Character of the Greeks

The most distinguishing characteristic of the Hellenes, when poetry first places them before us, is a profound veneration for the divinity and every thing connected with the service of religion.
woman in ancient greece

(Gravestone of a woman with her slave child-attendant, c. 100 BC)

Having in the foregoing chapter endeavoured to ascertain by what races Greece was originally peopled, we shall next speak of the character and physical organization of its inhabitants. In doing this it may be useful to consider them in three different stages of their progress: first, in the heroic and poetical times; secondly, in the historical and flourishing ages of the Hellenic commonwealth; thirdly, in their corrupt and degenerate state under the dominion of the Macedonians and Romans.

The most distinguishing characteristic of the Hellenes, when poetry first places them before us, is a profound veneration for the divinity and every thing connected with the service of religion. By the force of imagination heaven and earth were brought near each other, not so much, indeed, by elevating the latter, as by bringing down the former within the sphere of humanity. Gods and men moved together over the earth, cooperated in bringing about events, keeping up a constant interchange of beneficence; the god aiding, the mortal repaying his aid with gratitude;[140] the god guiding, the mortal submitting to be directed, until, sometimes, as in the case of Odysseus and Athena, the feeling of grace and favour on the one side, and of veneration and gratitude on the other, ripened into something like friendship and affection.

No man entered on any important enterprise without first consulting the gods, and throwing himself 30upon their protection, by sacrifice, divination, and prayer.[141] They conceived, according to the best lights afforded them by their rude creed, that although means existed of warping the judgment, perverting the affections, and vitiating the decisions of their divinities, yet upon the whole and in the natural order of things they were just and beneficent, mercifully caring for the poor and the stranger, the guardians of friendship and hospitality, and avenging severely the offences committed against their laws. Habitually, when not provoked to vengeance by impiety or crimes, the gods they believed were not only beneficent towards mankind, but given among themselves to cheerfulness and mirth, loving music, songs, and laughter, feasting jovially together in a joy serene and almost imperturbable, save when interrupted by solicitude for some favoured mortal. Philosophy, in more intellectual times, condemned this rude conception of divine things; but men’s ideas, like their offerings, belong to the state of society in which they live, and the Greeks of the heroic ages unquestionably attributed to their gods the qualities most in esteem among themselves.

Next to religion the most prominent feeling in the mind of the early Greeks was filial piety.[142] Nowhere among men were parents held in higher honour. The reverence paid to them partook largely of the religious sentiment. Regarded as the instruments by which God had communicated the mysterious and sacred gift of life, they were supposed by their children to be for ever invested with a high degree of sanctity as ministers and representatives of the Creator. Hence the anxiety experienced to obtain a father’s blessing and the indescribable dread of his curse. A peculiar set of divinities, the terrible Erinnyes, all but implacable and unsparing, were entrusted with the guardianship of a 31parent’s rights, and indescribable were the pangs and anguish supposed to seize upon transgressors. These were the powers who tracked about the matricides Orestes and Alcmæon, scaring them with spectral terrors and filling their palaces with the alarms and agonies of Tartaros. On the other hand, nothing can be more beautiful than the pictures of filial piety exhibited by the nobler characters of heroic times. The examples are innumerable, but none is so striking or complete as that of Achilles towards his father Peleus. Fierce, vehement, stern in the ordinary relations of life, towards his aged father he is gentle as a child. His heart yearns to him with a strength of feeling incomprehensible to a meaner nature. He submits to his sway and authority not from any apprehension of his power, not even from the fear of offending him, but from the fulness of his love, from the natural excellence and purity of his heart. He would erect his valour and the might of his arm into a rampart round the old man, to protect him from injury and insult; and even in the cold region of shadows beyond the grave this feeling is represented as still alive, so that in death, as in life, the uppermost anxiety of the hero’s soul is for the happiness of his father. Even in the government of his impetuous passions during his mortal career, in the choice of the object of his love, Achilles expresses a desire to render his feelings subordinate to those of his parent, thus verging on the utmost limits of self-denial and self-control conceivable in a state of nature. Homer understood his countrymen well when he gave these qualities to his hero. Without them, he knew that no degree of courage or wisdom would have sufficed to render him popular, and, therefore, we find him not only pre-eminent for his piety towards the gods, but at the same time the most affectionate and dutiful of sons, the warmest, most disinterested, and unchangeable of friends.

