many saints. But in principle Christianity (like its parent, post-Exilic Judaism) was a strict monotheism, which believed not only that there was only one true God but also that God had singlehandedly created the universe and all that therein moved.
Pagan Greeks—that's what "Hellenes" means in the New Testament—believed quite the opposite. Instead of one, there existed many gods and goddesses, and the universe predated them and had given birth to them, not vice versa. The Greeks' loose and heterogeneous stock of creation myths went with an absence of dogma, a lack of sacred scriptures, and the nonexistence of a privileged vocational priesthood uniquely authorized to interpret them for the laity (from Greek laos, "people"). On the whole cult-practices and rituals—what one did—mattered more for pre-Christian Greeks than did faith—what one believed and thought. In short, although Byzantium played a crucial role in preserving and transmitting pagan Greek literature, the ancient Greek legacy does not extend to religion.
At least, not in a direct and immediate sense. Two of our key cultural assets, the theater and competitive athletic sports, do derive ultimately from ancient Greek religious contexts. If the peculiarities and essences of the ancient originals are to be grasped at all accurately, however, the emphasis must fall rather on spiritual difference and cultural unfamiliarity than on what ancient and modern theater and athletics have in common. One way of conveying this emphasis is to concentrate on the central sacrificial rituals of the Olympic Games and the annual Great Dionysia play festival at Athens.
Zeus and Dionysus respectively were worshiped most spectacularly through the ritual slaughter of large numbers of beasts, the cooked flesh of which was distributed among the competitors, pilgrims, spectators, and other participants; the gods themselves received only the smell of the offerings burnt on the altars. The animal blood-sacrifice thus symbolized both the inseparable connection and the unbridgeable gap between mortals and immortals.
Not all-ancient Greeks practiced such sacrifice. The Orphics and Pythagoreans set themselves apart as religious sects precisely by refusing to do so. Other Greeks took a naturalistic or even skeptical attitude towards the nature and very existence of the gods. Xenophanes of Colophon (in Asia Minor; he flourished c. 550 B.C.E.) famously said that if horses and cattle had hands and could draw, they would draw their gods in the form of horses and cattle, and he observed that the non-Greek Thracians depicted their gods as having red hair and blue eyes just like themselves. By implication, the Greeks' own anthropomorphic representations of the divine were no less culture-bound. A century after Xenophanes, the famous teacher Protagoras, from Abdera in northern Greece, denied that he could know for sure whether the gods existed, or of what form they were made, since the subject was an obscure one and human life was short. Out of such critical theological speculation was Greek philosophy born.
The activity of philosophizing in ancient Greece was recognizably ancestral to what philosophers do today; the same sorts of issues were tackled in the same sorts of verbal ways, at any rate by many of the ancients. The mathematician A.N. Whitehead may have exaggerated a little when he wrote some years ago that Western philosophy is little more than a series of footnotes to Plato, but a distinguished contemporary philosopher and classicist, Sir Bernard Williams, has pithily remarked in the same vein that the legacy of Greek philosophy to Western philosophy is Western philosophy. Looking at ancient Greek philosophy in this way is, of course, to concentrate once again on what we have in common with the Greeks, focusing on and highlighting the rational dimension.
In fact, the Greek achievement in philosophy can be represented within this perspective as the application of humanist, secular rationality to questions (of morality, of existence) that other cultures and traditions have interpreted predominantly or wholly through religious categories of thought. Yet there existed side-by-side other more or less irrational or even anti-rationalist strains of ancient Greek philosophizing, such as the Cynic school. Besides, what counted as a rational or scientific account of phenomena by the ancient Greeks' standards would often no longer pass muster as such with us. In philosophy, as in science, the Greeks were pathbreaking and sometimes breathtakingly original pioneers, but they would probably make rather odd colleagues in the classroom and library or on the lab bench today.
The emergence of philosophizing in sixth- and fifth-century B.C.E. Greece was part of a wider movement sometimes called the Greek Enlightenment. This is on the assumption that it was somehow comparable in attitude, approach, and achievement to the European and American Enlightenments of the eighteenth century. Certainly, that analogy is useful, up to a point. Philosophy, history-writing, higher education, rhetoric, and various branches of science, especially medicine, did acquire their own professional identities and disciplinary codes. They did make what we would want to recognize as major intellectual advances. However, they coexisted with ways of thinking about the past, instructing the rising generations, healing the sick, and more generally forming world pictures of animate and inanimate nature that were firmly traditional.
Besides, the ancient Greeks had a very different attitude from ours to innovation as such. For most Greeks what was new was shocking in a wholly negative sense. For instance, the Greek terms for political revolution were the equivalent of our "innovationism" and "too-new affairs." They had no equivalent at all to our word "progress," and not much that resembled our modern ideas of progress. Only in the sphere of the visual and performing arts was innovation expected and acceptable, although the inseparable connection of those arts to the worship of the gods ensured more in the way of evolutionary continuity than really radical change.
There was a perfectly good reason for all this basic Greek conservatism. We, through the application of science and technology, have mastered—and, of course, too often destroyed—a good deal of our natural environment or modified it to our ends, achieving levels of human productivity via machines and computers that any pre-scientific or pre-industrial culture could only dream of. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, were largely at the mercy of the brute forces of nature. Most of them lived at or near the margins of subsistence, all too liable to being devastated or even wiped out by an untimely crop failure or bout of disease, not to mention the ever-present threat of destruction through manmade war.
