History: The Golden Age of Athens
Table of Contents:
Selections from: Mills, Dorothy. The Book of the Ancient Greeks: An Introduction to the History and Civilization of Greece from the Coming of the Greeks to the Conquest of Corinth by Rome in 146 B.C . New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1925. Transcription Copyright © 2003 Leigh T. Denault.
But if history is silent, legend has much to say. The earliest rulers of Athens were Kings, and of these one of the first was Cecrops. All kinds of stories gathered round his name, and it was believed that he was not altogether human, but a being who had grown out of the earth and was half-man and half-serpent. It was when he was King that the contest took place as to whether Athena, the grey-eyed Goddess of Wisdom, or Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, should be the special guardians of the city. The victory was awarded to Athena, who, taking her spear, thrust it into the ground, whereupon an olive tree marvellously appeared. Poseidon gave the horse as his gift to Athens, and legend adds that, striking the rock with his trident, he brought forth clear salt water, which he also gave to the Athenians. For all time the olive was associated not only with Athena, but with Attica and Athens her city, and to the Athenians, the sea became almost like a second home.
The ancient kings claimed descent from the gods. They were not only the lawgivers, but they acted as judges, as chief priests, and in time of war as generals. All who were oppressed had the right to appeal to the judgment seat of the King and his decisions were final. Though the King was the supreme ruler, there were assemblies of the chief men, always called the Elders, and of the People, who met whenever the King called them together. These gathering were important, not because of any real power they possessed in early times, for they only met to hear what the King intended to do and never to discuss, but because it was from these assemblies that the power of the people to govern themselves developed.
The greatest of the early Kings was Theseus, he who slew the Minotaur and freed Athens from paying tribute to Minos the Sea-King of Crete. His greatest claim to be held in the remembrance of his countrymen was that it was believed to have been Theseus who united all Attica under the leadership of Athens. Before this time all the towns and villages in Attica had been independent, but he "gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica into one town, and made them people of one city ... and gave the name of Athens to the whole state." (Plutarch: Life of Theseus ) Legend tells of him that he was good and merciful to all who were in need, and a protector of all who were oppressed, but he offended the gods in some way, and died in exile far from Athens. Long centuries after, Cimon, an Athenian general, took possession of the island in which it was said that Theseus had been buried. Cimon
had a great ambition to find out the place where Theseus was buried and by chance spied an eagle on a rising ground, where on a sudden it came into his mind, as it were by some divine inspiration, to dig there, and search for the bones of Theseus. There were found in that place a coffin of a man of more than ordinary size, and a brazen spear-head, and a sword lying by it, all of which he took aboard his galley and brought with him to Athens. Upon which the Athenians, greatly delighted, went out to meet and receive the relics with splendid processions and with sacrifices, as if it were Theseus himself returning alive to the city. His tomb became a sanctuary and refuge for slaves, and of all those of mean condition that fly from the persecution of men in power, in memory that Theseus while he lived was an assister and protector of the distressed, and never refused the petitions of the afflicted that fled to him. (Ibid.)
Not everyone could be an Archon; only men from noble families could be elected, and so the power passed into the hands of a few men. The rule of a few is called an oligarchy, and it was the second step the Athenians took on their way to be a self-governing community.
At first this rule was good, for by experience the nobles learnt a great deal about the art of governing; they realized that order was better than disorder in a state, and they set high standards of devotion to public duty. But the nobles all belonged to one class of people, they were the best educated and the more wealthy, and instead of using their advantages of position and education and wealth as a trust for the good of the whole state (the ideal developed in later years by the Athenians), they grew to consider these things as their own exclusive property and they became very narrow and intolerant. They considered themselves in every way superior to the common people, and began to make laws with benefited themselves alone, ignoring the rights of others, especially those of the poor.