And this leads us to consider another remarkable feature of the Greek character,—its peculiar aptitude 32for friendship. No country’s history and traditions abound with so many examples of this virtue as those of Greece. In truth, it was there regarded as the most unequivocal mark of an heroic and generous nature, being wholly inconsistent with anything base, sordid, or ignoble, and flourishing only in company with virtues rarest and most difficult of acquisition. Poetry, no doubt, has clad the friendship of heroic times with a splendour scarcely belonging to real life, but the experience of history warrants us in making but slight deductions. Nature in those ages appeared to delight in producing men in pairs, each suited to be the ornament and solace of the other, possessing different qualities, imperfect when apart, but complete, united. Men thus constituted were a sort of moral twins, an extension, if we may so speak, of unity, the same yet different, bringing two souls under the yoke of one will, desiring the same, hating the same, possessing the same, valuing life and the gifts of life only as they were shared in common, seeking adventures, facing dangers together, conforming their thoughts, opinions, feelings, each to the other, having no distinct interest, no distinct hope, but engrafting two lives on the chances of one man’s fortune, and both perishing by the same blow.

This feeling has by some been supposed to have owed its strength, in part at least, to the degraded position of women in society; a subject on which I shall have more to say hereafter, but may here remark that such an opinion is wholly incompatible with an impartial interpretation of the Homeric poems and the older traditions of Greece. Throughout fabulous times women are the prime movers in all great events; and the respect which as mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters they received, though expressed in uncourtly language, was perhaps as great as has ever been paid them in any age or country. Every distinguished woman in Homer is the centre of a circle of tender and touching associations. We 33behold them beloved by their relatives, honoured by their dependants, enjoying every decent freedom, every becoming pleasure, with all the influence and authority appertaining to their sex. Thus Helen, both before and after her fall, is entire mistress of her house, and treated with all possible deference and delicacy: so Hecuba, Andromache, Penelope, Arete, Nausicaa, and Iphigeneia in their respective positions, are held in the highest esteem, and command as great a share of love from those whose duty it was to love and honour them, as any other women in history or fiction. Nor were due respect and tenderness confined to the high and the noble; for innumerable proofs occur in Homer that even among the humblest ranks, that delicate self-respect which is shown by respect to our other self, and may be regarded as the pivot of civilisation, was already in that age very generally diffused.

But if the Greeks of heroic times possessed the good qualities we have attributed to them, they were still more, perhaps, distinguished for others, which often obliterated the footsteps of their virtues, and appeared to be the guiding principles of their lives. Chief among these was their passion for war and violence,[143] which engaged them in everlasting struggles with their neighbours, developed overmuch their fierce and destructive qualities, and threw into comparative shade such of their propensities as were 34gentler and more humane. War by land, piracy by sea, filled the whole country with incessant alarms. Commerce was checked and confined within very narrow channels, both travelling and navigation being exceedingly unsafe, while bands of marauders traversed land and sea in quest of rapine and plunder. In some states no other mode was known of arriving at opulence, and the humbler classes of society were wholly subsisted by it.[144] The laws of war, too, were proportionably savage. It was customary either to give no quarter, or to devote all prisoners taken to servitude; and, accordingly, every petty state was filled with unfortunate captives, many of them of illustrious birth and qualities, reduced to the humblest conditions, being compelled to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow. In peace, too, and in their own homes their warlike habits led frequently to the perpetration of violence; their passions being strong and unbridled they resented insults on the spot, and numerous homicides were, in consequence, found flying from the country whose infant institutions their passions had sought to overthrow.