The Greeks, in short, were dominated by, rather than masters of, what we call economic forces. Not surprisingly, economics as we understand it was not one of the branches of thought or technique significantly developed by them. When they spoke of oikonomia, they meant the prudent management of an individual private household or estate rather than the running of a national economy. Even wealthy Greeks, however, could never be confident that they would pass on intact to their heirs the landed estate they had inherited. As for poor Greeks, the very idea of transmitting an estate belonged to the realm of fantasy.
It is this uncompromisingly tough material background that explains Greek conservatism. It also explains why their predominant idea of secular change was one of decline, not progress. Once upon a time, they believed, in a golden age, the land had flowed automatically with grain, olive oil, and wine, the Greeks' equivalent of milk and honey. Now, alas, in the age of iron, things were very much worse, and there was no realistic hope, let alone expectation, that they would or could get much better in the foreseeable future. Against such a background, the Greeks' intellectual and cultural achievements really do stand out as remarkable.
The Greeks attempted to exploit and transcend that very general idea of irreversible decline by counterposing the new idea of Utopia. (Thomas More's pseudo-Greek coinage means either No-Place or Place of Well-Faring.) The most famous of these imaginary ancient Greek utopias is Plato's Republic, an ideal realm ruled wisely by philosopher-kings with a place set aside for everyone and everyone in his or her allotted place, a world of perfect, if rather restricted, justice. Yet even Plato clearly found this academic exercise ultimately unsatisfactory. Philosopher-kings were not exactly thick on the ground in fourth-century Greece. So he spent the last years of his long life (427-347) constructing a far more tightly prescribed New Jerusalem, which he imagined as a brand new Greek city to be founded on the island of Crete. This too failed to convince, at any rate, Plato's most brilliant pupil, Aristotle. He returned to first base as it were, and ended his Politics by sketching a "low" or realistic utopia for mortal men rather than demigods to live in.
So we have come full circle back to our starting-point, the law-bound and law-abiding polis. This was truly one of the Greeks' greatest collective achievements, and it formed the indispensable framework within which they constructed the legacy of which we are still—or should be—the grateful legatees.
All history is present history in the sense that the concerns of the present are bound somehow to affect the way history is studied and written. All history is also personal, since it is impossible to avoid the influence of one's own opinions and prejudices on the selection and emphasis of one's historical material. The following account, in pretty much chronological sequence, of the lives and times of eight Greek men (including one naturalized Greek) and seven Greek women (including one who was possibly a fictional creation) in alternation, from Homer (who flourished around 700 B.C.E.) to Alexander the Great (who died in 323 B.C.E.), may require therefore some preliminary explanation and justification.
The ancient Greeks themselves wrote androcentric (man-centered), if not male chauvinist, history. They were aware that women were half the human race, but only occasionally did they give due recognition to the significant historical contributions of individual women. We can, and must, do better, by giving ancient Greek women something like parity of esteem and attention. Likewise, the Greek civilization that was created and enjoyed by free Greeks of citizen status was at least partly dependent on the contribution of the many thousands of men and women who were not citizens, including those who were both non-Greek and unfree. At least one of my subjects (Pasion) began his life in the Greek world as a "barbarian" (non-Greek) slave. Another (Neaera) was accused of having been a slave prostitute before she began a second career as an (allegedly) kept whore whom her Athenian-citizen partner illegally passed off as his lawfully wedded wife.
The inclusion of the selected poets (Homer, Sappho) and philosophers (Socrates, Aristotle) requires no further justification here. Men and women of action (Cleisthenes, Artemisia, Pericles, Epaminondas, Olympias, Alexander the Great): they were all people of the greatest distinction and historical significance. The choice of Diotima, who may be entirely a fictional creation, probably needs defending most of all. She is intended not only to represent the important class of Greek women with religious influence but also to stand as a surrogate for her inventor, Plato, who is not given a chapter to himself (partly because he was yet another Athenian, partly because he was so eccentric and atypical in so many ways), but is represented indirectly not only by Diotima but also by his teacher, Socrates, and by his most distinguished pupil, Aristotle.
Clearly, it was not possible in a small compass to include all the "great" (or greatest) ancient Greeks. Some readers may, for example, regret the absence of chapters on the three great Athenian tragedians of the fifth century. One reason for their omission was my wanting to shift the focus, at least to some extent, away from the all too familiar concentration on Athens and especially on Athens in the fifth century. Greek civilization happened in other cities and at other times, too.
Through the lives of these fifteen men and women, therefore, the major themes of literature, visual art, sexuality, politics (especially democratic), relations with non-Greeks, home life, philosophy, war, athletics, federalism, religion, slavery, economics, and cultural influence can and will be presented and explored in an unusually gripping and vivid manner.
These fifteen ancient Greeks, moreover, stand for a culture and a civilization that still mean a great deal to our own in all sorts of different ways, some more openly acknowledged than others. I hope that my treatment of them will adequately reflect the current ferment of research and controversy in a field, Classics, that is still very much alive and kicking despite its pre-eminent concern with the long dead.