The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 5

by Paul Mathers

This week we reached the so-called “Fifty Great Years.” This afforded an opportunity to slow down a bit and flesh out some of the elements of life in Athenian culture.

In 479 BCE, there was euphoria over the Greek victory over the Persians (something I had in mind while hearing about Boston in the past 24 hours.) Two of the major results of the end of the conflict were, naturally, the end of the Persian threat, but also Greek unity for a time. Again, I think this is something we moderns have experienced. There was a column erected at Delphi which read “These fought the war: The Lacedaimonians, The Athenians, The Corinthians, The Tegeans, The Sicyonians…” and so on and so forth. It was later relocated to Turkey and resides in modern-day Istanbul:


This was a time of major ideological shift. There emerged a distinction between “Greek” and “Not Greek” which was covered by the word from which we derive “barbarians” (as you may have heard, so called because foreigners speaking in their native tongues sounded to the Greeks like they went around saying “bar bar bar bar bar.”) The Persians were viewed as “barbarians” par excellence.

It is also worth noting in that list from the Delphic Serpent Column that the two first names are indicative of what were universally known as the two major forces in Greek culture at the time: Sparta and Athens.

Pausanias was a Spartan and the victor in the Battle of Plataea. He was arrogant and went to Byzantium after the war, where he proceeded to “go native” in his dress and habits. He was recalled and punished, sent out again, did it again, and was recalled again. Walking down the street in Sparta, he saw an Ephor coming towards him. He fled to the temple for sanctuary. The Spartans held him inside the temple until he was starving, but took him out just before he died so as to not pollute the temple. He died. This was in 467 BCE, a mere dozen years after his heroic victory.

Themistocles also had a spotty post-Persian War life. The north of the Peloponnese remained unwalled as a sign of Greek unity. Athens thought that this was a bad idea (the Greeks were still unsure if they had total victory at this point). Themistocles went to Sparta to stall and distract the Spartans, then sent instructions back to Athens to rebuild those walls quickly. The Spartans sent an embassy to Athens where they were politely detained until the wall was successfully rebuilt. Needless to say, this was not a promising beginning. Themistocles was ostracized in 471/0 BCE, a scant 9 years after his victory. He went to Argos and riled up Anti-Spartan sentiment, then fled to Persia where he lived out the rest of his life as an adviser.

In 478/7 BCE, the Greeks formed a league at Delos (a sacred place for the worship of Apollo and Artemis as the myth had Delos as their birthplace.) The Delian League was Pan-Hellenic. The League principles were that the assembly from each state had an equal vote, each state was autonomous, and each state would provide annual support for the League either in the form of money or in the form of ships. If they chose ships, the ships would then belong to the state, but would be on loan to the League. Cash would go into a treasury to build ships which would be manned by Athenian sailors. All of this is a prelude to the coming Athenian domination in Greece. This was a huge conceptual change in Greek culture. No longer was it a society of hoplite soldiers. Now warfare was year-round as the navy was on constant patrol. The sailors received state pay. The navy was very costly.

Then we covered the Athenian takeover of the Delian League. Athens was “the first among equals.” Their ability to build and man ships shows a lot of freeman labor. Most of their state was coastlands or islands. Cimon, an Athenian general, led a fleet to the South Coast of Turkey. Between 469 and 466 BCE, he led victory on land and sea. Around 467, Naxos withdrew from the League. Naxos was in a strategic location and a ship contributor rather than a money contributor. So, the Athenians used the League to surround Naxos and force them to abandon their plans to leave the League.

Around 465 BCE, the Athenians quarrelled with Thasos over access to gold mines. The Athenians brought the League troops. Thasos appealed to Sparta for help. Sparta agreed to help and began to invade South Attica. Then, in 464 BCE, there was a large earthquake in Sparta which the Helot slaves used as occasion to (finally!) rebel. The crisis became so severe that the Spartans actually asked Athens for help! Cimon led a pro-Spartan help party in Athens saying “they are our great yoke-mates.” He brought 4,600 hoplite troops to Sparta. When they arrived, Sparta sent them home. We have no idea why. This was a tremendous insult. Cimon was ostracized in 461 BCE.

The Delian tribute list (which was the list of what each state contributed to the League) and the entire treasury was moved to Athens for “safe keeping.” Also, Athenian coin and measures were enforced throughout Greece. In 460 BCE, Athens allied with Megara to dominate the isthmus of Corinth. Corinth was outraged. Tensions were mounting, but we’ll return to all of this later because now we are going to talk about Pericles.

Pericles was born around 490 BCE. He was from an elite family in the clan of the Alcmaeonidae. Pericles was forced to participate in Cimon’s impeachment in 463 BCE which he did half-heartedly. Cimon was acquitted.

Pericles became a great statesman and orator. His power stemmed from his controlling discourse. He was called “The Olympian” because of his aloof, austere, and aristocratic demeanor. He was known to be personally incorruptible (coming from such great wealth, he couldn’t be bribed as he didn’t need bribes). His ambition was for Athens rather than for himself. He associated with leading intellectuals. His mistress was one Aspasia who was also regarded as brilliant. They became sort of a “power couple.”



I should note that he did not rule Athens, but his influence was remarkable.

In 450 BCE came the Peace of Callias between Greece and Persia. This official peace rendered the Delian League obsolete. The Delian League pretty much just transformed into the Athenian Empire at that point.

