The Greek Dream


NOTE: I revise my Greek history material frequently.  Some of this is an old material, not necessarily what I talk about in class.  The first study question onthe current 2nd MT exam asks you to respond to the generalization that the Greeks made more important contributions to subsequent history than any other ancient people. We'll  talk about Greek contributions in a lot of areas, and you can focus most of those contributions if you like.  However, I've added a tag, "the Greeks taught the world new ways to dream."  As you study for this material, you might prefer concentrating on the "Greek dream" idea as your organizing theme.

In my first lecture, I made the generalization that history is the most wonderful, most interesting, most exciting, and most important of all subjects.  I find almost all periods of history and almost all historical peoples interesting in one way or another. 

Now I've probably told all of you a story about how I came to be a history professor, the story about my sister Marta telling me I had "the most beautiful voice for putting people to sleep."

Actually, while that did  happen, that's not the whole story.  All my life, Greeks had a special fascination for me.  It started in elementary school, when I fell in love with Greek mythology.  My best friend and I played at being Hector and Achilles rather than cops and robbers.  While I was in junior high, my dad introduced me to the works of Plato, and I fell in love with Greek philosophy.  As an undergraduate, I was a theater major: and fell in love with Greek drama.  I taught high school drama and English for several years, and didn't spend much time with the Greek literature.  And then one day I picked up Herodotus' history of the Persian Wars--and I was in love all over again.  I knew that, if I possibly could, I wanted to study this stuff for the rest of my life, to understand how human beings could create such absolutely incredible works--works that are, in my opinion at least, the finest achievements of the human mind.

But its not just in literature the Greeks excelled. They produced some of the world's greatest art, the first true science, and some of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen.  The Greeks end up making more important contributions to subsequent civilization than any other people.  Especially important, the Greeks taught the world new ways to dream.

The Greek dream begins with a people we call the Minoans, a people who lived, not in Greece proper, but in an island of the Greek coast, Crete.  The Minoans created the first great civilization in Europe, getting their start perhaps as early as 3000 BC and reaching their height around 2000-1500 B.C.  Unfortunately, we don't know as much about them as we would like: we can't read most of what they wrote, and what little we can read is nothing more than business records.  But archaeological discoveries (and Greek legend) suggest that they achieved a very advanced civilization.  The Minoans had indoor plumbing, and living standards higher than Europe would see again for 3000 years.  It's natural enough that the memory of this civilization would make later peoples think they had achieved a golden age and perhaps even exagerate their achievements.  The Minoans probably are the source of the Atlantis legend, a legend that still fascinates people today.

Equally interesting is the next great phase of Greek civilization, Mycenaean Greece (1500-1200 B.C.).  With the Mycenaeans, we are a little luckier: we can read their writing.  Unfortunately, once again what we have is mostly business texts--and there's not much fascinating in that!.  But we also have another source for Mycenaeans: the poems of Homer, the  Iliad and the Odyssey.  The heroes Homer writes about (Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus, etc.) lived during the Mycenaen period.  Just stories?  Historians once thought so, but Archaeology has tended to confirm things Homer says about Mycenaean age.  And notice the dream: the characters in Homer's poems are still figures we feature in movies and books from time to time--although moderns sometimes twist the stories in rather odd ways--as does James Joyce in Ulysses.

The Trojan War was the last great adventure of the Mycenaean period.  Around 1200 BC or a bit later, the Mycenaeans were attacked by new Greek speakers: the Dorians.  With their iron weapons, the Dorians were able to dominate much of Greece and, unfortunately, their invasion led first to a period of decline. Among other losses, writing disappears, so we don't know much directly about the Dorian period.  It was in many senses a dark age--but a dark age gave rise to one of the most impressive civilizations the world has ever seen.

The Greek political system that emerged during the dark ages was based around what the Greeks called the polis (the word which, by the way, gives us our words political and politics).  The polis was a city-state: not a kingdom or empire, but an independent, self-governing community very similar to the Egyptian nomes or the first Sumerian cities.  Polises ranged from a few thousand, as many as 200,000.   But whether big or small, each polis has its own facinating story to tell.  There's Corinth: the San Franisco of the ancient world, a wealthy trading city, full of the finest in Greek culture, but also a city of thousands of prostitutes. If you wanted to go out partying in the ancient world, you said you were going on "Corinthing"--behaving as they did in Corinth. And then there's Thebes, a city that suffered military defeat after military defeat--until they put together an army dominated by homosexuals and became, for a short time, the dominant power in Greece. 
And speaking of homosexuals, there's Lesbos--an island polis.  Lesbos is the island where the great Greek poetess Sappho taught.  Sappho's poems expressed such warm emotion for her female students that passionate love of one woman for another has gone ever since by the name of her island, lesbian.  I tell you, the Greeks name everything.

But the most fascinating of all the polises, and the most important, were Sparta and Athens.

Some of you are familiar with part of the Spartan story from the move "300."  If you saw the older movie, Three Hundred Spartans, you'd have a far more accurate picture.  But note here: the Spartans are a people whose story we still tell, who still make us dream.

Now Sparta at first was little different than other city states.  But the city began to change after a series of wars with neighboring Messenia.  The Spartans acquired thousands of slaves (helots) and lots of good agricultural land. Nice!  But to maintain the upper hand, the Spartans had to turn themselves into a military machine: every aspect of Spartan life was devoted to military succes.

