A Smaller History of Greece
From The Earliest Times To The Roman Conquest
By William Smith D.C.L., LL.D.
ORIGIN OF THE GREEKS AND THE HEROIC AGE.
No nation possesses a history till events are recorded in written documents; and it was not till the epoch known by the name of the First Olympiad, corresponding to the year 776 B.C., that the Greeks began to employ writing as a means for perpetuating the memory of any historical facts. Before that period everything is vague and uncertain; and the exploits of the heroes related by the poets must not be regarded as historical facts.
The PELASGIANS are universally represented as the most ancient inhabitants of Greece. They were spread over the Italian as well as the Grecian peninsula; and the Pelasgic language thus formed the basis of the Latin as well as of the Greek. They were divided into several tribes, of which the Hellenes were probably one: at any rate, this people, who originally dwelt in the south of Thessaly, gradually spread over the rest of Greece. The Pelasgians disappeared before them, or were incorporated with them, and their dialect became the language of Greece. The Hellenes considered themselves the descendants of one common ancestor, Hellen, the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha. To Hellen were ascribed three sons, Dorus, Xuthus, and AEolus. Of these Dorus and AEolus gave their names to the DORIANS and AEOLIANS; and Xuthus; through his two sons Ion and Achaeus, became the forefather of the IONIANS and ACHAEANS. Thus the Greeks accounted for the origin of the four great divisions of their race. The descent of the Hellenes from a common ancestor, Hellen, was a fundamental article in the popular faith. It was a general practice in antiquity to invent fictitious persons for the purpose of explaining names of which the origin was buried in obscurity. It was in this way that Hellen and his sons came into being; but though they never had any real existence, the tales about them may be regarded as the traditional history of the races to whom they gave their names.
The civilization of the Greeks and the development of their language bear all the marks of home growth, and probably were little affected by foreign influence. The traditions, however, of the Greeks would point to a contrary conclusion. It was a general belief among them that the Pelasgians were reclaimed from barbarism by Oriental strangers, who settled in the country and introduced among the rude inhabitants the first elements of civilization. Attica is said to have been indebted for the arts of civilized life to Cecrops, a native of Sais in Egypt. To him is ascribed the foundation of the city of Athens, the institution of marriage, and the introduction of religious rites and ceremonies. Argos, in like manner, is said to have been founded by the Egyptian Danaus, who fled to Greece with his fifty daughters, to escape from the persecution of their suitors, the fifty sons of his brother Aegyptus. The Egyptian stranger was elected king by the natives, and from him the tribe of the Danai derived their name, which Homer frequently uses as a general appellation for the Greeks. Another colony was the one led from Asia by Pelops, from whom the southern peninsula of Greece derived its name of Peloponnesus. Pelops is represented as a Phrygian, and the son of the wealthy king Tantalus. He became king of Mycenae, and the founder of a powerful dynasty, one of the most renowned in the Heroic age of Greece. From him was descended Agamemnon, who led the Grecian host against Troy.
The tale of the Phoenician colony, conducted by Cadmus, and which founded Thebes in Boeotia, rests upon a different basis. Whether there was such a person as the Phoenician Cadmus, and whether he built the town called Cadmea, which afterwards became the citadel of Thebes, as the ancient legends relate, cannot be determined; but it is certain that the Greeks were indebted to the Phoenicians for the art of writing; for both the names and the forms of the letters in the Greek alphabet are evidently derived from the Phoenician. With this exception the Oriental strangers left no permanent traces of their settlements in Greece; and the population of the country continued to be essentially Grecian, uncontaminated by any foreign elements.
The age of the heroes, from the first appearance of the Hellenes in Thessaly to the return of the Greeks from Troy, was supposed to be a period of about two hundred years. These heroes were believed to be a noble race of beings, possessing a superhuman though not a divine nature, and superior to ordinary men in strength of body and greatness of soul.
Among the heroes three stand conspicuously forth: Hercules, the national hero of Greece; Theseus, the hero of Attica; and Minos, king of Crete, the principal founder of Grecian law and civilization.
Hercules was the son of Zeus (Jupiter) and Alcmena; but the jealous anger of Hera (Juno) raised up against him an opponent and a master in the person of Eurystheus at whose bidding the greatest of all heroes was to achieve those wonderful labours which filled the whole world with his fame. In these are realized, on a magnificent scale, the two great objects of ancient heroism, the destruction of physical and moral evil, and the acquisition of wealth and power. Such, for instance, are the labours in which he destroys the terrible Nemean lion and Lernean hydra, carries off the girdle of Ares from Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, and seizes the golden apples of the Hesperides, guarded by a hundred-headed dragon.
