Can You Learn An Ancient Language By Deriving Current Ones The Unity of the Greek Nation

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The Unity of the Greek Nation

Because the Greeks always had been politically pluralistic and remained so as long as possible, their ability to develop a powerful unified culture is ample proof that originally they derived from a unified nation. The Greeks offer the remarkable drama of an old and persistent enmity among many small branches of one and the same nation so that, viewed panoramically, this spectacle already appears somewhat uniform, as it were, forming a single group for the eye.

In the heroic age the hero stormed castles and, having killed the lord, either married his daughter or carried her off as a slave. The earliest invading Greeks, however, when unchecked, were outright pirates; various figures merged the pirate and hero in one. In those days, the dissension among the kin was expressed symbolically: Eteocles and Polyneices struggle with each other already in the womb. In addition, the myths teem with deliberate and involuntary murder, and the spleen of that age consisted essentially in wandering about because of some such murder.

The Odyssey consistently takes piracy, i.e., sudden landing and plundering, for granted, even on the part of its most praiseworthy heroes. Menelaus rather freely admitted that he had acquired his treasures largely by pillage; Nestor quite naively imputed a similar course of action to Telemachus, and when the suitors arrived in the underworld the shade of Agamemnon surmised among other things that they were killed while stealing cattle, just as he himself had earlier been suspected of doing Odysseus above all was mighty in piracy; he ravaged the Thracian coastal city of Ismarus, killed the men, and carried off the women and rich plunder, dividing it equally among his men. It never occurred to him to ask himself what harm he had suffered from the Cicones. He supposed he could recoup what he had lost to the suitors by raiding of his own. In his considered conduct of life, he goes on killing and robbing without any qualms.

The whole Cyclops story was nothing but a reflection of the wicked primeval dealings between crafty sea robbers and wild shepherds. Polyphemus, who finally perceived with whom he was dealing, was the savage shepherd caricatured as the sea folk knew him; cannibalism was attributed to him as it was to the Laestrygonians, which may have been historically true.

Other heroes stole cattle with a view to proffering bridal gifts to royal daughters. An interesting tale dealing with piracy tells about Butes and how the host of men he had gathered about him on the island of Naxos stole women from the various coastal areas. Two chiefs quarreled over the beautiful Pankratis and killed each other; so she fell to a third man. The heroic age had one good quality: it did not systematically lay waste whole regions, i.e., destroy the plantations or farms; destruction of this kind was reserved for the Greeks in the days of their cultural refinement. Armed robbery by land prevailed among some of the more backward tribes. The Ozolians, Locrians, Aetolians, and Acarnians still followed that old way of life up to the fifth century.

Exclusiveness, ill will toward all other poleis, especially the neighboring ones, was not only a dominant feeling but almost a mark of civic virtue. Antipathies among modem cities, which derive mostly from economic causes, give no notion of the rancor, secret or manifest, which Greek cities harbored for each other. The least harmful aspect of this ill will was the sarcasm and calumny periodically indulged in; the worst was the extermination of one’s neighbor, as Argos had destroyed Mycenae.

One of the greatest merits of the aristocratic age was that, on the whole, it preserved peace and evolved the agonistic virtues as an outlet for its ambitions. Violent outbreaks of hatred between the poleis have their beginning in the restless fifth century. Although the awareness of a common bond among the Dorian or Ionian tribes determined in part which side a polis took in the great upheavals, such as the Persian or Peloponnesian wars, yet, as before, no quarter was given to one’s closest neighbor and the nearest tribal kin. The Lacedaemonian Dorians exterminated the Messenian Dorians with a vengeance merely because they coveted their land.

He who has learned to know the harshness of the polis toward its own suppressed parties and has seen how the polis oppressed people of old Greek stock in its vicinity, will see in its external conduct simply an extension of the same logic. The more feverishly tense life became in the fifth century polis, the more frequently it engaged in external warfare, the shorter were the intervals of peace and the more unreliable became the treaties. More and more, the single state became aware that all other states were in life-and death competition with it, and comported itself accordingly, so that the period of the highest cultural achievements coincided with the most atrocious executions.

Listening to the Greeks, one would suppose that humane codes sacredly observed governed the conduct of victors in war: not to raze cities, to spare people who yielded with outstretched hands, to free prisoners for a stipulated ransom, to permit the enemy to bury its dead, to respect the honor of young women, etc. In time, the nation even came to imagine that Hellenism and humaneness were synonymous, and already at the capture of Ilium the victors, in allegedly Hellenic fashion, had granted each person permission to carry away his dearest possessions, whereupon Aeneas had taken his household gods and his father with him.

