Grecian Civilization Before The Persian Wars

Early civilization. We understand by civilization the progress which

nations have made in art, literature, material strength, social culture,

and political institutions, by which habits are softened, the mind

enlarged, the soul elevated, and a wise government, by laws established,

protecting the weak, punishing the wicked, and developing wealth and

national resources.

Such a civilization did exist to a remarkable degree among the Greeks,

which was not only the admiration of their own times, but a wonder to all

succeeding ages, since it was established by the unaided powers of man,

and affected the relations of all the nations of Europe and Asia which

fell under its influence.

It is this which we propose briefly to present in this chapter, not the

highest developments of Grecian culture and genius, but such as existed in

the period immediately preceding the Persian wars.

One important feature in the civilization of Greece was the

progress made in legislation by Lycurmis and Solon, But as this has been

alluded to, we pass on to consider first those institutions which were

more national and universal.

The peculiar situations of the various States, independent of each

other, warlike, encroaching, and ambitious, led naturally to numerous

wars, which would have been civil wars had all these petty States been

united under a common government. But incessant wars, growing out of

endless causes of irritation, would have soon ruined these States, and

they could have had no proper development. Something was needed to

restrain passion and heal dissensions without a resort to arms, ever

attended by dire calamities. And something was needed to unite these

various States, in which the same language was spoken, and the same

religion and customs prevailed. This union was partially effected by the

Amphictyonic Council. It was a congress, composed of deputies from the

different States, and deliberating according to rules established from

time immemorial. Its meetings were held in two different places, and were

convened twice a year, once in the spring, at Delphi, the other in the

autumn, near the pass of Thermopylae. Delphi was probably the original

place of meeting, and was, therefore, in one important sense, the capital

of Greece. Originally, this council or congress was composed of deputies

from twelve States, or tribes--Thessalians, Boeotians, Dorians, Ionians,

Perrhaebians, Magnetes, Locrians, Octaeans, Phthiots, Achaeans, Melians, and

Phocians. These tribes assembled together before authentic history

commences, before the return of the Heracleids. There were other States

which were not represented in this league--Arcadia, Elis, AEolia, and

Acarnania; but the league was sufficiently powerful to make its decisions

respected by the greater part of Greece. Each tribe, whether powerful or

weak, had two votes in the assembly. Beside those members who had the

exclusive power of voting, there were others, and more numerous, who had

the privilege of deliberation. The object of the council was more for

religious purposes than political, although, on rare occasions and

national crises, subjects of a political nature were discussed. The

council laid down the rules of war, by which each State that was

represented was guaranteed against complete subjection, and the supplies

of war were protected. There was no confederacy against foreign powers.

The functions of the league were confined to matters purely domestic; the

object of the league was the protection of temples against sacrilege. But

the council had no common army to execute its decrees, which were often

disregarded. In particular, the protection of the Delphic oracle, it acted

with dignity and effect, whose responses were universally respected.

As the Delphic oracle was the object which engrossed the most

important duties of the council, and the responses of this oracle in early

times was a sacred law, the deliberations of the league had considerable

influence, and were often directed to political purposes. But the

immediate management of the oracle was in the hands of the citizens of

Delphi. In process of time the responses of the oracle, by the mouth of a

woman, which were thus controlled by the Delphians, lost much of their

prestige, in consequence of the presents or bribery by which favorable

responses were gained.

More powerful than this council, as an institution, were the

Olympic games, solemnized every four years, in which all the states of

Greece took part. These games lasted four days, and were of engrossing

interest. They were supposed to be founded by Hercules, and were of very

ancient date. During these celebrations there was a universal truce, and

also during the time it was necessary for the people to assemble and

retire to their homes. Elis, in whose territory Olympia was situated, had

the whole regulation of the festival, the immediate object of which were

various trials of strength and skill. They included chariot races, foot

races, horse races, wrestling, boxing, and leaping. They were open to all,

even to the poorest Greeks; no accidents of birth or condition affected

these honorable contests. The palm of honor was given to the men who had

real merit. A simple garland of leaves was the prize, but this was

sufficient to call out all the energies and ambition of the whole nation.

There were, however, incidental advantages to successful combatants. At

Athens, the citizen who gained a prize was rewarded by five hundred

drachmas, and was entitled to a seat at the table of the magistrates, and

had a conspicuous part on the field of battle. The victors had statues

erected to them, and called forth the praises of the poets, and thus these

primitive sports incidentally gave an impulse to art and poetry. In later

times, poets and historians recited their compositions, and were rewarded

with the garland of leaves. The victors of these games thus acquired a

social pre-eminence, and were held in especial honor, like those heroes in

the Middle Ages who obtained the honor of tournaments and tilts, and, in

modern times, those who receive decoration at the hands of kings.