But in all stages of society it has been ordained by Providence that out of the wickedness of man some compensating good shall flow: thus, from the dangers and difficulties surrounding the stranger the virtue of hospitality[145] sprang up in generous minds. 35From the distress and misery of the passionate or accidental slayer of man arose the merciful rites of expiation, and all the friendly ties which subsisted between the purifier and the purified. Wanderers driven from their home often found a better in a foreign land; and thus even the transgressions and misfortunes of men, by breaking down the narrow enclosures of families and clans, and connecting persons of distant tribes together by benefits and gratitude, hastened the progress of refinement and paved the way for the greatness and glory of succeeding ages.

It will, from what has been said, be seen that among the elements of the Greek character passion greatly predominated; but, even from the earliest times, the existence was apparent of other powerful principles, by the influence of which the nation was led to emerge rapidly from its period of barbarism. These were an innate love of magnificence, and a striking inclination towards all social enjoyments; the former leading to the cultivation of commerce and industry, the latter communicating an extraordinary impetus to the natural desire common to mankind for companionship and society. But in developing these principles nature pursued in Greece a peculiar route. Instead of establishing a common centre, towards which the energies of the whole nation might tend, society was broken up into numerous parts, each forming, when considered separately, a whole, but united with its neighbours by identity of origin, language, religion, and national character.

36Philosophers usually seek in geographical position a key to the fact of the formation of so many separate states as the Hellenic population was divided into; but the cause was probably of a different kind. Among every other people, a difficulty has always been experienced in discovering men capable of conducting public affairs; and, when any such have arisen, they have easily subdued to their will their less intellectual and, consequently, less ambitious neighbours. Among the Greeks the case was wholly different: every province, every district, nay, every town and village abounded with men endowed with the ability and passion for governing. These feelings begot the aversion to submit to the government of others; this aversion engendered strife; and it was only the accident of a numerical superiority existing in one division of the country, or of a statesman of extraordinary genius springing up, that enabled one village to subdue its neighbours for a few miles around, and thus establish a small political community.

History rarely penetrates back so far as the period in which this state of things existed. But we have an example in the annals of Attica, where the twelve small municipal states, if one may so speak, were, partly by persuasion, partly by force, brought under the authority of one city, possessing the advantages of a superior position and wiser and more enterprising leaders.

These diminutive polities once formed, many causes concurred to preserve their integrity, of which the most obvious and powerful was the pride of race, and, next to this, certain religious feelings and peculiarities, which stationed gods along the frontier line of states, and rendered it impious for the worshippers of other divinities to invade or dispossess them of their lands. Communities having at first been thus isolated, numerous circumstances arose to make eternal the separation. The ready invention of the people gave to each state its heroes and heroic traditions, based, 37perhaps, on the exploits of border warfare, in which the ancestors of one community had suffered or inflicted injuries on the ancestors of another. Poets sprang up who celebrated these deeds in song, and every assembly, every festival, every merry-making resounded with the commemoration of deeds as galling to one people as they were glorious to the other. These prejudices, this cantonal patriotism, this tribual vanity, if I may coin a new word to express a new idea, constituted a far more impassable barrier between the diminutive states of Greece, than either mountains or rivers; though, in process of time, some few cases occurred in which very small communities were immersed and lost in greater ones. The heroism, however, with which the smallest commonwealth struggled to preserve its separate existence, the watchful jealousy, the undying solicitude, the fierce and sanguinary valour by which it hedged round its independence, the indescribable agonies of political extinction, may be seen in the examples of Ægina, Megara, Platæa, and Messenia.

