CHAPTER III. GENERAL SURVEY OF THE GREEK PEOPLE - NATIONAL INSTITUTIONS.
The Greeks, as we have already seen, were divided into many independent communities, but several causes bound them together as one people. Of these the most important were community of blood and language - community of religious rites and festivals - and community of manners and character.
All the Greeks were descended from the same ancestor and spoke the same language. They all described men and cities which were not Grecian by the term BARBARIAN. This word has passed into our own language, but with a very different idea; for the Greeks applied it indiscriminately to every foreigner, to the civilized inhabitants of Egypt and Persia, as well as to the rude tribes of Scythia and Gaul.
The second bond of union was a community of religious rites and festivals. From the earliest times the Greeks appear to have worshipped the same gods; but originally there were no religious meetings common to the whole nation. Such meetings were of gradual growth, being formed by a number of neighbouring towns, which entered into an association for the periodical celebration of certain religious rites. Of these the most celebrated was the AMPHICTYONIC COUNCIL. It acquired its superiority over other similar associations by the wealth and grandeur of the Delphian temple, of which it was the appointed guardian. It held two meetings every year, one in the spring at the temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the other in the autumn at the temple of Demeter (Ceres) at Thermopylae. Its members, who were called the Amphictyons, consisted of sacred deputies sent from twelve tribes, each of which contained several independent cities or states. But the Council was never considered as a national congress, whose duty it was to protect and defend the common interests of Greece; and it was only when the rights of the Delphian god had been violated that it invoked the aid of the various members of the league.
The Olympic Games were of greater efficacy than the amphictyonic council in promoting a spirit of union among the various branches of the Greek race, and in keeping alive a feeling of their common origin. They were open to all persons who could prove their Hellenic blood, and were frequented by spectators from all parts of the Grecian world. They were celebrated at Olympia, on the banks of the Alpheus, in the territory of Elis. The origin of the festival is lost in obscurity; but it is said to have been revived by Iphitus, king of Elis, and Lycurgus the Spartan legislator, in the year 776 B.C.; and, accordingly, when the Greeks at a later time began to use the Olympic contest as a chronological era, this year was regarded as the first Olympiad. It was celebrated at the end of every four years, and the interval which elapsed between each celebration was called an Olympiad. The whole festival was under the management of the Eleans, who appointed some of their own number to preside as judges, under the name of the Hellanodicae. During the month in which it was celebrated all hostilities were suspended throughout Greece. At first the festival was confined to a single day, and consisted of nothing more than a match of runners in the stadium; but in course of time so many other contests were introduced, that the games occupied five days. They comprised various trials of strength and skill, such as wrestling boxing, the Pancratium (boxing and wrestling combined), and the complicated Pentathlum (including jumping, running, the quoit, the javelin, and wrestling), but no combats with any kind of weapons. There were also horse-races and chariot-races; and the chariot-race, with four full-grown horses, became one of the most popular and celebrated of all the matches.
The only prize given to the conqueror was a garland of wild olive; but this was valued as one of the dearest distinctions in life. To have his name proclaimed as victor before assembled Hellas was an object of ambition with the noblest and the wealthiest of the Greeks. Such a person was considered to have conferred everlasting glory upon his family and his country, and was rewarded by his fellow-citizens with distinguished honours.
During the sixth century before the Christian era three other national festivals - the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games - which were at first only local became open to the whole nation. The Pythian games were celebrated in every third Olympic year, on the Cirrhaean plain in Phocis, under the superintendence of the Amphictyons. The games consisted not only of matches in gymnastics and of horse and chariot races, but also of contests in music and poetry. They soon acquired celebrity, and became second only to the great Olympic festival. The Nemean and Isthmian games occurred more frequently than the Olympic and Pythian. They were celebrated once in two years - the Nemean in the valley of Nemea between Phlius and Cleonae - and the Isthmian by the Corinthians, on their isthmus, in honour of Poseidon (Neptune). As in the Pythian festival, contests in music and in poetry, as well as gymnastics and chariot-races, formed part of these games. Although the four great festivals of which we have been speaking had no influence in promoting the political union of Greece, they nevertheless were of great importance in making the various sections of the race feel that they were all members of one family, and in cementing them together by common sympathies and the enjoyment of common pleasures. The frequent occurrence of these festivals, for one was celebrated every gear, tended to the same result.