Early Societies: Britain and the Ancient World

Ancient Greece

There are really two Ancient Greeces: one is an Ancient Greece which was part of the international world of the Bronze Age and was contemporary with the last phases of Stonehenge and the New Kingdom in Egypt (1500 to 1100 BC). The other is the Ancient Greece of democracy, the Olympic Games and the Parthenon. This second Ancient Greece is still with us in many ways - in sport, in architecture and in science. It achieved it highest expression in Athens about 450 BC, just after the Greeks had successfully defended themelves against the might of the Persian Empire. To the first Ancient Greece belong the stories of heroes such as Theseus and Jason as well as the events of the Trojan War recorded in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. At sites such as Mycenae and Knossos, archaeologists have discovered palaces and fortresses associated with this era of Greek history. It provided the later Greeks with inspiration for many of their greatest works of art and literature, including the sculptures which decorated the Parthenon and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

In contrast to Egypt, the geography of Greece favoured the growth of small independent cities. There was no Nile to bring the country together, and plenty of inaccessible mountainous areas to keep communities apart. Only an invader with a very large army could hope to hold the country in total subjection and not even Athens possessed such an army. Nonetheless there was plenty of cause and opportunity for rivalry between individual states. From their homeland the Greeks had travelled all over the Mediterranean, trading with the peoples they found and setting up new towns of their own in such far away places as Sicily and Marseilles. Merchants from one city might easily clash with those from another and so bring about a war back home. This was the cause of the conflict between Athens and Sparta, known as the Peloponnesian War (431-402 BC.). Destruction was widespread as each side tried to starve the other into surrender. Athens survived because it controlled the sea, but the Spartans had the best of the fighting on land. The result was a kind of stalemate from which neither side gained any lasting advantage.

The rivalry between states had a positive side however ; it encouraged a kind of 'arms race' in the arts, so that every city, however modest, struggled to adorn itself with the finest buildings, scuptures and paintings. In Ancient Egypt, as we have seen, the environment promoted a very authoritarian way of thinking, but in Greek cities the opposite was true. The small size of most Greek cities (Athens had a total population of about 70,000) meant that every citizen could take a share in the making of decisions, so that politics (a Greek word - from polis meaning a city- state) became a way of life, at least for the wealthy. It is against this background that we should see Greek achievements in philosophy, medicine and science. They reflect the aspirations of a successful merchant class which - through travel and trade - had developed an extraordinary sense of self-worth.

Greek statues and buildings are just as recognisable as those of Ancient Egypt, but the Greek way of thinking may be more difficult for young children to understand. It's probably best to start with the physical environment. If we went back 2500 years and found ourselves in the middle of a city like Athens, what would we see ?

We would probably begin our exploration in the market place or agora, to which the people of the countryside roundabout would have brought their produce. What would tell us that we were in Ancient Greece? Probably the elegant doric columns surrounding the agora, and the sight of the gymnasium or exercise area next door. As well as young men practicing the Olympic sports of running, wrestling and discus throwing, we should probably see teachers surrounded by small groups of students, for the Greeks believed in perfecting mind and body together. The clothes of the people around us would be very simple and made out of wool or linen. Men and boys wore a short belted tunic, women and girls a longer version of the same thing. Looking down upon the market place would be the citadel or acropolis, a fortress to which the people could retreat if the city was attacked. Here would be the city's most important temple - a rectangular structure surrounded by columns similar to those in the market place, with a pediment or triangular gable at either end filled with sculpture. In the heat of the afternoon, under a cloudless blue sky, the whiteness of the marble would be dazzling.

What might the people be discussing? Probably the price of goods in the market, or perhaps the play to be performed in the theatre later in the day. The theatre itself - with banks of stone seats arranged in semi-circle facing the stage - might be built in the shelter of the acropolis. Greek plays were rather like church services. Very little happened on stage: instead the main events were described to the audience by a chorus which also commented on the action. The actors wore masks which helped them to be heard as well as identifying their character.

Of course the people might also be discussing the progress of hostilities, if the city was engaged in a war. Fighting in the Peloponnesian War was not confined to Greece itself but took place all over the Mediterranean. If there were soldiers parading in the agora, their typical round shields and gilded body armour would again tell us that we were in Ancient Greece, as would the beaked bows and tall, curved, sterns of the galleys in the harbour. Assuming that the city was at peace, talk amongst the athletes in the gymnasium might centre on the forthcoming Olympic Games. Around the teachers there might be a heated debate about the merits of democracy or the nature of the soul. One thing we would probably see very little of would be contact between the sexes. Whilst women occupied an honoured position in the home, and could clearly make their influence felt, they took little part in public life. There were few opportunities for young women and men to mix socially and most marriages were arranged, especially amongst the wealthy. The Greeks feared the power of love because, like jealousy and greed, it was one of the things which made people act irrationally. Was it not the love of Paris for Helen which led to the sack of Troy?