Now the nobles had acquired their power because of their opposition to the rule of one man, but when the authority had been placed in their hands, they proved themselves equally unable to be just towards all, and their rule became as intolerant as that of the Kings. Then it was that their authority was questioned in its turn, and the people began to ask each other questions. What is the difference, they asked, between rich and poor, between the noble and the plain man, between the freeman and the slave? Who, they asked, are citizens, and what does it mean to be a citizen? The more people questioned, the greater grew the oppression and the injustice of the nobles, and conditions in Athens grew very bad. Many things helped to create this spirit of discontent: there had been wars, the harvests had been bad and famine had resulted, and there were very harsh laws which allowed debtors who could not pay their debts to sell themselves as slaves. Quarrels arose, and more and more the people questioned as to the justice of all this. They said:
But ye who have store of land, who are sated and overflow,
III: Solon, The Wise Man of Athens and the Rule of the Many (Except where otherwise noted, the quotations in this section are from Plutarch: Life of Solon.)It was at this time of confusion and distress that Solon, one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, appeared. By birth he was a noble, but he was a poor man and in the early part of his life he had been a merchant. There came a time later when the merchant was not looked upon as the equal of the noble, for Plutarch, in writing the life of Solon about seven hundred years after his death, makes an apology for his having been engaged in trade:
In his time, as Hesiod says, "Work was a shame to none," nor was any distinction made with respect to trade, but merchandise was a noble calling, which brought home the good things which the barbarous nations enjoyed, was the occasion of friendship with their kings, and a great source of experience.Solon enjoyed the experience of travelling and seeing new things, a delight that remained with him even to the days of his old age, for when he was old he would say that he
Each day grew older, and learnt something new.Just before this time Athens had been at war with Megara, a neighbouring state, over the possession of Salamis, which had formerly belonged to Athens, an island so near the Athenian harbour that it was absolutely necessary that it should belong to Athens. But the war had been long and unsuccessful, and no victory had been gained by either side. The Athenians were so "tired with this tedious and difficult war that they made a law that it should be death for any man, by writing or speaking, to assert that the city ought to endeavor to recover the island." Solon felt this to be a great disgrace, and knowing that thousands of Athenians would follow, if only one man were brave enough to lead, he composed some fiery verses which he recited in the market place.
I come as a herald, self-sent, from Salamis, beautiful island,Only parts of the verse have come down to us, but they so inspired the Athenians that it was determined to make one more effort to regain Salamis, and this time they were successful. Salamis was recovered, but conditions in Athens remained as unhappy as before. Solon was now held in such high honour that we are told, "the wisest of the Athenians pressed him to succour the commonwealth." He consented, and was elected Archon in 594 B.C.
The first thing Solon did was to relieve the debtors. He did this by cancelling all debts and by setting free all who were slaves for debt, and by forbidding by law any Athenian to pledge himself, his wife or his children as security for debt. This brought such relief to the state that the act was celebrated by a festival called the "Casting off of Burdens."
Solon wanted to bring order into the distracted city he loved, for he held that order was one of the greatest blessings a state could have, so he set to work to reform the government of the state, to reduce the power of the nobles and to give justice to the people. "First, he repealed all Draco's laws," (Draco had been an earlier lawgiver in Athens), "because they were too severe, and the punishments too great; for death was appointed for almost all offences, so that in after times it was said that Draco's laws were written not with ink, but blood."
Solon reformed the government of the state in such a way, that even the poorest citizens had political rights. They could not all be Archons, but Athens, like Sparta and other Greek states, had her general Assembly of the people, and they could all vote at this, and they could all take part in electing the magistrates. Whilst recognizing the rights of the poorer citizens, Solon believed in preserving a certain part of the power of the nobles, and he arranged the taxation and public services to the state in such a way that the greater wealth of a man and the higher his position, the more the state demanded of him, both in service and money. Solon himself said of these laws:
I gave to the mass of the people such rank as befitted their need,Solon did not please everyone with his laws, and when
some came to him every day, to commend or dispraise them, and to advise, if possible, to leave out, or put in something, and desired him to explain, and tell the meaning of such and such a passage, he, knowing that it was useless, and not to do it would get him ill will, it being so hard a thing, as he himself says, in great affairs to satisfy all sides, bought a trading vessel, and having obtained leave for ten years' absence, departed, hoping that by that time his laws would have become familiar.He stayed away the ten years and then returned to Athens. He took no further part in public affairs, but was reverenced by all and honoured until his death.