In fact the most remarkable peculiarity in the Greek character was a certain centrifugal force, or abhorrence of centralisation, which presented insurmountable obstacles to the union of the whole Hellenic nation under one head. The inhabitants of ancient Italy exhibited on this point an entirely dissimilar character. Though differing from each other widely in manners, customs and laws, they still possessed so much of affinity as enabled them successively to unite themselves with Rome, and melt into one great people. The causes lay in their moral and intellectual character: possessing little genius or imagination, but much good sense, they experienced less keenly the misery of inferiority, the anguish of defeat, the tortures of submission, and calculated more coolly the advantages of protection and tranquillity, and all the other benefits of living under a strong government. Where the masses are but slightly impregnated with the fire of genius they 38are naturally disposed to amalgamation, and form a vast body necessarily subjected to one head. But where a nation is everywhere pervaded and quickened by genius, where imagination is an universal attribute, where to soar is as natural as to breathe, where the principal enjoyment of life is the exercise of power, where men hunger and thirst more for renown than for their daily bread, where life itself without these imaginary delights is insipid and despicable, no force, while the vigour of the national character continues unbroken, can erect a central government, or achieve extensive conquests, that is, subject one part of the nation to the sway of the other. And perhaps it may be found when we shall farther have perfected the science of government, that in politics as in physics the largest bodies are not the most valuable, or the most difficult to be shattered. The diamond resists when the largest rock yields. The true tendency of civilisation, therefore, is to reduce unwieldy empires into compact bodies, which the light of education can penetrate and render luminous. Vast empires are but opaque masses of ignorance.

From precisely the same causes arose the peculiar notions of the Greeks on the subject of government; that is, the citizens of each state applied to one another the principle which regulated the conduct of communities. Every man experienced an aversion to yield obedience to his neighbour, every man was ambitious to rule; but, as this was impossible, it became necessary to invent some means by which public business could be carried on without offering too much violence to the national character. Hence the origin of republicanism and the establishment of commonwealths, in which the sovereignty was acknowledged to reside in the body of the people, and where such of the citizens as by abilities, rank, friends, were qualified, might rule in vicarious succession.

But the various families of the Hellenes were not all equally endowed with the energy and intellect which belonged to their race; some possessed more 39of these qualities, others less, and there were besides in operation numerous peculiar and local causes which modified the forms of polity adopted by the various states of Greece. The heavier, the colder, the more inert naturally chose that form of government which would least tax their mental faculties, and most completely relieve them from the care of public affairs, in order the more sedulously to attend to their own; while the fierier, the busier, more active and buoyant preferred that political constitution which would afford their energetic natures most employment, and supply a legitimate outlet for the ardour and impetuosity of their temperament. Thus, in certain communities there was a leaning towards monarchy, in others towards oligarchy; in a third class towards aristocracy; while Athens and some few smaller states preferred the stir, bustle, and incessant animation of democracy.

Again these institutions, springing at first out of national idiosyncrasies, became in their turn among the most active causes which impressed the stamp of individuality on the population of each separate state: for the principle which animates a form of government is not a barren principle, but impregnates, leavens, and vivifies the community subjected to its influence, and produces an offspring analogous to the source from which it sprang. Thus, in monarchies the summits of a nation are rich with verdure and glorious with light; in aristocracies a broad table-land is fertilized and rendered beautiful; while in commonwealths, properly so called, the whole surface of society unrolls itself like a vast plain to the sun, and receives the light and comfort, and invigorating influence of its beams:—and all these various modifications of civil polity were at different times and in different parts of the country beheld in Greece, where they produced their natural fruits.