We took some time to look at theater this week. It is important to note that the theater was not simple amusement as we might be inclined to view it. It was central to cultural and political life. It was always connected to ritual and always connected to Dionysus. Tragedy evolved out of choral competitions. By the 5th century BCE, it involved the entire community. There was a winter comedy festival and a spring tragedy festival. Here’s a diagram of a Greek theater:


The stage was the Skene. The Orchestra was the dance floor where the chorus would be. The seating of the audience on wooden benches was the Theatron, from which we get the name of the medium. These would be built with acoustic genius. You could hear a pin drop onstage from the back row as if it were happening right next to you.

The intended audience was the Athenian citizen. It is unknown if others could attend. The actors were all male and all masked.


This allowed people in the nose-bleed seats to be able to follow who was onstage.

Early in the year, the Archon chose three poets to write and three wealthy patrons to produce. There were ten judges, one from each tribe. There would be a procession in which a statue of Dionysus would be marched in and sat next to the priest and the judges. The procession also had young men whose fathers died in the war in the previous year, generals from the war, and from 454 BCE on, the treasury from the Delian League would be marched in the procession to show off to all of the people.

Only a small fraction of the plays survive. The poets were like public teachers, employed to dramatize the ancient myths. As is so often the case in art, in this turbulent time this also became a means by which to connect current issues with the ancient myths. Antigone, for example, was mentioned as having the themes of how one connects to one’s community and the question of where one’s loyalty lies. A Sophoclean hero was one who takes a position and sticks to it no matter what the cost.


We then looked at women in Athenian culture. The law was that women had to have an adult male guardian at every point in their life (parents to husband, and if he died, then on to some family member). This made them in similar social standing to children throughout their lives. They did not own property. It was said, “Marriage is for the woman what warfare is for the man.” Meaning the rite of passage into adulthood.


 Here is a vase with the image of a wedding procession. The procession terminated in the new husband’s home with the mother-in-law standing at the door prepared to receive them. It really was a transfer from one household (oikonomos, the word from which we get “economics”) to another. The women’s work was household management. A major part of their work was the production of cloth.

One point of contention was a culture that began of women going to the fountain to collect water. They would tarry and talk and socialize.

Women could also be hetaira, which I suppose one might translate as “adult entertainer.”

We have the image in tragedy of Medea who falls in love with Jason, but is about to be jilted by him, so she kills their children. She gives this (excerpt from her) telling speech about the lives of women:

This I know is true.
Of all things with life and understanding,
we women are the most unfortunate.
First, we need a husband, someone we get
for an excessive price. He then becomes
the ruler of our bodies. And this misfortune
adds still more troubles to the grief we have.
Then comes the crucial struggle: this husband
we’ve selected, is he good or bad?
For a divorce loses women all respect,
yet we can’t refuse to take a husband.
Then, when she goes into her husband’s home,
with its new rules and different customs,
she needs a prophet’s skill to sort out the man
whose bed she shares. She can’t learn that at home.
Once we’ve worked hard at this, and with success,
our husband accepts the marriage yoke
and lives in peace—an enviable life.
But if the marriage doesn’t work, then death
is much to be preferred. When the man tires
of the company he keeps at home, he leaves,
seeking relief for his distress elsewhere,
outside the home. He gets his satisfaction
with some male friend or someone his own age.
We women have to look at just one man.
Men tell us we live safe and secure at home,
while they must go to battle with their spears.
How stupid they are! I’d rather stand there
three times in battle holding up my shield
than give birth once.

There is one huge exception to this seemingly bleak life for women in this culture: Religion!


The myths had powerful female figures. Above is a relief of Demeter and Persephone giving the gift of grain to humankind. There were major female religious figures (think: the Oracle at Delphi, one of the most powerful figures in the entire culture). There were women’s only festivals. The professor ended by saying that one must admit that the Greek male attitude towards women was a complex attitude.

In the 450s BCE, the Athenians took 5,000 talents from tributes to be used for city beautification. This occasioned so many of the great architectural masterworks we associate with the city. Pericles enacted the building of the Propylaea, which was a great ceremonial entryway to the Acropolis. This serves as a boundary between the sacred and the worldly:


Visitors would stay in one of two waiting rooms. One of them contained a sacred art gallery.

A visitor’s first destination would be the Parthenon:


Ictinus and Callicrates were the architects. The columns were in the Doric style (sitting right on the flat base with a sort of cushion looking part on top). It was said “There is no such thing as a straight line in the Parthenon.” Curves everywhere! The columns had a slight bulge so that they did not appear hollowed out. The Parthenon was a Christian church at one later point and a mosque at an even later point. It was remarkably well preserved until 1687 when it was blown up to a large extent in the war between the Ottomans and the Venetians. It is remarkably sophisticated and richly ornamented. The east end pediments have a relief of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. The west has Athena and Poseidon’s contest. As so much of Greek sculpture, the original is thought to have been brightly painted, likely looking something like this:

painted parthenon

The Parthenon frieze ran around the upper interior featuring battle images:


Fortunately, about 80% of this is preserved today in the British Museum (known as the Elgin marbles for Lord Elgin who took the fragments in 1801). There was a frieze of a Pan-Athenaic procession: people on horses, people leading cattle, baskets of offerings, the end of which was a banquet of the gods. The gods are much larger than the humans in the frieze.

The center of the Parthenon featured a huge statue of Athena (here is a reproduction which is in Nashville, Tennessee of all places):


After Pericles came the Temple of Athena Nike (over on the upper right):


which featured battle scenes of the war with Persia.

Also the Erechtheion, a shrine to the hero Erichthonius, which featured the famous “porch of the maidens”:


Two more weeks to go.