During his travels, Plutarch tells us that he visited Croesus, the rich King of Lydia. This visit could never have taken place, for Solon died in Athens just as Croesus came to the throne. As a matter of fact, Plutarch knew that quite well, but he says that he must tell so famous a story, even if it were not true, because it was so characteristic of Solon and so worthy of his wisdom and greatness of mind, and that it would be foolish to omit it because it did not agree with certain dates about which in any case everybody differed!
They say that Solon, coming to Croesus at his request, was in the same condition as an inland man when first he goes to sea; for as he fancies every river he meets with must be the ocean, so Solon, as he passed through the court, and saw a great many nobles richly dressed, and proudly attended with a multitude of guards and footboys, thought everyone had been the king, till he was brought to Croesus, who was decked with every possible rarity and curiosity, in ornaments of jewels, purple and gold, that could make a grand and gorgeous spectacle of him. Now when Solon came before him and seemed not at all surprised, he commanded them to open all his treasure-houses and carry him to see his sumptuous furniture and luxuries, though he did not wish it; and when he returned from viewing all, Croesus asked him if he had ever known a happier man than he. And when Solon answered that he had known one Tellus, a fellow-citizen of his own, and told him that this Tellus had been an honest man, and had had good children, a competent estate, and died bravely in battle for his country, Croesus took him for an ill-bred fellow and a fool. He asked him, however, again, if besides Tellus, he knew of any other man more happy. And Solon replied, saying, Yes, two men who were loving brothers and extremely dutiful sons to their mother, and when the oxen delayed her, harnessed themselves to the waggon and drew her to Hera's temple, her neighbours all calling her happy, and she herself rejoicing; then, after sacrificing and feasting, they went to rest, and never rose again, but died in the midst of their honour a painless and tranquil death. "What," said Croesus angrily, "and dost thou not reckon us amongst the happy men at all?" Solon, unwilling either to flatter or exasperate him more, replied, "The gods, O King, have given to the Greeks all other gifts in immoderate degree, and so our wisdom, too, is a cheerful and homely, not a noble and kingly wisdom, and him only to whom the divinity has continued happiness unto the end, we call happy."This story is not only characteristic of Solon, but of the Greek spirit. That spirit did not like the extreme of extravagance and luxury and display, and it believed that there was glory that money could not buy. The Greeks who had been rewarded by a wreath of olive leaves had achieved the greatest success known in Greece. This was once told to a noble who had come with the King of Persia to invade Greece, and when he heard it, he exclaimed to the King: "What kind of men are these against whom thou has brought us to fight, who make their contest not for money but for honour!" That was the spirit of Greece.
A man was not always successful in his efforts to become a Tyrant. About forty years before Solon was made Archon, Cylon, a rich Athenian, of good family and popular as a winner at Olympia, tried to seize the power. He consulted the Oracle, which told him to make the attempt at the time of the great festival of Zeus. He took this, as all Greeks would, as meaning the Olympic Games, so he waited until the time came for them, and then he and his friends took possession of the citadel. But it seemed that the Oracle, giving one of those answers of which the meaning was uncertain, had referred to the festival held in honour of Zeus near Athens and not to that at Olympia, and Cylon's attempt was unsuccessful. Some of the conspirators fled, and others took refuge in the Temple of Athena. Here they were safe, for no one would dare touch anyone who had placed himself under the protection of the goddess in her sanctuary. But there was no food or drink in the temple, and as nobody brought them any, some of them died of hunger, and Cylon was forced to escape secretly. Then the Archon told the remainder that if they would surrender, their lives should be spared. They consented, but not quite trusting the Archon, they fastened a long rope to the Statue of Athena and held it as they descended the hill, so that they might still be secure under the protection of the goddess. Half-way down the hill, however, the rope broke, and the Archon, declaring that this showed that Athena had withdrawn her protection, had the men put to death. This was looked upon as a great crime by the Athenians, for they considered it not only treachery, but also sacrilege, and it made the Archon many enemies. These declared that as a punishment for this act a curse would rest on his and on all his descendents. His family was descended from Alcmaeon, and so the curse was spoken of as the curse on the Alcmaeonids, and the enemies of this family always attributed to it any calamites that happened to the city.