Among the principal results of the causes we have enumerated were a high intellectual cultivation, the profoundest study of philosophy, the most ardent pursuit of literature, a matchless taste for the beautiful 40in nature and in art, an irrepressible enthusiasm in the search after knowledge of every kind, and, joined with these, as their cause sometimes, and sometimes as their consequence, an invincible and limitless craving after fame. And these characteristic qualities of the people exhibited themselves in various ways. Sometimes, as in Thessaly, men sought to distinguish themselves by their wealth and the pomp by which they were surrounded:—sometimes their ruling passion urged them to pluck, amidst blood and slaughter, the laurels of war, as in Crete and Sparta, where military discipline was carried to its utmost perfection, where men lived perpetually encamped around their domestic hearths, cultivated the habits, preferences, tastes, and feelings of soldiers, and looked upon dominion as the supreme good:—sometimes religion, with its rites and pomp and sacrifices, absorbed a whole people, as in Elis, where the worship of supreme Zeus and the celebration of sacred games conferred a sanctity upon the land and people which all men of Hellenic blood respected:—elsewhere mountaineers,[146] of indomitable valour, hired out their swords to the best bidder, and became, as it were, the journeymen of war:—elegant pleasures in many cities, and commerce and magnificence, occupied and depraved the whole community; while others,[147] of grosser minds and more sordid propensities, passed their whole lives in indolent gluttony round the festive board, amid crowds of singers, flute-players, and dancers; or else, like the Delphians, were ever seen hovering amid the smoke of the altars, whetting their sacrificial knives or feasting on the savoury victims; and yet the triumphs of the Thebans proved that even the lowest of the Greeks, when circumstances led them to cultivate the arts of war, were capable of planning and executing great 41designs, and acquiring lasting celebrity. The arts, however, by which the Greeks rose to greatness,[148] and became the instructors and everlasting benefactors of mankind, flourished chiefly at Athens, and in the numerous colonies which she planted in various parts of Asia and the islands. To men of Ionian race we owe, in fact, the invention and most successful culture of poetry and philosophy, and those plastic and mimetic arts which added to the world of realities another world more beautiful still. If the Greeks borrowed, as no doubt they did, certain varieties and forms of art and learning from the barbarians, they immediately so refined and improved them, that the original inventors would no longer have recognised the works of their own hands. The glory of giving birth to several of the arts and sciences belongs to them: they were the inventors of the art of war; among them alone, in the ancient world, painting and sculpture assumed their proper dignity; and in politics and statesmanship, and that art of arts, philosophy, they led the way, and taught mankind the steps by which to arrive at perfection.

Greece, by the means we have described, was gradually reclaimed from the state of nature, covered with beautiful cities, harbours, docks, temples, palaces adorned with infinite variety of works of art, with sculpture in ivory and gold, with paintings, gems, and vases, which converted her principal cities into so many museums. Her plains, her dells, her mountain recesses were studded with sanctuaries and sacred groves, conferring the external beauty of religion on the whole face of the country. Public roads, branching from numerous capital cities, traversed the land in every direction; bridges spanned her rivers, agriculture covered her hills and plains with harvests, the vine hung in festoons from tree to tree, the foliage of the olive clothed the mountain sides, and a belt of beautiful gardens surrounded every city, town, and village.

42The primary cause of all this amazing activity has, by philosophers, been sought for in various circumstances of the condition of the Greeks, in the form of their institutions, in the rivalry of so many small communities, in the fact of their being inventors, and the consequent freshness of their pursuits. But although all these circumstances and many others contributed, as we have shown, to expedite the progress of the Greeks in civilisation, they were none of them the fountain head, which lies far beyond our ken. It were in fact as easy to tell why one star differs from another star in glory, as why one nation or one man rises in intellect above his fellows. But we are supplied with a link in the chain which connects the above effects with their cause, by the physical organisation of the Greeks, who possessed the most perfect forms in which humanity ever appeared. Their frame exhibiting all the beauty of which the human body is susceptible, uniting strength with lightness, dignity and elegance with activity, the utmost robustness of health with extreme delicacy of contour, the muscles developed by exercise, and developed over the whole structure alike, suggested the idea of power and indefatigable energy; the stature, generally above the middle size, the free and unembarrassed gait, the features[149] full of beauty, the expression replete with intellect, and the eye flashing with a consciousness of independence:—all these united conferred upon the form of the Greek an elevation, a grandeur, a majesty which we still contemplate with admiration in their sculpture, and denominate the ideal. Above all things, the form of the Grecian head was most exquisite, with its smooth, 43expansive, almost perpendicular forehead and majestic outline, describing a perfect oval. Generally the complexion was of a clear olive, the hair and eyes black, the temperament inclined to melancholy, though numerous instances occurred of sanguine fair persons with light eyes and chesnut or auburn hair, which the youth wore, as now, in a profusion of ringlets falling to the shoulders. Instances likewise occurred among the Greeks of individuals, who, like our own Chatterton, had eyes of different colours. Thus the poet Thamyris[150] is said to have had one eye grey, the other black. Nay, this peculiarity was even remarked among the inferior animals, more particularly the horses.[151]