Theseus was a son of AEgeus, king of Athens, and of AEthra, daughter of Pittheus, king of Troezen. Among his many memorable achievements the most famous was his deliverance of Athens from the frightful tribute imposed upon it by Minos for the murder of his son. This consisted of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were compelled to send every nine years to Crete, there to be devoured by the Minotaur, a monster with a human body and a bull's head, which Minos kept concealed in an inextricable labyrinth. The third ship was already on the point of sailing with its cargo of innocent victims, when Theseus offered to go with them, hoping to put an end for ever to the horrible tribute. Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, became enamoured of the hero, and having supplied him with a clue to trace the windings of the labyrinth, Theseus succeeded in killing the monster, and in tracking his way out of the mazy lair. Theseus, on his return, became king of Attica, and proceeded to lay the foundations of the future greatness of the country. He united into one political body the twelve independent states into which Cecrops had divided Attica, and made Athens the capital of the new kingdom. He then divided the citizens into three classes, namely, EUPATRIDAE, or nobles; GEOMORI, or husbandmen; and DEMIURGI, or artisans.
Minos, king of Crete, whose history is connected with that of Theseus, appears, like him, the representative of an historical and civil state of life. Minos is said to have received the laws of Crete immediately from Zeus; and traditions uniformly present him as king of the sea. Possessing a numerous fleet, he reduced the surrounding islands, especially the Cyclades, under his dominion, and cleared the sea of pirates.
The voyage of the Argonauts and the Trojan war were the most memorable enterprises undertaken by collective bodies of heroes.
The Argonauts derived their name from the Argo, a ship built For the adventurers by Jason, under the superintendence of Athena (Minerva). They embarked in the harbour of Iolcus in Thessaly for the purpose of obtaining the golden fleece which was preserved in AEa in Colchis, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, under the guardianship of a sleepless dragon. The most renowned heroes of the age took part in the expedition. Among them were Hercules and Theseus, as well as the principal leaders in the Trojan war; but Jason is the central figure and the real hero of the enterprise. Upon arriving at AEa, after many adventures, king AEtes promised to deliver to Jason the golden fleece, provided he yoked two fire-breathing oxen with brazen feet, and performed other wonderful deeds. Here, also, as in the legend of Theseus, love played a prominent part. Medea, the daughter of AEtes, who was skilled in magic and supernatural arts, furnished Jason with the means of accomplishing the labours imposed upon him; and as her father still delayed to surrender the fleece, she cast the dragon asleep during the night, seized the fleece, and sailed away in the Argo with her beloved Jason.
The Trojan war was the greatest of all the heroic achievements. It formed the subject of innumerable epic poems, and has been immortalised by the genius of Homer. Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy, abused the hospitality of Menelaus, king of Sparta, by carrying off his wife Helen, the most beautiful woman of the age. All the Grecian princes looked upon the outrage as one committed against themselves. Responding to the call of Menelaus, they assembled in arms, elected his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, leader of the expedition, and sailed across the AEgean in nearly 1200 ships to recover the faithless fair one. Several of the confederate heroes excelled Agamemnon in fame. Among them Achilles, chief of the Thessalian Myrmidons, stood pre-eminent in strength, beauty, and valour; whilst Ulysses, king of Ithaca; surpassed all the rest in the mental qualities of counsel and eloquence. Among the Trojans, Hector, one of the sons of Priam, was most distinguished for heroic qualities and formed a striking contrast to his handsome but effeminate brother Paris. Next to Hector in valour stood AEneas, son of Anchises and Aphrodite (Venus). Even the gods took part in the contest, encouraging their favourite heroes, and sometimes fighting by their side or in their stead.
It was not till the tenth year of the war that Troy yielded to the inevitable decree of fate; and it is this year which forms the subject of the Iliad. Achilles, offended by Agamemnon, abstains from the war; and in his absence the Greeks are no match for Hector. The Trojans drive them back into their camp, and are already setting fire to their ships, when Achilles gives his armour to his friend Patroclus, and allows him to charge at the head of the Myrmidons. Patroclus repulses the Trojans from the ships, but the god Apollo is against him, and he falls under the spear of Hector. Desire to avenge the death of his friend proves more powerful in the breast of Achilles than anger against Agamemnon. He appears again in the field in new and gorgeous armour, forged for him by the god Hephrastus (Vulcan) at the prayer of Thetis. The Trojans fly before him, and, although Achilles is aware that his own death must speedily follow that of the Trojan hero, he slays Hector in single combat.
