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In his Republic, Plato called Homer the founder of Hellas. This phrase is an indication of how important the great epic poet’s works were in educating Athenians, and the Hellenes in general. Starting with a narrative of the events of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus in the storm-tossed seas, the Greek language evolved from an Ionian dialect to its final, Attic form.
The Greek language belongs to the family of Indo-European languages, and appears to have been in use in the region of Hellas as early as the 2nd millennium BC. There were a number of similar dialects; we know this because nowhere in the myths is there ever a question of the inhabitants of the various regions having difficulty communicating. Words with roots from another language must have belonged to a pre-Hellenic dialect which was subsequently absorbed by the Greek language. Mention should also be made here of the evolution of script which so influenced the ancient civilisations, since it implied the need for communication and the ability to transmit and store knowledge. This marvellous invention of the human mind has impressed philosophers of all ages, from Aristotle, who said that letters are the symbols of spoken words, to Voltaire, the 18th century romantic, who declared that writing is the painting of the voice.
Writing was discovered by many peoples at many points on earth, according to the needs of each, beginning with the first rock paintings in 30,000 BC which portrayed scenes from daily life, including men, women, the hunt and totemic animals. This visual representation then grew to express ideas and evolved into ideograms, starting with simple lines, and then patterns where, for example, “mouth” and “food” together meant “eat”. This type of script is still used in the Chinese language, with thousands of symbols and combinations of them. In Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium, a way was found of recording events by impressing wedge-shaped (cuneiform) symbols on clay plates. This cuneiform writing was used broadly by merchants during the 3rd millennium to facilitate and secure their transactions. The priests of Pharaoh’s Egypt also used ideograms called hieroglyphics in the 3rd millennium. At the same time, there was another type of pictorial writing used by the peoples of the Indus river valley in present-day Pakistan.
The most important step in the development of script was taken when the pattern ceased to indicate meaning alone, and a verbal sound was combined with the object represented to become a syllable. The combination of linear, pictorial and above all syllabic expression was the precursor of the alphabet, as the evolution of script entailed the abstraction of symbols and simplification for wider use. Archaeological evidence to day indicates that the Phoenician inhabitants of Ugarit were the first to use this marvellous achievement for the needs of their daily communication, while at the same time disseminating it to neighbouring peoples. There were also variations, as can be seen from one of the most mysterious texts ever found: the disc from Phaestos, Crete. It belongs to the 2nd millennium, and has not yet been deciphered; it appears to be the first relief text in world history. Another form of writing was also developed in Crete, called linear A, likewise undeciphered to date. The later, linear B script was syllabic and revealed recognisable Greek words. This latter form of writing was scratched on tablets found in the excavations at Pylos and in settlements of the Mycenean period.
After the 10th century BC, the Greeks learned the Phoenician alphabet which, being vocally expressed, was more convenient. In about the 9th century, the Greeks invented vowels, which nobody had thought of until then. They also tried to write words as they were pronounced, although with no particular spelling. Script was originally written from right to left, as it still is in some Eastern languages.
Later it became two-way, taking on its final Western form in the 5th century, the form which remains in use up to the present, based on the initial Ionian alphabet. Another Mediterranean script, Etruscan, still altogether unknown, may possibly have originated on the island of Lemnos. We know that the Latin alphabet came with colonists from Kymi, in Evia, who founded the settlement called Cumae near present-day Naples in Italy. Their letters were similar to the Greek alphabet, the only difference being that the Latins rounded the angular shapes of the original, e.g. “=C, “=D, £=S. There were only capital letters. Ancient Hellenic script had no accents or breathings, which were added during the Alexandrine years.
The Roman poet Horace said that the Greek race was born blessed with a pleasant sounding language full of musicality. This language became the means of expressing poetry and philosophy. The natural inclination of the Greeks to verbal expression and the democratic freedom of the City made it possible for people to listen, to improve their own speech and, by learning to read and write, to retain their knowledge. Plato justly called the Athenians philologoi (word-lovers) and polylogoi (people of many words). These two attributes contributed to the evolution of the Attic dialect which approached the sublime in lyric and tragic discourse, and afforded the many an opportunity to learn that which in other countries would have been strictly for the few. The Attic texts which have come down to us reflect the high intellectual level of their authors, because only a culturally advanced people would have had the rich vocabulary necessary to express so many difficult, subtle concepts.
In antiquity, the word “Hellene” meant the person who possessed the Greek language and education. This indeed was the grand plan of Alexander the Great: to disseminate this language to the distant countries of Asia, joining the peoples together through a common form of expression in one language: Koine. An echo of this vision is the delight felt by present day Greek travellers in these lands, when they meet people called Sikander (Alexander), who are fully aware of the origin of their name and take pride in it.
In Athens, the children of the citizens and most metoici (resident aliens) received their early education from private teachers. An amount was even set aside in the state budget to pay for the education of the children of men fallen in war. Thus almost all men could, to some degree, read, write and count. Beside the teacher, a significant position was also held by the teacher of music, a subject regarded as being essential, since harmony verged on the sublime and art was the Muses’ gift to mortals; this could be seen in Greek myth in the story of Orpheus who charmed wild beasts with his lyre. Such a basic education was sufficient to prepare young people to carry out their civic duties. Children had to do gymnastics every day under a master’s supervision, because cultivating a fine, strong body was an obligation to the divine gift of life. Aeschines tells us that in the gymnasia where the young people would practise, entry was permitted only to educators and close blood relations.
