The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 2

by Paul Mathers


This week’s classes covered the Archaic Age which is roughly 800-500 BCE. A great deal of the material dealt with the formation of a uniquely Greek cultural identity. Of course there was the first Olympic games in 776 BCE and Homer, as was mentioned last week, was a major unifying element.

I have found the readings assigned with the course to be illuminating and enjoyable. One of this week’s readings was a thought-provoking excerpt from Aristotle’s Politics. Politics, of course, in this context deals with the Polis which was the City-State, a place of internal unity independent from other communities. The polis is also includes the lands surrounding the urban center. The citizens of the Polis comprise the Politeia. Citizens enjoyed equality, which was sort of a new concept in the ancient world. Aristotle says that this is the highest form of living for a human. The citizens, it should be noted, are only the native born, free, adult males. We’ll see as we move along that the culture is a distinctly misogynistic one, among other things.

As the culture evolves, we see synoecism, which is a unification of villages into a single polis. Aristotle’s famous statement that “man is a political animal” expresses our inherent purpose of contributing. It means that the polis is our natural habitat. He states that people within the polis are human and those who live outside of the polis are either subhuman or gods (decidedly not to be taken that it is godlike to live at odds with society).

Athens is the best documented polis. As these city-states established themselves, mythologies would begin to form around them, often focused on a great leader who established the polis. Athens had the mythical king Theseus, who famously slayed the minotaur. When he returns to Athens from Crete, he is greeted by Athena who gives him the idea to bring villages together into one community. He sets up a temple to Athena in which all can come and worship. He sets up games. He welcomes in foreigners. He names it Athens, the city of Athena.

The polis diffuses over time as the world shifts into a landscape of empires. They immigrate for resources, like iron which they trade vigorously with Italy. This is just one of many signs of Greek culture spreading through the Mediterranean.

Another important cultural element that emerged in this time was the Delphic Oracle. Delphi was located at Mount Parnassus. The myth was that Apollo killed a snake who lived there while looking for a place for a shrine. Delphi became a Pan-Hellenic shrine which belonged to all Greeks. It was a site of pilgrimage in which the Greeks could go through purification rituals and have prophetic words spoken over them. With this gathering of Greeks, it also became an informal hub of information gathering, a place to get news of points elsewhere.

We have a relic from this period that reveals another advance:


This is Nestor’s Cup, so called for the inscription: “I am Nestor’s Cup. Whoever drinks from me will have pleasure.” You will recall from last week that literacy had fallen into disrepair. In this period, we see the arrival of a 24 character alphabet. Some say that this may have come to be in order to write down the works of Homer. Some say that it came to be to record poetry and law.

Law was an important element of Greek culture in this period. I especially enjoyed reading about Solon and some of his works. Solon traveled widely and saw many types of civic organization. The Law-Giver was a position in a community in which the Law-Giver wrote a code for the community. The laws, it is important to note, were not about improving the behavior or morality of the citizens. It was the composition of simple, pragmatic laws to deal with specific problems (an ox falls in the ditch of a neighbor’s field and what-not). These were not places for enlightened thinking to guide the community.

In typical Greek fashion, myth arose about the Law-Givers which would include a crisis that demanded a code, the composition of the code, a challenge to the code (often the Law-Giver winding up in a position where he is compelled to break his own code and the consequences of that), and the death or departure of the Law-Giver (in order to get rid of the only force which could change the code). This replaced clan-based justice with a form of justice that would apply to all citizens.


Behold the Code of Gortyn, the oldest known code. As a point of interest, it was written in “ox-turns” which is to say that if you were to read it, you would find that the characters spiral inward in concentric squares, much like an ox plowing a field.

People banded together to preserve and defend the polis. The Hoplite Warrior looked like this:

ImageThey would meet to battle, presumably over land. I should say that the “They” in this case is farmers who armed themselves to defend their land. They would march in line like that with their shields snug up to one another and sort of smack up against the other side’s line of soldiers. This close formation would maximize their defense while spearing the other blokes from behind their shields. If there was a break in the line, you would likely lose. There were no great individual heroes in Hoplite. When they met on the battlefield, this is not a joke, it was called “The Shoving.” While it may seem primitive, it may be worth pointing out that civilians were not killed. There was no wholesale slaughter of women and children, no destruction of entire cities. Now who seems primitive?!!?

Our professor seems to save some of the most compelling material for the end of the week. This week we end with the Lyric Poets. This is an important shift in literature because we find the first person voice for the first time (in Greece anyway. It was interesting to me to notice that this is roughly the same time in which Tobit was written in a very different part of the world). The lyric poets would, as the name might suggest, accompany their verse with music. We also have, for the first time, female voices.

In my opinion, the finest poet we read this week was Sappho of Lesbos.

ImageThere was a bit of drama in the discussion forums as the link provided in the syllabus for poems by Sappho proved to be broken. It is, however, simple to find other places to read her poetry. They may not be the material that the professor had specifically in mind, but they show her work just as well.

We also covered Archilochus (whose poems were about the life of a freelance warrior and whose verses contradicted some Homeric values. One example is a poem in which he loses a shield in battle but doesn’t care because he got away. In another he talks about his disdain for the tall, handsome captain and says that he prefers to fight with a short, scrappy, ugly man), Theognis (with the recurring theme of anxiety and anger, which we see as a common motif in this agrarian battle culture), and Alcaeus (pronouced “I’ll see us.” Wrote about socializing with wine, fear in battle, and was the first to use the “ship of state” metaphor).

We closed with Hesiod who wrote this wonderful creation myth epic. Out of Chaos comes Gaia (the Earth) and Ouranos (the sky). They procreate and Ouranos keeps pushing the progeny back into the Earth, symbolizing the recurring theme of generational conflict to come in this work and, indeed, in the culture at large. Kronos, at his mother’s bidding, castrates Ouranos when he comes to lay with her and throws the severed genitalia into the sea. The sea begins to bubble and foam, and out emerges Aphrodite. There is the grittier origin of this lovely image:

ImageThese are the sort of wildly entertaining, extraordinarily earthy, and deeply Freudian myths that I loved so much as a child. It’s not surprising to me that the Greeks have inspired, and continue to inspire, so much great art through the subsequent history of humankind. It does surprise me however that parents have not caught on to what every young Classicist knows: the classics are randier, darker, and more risqué than anything in the contemporary YA section of the bookstore.

And what fun they are too!

It gets worse. Kronos has children and devours them. Here’s that bleak image from Goya:

ImageZeus escapes his cannibalistic creator and kills Kronos. Later, Zeus is tricked by Prometheus when Prometheus offers Zeus either a pile of good meat covered up by flesh and unpleasant bits or bones covered with fat. Zeus takes the bones and is furious at the deception. He chains Prometheus on a mountaintop where his regenerating liver is eaten by birds each day. To punish mankind for receiving fire from Prometheus, he gives us women (remember that highly misogynistic element) in the form of Pandora. Pandora releases all sorts of evil into the world.

The story has explanations for why we have fire, why we sacrifice, why we have women, and why we have evil.

It was a very full week as I suppose this next one will be as well. Next we look at Athens and Sparta.