Chapter I. The Physical Setting of Athens.
1. The Importance of Athens in Greek History. - To three ancient nations the men of the twentieth century owe an incalculable debt. To the Jews we owe most of our notions of religion; to the Romans we owe traditions and examples in law, administration, and the general management of human affairs which still keep their influence and value; and finally, to the Greeks we owe nearly all our ideas as to the fundamentals of art, literature, and philosophy, in fact, of almost the whole of our intellectual life. These Greeks, however, our histories promptly teach us, did not form a single unified nation. They lived in many "city-states" of more or less importance, and some of the largest of these contributed very little directly to our civilization. Sparta, for example, has left us some noble lessons in simple living and devoted patriotism, but hardly a single great poet, and certainly never a philosopher or sculptor. When we examine closely, we see that the civilized life of Greece, during the centuries when she was accomplishing the most, was peculiarly centered at Athens. Without Athens, Greek history would lose three quarters of its significance, and modern life and thought would become infinitely the poorer.
2. Why the Social Life of Athens is so Significant. - Because, then, the contributions of Athens to our own life are so important, because they touch (as a Greek would say) upon almost every side of "the true, the beautiful, and the good," it is obvious that the outward conditions under which this Athenian genius developed deserve our respectful attention. For assuredly such personages as Sophocles, Plato, and Phidias were not isolated creatures, who developed their genius apart from, or in spite of, the life about them, but rather were the ripe products of a society, which in its excellences and weaknesses presents some of the most interesting pictures and examples in the world. To understand the Athenian civilization and genius it is not enough to know the outward history of the times, the wars, the laws, and the lawmakers. We must see Athens as the average man saw it and lived in it from day to day, and THEN perhaps we can partially understand how it was that during the brief but wonderful era of Athenian freedom and prosperity[*], Athens was able to produce so many men of commanding genius as to win for her a place in the history of civilization which she can never lose.
[*]That era may be assumed to begin with the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.), and it certainly ended in 322 B.C., when Athens passed decisively under the power of Macedonia; although since the battle of Cheroneia (338 B.C.) she had done little more than keep her liberty on sufferance.
3. The Small Size and Sterility of Attica. - Attica was a very small country according to modern notions, and Athens the only large city therein. The land barely covered some 700 square miles, with 40 square miles more, if one includes the dependent island of Salamis. It was thus far smaller than the smallest of our American "states" (Rhode Island = 1250 square miles), and was not so large as many American counties. It was really a triangle of rocky, hill-scarred land thrust out into the Aegean Sea, as if it were a sort of continuation of the more level district of Boeotia. Yet small as it was, the hills inclosing it to the west, the seas pressing it form the northeast and south, gave it a unity and isolation all its own. Attica was not an island; but it could be invaded only by sea, or by forcing the resistance which could be offered at the steep mountain passes towards Boeotia or Megara. Attica was thus distinctly separated from the rest of Greece. Legends told how, when the half-savage Dorians had forced themselves southward over the mainland, they had never penetrated into Attica; and the Athenians later prided themselves upon being no colonists from afar, but upon being "earth-sprung," - natives of the soil which they and their twenty-times grandfathers had held before them.
This triangle of Attica had its peculiar shortcomings and virtues. It was for the most part stony and unfertile. Only a shallow layer of good soil covered a part of its hard foundation rock, which often in turn lay bare on the surface. The Athenian farmer had a sturdy struggle to win a scanty crop, and about the only products he could ever raise in abundance for export were olives (which seemed to thrive on scanty soil and scanty rainfall) and honey, the work of the mountain bees.
4. The Physical Beauty of Attica. - Yet Attica had advantages which more than counterbalanced this grudging of fertility. All Greece, to be sure, was favored by the natural beauty of its atmosphere, seas, and mountains, but Attica was perhaps the most favored portion of all, Around her coasts, rocky often and broken by pebbly beaches and little craggy peninsulas, surged the deep blue Aegean, the most glorious expanse of ocean in the world. Far away spread the azure water[*], - often foam-crested and sometimes alive with the dolphins leaping at their play, - reaching towards a shimmering sky line where rose "the isles of Greece," masses of green foliage, or else of tawny rock, scattered afar, to adapt the words of Homer, "like shields laid on the face of the glancing deep."
[*]The peculiar blueness of the water near Attica is probably caused by the clear rocky bottom of the sea, as well as by the intensity of the sunlight.
Above the sea spread the noble arch of the heavens, - the atmosphere often dazzlingly bright, and carrying its glamour and sparkle almost into the hearts of men. The Athenians were proud of the air about their land. Their poets gladly sung its praises, as, for example, Euripides[*], when he tells how his fellow countrymen enjoy being -
Ever through air clear shining brightly As on wings uplifted, pacing lightly.