The celebrity of the Olympic games, which drew spectators from Asia

as well as all the States of Greece, led to similar institutions or

festivals in other places. The Pythian games, in honor of Apollo, were

celebrated near Delphi every third Olympic year; and various musical

contests, exercises in poetry, exhibitions of works of art were added to

gymnastic exercises and chariot and horse races. The sacrifices,

processions, and other solemnities, resemble those at Olympia in honor of

Zeus. They lasted as long as the Olympic games, down to A.D. 394. Wherever

the worship of Apollo was introduced, there were imitations of these

Pythian games in all the States of Greece.

The Nemaean and Ithmian games were celebrated each twice in every

Olympiad, the former on the plain of Nemaea, in Argolis; the latter in the

Corinthian Isthmus, under the presidency of Corinth. These also claimed a

high antiquity, and at these were celebrated the same feats of strength as

at Olympia. But the Olympic festival was the representation of all the

rest, and transcended all the rest in national importance. It was viewed

with so much interest, that the Greeks measured time itself by them. It

was Olympiads, and not years, by which the date of all events was

determined. The Romans reckoned their years from the foundation of their

city; modern Christian nations, by the birth of Christ; Mohammedans, by

the flight of the prophet to Medina; and the Greeks, from the first

recorded Olympiad, B.C. 776.

It was in these festivals, at which no foreigner, however eminent,

was allowed to contend for prizes, that the Greeks buried their quarrels,

and incited each other to heroism. The places in which they were

celebrated became marts of commerce like the mediaeval fairs of Germany;

and the vast assemblage of spectators favored that communication of news,

and inventions, and improvements which has been produced by our modern

exhibitions. These games answered all the purposes of our races, our

industrial exhibitions, and our anniversaries, religious, political,

educational, and literary, and thus had a most decided influence on the

development of Grecian thought and enterprise. The exhibition of sculpture

and painting alone made them attractive and intellectual, while the

athletic exercises amused ordinary minds. They were not demoralizing, like

the sports of the amphitheatre, or a modern bull-fight, or even

fashionable races. They were more like tournaments in the martial ages of

Europe, but superior to them vastly, since no woman was allowed to be

present at the Olympic games under pain of death.

It has already been shown that the form of government in the States

of Ancient Greece, in the Homeric ages, was monarchical. In two or three

hundred years after the Trojan war, the authority of kings had greatly

diminished. The great immigration and convulsions destroyed the line of

the ancient royal houses. The abolition of royalty was in substance rather

than name. First, it was divided among several persons, then it was made

elective, first for life, afterward for a definite period. The nobles or

chieftains gained increasing power with the decline of royalty, and the

government became, in many States, aristocratic. But the nobles abused

their power by making an oligarchy, which is a perverted aristocracy. This

aroused hatred and opposition on the part of the people, especially in the

maritime cities, where the increase of wealth by commerce and the arts

raised up a body of powerful citizens. Then followed popular revolutions

under leaders or demagogues. These leaders in turn became tyrants, and

their exactions gave rise to more hatred than that produced by the

government of powerful families. They gained power by stratagem, and

perverted it by violence. But to amuse the people whom they oppressed, or

to please them, they built temples, theatres, and other public buildings,

in which a liberal patronage was extended to the arts. Thus Athens and

Corinth, before the Persian wars, were beautiful cities, from the lavish

expenditure of the public treasury by the tyrants or despots who had

gained ascendency. In the mean time, those who were most eminent for

wealth, or power, or virtue, were persecuted, for fear they would effect a

revolution. But the parties which the tyrants had trampled upon were

rather exasperated than ruined, and they seized every opportunity to rally

the people under their standard, and effect an overthrow of the tyrants.

Sparta, whose constitution remained aristocratic, generally was ready to

assist any State in throwing off the yoke of the usurpers. In some States,

like Athens, every change favored the rise of the people, who gradually

obtained the ascendency. They instituted the principle of legal equality,

by which every freeman was supposed to exercise the attributes of

sovereignty. But democracy invariably led to the ascendency of factions,

and became itself a tyranny. It became jealous of all who were

distinguished for birth, or wealth, or talents. It encouraged flatterers

and sycophants. It was insatiable in its demands on the property of the

rich, and listened to charges which exposed them to exile and their

estates to confiscation. It increased the public burdens by unwise

expenditures to please the men of the lower classes who possessed

political franchise.

