Ancient History & Civilisation




EAST of Megara the road divides—south to Athens, north to Thebes. Northward the route is mountainous, and draws the traveler up to the heights of Mt. Cithaeron. Far to the west Parnassus is visible. Ahead, across lesser heights and far below, is the fertile Boeotian plain. At the foot of the hill lies Plataea, where 100,000 Greeks annihilated 300,000 Persians. A little to the west is Leuctra, where Epaminondas won his first great victory over the Spartans. Again a little west rises Mt. Helicon, home of the Muses and Keats’s “blushful Hippocrene”—that famous fountain, the Horse’s Spring, which, we are assured, gushed forth when the hoof of the winged steed Pegasus struck the earth as he leaped toward heaven.1 Directly north is Thespiae, always at odds with Thebes; and close by is the fountain in whose waters Narcissus contemplated his shadow—or, another story said, that of the dead sister whom he loved.2

In the little town of Ascra, near Thespiae, lived and toiled the poet Hesiod, second only to Homer in the affection of the classic Greeks. Tradition gave 846 and 777 as the dates of his birth and death; some modern scholars bring him down to 650;3 probably he lived a century earlier than that.4 He was born at Aeolian Cyme in Asia Minor; but his father, tired of poverty there, migrated to Ascra, which Hesiod describes as “miserable in winter, insufferable in summer, and never good”5—like most of the places in which men live. As Hesiod, farm hand and shepherd boy, followed his flocks up and down the slopes of Helicon he dreamed that the Muses breathed into his body the soul of poetry. So he wrote and sang, and won prizes in musical contests,6 even, some said, from Homer himself.7

Loving like any young Greek the marvels of mythology, he composed* a Theogony, or Genealogy of the Gods, of which we have a thousand halting lines, giving those dynasties and families of deities which are as vital to religion as the pedigrees of kings are to history. First he sang of theMuses themselves, because they were, so to speak, his neighbors on Helicon, and in his youthful imagination he could almost see them “dancing with delicate feet” on the mountainside, and “bathing their soft skins” in the Hippocrene.9 Then he described not so much the creation as the procreation of the world—how god begot god until Olympus overflowed. In the beginning was Chaos; “and next broad-bosomed Earth, ever secure seat of all the immortals”; in Greek religion the gods live on the earth or within it, and are always close to men. Next came Tartarus, god of the nether world; and after him Eros, or Love, “fairest of the gods.”10 Chaos begot Darkness and Night, which begot Ether and Day; Earth begot Mountains and Heaven, and Heaven and Earth, mating, begot Oceanus, the Sea. We capitalize these names, but in Hesiod’s Greek there were no capitals, and for all we know he meant merely that in the beginning was chaos, and then the earth, and the inners of the earth, and night and day and the sea, and desire begetting all things; perhaps Hesiod was a philosopher touched by the Muses and personifying abstractions into poetry; Empedocles would use the same tricks a century or two later in Sicily.11 From such a theology it would be but a step to the natural philosophy of the Ionians.

Hesiod’s mythology revels in monsters and blood, and is not averse to theological pornography. Out of the mating of Heaven (Uranus) and Earth (Ge or Gaea) came a race of Titans, some with fifty heads and a hundred hands. Uranus liked them not, and condemned them to gloomy Tartarus. But Earth resenting this, proposed to them that they should kill their father. One of the Titans, Cronus, undertook the task. Then “huge Ge rejoiced, and hid him in ambush; in his hand she placed a sickle with jagged teeth, and suggested to him all the stratagem. Then came vast Heaven, bringing Night [Erebus] with him, and, eager for love, brooded around Earth, and lay stretched on all sides.” Thereupon Cronus mutilated his father, and threw the flesh into the sea. From the drops of blood that fell upon the earth came the Furies; from the foam that formed around the flesh as it floated on the waters rose Aphrodite.*12 The Titans captured Olympus, deposed Heaven-Uranus, and raised Cronus to the throne. Cronus married his sister Rhea, but Earth and Heaven, his parents, having predicted that he would be deposed by one of his sons, Cronus swallowed them all except Zeus, whom Rhea bore secretly in Crete. When Zeus grew up he deposed Cronus in turn, forced him to disgorge his children, and plunged the Titans back into the bowels of the earth.13

Such, according to Hesiod, were the births and ways of the gods. Here, too, is the tale of Prometheus, Far-Seer and Fire-Bringer; here, in tedious abundance, are some of the divine adulteries that enabled so many Greeks, like Mayflower Americans, to trace their pedigrees to the gods—one would never have guessed that adultery could be so dull. We do not know how far these myths were the popular outgrowth of a primitive and almost savage culture, and how far they are due to Hesiod; few of them are mentioned in the healthy pages of Homer. It is possible that some measure of the disrepute into which these tales brought the Olympians in days of philosophical criticism and moral development is to be ascribed to the gloomy fancy of Ascra’s bard.

