XXIII. The Greeks

NOW while after Solomon (whose reign was probably about 960 B.C.) the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were suffering destruction and deportation, and while the Jewish people were developing their tradition in captivity in Babylon, another great power over the human mind, the Greek tradition, was also arising. While the Hebrew prophets were working out a new sense of direct moral responsibility between the people and an eternal and universal God of Right, the Greek philosophers were training the human mind in a new method and spirit of intellectual adventure.

The Greek tribes as we have told were a branch of the Aryan-speaking stem. They had come down among the aegean cities and islands some centuries before 1000 B.C. They were probably already in southward movement before the Pharaoh Thothmes hunted his first elephants beyond the conquered Euphrates. For in those days there were elephants in Mesopotamia and lions in Greece.

It is possible that it was a Greek raid that burnt Cnossos, but there are no Greek legends of such a victory though there are stories of Minos and his palace (the Labyrinth) and of the skill of the Cretan artificers.

Like most of the Aryans these Greeks had singers and reciters whose performances were an important social link, and these handed down from the barbaric beginnings of their people two great epics, the Iliad, telling how a league of Greek tribes besieged and took and sacked the town of Troy in Asia Minor, and the Odyssey, being a long adventure story of the return of the sage captain, Odysseus, from Troy to his own island. These epics were written down somewhen in the eighth or seventh century B.C., when the Greeks had acquired the use of an alphabet from their more civilized neighbours, but they are supposed to have been in existence very much earlier. Formerly they were ascribed to a particular blind bard, Homer, who was supposed to have sat down and composed them as Milton composed Paradise Lost. Whether there really was such a poet, whether he composed or only wrote down and polished these epics and so forth, is a favourite quarrelling ground for the erudite. We need not concern ourselves with such bickerings here. The thing that matters from our point of view is that the Greeks were in possession of their epics in the eighth century B.C., and that they were a common possession and a link between their various tribes, giving them a sense of fellowship as against the outer barbarians. They were a group of kindred peoples linked by the spoken and afterwards by the written word, and sharing common ideals of courage and behaviour.

The epics showed the Greeks a barbaric people without iron, without writing, and still not living in cities. They seem to have lived at first in open villages of huts around the halls of their chiefs outside the ruins of the aegean cities they had destroyed. Then they began to wall their cities and to adopt the idea of temples from the people they had conquered. It has been said that the cities of the primitive civilizations grew up about the altar of some tribal god, and that the wall was added; in the cities of the Greeks the wall preceded the temple. They began to trade and send out colonies. By the seventh century B.C. a new series of cities had grown up in the valleys and islands of Greece, forgetful of the aegean cities and civilization that had preceded them; Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Samos, Miletus among the chief. There were already Greek settlements along the coast of the Black Sea and in Italy and Sicily. The heel and toe of Italy was called Magna Graecia. Marseilles was a Greek town established on the site of an earlier Phoenician colony.

Now countries which are great plains or which have as a chief means of transport some great river like the Euphrates or Nile tend to become united under some common rule. The cities of Egypt and the cities of Sumeria, for example, ran together under one system of government. But the Greek peoples were cut up among islands and mountain valleys; both Greece and Magna Graecia are very mountainous; and the tendency was all the other way. When the Greeks come into history they are divided up into a number of little states which showed no signs of coalescence. They are different even in race. Some consist chiefly of citizens of this or that Greek tribe, Ionic, aeolian or Doric; some have a mingled population of Greeks and descendants of the pre-Greek "Mediterranean" folk; some have an unmixed free citizenship of Greeks lording it over an enslaved conquered population like the "Helots" in Sparta. In some the old leaderly Aryan families have become a close aristocracy; in some there is a democracy of all the Aryan citizens; in some there are elected or even hereditary kings, in some usurpers or tyrants.

And the same geographical conditions that kept the Greek states divided and various, kept them small. The largest states were smaller than many English counties, and it is doubtful if the population of any of their cities ever exceeded a third of a million. Few came up even to 50,000. There were unions of interest and sympathy but no coalescences. Cities made leagues and alliances as trade increased, and small cities put themselves under the protection of great ones. Yet all Greece was held together in a certain community of feeling by two things, by the epics and by the custom of taking part every fourth year in the athletic contests at Olympia. This did not prevent wars and feuds, but it mitigated something of the savagery of war between them, and a truce protected all travellers to and from the games. As time went on the sentiment of a common heritage grew and the number of states participating in the Olympic games increased until at last not only Greeks but competitors from the closely kindred countries of Epirus and Macedonia to the north were admitted.