According to myths, the murder of strangers took place only in countries far away; for all that, the Greeks rather frequently murdered their own at home. Those alleged humane practices were adhered to, when they were, for purely practical motives-fear of vengeance and hope of ransom. Sparing a temple while annihilating the people around it rather takes on for us the character of a deliberate sacrilege. The horrors reported hereafter took place in part at the time of Phidias, Iktinus, Zeuxis, and Parrhasius, with all its subtleties of conversation and choric meters. When the tragedians, as is well known, confuse Mycenae and Argos, that means little because in the year 468 B.C. the Argives had sold part of the Mycenaeans as slaves, scattered the rest abroad, and laid the city as well as Tirynthus in ruins.

All ancient peoples regarded it as an immutable law that the vanquished and their goods became the property of the victor. But the small Greek cities living next to each other as sovereign states were animated by the sweeping egoism of doing not only what was essential to their survival but whatever in a wider sense appeared desirable and convenient besides.

Sparta expressed this view unequivocally through the mouth of the dreadful King Cleomenes when he attacked Argos without the slightest provocation: Whatever harm one can do an enemy takes precedence over all justice before gods and men.

The other poleis also committed shocking iniquities, not especially in the heat of passion but deliberately, out of so-called necessity, and not only against enemies but also against such as it seemed advantageous to victimize, not only because of compelling motives of war but because of political odium. The Greeks continued to act as if the Hellenic supply of men were inexhaustible and as if Persia and the world of barbarians were no longer a constant threat.

The documents on the destinies of Plataea and Melos have been indel ibly preserved. The heroic remnant of the besieged Plataeans surrendered on condition that Spartan judges would try them; five such judges appeared with secret instructions to pronounce the death sentence on them as a favor to Thebes, which might be useful to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.

These same Thebans had destroyed Plataea earlier, at the time of Xerxes, and were to do it again after the scattered fugitives had returned to the city after the peace of Antalcidas.

It was Macedonia that restored Plataea permanently. But the philos ophy that might makes right found its consummate expression in the callous way the Athenians demanded submission of the Melians during peace and neutrality, knowing full well that this act would provoke opposition which inevitably would lead to the destruction of the weaker party. In point of fact, when the Melians were starved into surrender, the Athenians killed the men, sold the women and children into slavery, and colonized the island with Athenians. But woe to Athens, the great polis, if ever it fell into misfortune and had to remember how it had treated the weaker states.

Commonly the victors completely destroyed a city they vanquished, not sparing even the temples and the graves; sometimes they carried off the statues of the gods. Or they might let old or unique temples stand, as Alexander had done after the conquest of Thebes. Out of the usable material left after they had totally destroyed Plataea the Thebans built a temple to Hera and a caravansary two hundred feet square; they leased out the land of the Plataean state. At other times, the ruins of the city and the surrounding territory were dedicated to a temple found there, thus effectively forestalling the restoration of the city.

The victor had to prevent the rebuilding of a city come what may, for since the sites of cities were often well chosen, one could easily foresee that the people panting for revenge were eager to rebuild, and would do so unless they were prevented. One means to achieve this was the solemn imprecation, a very ancient custom, Strabo supposes, because Agamemnon already had laid the city of Ilion under a curse.

If the victors let the city stand, they had to resettle it with new inhabitants; but even if they destroyed the city, they still did not dare let the old population survive lest it return to its former habitation. They had either to kill or enslave their captives. If they enslaved them, they either sold them somewhere or used them as their own slaves at home. If they murdered even women and children, as the Byzantines and Chalcedonians did when they marched through Bithynia in 415 B.C., they did so because they had enough slaves already and had no prospects of selling them to advantage.

After conquering Mitylene on Lesbos the demos contented itself with executing the thousand guiltiest sent to Athens and with distributing nearly the whole island to Attic cleruchies [military colonies to safeguard strategically important points], demolishing the walls, and confiscating their ships. When King Philip reduced and razed Olynthus, an Olynthian traitor served as assessor in selling his fellow Olynthians; there were also Greeks who accepted Olynthian slaves as presents from King Philip. Most of the Athenians captured at the end of the Sicilian expedition perished in Syracusan stone quarries where they were detained awaiting sale; only a small number was saved as a favor.

