Ancient History & Civilisation


MY purpose is to record and contemplate the origin, growth, maturity, and decline of Greek civilization from the oldest remains of Crete and Troy to the conquest of Greece by Rome. I wish to see and feel this complex culture not only in the subtle and impersonal rhythm of its rise and fall, but in the rich variety of its vital elements: its ways of drawing a living from the land, and of organizing industry and trade; its experiments with monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, dictatorship, and revolution; its manners and morals, its religious practices and beliefs; its education of children, and its regulation of the sexes and the family; its homes and temples, markets and theaters and athletic fields; its poetry and drama, its painting, sculpture, architecture, and music; its sciences and inventions, its superstitions and philosophies. I wish to see and feel these elements not in their theoretical and scholastic isolation, but in their living interplay as the simultaneous movements of one great cultural organism, with a hundred organs and a hundred million cells, but with one body and one soul.

Excepting machinery, there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece. Schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history, rhetoric, physics, biology, anatomy, hygiene, therapy, cosmetics, poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, theology, agnosticism, skepticism, stoicism, epicureanism, ethics, politics, idealism, philanthropy, cynicism, tyranny, plutocracy, democracy: these are all Greek words for cultural forms seldom originated, but in many cases first matured for good or evil by the abounding energy of the Greeks. All the problems that disturb us today—the cutting down of forests and the erosion of the soil; the emancipation of woman and the limitation of the family; the conservatism of the established, and the experimentalism of the unplaced, in morals, music, and government; the corruptions of politics and the perversions of conduct; the conflict of religion and science, and the weakening of the supernatural supports of morality; the war of the classes, the nations, and the continents; the revolutions of the poor against the economically powerful rich, and of the rich against the politically powerful poor; the struggle between democracy and dictatorship, between individualism and communism, between the East and the West—all these agitated, as if for our instruction, the brilliant and turbulent life of ancient Hellas. There is nothing in Greek civilization that does not illuminate our own.

We shall try to see the life of Greece both in the mutual interplay of its cultural elements, and in the immense five-act drama of its rise and fall. We shall begin with Crete and its lately resurrected civilization, because apparently from Crete, as well as from Asia, came that prehistoric culture of Mycenae and Tiryns which slowly transformed the immigrating Achaeans and the invading Dorians into civilized Greeks; and we shall study for a moment the virile world of warriors and lovers, pirates and troubadours, that has come down to us on the rushing river of Homer’s verse. We shall watch the rise of Sparta and Athens under Lycurgus and Solon, and shall trace the colonizing spread of the fertile Greeks through all the isles of the Aegean, the coasts of Western Asia and the Black Sea, of Africa and Italy, Sicily, France, and Spain. We shall see democracy fighting for its life at Marathon, stimulated by its victory, organizing itself under Pericles, and flowering into the richest culture in history; we shall linger with pleasure over the spectacle of the human mind liberating itself from superstition, creating new sciences, rationalizing medicine, secularizing history, and reaching unprecedented peaks in poetry and drama, philosophy, oratory, history, and art; and we shall record with melancholy the suicidal end of the Golden Age in the Peloponnesian War. We shall contemplate the gallant effort of disordered Athens to recover from the blow of her defeat; even her decline will be illustrious with the genius of Plato and Aristotle, Apelles and Praxiteles, Philip and Demosthenes, Diogenes and Alexander. Then, in the wake of Alexander’s generals, we shall see Greek civilization, too powerful for its little peninsula, bursting its narrow bounds, and overflowing again into Asia, Africa, and Italy; teaching the cult of the body and the intellect to the mystical Orient, reviving the glories of Egypt in Ptolemaic Alexandria, and enriching Rhodes with trade and art; developing geometry with Euclid at Alexandria and Archimedes at Syracuse; formulating in Zeno and Epicurus the most lasting philosophies in history; carving the Aphrodite of Melos, the Laocoön, the Victory of Samothrace, and the Altar of Pergamum; striving and failing to organize its politics into honesty, unity, and peace; sinking ever deeper into the chaos of civil and class war; exhausted in soil and loins and spirit; surrendering to the autocracy, quietism, and mysticism of the Orient; and at last almost welcoming those conquering Romans through whom dying Greece would bequeath to Europe her sciences, her philosophies, her letters, and her arts as the living cultural basis of our modern world.



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