But different forms of government existed in different States. In

Sparta there was an oligarchy of nobles which made royalty a shadow, and

which kept the people in slavery and degradation. In Athens the democratic

principle prevailed. In Argos kings reigned down to the Persian wars. In

Corinth the government went through mutations as at Athens. In all the

States and cities experiments in the various forms of government were

perpetually made and perpetually failed. They existed for a time, and were

in turn supplanted. The most permanent government was that of Sparta; the

most unstable was that of Athens. The former promoted a lofty patriotism

and public morality and the national virtues; the latter inequalities of

wealth, the rise of obscure individuals, and the progress of arts.

The fall of the ancient monarchies and aristocracies was closely

connected with commercial enterprise and the increase of a wealthy class

of citizens. In the beginning of the seventh century before Christ, a

great improvement in the art of ship-building was made, especially at

Corinth. Colonial settlements kept pace with maritime enterprise; and both

of these fostered commerce and wealth. The Euxine lost its terrors to

navigators, and the AEgean Sea was filled with ships and colonists. The

Adriatic Sea was penetrated, and all the seas connected with the

Mediterranean. From the mouth of the Po was brought amber, which was

highly valued by the ancients. A great number of people were drawn to

Egypt, by the liberal offers of its kings, who went there for the pursuit

of knowledge and of wealth, and from which they brought back the papyrus

as a cheap material for writing. The productions of Greece were exchanged

for the rich fabrics which only Asia furnished, and the cities to which

these were brought, like Athens and Corinth, rapidly grew rich, like

Venice and Genoa in the Middle Ages.

Wealth of course introduced art. The origin of art may have been in

religious ideas--in temples and the statues of the gods--in tombs and

monuments of great men. But wealth immeasurably increased the facilities

both for architecture and sculpture. Artists in old times, as in these,

sought a pecuniary reward--patrons who could afford to buy their

productions, and stimulate their genius. Art was cultivated more rapidly

in the Asiatic colonies than in the mother country, both on account of

their wealth, and the objects of interest around them. The Ionian cities,

especially, were distinguished for luxury and refinement. Corinth took the

lead in the early patronage of art, as the most wealthy and luxurious of

the Grecian cities.

The first great impulse was given to architecture. The Pelasgi had

erected Cyclopean structures fifteen hundred years before Christ. The

Dorians built temples on the severest principles of beauty, and the Doric

column arose, massive and elegant. Long before the Persian wars the

temples were numerous and grand, yet simple and harmonious. The temple of

Here, at Samos, was begun in the eighth century, B.C., and built in the

Doric style, and, soon after, beautiful structures ornamented Athens.

Sculpture rapidly followed architecture, and passed from the

stiffness of ancient times to that beauty which afterward distinguished

Phidias and Polynotus. Schools of art, in the sixth century, flourished in

all the Grecian cities. We can not enter upon the details, from the use of

wood to brass and marble. The temples were filled with groups from

celebrated masters, and their deep recesses were peopled with colossal

forms. Gold, silver, and ivory were used as well as marble and brass. The

statues of heroes adorned every public place. Art, before the Persian

wars, did not indeed reach the refinement which it subsequently boasted,

but a great progress was made in it, in all its forms. Engraving was also

known, and imperfect pictures were painted. But this art, and indeed any

of the arts, did not culminate until after the Persian wars.

Literature made equal if not greater progress in the early ages of

Grecian history. Hesiod lived B.C. 735; and lyric poetry flourished in the

sixth and seventh centuries before Christ, especially the elegiac form, or

songs for the dead. Epic poetry was of still earlier date, as seen in the

Homeric poems. The AEolian and Ionic Greeks of Asia were early noted for

celebrated poets. Alcaeus and Sappho lived on the Isle of Lesbos, and were

surrounded with admirers. Anacreon of Teos was courted by the rulers of


Even philosophy was cultivated at this early age. Thales of Miletus

flourished in the middle of the seventh century, and Anaximander, born

B.C. 610--one of the great original mathematicians of the world, speculated

like Thales, on the origin of things. Pythagoras, born in Samos, B.C.

580--a still greater name, grave and majestic, taught the harmony of the

spheres long before the Ionian revolt.

But neither art, nor literature, nor philosophy reached their full

development till a later era. It is enough for our purpose to say that,

before the Persian wars, civilization was by no means contemptible, in all

those departments which subsequently made Greece the teacher and the glory

of the world.

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