At the slightest difficulty the victors might slay their captives so as not to have to feed them any longer. Alcidas, a Peloponnesian admiral, dispatched for the same reason some unarmed men even though they had not raised a finger against him and had been forced into an alliance with Athens.

In the course of the Peloponnesian War, Athens, having no money to pay thirteen hundred Thracian mercenaries, sent them away with the general injunction to harm the enemies of Athens. They made a sudden attack upon the completely unarmed and undefended city of Mycalessus in Boeotia, plundering homes and temples, murdering young and old, including women and children, all the boys in a school, even draft animals and everything alive. Granted that they were bloodthirsty Thracians; still, they were led by an Athenian, Diitrephes, who must have known very well where he was taking them.

The requital came with Aegospotami. The Athenians had resolved, if they won, to cut off the right hand of every prisoner they took. A short time before they had hurled to death the crews of two triremes, and Lysander, who now presided at the trial by the victorious allies, with his own hands killed the Athenian general who had issued the order for that atrocity. The Spartans and their allies executed all three thousand Athenian prisoners.

The Spartans, however, would not consent to the destruction of Athens as demanded by the Corinthians, Thebans, and others. They withheld their consent not for the high-minded reason they adduced, that a Hellenic city which in past crises had done so much for Greece should not now be reduced to slavery, but rather on the shrewd calculation that it was best not to provoke a last desperate struggle and that the destruction of Athens would only make Thebes the more formidable.

It was already a sort of clemency when the inhabitants were only driven out of a city, as the Athenians drove out the Aeginetans in 427 B.C. because it appeared safer to have Athenian colonists living on the island, although the Aeginetans had been paying tribute to Athens for thirty years. The subsequent events, however, are instructive. When the Athenians later took the Peloponnesian city of Thyrea, where Aeginetan fugitives lived, they brought them to Athens and killed them because of long standing enmity, i.e., the Athenians merely proved thereby that they had not been able to annihilate them all in 427. After the fall of Athens, Lysander returned the surviving fugitives; it will come as no surprise that the Aeginetans henceforth did not allow any Athenian to set foot on the island.

At Salamis, Aegina had fought the Persians in a most glorious manner and like Athens had also been a city famous for its art. The envy of the powerful neighbor, however, had demanded first the oppressive subjugation and then the expulsion of the Aeginetans. Similarly, the glory the Mycenaeans had won in the Persian War led to their destruction in that it had provoked the envy of the Argives.

The Hellenes knew one another and knew that defeat in war meant not only subjection to a power stronger politically and militarily, but also total destruction, for the victor would take possession of all property, appropriate the territory, and kill or sell the inhabitants. Since the downfall of the polis meant the destruction of all citizens, its defense took on the character of protecting the communal existence of the city as well as the personal existence of the individual, and the more turbulent the times and the more frequent the trials of destiny became, the more certainly the polis could rely on each citizen to be a fighter and the more determined was its defense.

The systematic devastation of enemy territory deserves a closer look. All people in all ages resorted to devastation as a means of inflicting injury on an enemy. In the Middle Ages in Europe, open villages were destroyed to impoverish the lord they were attached to and so to force him to yield; to this end, houses were burned, farmers killed or dispersed, the cattle-if not killed already by the owners-and all the rest of the property stolen.

Among the Greeks pillage and devastation were nothing out of the ordinary either. It was a different matter with the destruction of trees, which went far beyond the aims of the war and really stemmed from an inveterate and irreconcilable hatred. Cleombrotus, a later Spartan king, put himself under a heavy cloud of suspicion when he refrained from laying waste Boeotia. Agesilaus, likewise on a campaign in Boeotia, ordered his confederate troops to devastate the land and to chop down the trees. When they would not properly carry out his orders he revoked them but had the soldiers move their camp several times a day so that they used up as much timber in setting up new barracks as they would have destroyed at his commands. The devastation Agesilaus caused in Greece added up to a frightful total.

Could no one among the outstanding thinkers and patriots grasp the historical implications of this kind of warfare and give the nation a timely warning? There were such people and warnings enough if one had only cared to listen. Lysistrata, in Aristophanes’ play of the same name, tells the Athenians and Laconians: Using the same consecrated water, you as kinsmen sprinkle in common the altars at Olympia, Thermopylae, Delphi, and other places too many to name; yet you destroy your fellow Hellenes and their cities, and all the while barbarians are near at hand.