The characteristic beauty of the nation displayed itself in every stage of life, only assuming new phases in its progress from the beauty of infancy to the beauty of old age, inspiring the mingled feelings of love and admiration; and notwithstanding the effects of time, and inter-marriage with barbarous races, the same is the case still. For nowhere in Europe do we meet with infants so lovely, with youths so soft, so virginal, so beautiful in their incipient manliness, with old men so grave, stately, and with countenances so magnificent, as among the living descendants of the Hellenes, whose destiny may yet be, one day, as enviable as their forms.

To push our enquiry one step further; it may be questioned, whether the glorious organisation we have been describing was not itself an effect of air, climate, and soil.[152] Certain at any rate it is, that the atmosphere of Greece is clearer, purer, more buoyant and elastic, than that of any other country in our hemisphere. At night, particularly, there is a transparency in the air, which appears to impart additional lustre and magnitude to the stars and moon. Its mountain 44tops, the intervening space being, as it were, removed, seem to mingle with the constellations which cluster in brightness on the edge of the horizon.

A principal cause of this clearness and pellucidness is the great prevalence of the north wind,[153] which brings with it few or no vapours, but gathers together the clouds in heaps and rolls them from the land towards the Mediterranean. The reason why this wind so often prevails may be discovered in the geographical configuration of the country, which is not, like Italy, divided from the rest of the continent by a range of Alps that might have screened it from the colder blasts, but lies open like an elevated threshing-floor, to be purged and winnowed on all sides by the winds, which in many parts are so violent that no tree can attain to any great height, while the stunted woods throw all their branches in one direction, and the vines and other climbing shrubs are laid prostrate along the rocks. These winds, however, prevail not constantly, but the southern and western breezes, blowing at intervals, bring along with them the warm atmosphere of Syria or Egypt, or the cooling freshness of the ocean. Another cause, which greatly tends to promote the purity of the air, is the lightness, friability, and dryness of the soil, which, distributed for the most part in thin layers over ledges of rocks, permits no stagnation of moisture, but enables the rain that falls to trickle through, collect in rills and brooks, and find its way rapidly to the sea. The plains and irregular valleys, which form an exception to this rule, are not numerous enough, or of sufficient magnitude to affect the general proposition. There appear, moreover, to be many peculiar properties and virtues in the soil itself, causing all fruits transplanted thither to attain to speedy ripeness and superior flavour, while odoriferous plants and flowers, as the jasmine, the wild 45thyme, and the rose exhale sweeter and more delicious fragrance. This is more particularly the case in Attica, which accordingly produced in antiquity, where due care was bestowed on gardening and agriculture, the finest fruits and sweetest honey in the world.[154]

The same qualities in soil and climate which affect vegetation, likewise powerfully influence the character and temperament of men and animals. It is, for example, well known in the Levant, that the Bedouins inhabiting Arabia Proper and the Eastern Desert degenerate both in character and physical organisation when transplanted to the Libyan wastes on the western banks of the Nile. But if particular soil and situation engender particular diseases; if the air of fens and marshes blunt the senses and paralyse, to a certain degree, the intellectual faculties, the converse of the proposition must also hold good; so that it is conceivable that the light soil and pure air of Greece may have produced corresponding effects on the bodies and minds of its inhabitants. The experiment, in fact, is made daily; for strangers arriving there with the germs of disease in their constitution, are, in most cases, speedily destroyed by the force of the climate; while the healthy and vigorous acquire the vivacity, the cheerfulness, the nervous and impetuous energy of the natives themselves, and, like them, extend the term of life to its utmost span. Greece, indeed, has always been the habitation of longevity; its philosophers in antiquity,—its monks, anchorites, and rural population in modern times, furnishing, perhaps, more examples of extreme old age than could be found on the same extent of territory in any other part of the globe.