Most of the poorer Athenian children received no more than this basic education. But if parents wanted to equip their sons with more social prestige and a more secure future, they had recourse to the services of the sophists. Although Plato characterised them harshly as “merchants of knowledge”, the fact is that, after 450 BC, these wandering philosophers were an inexhaustible source of learning -for a handsome fee, of course. Informed in all fields, the sophists, who were scholars of Ionic philosophy and skilled in the use of logic, passed on their erudition utilising the art of rhetoric as their primary tool. Most significant for them were the arguments using appropriately selected words which could lead the public in any direction they wished. The city, with the freedom of speech that characterised it, became a major focal point attracting the sophists, and providing the people with an opportunity to acquire more general learning. In this way a metoicos philosopher, Anaxagoras from Klazomenes, educated a poor stone-cutter named Socrates.
Son of a mason and a midwife, Socrates initially worked with his father as the law demanded. But neither his occupation nor family life delighted his uneasy spirit, which is why as a youth he took pains to educate himself and to learn by observing sophists and wise men. At about the age of 40, he abandoned his trade altogether and began to propagate his philosophical ideas to anyone who felt like listening. His quarrels with his wife Xanthippe were legendary, as she chased him about demanding housekeeping money, much to the general hilarity of the Athenians. In 5th century Athens, Socrates was a controversial figure, as he always went barefoot, even in winter, washed but rarely, and was always calm and indifferent to whatever was happening around him. Like the Indian yogi masters, he could remain motionless, cut off from his environment for a long time, as he did once in the campaign of Potidaea for 24 hours.
On the contrary, at the moment of battle he was fearless, and once saved his fellow fighters, as no less a witness than Alcibiades confirmed. His self-control never left him even after drinking all night, and when all the other guests were in a sorry state, Socrates would depart sober, heading straight to the Agora to continue the exchange of views on philosophic matters. He was quite uninterested in the goods being sold; they merely caused him to remark that seeing them made him realise how very little he needed. As ugly as the satyr Marsyas, he charmed the crowds not with the flute but with words. Socrates’ method of teaching was debate which always brings people together. In contrast with the sophists, who taught using rhetorical skill, he preferred the dialectic method. Regarding the admission of ignorance as the beginning of all things, Socrates helped his interlocutor to discover his innermost thoughts. A pioneer in the field of psychoanalysis, he proceeded to look for truth, which was always his goal.
Socrates was unquestionably endowed with a charm that fascinated his audiences and opened doors to aristocratic homes. Much in demand as a speaker, the Athenian philosopher never accepted money, but exchanged his thoughts for the perishable possessions of his wealthy friends. “Gold for copper” he would say somewhat egotistically, comparing the values of the goods exchanged. Perhaps his unprecedented disregard for social forms was one of the reasons why young aristocrats adored him, almost to excess. The fact that Socrates began teaching after the age of 40 may possibly be due to the Peloponnesian war which overturned old values and caused him to become indifferent to gods and customs. The long-term goal of his teaching was to acquire virtue, an objective which each person had to approach in his own way. Virtue, when it was consistent with the principles of ethics, assisted one to live well; correct knowledge and free thought led to sound judgment controlled by moral laws, which led to Virtue through Truth.
Socrates never wrote about his ideas, he only talked about them. With his great dialectical skill, he made young people wonder about the validity of everything they had been taught. Such doubt was not of course welcomed by the Athenian aristocrats who wanted their sons to comply with the ancestral law, not to be critical of it. Socrates’ new ideas were regarded as being subversive, even though he himself was completely indifferent to politics. The philosopher’s trial and conviction for impiety became widely known through his pupil, Plato, who recorded the great teacher’s dialogues with his followers. Speaking ironically about the narrow-minded antagonism of his fellow citizens during the trial, Socrates refused to flee and save himself from the penalty imposed by the state. He remained true to his own moral standards up to the end and by his death, placed the seal on his entire philosophy. His intellectual contribution was far in advance of his time and constituted the cornerstone of subsequent Western European thought.
But let us now return to the young people of the Asty or City of Athens. Around the age of 18, young Athenian men accompanied their father to the feast of the Apatoureion, where the parent swore an oath acknowledging his son, an absolutely necessary step in securing the title of an Athenian citizen and in registering the youth in the rolls of his tribe. That was the first moment of his two years of military training. It is worth noting that because the Athenians defended their native lands as citizens and never as professional soldiers or mercenaries, they all had to be familiar with military matters and always ready to shoulder responsibility in time of need. The Athenian army consisted primarily of ten units, one from each tribe with its own elected general, the military Archon being supreme commander. The two-year training was to prepare young people to participate in civic affairs, in peace and war alike, until they became fully integrated into the social fabric.
This period of training began with the oath taken in the sanctuary of Aglavros, daughter of the mythic Kekrops, which had survived as a memory of an ancient deity. After the oath, the youths had their hair cut and let their beards grow. At the same ceremony, after receiving spear and shield, they were assigned to a group of young people from their own tribe. For the next two years the young men wore short black cloaks and drilled with mature men selected by each tribe as being particularly serious and reliable people. The test for passing from adolescence to manhood began with a tour around the sanctuaries of Attica where libations and sacrifices were conducted. During these two years, Athenian youths did not have the right to appear in the Council or in the courts, nor could they claim any inheritance, even though they were already officially recognised by the state after being registered in the rolls. Only after the age of 20 were young men considered full citizens of the Polis with the obligation of serving their homeland, whenever necessary, until they were 60. With training of this kind, it is obvious that Athenian men were in demand as mercenaries, as in the case of Xenophon and his Ten Thousand who fought in the Persian army.
After the compulsory two-year service, young Athenian men, now citizens in the full sense of the word, were free to marry, have a family, concern themselves with public matters, philosophise and make a living. This last was usually achieved through trade in the few products yielded by their grid land and above all, through the ever increasing local artistic output.
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