The most famous Tyrant in Athens was Peisistratus. Whilst Solon was away on his travels, quarrels broke out again, and when he returned, though he took no active part in affairs, he tried by privately talking with the leaders of the various factions to restore peace, but he was unsuccessful. "Now Peisistratus was extremely smooth and engaging in his language, a great friend to the poor and moderate in his resentments, so that he was trusted more than the other leaders." (Plutarch: Life of Solon.) In this way he became very popular, and he deceived people into thinking that he was only desirous of serving the state, when in reality he was doing all in his power to further his own ambition and to become sole ruler of Athens. In order to gain supporters, he appeared one day in the market place in his chariot, which was sprinkled with blood, and he himself appeared to be wounded. On being asked what was the matter, he said his enemies had inflicted these injuries upon him. One of his friends then declared that the Athenians should not permit such a thing to happen, and advised that a bodyguard of fifty men should accompany him to protect him from any further assault. This was done, whereupon with their help, Peisistrtus took possession of the Acropolis. But his power was not great enough to hold it, and he and his followers were driven out of Athens.
Peisistratus soon returned, however, having thought of a curious ploy by which he might deceive the Athenians into believing it to be the will of the gods that he should rule. During a festival, accompanied by a large number of youths, he entered Athens in his chariot, and at his side stood a tall and beaitufl woman, dressed as Athena herself and carrying a shield and spear. The people shouted that the goddess herself had come from Olympus to show her favour to Peisistratus, and he was received as Tyrant. But again he wasdriven out by his enemies. He stayed away ten years, and thenonce more he collected an army and advanced on Athens. Once more he was successful and entered the city. This time no one opposed him, he became sole ruler and remained so until his death some ten years later.
Peisistratus showed himself to be a wise ruler; he improved the city and brought water into it by an aqueduct, and he built new roads. Along these roads, especially in placed near springs and fountains, were placed small statues of Hermes, and on the pedestals under some of them verses were engraved, perhaps similar to the following lines, to cheer the traveller on his way:
I, Hermes, by the grey sea-shore
Set where the three roads meet,
Outside the wind-swept garden,
Give rest to weary feet;
The waters of my fountain
Are clear and cool and sweet.
(Written by Anyte, a poetess, probably in the 4th century B.C., translated by Sir Rennell Rodd in Love, Worship and Death. )
It was Peisistratus who made the law that men wounded in battle and the families of those who were killed should be cared for by the state. He built a new Temple to Athena and made her festival more splided, and he had the ancient poems of Homer collected and written down, so that they might be more carefully preserved. But good ruler as he was, he was still a Tyrant, and during his rule the people were deprived of their right to govern themselves, but so long as he lived, no one opposed him.
After his death, his sounds Hippias and Hipparchus succeeded him, but they forgot that, after all, the could only remain Tyrants if the people permitted it, and they grew insolent, harsh and overbearing. Two young Athenians formed a plot to assassinate these oppressors at the next festival. The day came, and Hipparchus was slain, though Hippias escaped. The conspirators were instantly seized and put to death, and Hippias continued to rule alone. He became more and more cruel and the Athenians were bowed down under his opporession. At last the Spartans came to their help. They came, because for some time whenever they sent to Delphi to ask any advice of the Oracle, the answer always came, "First set Athens free." With this help, Hippias was driven out and sent into exile.