Now this excess of vitality, this superabundance of the principle of life, which constitutes what we intend by physical or moral energy, almost inevitably produces, among an ill-governed, ill-educated people, a 46large harvest of crime, and, accordingly, the modern Greeks have often been distinguished for audacious villany; the intrepid vigour of their character, controlled neither by religion nor philosophy, easily breaking through the restraints of tyranny and unjust laws in the chase after power or excitement. That Frenchman spoke more truly than he thought, who said the Greeks were still the same “canaille” as in the days of Themistocles: for, give them the same laws, the same education, the same incentives to virtue and to heroism, and they will probably be again as virtuous, as wise, and as heroic as their illustrious ancestors. I judge in this way partly from my own experience, for I have seldom become acquainted with a Greek,—and I have known many,—who has not improved upon acquaintance, won my esteem, and, in most cases, my affection, and impressed me with the firm belief that there is no nation in the varied population of Europe which, if ruled with wisdom and justice, would exhibit loftier or more exalted qualities. In these views I am happy to be borne out by the testimony of Monsieur Frederic Thiersch, whose facilities for studying the modern Greek have been far more ample than mine, and whose opinions are marked by the cautious acuteness of the statesman with the depth and originality of the philosopher.

In alluding to the causes which pervert the feelings and misdirect the energies of the existing race, I have touched also at the great source of crime among their ancestors,—I mean, defective laws and institutions; for although the Greek character was, in force and excellence, all that I have said, and more, it, nevertheless, contained other elements than those I have described, which it now becomes my duty to speak of. From a very early period there existed in Greece two political parties, variously denominated in various states, but upholding,—the one, the doctrine that the many ought to be subjected to the few; the other, that the few ought to be subjected to the many: in other words, the oligarchical and democratical parties. From 47the struggles of these two factions the internal history of Greece takes its form and colour, as to them may be traced most of the fearful atrocities, in the shape of conspiracies, massacres, revolutions, which, instructing while they shock us, stain the Greek character with indelible blots.[155] Ambitious men are nowhere scrupulous. To enjoy the delight imparted by the exercise of power, individuals have in all ages stifled the dictates of conscience; and where, as in modern Italy and in ancient Greece, numerous small states border upon each other, sufficiently powerful to dream of conquest though too weak to achieve it, the number of the ambitious is of necessity greatly multiplied. In proportion, however, to the thirst of power in one class was the love of freedom and independence in the other, so that the process of encroachment and resistance, of tyranny and rebellion, of usurpation and punishment, was carried on perpetually,—the oligarchy now predominating, and cutting off or sending into exile the popular leaders, while the democratic party, triumphing in its turn, inflicted similar sufferings on its enemies. By degrees, moreover, there sprang up two renowned states to represent these opposite principles, and the contests carried on by them assumed consequently many characteristics of civil war,—its obstinacy, its bitterness, its revenge.

In these struggles seas of blood were shed, and crimes of the darkest dye perpetrated. Cities, once illustrious and opulent, were razed to the ground; whole populations put to the sword or reduced to servitude; fertile plains rendered barren; men most renowned for capacity and virtue made a prey to treachery or the basest envy; the morals of great states corrupted, their glory eclipsed, their power undermined, and a way paved for the inroads of barbarian conquerors who ultimately put a period to the grandeur of the Hellenes.