Sparta's precarious position created a need for a cautious, conservative governmental system.  They adopted for themselves a mixed constitution with plenty of checks and balances.  Sparta had an unusual dual monarchy: two kings!  The also had a council of older men (the Gerousia) composed of 28 men plus the two kings to guide Spartan policy.  Most interesting was the democratic aspect of the Spartan system.  All arms-bearing men over 30 served in the Apella, a kind of assembly, that had the ultimate say in all issues.  But their was never any debate in the Apella: it was all straight up or straight down voting.  And the voting was done by acclamation: whichever side shouted the loudest got its way!

The lifestyle of Spartan men was designed to produce warriors.  And if you didn't have the aptitude to be a warrior, there was no need to worry: you didn't make it.  Any baby boy who didn't pass the initial health inspection by the Spartan ephors was simply killed.

Spartan boys left home at the age of 7, and, for the next years of their lives, they trained constantly in all of those skills useful to good soldiers.  They were taught to read and write--and sing!  And they were taught discipline and self-denial.  They lived what we still call a "Spartan" lifestyle: no frills at all.  A visiting Athenian said that one taste of Spartan food and you knew why Spartans didn't care whether they lived or died in battle. 

Spartan boys were taught to steal--but that it was a disgrace to be caught. Once, so the story goes, a Spartan boy had stolen a fox.  He was about to be caught, so he hid it under his robe.  The fox began to bite.  He didn't utter a sound.  It continued to bite.  Only when he dropped dead of his bites was the fox discovered.  That's discipline!

In general in military societies, the status of women goes down.  This was not true in Sparta.  Women tended to run things--so much so that other Greeks disapproved.  "Why is it that Spartan women are the only women in Greece who rule men?" asked a disparaging Athenian woman.  The Spartan queen Gorgo replied, "Because Spartan women are the only ones who give birth to men.

Because Spartans devoted themselves to much to war, they made few contributions to culture.  Here's a poem from the one great Spartan poet:
It is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies fighting for his country.
The worst pain is leaving one's city and fertile fields for the life of a beggar,
wandering with mother, old father, little children, and wedded wife.
The man beaten by need and odious poverty is detested everywhere he goes,
a disgrace to his family and noble appearance, trailed by dishonor and evil.
If no one takes care of the wanderer or gives him honor, respect, or pity,
we must fight to the death for our land and children, giving no thought to lengthening life.
Fight in a stubborn, close array, my boys! Never waver or retreat!
Feel your anger swell. There is no place in combat for love of life.
Older soldiers, whose knees are not so light, need you to stand and protect them.
An aging warrior cut down in the vanguard of battle disgraces the young. His head
is white, his beard is grey, and now he is spilling his powerful spirit in dust,
naked, clutching his bloody groin: a sight for shame and anger. But youthful
warriors always look good, until the blossom withers. Men gape
at them and women sigh, and dying in combat they are handsome still.
Now is the time for a man to stand, planting his feet and biting his lip.

From Tyrtaeus of Sparta. As reproduced in Early Greek Lyric Poetry, trans. David Mulroy (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 48-49.

Yep.  Even Spartan poetry was designed for a warrior society.

The Spartans also left us some famous  "laconic" phrases (Laconia is the region around Sparta).  A laconic phrase is short and to the point. Examples:

1.  When Spartan men went to battle, they'd be handed a shielf and with it two words from their mom or wife: "with it or on it."  Come back with your shield victorious or on your shield dead!

2.  After a famine, one of Sparta's allies needed relief.  They made a long speech to the Spartans explaining what they wanted.  The Spartans told them the speech was so long that, by the time they got to the end, the Spartans had forgotten what they wanted in the first place.  The allies got the idea and tried again.  They held up a sack and said, "The sack needs grain."  Much better, said the Spartans.  But you could have shortened it more.  Just hold up the sack and say, "needs grain"

Clever, but but these sayings are not all that important.  Sparta's real importance, their contribution to the Greek dream, the example of what a superbly disciplined lifestyle can do. And its Spartan discipline that makes them remembered.  We think it perfectly appropriate to nick-name athletic teams Spartans.  We've got the Michigan State Spartans, the Spearfish Spartans, the San Juan Spartans, the Wessington Springs Spartans and lots more.  You don't hear of athletic teams called "The Athenians," "The Thebans," or "The Corinthians."  And, of course, Lesbians wouldn't do at all.

At the same time as Sparta began to grow, the Athenians were developing a very different type of polis.  The Athenians were far more interested in trade and, as a result, far more cosmopolitan.  The Athens were also more democratic than Sparta. Leaders like Solon, Cleisthenes, and Pericles made the city increasingly democratic so that, eventually, Athens was the most democratic society in all history--except for the fact that women, resident aliens, and slaves were excluding from politics.  All Athenian men participated in the ecclesia, the assembly that had ultimate authority in all affairs.  And, unlike Spartans, Athenians were free to debate legislation.  If you were a persuasive enough speaker, no matter what your rank in society, you could get the Athenians to adopt your ideas.  Most official positions went to people who were chosen by lot--so that there was a good chance that Athenian man, at least sometime in his life, would serve in an important leadership position.  The law courts too were democratic: with 600 jurers, there was no chance of bribery or of anything but a representative cross section of society.  Also, there were no lawyers--and the rule was that a case started at sun up and had to be finished by sun down.

The Athenians and Spartans tended to be rivals in Greek affairs, but they could cooperate on occassion as they did during the Persian War.

[Lecture will go on to the Persian War, the Rise of the Athenian Empire, the Peloponnesian War, the Rise of Macedon under Philip and Alexander.  We'll then talk about the Hellenistic Age].