Athens was free. The rule of the Tyrants was over, and Athens was once more able to rule herself, to become the state of which, when it was asked "what shepherd rules and lords it o'er their people?" the anser could be given, "Of no man are they called the slaves or subjects." (Aeschylus: The Persians .)
The Greek drama began as a religious observance in honour of Dionysus.
To the GReeks this god personified both spring and the vintage, tha latter
a very important time of year in a vine-growing country, and he was
a symbol to them of that power there is in man of rising out of himself,
of being impelled onwards by a joy within him that he cannot explain,
but which makes him go forward, walking, as it were, on the wings of the
wind, of the spirit that fills him with a deep sense of worship. We call
this power enthusiasm, a Greek word which
simple means the god within us.
From very early times, stories of his life were recited at the religious festivals held in honour of Dionysus, and then stories of other gods and of the ancient heroes were told as well. It was from these beginnings that the drama came. Originally, the story was told in the form of a song, chanted at first by everyone taking part in the festival, and later by a chorus of about fifty performers, and at intervals in the song the leader would recite part of the story himself. By degrees the recitation became of greater importance than the song; it grew longer, and after a time two people took part in it and then three; at the same time the chorus became smaller and of less importance in the action of the drama, until at last it could consist of only fifteen performers.
A Greek drama was in many ways much simpler than a modern drama. There were fewer characters, and usually only three speaking actors were allowed on the stage at once. There was only one story told and there was nothing to take the attention of the audience away from this. The Chorus, though it no longer told the story, was very important, for it set the atmosphere of the play, and lyrics of haunting loveliness hinted at the tragedy that could not be averted, because of terrible deeds done in the past, or if, indeed, there might be any help, the imagination was carried forward on wings of hope. The Chorus also served another purpose. In the modern drama, when the tragedy of a situation becomes almost too great for the audience to bear, relief is often found in some comic, or partly comic, episode which is introduced to slacken the tension. Shakespeare does this constantly. But comic episodes were felt to be out of place in a Greek drama, and therefore when a tragic scene had taken place, the Chorus followed it by a song of purest poetry. In one play of Euripides, a terrible scene of tragedy was followed by a song in which the Chorus prayed for escape from such sorrows on the wings of a bird to a land where all was peace and beauty. They sang:
Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding,And the song goes on the carry the imagination to a spot
Where a voice of living waters never ceasethIn the great Greek dramas, the Chorus is a constant reminder that, though they cannot understand or explain them, there are other powers in the world than the wild passions of men.
The great dramatic festival of Athens was held in the spring in the theatre of Dionysus, to the south-east of the Acropolis. The theatre in Athens never became an everyday amusement, as it is today, but was always directly connected with the worship of Dionysus, and the performances were always preceded by a sacrifice. The festival was only held once a year, and whilst it lasted the whole city kept holiday. Originally, admission to the theatre was free, but the crowds became so great and there was such confusion and sometimes fighting in the rush for good seats, that the state decided to charge an admission fee and tickets had to be bought beforehand. But even then there were no reserved seats, except for certain officials who sat in the front row. In the time of Pericles, complaints were made that the poorer citizens could not afford to buy tickets, and so important was the drama then considered, that it was ordered that tickets should be given free to all who applied for them.
An Athenian audience was very critical, and shouts and applause, or groans and hisses showed its approval or disapproval of the play being acted. Several plays were given in one day, and a prize was awarded to the best, so the audience was obliged to start at dawn and would probably remain in the theatre until sunset. Let us go with an Athenian audience and see a play which was first performed in the latter half of the fifth century B.C.
The theatre is a great semi-circle on the slope of the Acropolis, with rows of stone seats on which about eighteen thousand spectators can sit. The front row consists of marble chairs, the only seats in the theatre which have backs, and these are reserved for the priests of Dionysus and the chief magistrates. Beyond the front row, is a circular space called the orchestra, where the Chorus sings, and in the centre of which stands the altar of Dionysus. Behind the orchestra, is the stage on which the actors will act, at the back of which is a building painted to look like the front of a temple or a palace, to which the actors retire when they are not wanted on the stage or have to change their costumes. That is the whole theatre and all its stage scenery. Overhead is the deep blue sky, the Acropolis rises up behind, and the olive-laden hills are seen in the distance. Much will have to be left to the imagination, but the very simplicity of the outward surroundings will make the audience give all their attention to the play and the acting.