Examples without number might be collected of 48these horrors. It will be sufficient to advert briefly to a few, more to remind than to inform the reader. In the troubles of Corcyra[156] the nobles and the commons alternately triumphing over each other, carried on with the utmost ruthlessness the work of extermination with abundant baseness and perfidy, some portion of which attached to the Athenian generals: the wrongs and sufferings inflicted by the Spartans on the brave but unfortunate inhabitants of Messenia, with the annual butchery of the Helots, the treacherous withdrawal of suppliants from sanctuary, and their subsequent slaughter,[157] the extermination of the people of Hysia,[158] the precipitating of neutral merchants into pits,[159] the betrayal of the cities of Chalcidice and the islands, the massacre in cold blood of the Platæans, of four thousand Athenians in the Hellespont,[160] the reduction of innumerable cities to servitude: by the Athenians, the extermination of the people of Melos,[161] the slaughter of a thousand Mitylenians, the cruelties at Skione, Ægina, and Cythera;[162] but beyond these, and beyond all, the fearful excesses of civil strife at Miletos where the common people called Gergithes having risen in rebellion against the nobles and defeated them in battle, took their children and cast them into the cattle stalls where they were crushed and trampled to death by the infuriated oxen; but the nobles renewing the contest and obtaining ultimately the victory, seized upon their enemies,—men, women, children, and covered them with pitch, to which setting fire they burnt them alive.[163]

From these glimpses of guilt and suffering, we may learn to what extremes the Greek was sometimes hurried by passion and the thirst of power. But propensities so wolfish were not predominant in his nature.[164] 49On the contrary, in private life, even the Spartans and the Dorians generally put off their cruel and severe habits, and relaxed on all proper occasions into joviality and mirth. In their social intercourse, in fact, few nations have been more cheerful or addicted to jokes and pleasantry than the Greeks, and above all the Athenians, whose hours of leisure were one continued round of gossip, sport, and laughter.[165] Never in any city were news-mongers, or even news-forgers, so numerous. In the mouth of young and old no question was so frequent as, “What is the news?” These were the sounds that circulated from rank to rank in the assembly of the people before the orators began their harangues, that were bandied to and fro in the Agora, that filled by their incessant repetition the shops of barbers and perfumers.[166] Akin to this itching ear was the passion for show and magnificence, every man, from highest to lowest, affecting as far as possible spacious dwellings, superb furniture and costly apparel. Even the bravest of the brave, the heroes of Marathon, were petits-maîtres at their toilette, and went forth to the field in purple cloaks, their hair curled, adorned with golden ornaments, and perfumed with essences. The study of philosophy itself failed in most cases to subdue this ostentatious spirit. Plato loved rich carpets and splendid raiment. Even Aristotle was an exquisite, and Æschines an acknowledged coxcomb.

From several of these weaknesses the Spartans 50were free. They cared little for news, still less for dress, and less still for cleanliness; so that their beautiful long hair and waving beards swarmed with those autochthonal beasts, for the expulsion of which there was no law in Sparta. Though neither a knowing nor cleanly race, however, their wit was bright and piercing. No people uttered pithier or finer sayings, and their taste both in music and poetry was cultivated and refined. Probably, therefore, the dining halls and gymnasia and public walks of Sparta were enlivened by as much mirth as those of any other Grecian city, where usually cheerfulness was so prevalent, that “to be as merry as a Greek,” has become a proverb in all countries.

On the third period of the Greek character it is unnecessary to speak at any length. Most of their good qualities having departed with their freedom they degenerated into a dissembling, hypocritical, fawning and double-dealing race, with little or no respect for truth, without patriotism, and without genuine valour. The literature, painting, and sculpture, to which in their period of degradation they gave birth, bore evident marks of their degeneracy, and tended by the corruption they diffused to avenge them on their conquerors the Romans; whose minds and morals they vitiated, and whose career of freedom and glory they cut short. Through their vices, however, the fame of their more noble and virtuous ancestors has greatly suffered, for the Romans contemplating the Greeks they saw before them, and implanting their opinion throughout the whole civilised world, their false and unjust views have been bequeathed to posterity; for it is still in a great measure through the Romans that people study the Greeks.

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