Religion and fate

The Greeks saw history as a kind of celestial card game, in which the gods dealt the cards and humans played them. Their attitude was the same as the advice given to English public schoolboys in the 19th Century: 'it matters not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game'. Every young Greek would have known how the Spartan king Leonidas, with no more than three hundred fellow Spartans under his command, had defended the pass of Thermopylae against a huge army of Persians until he was betrayed by one of his own side - and how Pheidippides brought the news of the subsequent Greek victory at Marathon to the city of Athens, reputedly dying of exhaustion after running the 26 miles at top speed.

At Marathon the gods were clearly on the Greek side, but their favour could never be taken for granted. Often they intervened directly in human affairs. After ten years of fruitless siege warfare, it was Athene who put the idea of the Trojan horse into the head of Odysseus and Poseidon who ensured that the Trojans fell into the trap. And it was Hera's jealousy of her husband Zeus's love affair with Alcmene which caused her to drive Alcmene's son Herakles mad, so that he killed his wife and children by mistake and had to do the twelve labours as a penance. We might find such behaviour rather hard to take seriously in beings we are expected to worship, but it made perfect sense to the Greeks. How else could they account for disasters like war, plague or famine which a single loving god might be expected to prevent? For an individual caught up in such situations what mattered above all was how to behave correctly. Over the portals of Apollo's temple at Delphi was inscribed the following instruction: 'never exceed, the middle way is best'. In other words, act reasonably, even if the world about you is going mad !

It was their belief in reason that led the Greeks to make some very important scientific discoveries. Using simple logic the Alexandrian scholar Eratosthenes not only discovered that the world was round, but worked out its circumference. He knew that at a place called Syene, about 480 miles from Alexandria, there was a famous well. It was famous because at midday on midsummer's day - and only then - the sun shone down it, right to the bottom. In other words the sun was directly overhead. On the same day in Alexandria however, a vertical pillar did cast a shadow. This told Eratosthenes that the well and the pillar were at an angle to one another. Measuring the length of the shadow told Eratothsenes that the angle was roughly equivalent to one fiftieth part of the circumference of a circle. All he had had to do then was to multiply the distance between Alexandria and Syene by 50 and he had the answer he was looking for - equivalent to 24000 miles in today's measurements.

Of course Eratosthenes had no certain proof. That would have to wait until European adventurers sailed around the world nearly two thousand years later. He was simply exploring knowledge for its own sake. His goal was to understand. This was true of the Greek approach to science generally. They were far more interested in ideas than in their practical application. The result was that they made some serious mistakes - mistakes which would endure for centuries because of the respect with which later generations treated Greek philosophy.

As in science so in art. The philosopher Plato suggested that there was an ideal shape for everything, which could also be expressed as a set of mathematical measurements. For example, a perfect man might have a head exactly one sixth the height of his whole body. If he were to lay down on the floor with his arms outstretched, his fingers and toes would lie on the circumference of a circle whose centre was his navel. In the same way a perfect temple would conform exactly to a given set of proportions.

With enough time and money any building can be made to look beautiful, but real people come in all shapes and sizes. No amount of flattery could change a leader who was fat and balding into a tall and slender youth. Perhaps this is one reason why so few representations of real people have come down to us from Ancient Greece. The gods and goddesses were another matter however. By definition their bodies were perfect. Representing them gave Greek artists an ideal opportunity to express perfection in stone, ivory or bronze.

There was another way in which the Greeks could approach perfection: by finding those favoured individuals who came closest to it. This was what the Olympic Games were for. They took place every four years. Events included discus, long jump, javelin, running and wrestling, as well as chariot racing and boxing. Victors were commemorated by statues, a few of which have survived through the centuries. Participation in the Olympic Games was also a favourite subject for vase painters. Although most of the events of the ancient Olympic Games are familiar there are three fundamental differences between the ancient games and those we celebrate today. Firstly - as we have seen - war was never far from the Greek mind, and sport was seen as a preparation for it rather than as a substitute. Secondly athletes competed in the nude. The Greeks attached no shame to the display of the whole human body whilst taking part in sport, especially as the games were seen as a religious occasion. Thirdly, the actual Olympic Games were for men only. Although women had a limited competition of their own, they were not even allowed to attend the games proper unless they were priestesses.

top of this page