When the play begins, there will only be three actors on the stage at once. They will wear very elaborate costumes, and a strange-looking wooden sole called a cothurnus or buskin, about six inches high, on their shoes, to make them look taller and more impressive, and over their faces a curious mask with a wide mouth, so that everyone in that vast audience will hear them. [Note: Scholars today do not believe that the masks worn in Greek drama were used as "megaphones." The acoustics in Greek ampitheatres were excellent and the wide mouths of the mask were only intended to allow clear speech, not to amplify sound. Rather, the exaggerated expressions on the masks were part of the stylized "look" of Greek theatre, a style that combined ritualized exaggeration with simplicity to better convey the sense of the drama to a large audience. -- Leigh T. Denault] There will be no curtain and the play is not divided into different acts. When there is a pause in the action, the Chorus will fill up the time with their song. If it is a tragedy, we shall not see the final catastrophe on the stage, but a messenger will appear who will give us an account of what has happened. All this is very different from the way in which a modern play is given, but some of the greatest dramas the world possesses were written by Athenian dramatists and acted on this Athenian stage more than two thousand years ago.
On this occasion the play we are to see is "Iphigenia in Tauris," written by Euripides, one of the greatest of the Athenian dramatists.
The legends and traditions from which most of the Greek plays took their plots were, of course, well known to the Athenians. They were stories commemorating some great event, or explaining some religious observance, but naturally these legends were differently treated by different dramatists, each of whom brought out a different side of the story to enforce some particular lesson which he wished to bring home to the people, and this is especially true of legends like that of Iphigenia connected with the Fall of Troy.
In the opening speech of this play, Iphigenia very briefly tells her story up to the moment when the play begins. Just as the Greeks had been ready to sail for Troy, they were wind-bound at Aulis. The wise men were consulted as to the meaning of this, and how the gods who must in some way have been offended, might be appeased, so that fair winds might send them on their way. Calchas, the seer, told them that Artemis demanded the sacrifice of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, King of Argos, the great leader of the host, and her father sent for her accordingly. The maiden was at home with her mother, and the messenger who was sent to Argos to bring her was charged to say that he father desired to wed her to the hero Achilles. She came and the sacrifice was offered, but at the supreme moment, Artemis carried Iphigenia away and placed her in the land of the Tauri, a wild and barbarous tribe, as their princess. These Tauri had an image of Artemis in a temple, to which they sacrified all strangers who were cast on their shores, sacrified all strangers who cast on their shores, and it was the futy of the priestess to consecrate each victim before he was slain. Here, performing this rite, Iphigenia lived for more than ten years, but never yet had a Greek come to this wild land. She knew, of course, nothing of what had happened at Troy or afterwards; she did not know that on his return home her father had been slain by Clytaemnestra his wife, or that Orestes, her brother, had avenged that death by slaughtering his own mother, after which deed he had wandered from place to place pursued by the relentless torment of the Furies. Bitter against the Greeks for having willed her sacrifice at Aulis, Iphigenia says of herself that she is "turned to stone, and has no pity left in her," and she half hopes that the day will come when a Greek will be brought to her to be offered in his turn to the goddess.
In the meantime, Orestes, tormented beyond endurance by the Furies, had gone to the Oracle of Apollo, to ask how he might be purified from his sin, and Apollo had told him to go to the land of the Tauri and bring back to Attica the image of Artemis his sister, so that it might no longer be stained by the blood of the human sacrifices. And so it comes about that Orestes is the first Greek who will be brought to Iphigenia for sacrifice to Artemis. It is at this moment that the play opens.
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© 2003 Leigh T. Denault