In the only poem universally conceded to Hesiod he descends from Olympus to the plains, and writes a vigorous georgic of the farmer’s life. The Works and Days takes the form of a long reproof and counsel to the poet’s brother Perseus, who is so strangely pictured that he may be only a literary device. “Now will I speak to thee with good intent, thou exceeding foolish Perseus.”14 This Perseus, we are told, has cheated Hesiod of Hesiod’s inheritance; and now the poet, in the first of known sermons on the dignity of labor, tells him how much wiser honesty and toil are than vice and luxurious ease. “Behold, thou mayest choose vice easily, even in heaps; for the path is plain, and she dwells very near. But before excellence the immortal gods have placed the sweat of toil; long and steep is the road that leads to her, and rough it is at first; but when you reach the height then truly is it easy, though so hard before.”15 So the poet lays down rules for diligent husbandry, and the proper days for plowing, planting, and reaping, in rough saws that Virgil would polish into perfect verse. He warns Perseus against drinking heavily in summer, or dressing lightly in winter. He draws a chilly picture of winter in Boeotia—the “keenly piercing air that flays the steers,” the seas and rivers tossed about by the northern wind, the moaning forests and crashing pines, the beasts “shunning the white snow” and huddling fearfully in their folds and stalls.16 How cozy then is a well-built cottage, the lasting reward of courageous and prudent toil! There the domestic tasks go on despite the storm; then a wife is a helpmate indeed, and repays a man for the many tribulations she has caused him.

Hesiod cannot quite make up his mind about helpmates. He must have been a bachelor or a widower, for no man with a living wife would have spoken so acridly of woman. It is true that at the end of our fragment of the Theogony the poet begins a chivalrous Catalogue of Women, recounting the legends of those days when heroines were as numerous as men, and most of the gods were goddesses. But in both of his major works he tells with bitter relish how all human ills were brought to man by the beautiful Pandora. Angered by Prometheus’ theft of fire from Heaven, Zeus bids the gods mold woman as a Greek gift for man. He

bade Hephaestus with all speed mix earth with water, and endue it with man’s voice and strength, and to liken in countenance to immortal goddesses the fair, lovely beauty of a maiden. Then he bade Athena teach her how to weave the highly wrought web, and golden Aphrodite to shed around her head grace, and painful desire, and cares that waste the limbs; but to endue her with a dog-like mind and tricky manners he charged the messenger Hermes. . . . They obeyed Zeus . . . and the herald of the gods placed within her a winning voice; and this woman he called Pandora, because all who dwelt in Olympian mansions bestowed on her a gift, a mischief to inventive men.17

Zeus presents Pandora to Epimetheus, who, though he has been warned by his brother Prometheus not to accept gifts from the gods, feels that he may, yield to beauty this once. Now Prometheus has left with Epimetheus a mysterious box, with instructions that it should under no circumstances be opened. Pandora, overcome with curiosity, opens the box, whereupon ten thousand evils fly out of it and begin to plague the life of man, while Hope alone remains. From Pandora, says Hesiod, “is the race of tender women; from her is a pernicious race; and tribes of women, a great hurt, dwell with men, helpmates not of consuming poverty but of surfeit. . . . So to mortal men Zeus gave women as an evil.”18

But alas, says our vacillating poet, celibacy is as bad as marriage; a lonely old age is a miserable thing, and the property of a childless man reverts at his death to the clan. So, after all, a man had better marry—though not before thirty; and he had better have children—though not more than one lest the property be divided.

When full matureness crowns thy manhood’s pride,

Lead to thy mansion the consenting bride;

Thrice ten thy sum of years the nuptial prime,

Nor fall far short, nor far exceed the time . . .