The Iliad closes with the burial of Hector. The death of Achilles and the capture of Troy were related in later poems. The hero of so many achievements perishes by an arrow shot by the unwarlike Paris, but directed by the hand of Apollo. The noblest combatants had now fallen on either side, and force of arms had proved unable to accomplish what stratagem at length effects. It is Ulysses who now steps into the foreground and becomes the real conqueror of Troy. By his advice a wooden horse is built, in whose inside he and other heroes conceal themselves. The infatuated Trojans admit the horse within their walls. In the dead of night the Greeks rush out and open the gates to their comrades. Troy is delivered over to the sword, and its glory sinks in ashes. The fall of Troy is placed in the year 1184 B.C.
The return of the Grecian leaders from Troy forms another series of poetical legends. Several meet with tragical ends. Agamemnon is murdered on his arrival at Mycenae, by his wife Clytaemnestra and her paramour AEgisthus. But of these wanderings the most celebrated and interesting are those of Ulysses, which form the subject of the Odyssey. After twenty years' absence he arrives at length in Ithaca, where he slays the numerous suitors who devoured his substance and contended for the hand of his wife Penelope.
The Homeric poems must not be regarded as a record of historical persons and events, but, at the same time, they present a valuable picture of the institutions and manners of the earliest known state of Grecian society.
In the Heroic age Greece was already divided into a number of independent states, each governed by its own king. The authority of the king was not limited by any laws; his power resembled that of the patriarchs in the Old Testament; and for the exercise of it he was responsible only to Zeus, and not to his people. But though the king was not restrained in the exercise of his power by any positive laws, his authority was practically limited by the BOULE; or council of chiefs, and the Agora, or general assembly of freemen. These two bodies, of little account in the Heroic age, became in the Republican age the sole depositories of political power.
The Greeks in the Heroic age were divided into the three classes of nobles, common freemen, and slaves. The nobles were raised far above the rest of the community in honour, power, and wealth. They were distinguished by their warlike prowess, their large estates, and their numerous slaves. The condition of the general mass of freemen is rarely mentioned. They possessed portions of land as their own property, which they cultivated themselves; but there was another class of poor freemen, called Thetes, who had no land of their own, and who worked for hire on the estates of others. Slavery was not so prevalent in the Heroic age as at a later time, and appears in a less odious aspect. The nobles alone possessed slaves, and they treated them with a degree of kindness which frequently secured for the masters their affectionate attachment.
Society was marked by simplicity of manners. The kings and nobles did not consider it derogatory to their dignity to acquire skill in the manual arts. Ulysses is represented as building his own bed-chamber and constructing his own raft, and he boasts of being an excellent mower and ploughman. Like Esau, who made savoury meat for his father Isaac, the Heroic chiefs prepared their own meals and prided themselves on their skill in cookery. Kings and private persons partook of the same food, which was of the simplest kind. Beef, mutton, and goat's flesh were the ordinary meats, and cheese, flour, and sometimes fruits, also formed part of the banquet; wine was drunk diluted with water, and the entertainments were never disgraced by intemperance, like those of our northern ancestors. The enjoyment of the banquet was heightened by the song and the dance, and the chiefs took more delight in the lays of the minstrel than in the exciting influence of the wine.
The wives and daughters of the chiefs, in like manner, did not deem it beneath them to discharge various duties which were afterwards regarded as menial. Not only do we find them constantly employed in weaving, spinning and embroidery, but like the daughters of the patriarchs they fetch water from the well and assist their slaves in washing garments in the river.
Even at this early age the Greeks had made considerable advances in civilization. They were collected in fortified towns, which were surrounded by walls and adorned with palaces and temples. The massive ruins of Mycenae and the sculptured lions on the gate of this city belong to the Heroic age, and still excite the wonder of the beholder. Commerce, however, was little cultivated, and was not much esteemed. It was deemed more honourable for a man to enrich himself by robbery and piracy than by the arts of peace. Coined money is not mentioned in the poems of Homer. Whether the Greeks were acquainted at this early period with the art of writing is a question which has given rise to much dispute, and must remain undetermined; but poetry was cultivated with success, though yet confined to epic strains, or the narration of the exploits and adventures of the Heroic chiefs. The bard sung his own song, and was always received with welcome and honour in the palaces of the nobles.
In the battle, as depicted by Homer, the chiefs are the only important combatants, while the people are an almost useless mass, frequently put to rout by the prowess of a single hero. The chief is mounted in a war chariot, and stands by the side of his charioteer, who is frequently a friend.