A virgin choose, that morals chaste imprest

By this wise love may stamp her yielding breast.

Some known and neighboring damsel be thy prize;

And wary bend around thy cautious eyes,

Lest by a choice imprudent thou be found

The merry mock of all the dwellers round.

No better lot has Providence assigned

Than a fair woman with a virtuous mind;

Nor can a worse befall than when thy fate

Allots a worthless, feast-continuing mate.

She with no touch of mere material flame

Shall burn to tinder thy care-wasted frame;

Shall send a fire thy vigorous bones within

And age unripe in bloom of years begin.19

Before this Fall of Man, says Hesiod, the human race lived through many happy centuries on the earth. First the gods, in the days of Cronus (Virgil’s Saturnia regna), had made a Golden Race of men, who were themselves as gods, living without toil or care; of its own accord the earth bore ample food for them, and nourished their rich flocks; they spent many a day in joyous festival, and never aged; and when at last death came to them, it was like a painless and dreamless sleep. But then the gods, with divine whimsicality, made a Silver Race, far inferior to the first; these individuals took a century to grow up, lived through a brief maturity of suffering, and died. Zeus made then a Brazen Race, men with limbs and weapons and houses of brass, who fought so many wars with one another that “black Death seized them and they quitted the bright sunlight.” Zeus tried again and made the Heroic Race, which fought at Thebes and Troy; when these men died “they dwelt with carefree spirit in the Isles of the Blest.” Last and worst came the Iron Race, mean and corrupt, poor and disorderly, toiling by day and wretched by night; sons dishonoring parents, impious and stingy to the gods, lazy and factious, warring among themselves, taking and giving bribes, distrusting and maligning one another, and grinding the faces of the poor; “Would,” cries Hesiod, “that I had not been born in this age, but either before or after it!” Soon, he hopes, Zeus will bury this Iron Race under the earth.20

Such is the theology of history with which Hesiod explains the poverty and injustice of his time. These ills he knew by sight and touch; but the past, which the poets had filled with heroes and gods, must have been nobler and lovelier than this; surely men had not always been as poor and harassed and petty as the peasants whom he knew in Boeotia. He does not realize how deeply the faults of his class enter into his own outlook, how narrow and earthly, almost commercial, are his views of life and labor, women and men. What a fall this is from the picture of human affairs in Homer, as a scene of crime and terror, but also of grandeur and nobility! Homer was a poet, and knew that one touch of beauty redeems a multitude of sins; Hesiod was a peasant who grudged the cost of a wife, and grumbled at the impudence of women who dared to sit at the same table with their husbands.21 Hesiod, with rough candor, shows us the ugly basement of early Greek society—the hard poverty of serfs and small farmers upon whose toil rested all the splendor and war sport of the aristocracy and the kings. Homer sang of heroes and princes for lords and ladies; Hesiod knew no princes, but sang his lays of common men, and pitched his tune accordingly. In his verses we hear the rumblings of those peasant revolts that would produce in Attica the reforms of Solon and the dictatorship of Peisistratus.*

In Boeotia, as in the Peloponnese, the land was owned by absentee nobles who dwelt in or near the towns. The most prosperous of the cities were built around Lake Copais, now dry but once supplying a complex system of irrigation tunnels and canals. Late in the Homeric Age this tempting region was invaded by peoples who took their name from that Mt. Boeon, in Epirus, near which they had had their home. They captured Chaeronea (near which Philip was to put an end to Greek liberty), Thebes, their future capital, and finally the old Minyan capital, Orchomenos. These and other towns, in classic days, joined under the leadership of Thebes in a Boeotian Confederacy, whose common affairs were managed by annually chosen boeotarchs, and whose peoples celebrated together at Coronea the festival of Panboeotia.

It was the custom of the Athenians to laugh at the Boeotians as dullwitted, and to attribute this obtuseness to heavy eating and a moist and foggy climate—very much as the French used to diagnose the English. There may have been some truth in this, for the Boeotians play an unprepossessing part in Greek history. Thebes, for example, aided the Persian invaders, and was a thorn in the side of Athens for centuries. But in the other side of the scales we place the brave and loyal Plataeans, plodding Hesiod and soaring Pindar, the noble Epaminondas and the completely lovable Plutarch. We must beware of seeing Athens’ rivals only through Athens’ eyes.

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