But Plato, to his eternal glory, speaks the plainest words in his The Republic: Should Hellenes be allowed to enslave the people of Hellenic cities? Should they not rather prevent others from doing this? Should they not make it a custom to spare the Hellenic race lest the barbarians enslave them? Should they not be forbidden altogether to keep Hellenes as slaves? One should also not pillage those who have fallen in battle, but should permit the enemy to gather their dead for burial. Furthermore, no arms (of defeated Greeks should be hung on display in temples. Hellenes should not ravage the land of the enemy, cut down the trees, and burn the houses, but should take only the year’s crop.

Fighting among Hellenes is not war but a disease, for by nature they are friends. The term war applies properly only to fighting between Hellenes and barbarians, for they are by nature at odds with each other. Hellenes should act toward barbarians as they now act toward one another.

Where individuals thought, spoke, and wrote so nobly, posterity will not spare severe judgment on a people that persevered in acting meanly, and especially so because exceptions among leaders did occur: “Epaminondas and Pelopidas,” Plutarch says, “never killed or enslaved the population after capturing a city.” Referring to the time around the beginning of the second century B.C., Plutarch also says: As diseases appear to lessen when the body weakens, so conflicts waned among the Greek states as their wealth diminished. But right up to the time of the Roman rule, one Greek city would occasionally pounce on another to rob it of its last crumb.

But far beyond this late period and even in the time of the Roman emperors, Greeks kept the memory of victory over other Greeks alive by every means possible. The less they had been able to overthrow or destroy an enemy permanently, the more lavish they made their tropaeum marking a victory over this enemy, so as to nettle him the more. The centers where the greatest communal festivals and divine worship took place were crammed with mementos of Greek victories over other Greeks.

In Olympia, the Elians set up a tropaeum for repelling a Spartan attack, and in the temple of Zeus, directly under the Nike of Paeonius, hung the golden shield of the Lacedaemonian confederacy commemorating their victory at Tanagra over the Argives, Athenians, and Ionians. For their part in the battle at Sphacteria the Messenians of Naupactus dedicated a goddess of victory on which, however, they did not inscribe the name of the conquered out of apprehension-for they were Spartans.

But even in the days of the Roman emperors Delphi, above all, was the monumental museum of Greek hatred for Greeks, of mutually inflicted suffering immortalized in the loftiest works of art. This museum was almost perfectly intact while Greece was filled with ruins and waste, the guilt for which rests not with the Macedonians and Romans but with the Greeks themselves. The only Greek city whose temples were not adorned with spoils of Hellenes and the anathemas of kindred dead but with the weapons of barbarians was Corinth. These weapons bore the inscription: The Corinthians and General Timoleon delivered the Hellenes dwelling in Sicily from the Carthaginians and they dedicated these gifts to the gods.

The cities, to be sure, maintained among themselves shorter and longer periods of peace, often resting on treaties. During these periods they carried on a brisk trade and intercourse which required that the resident aliens be granted a certain security. Because of their traveling about, whether for trade, attending festivals, or going on pilgrimages, the Greeks developed a system of hospitality which established for them the reputation of being an especially hospitable nation.

Homer provided illustrations of the unerring tact of the Greeks in these matters. The claim to hospitality deriving from their grandfathers made Diomedes and Glaucus halt their combat; they exchanged weapons and resolved thenceforth to avoid each other in battle. Indeed, a general warning was issued against contests between men having mutual claims to hospitality.

And the poor were protected; Nausicaa and Eumaeus said that the stranger and starveling belong to Zeus. In the early period of the polis, Hesiod proclaimed that those cities will flourish which pronounce a just verdict on the stranger as well as on the native. Later, this was no longer taken as a matter of course, for the Greek abroad had to have a local representative to support him in court and to assure his safety in general, which along with other usages in connection with proxenia remains unexplained. (Proxenia was a compact of friendship between a state and a foreigner.)

If one cannot well perceive the unifying bond of the Greek nation in the antagonistic relations of the poleis to each other, one nevertheless expects to find it in their common religion. As a common cultural element of the highest order religion certainly exerted a unifying force; it carried within it a powerful system of concepts that was shared by the people as a whole. In addition, there were the majestic communal temples, festival places, and oracles where on solemn occasions continental and colonial Hellenes forgathered and became aware how great the nation was; at such times these places appeared to be an intensified Greece.

The great festival seasons were accompanied by a divine truce in war and sometimes on such occasions minor conflicts were settled altogether. The divine truce of Olympia and the holy neutrality of Elis have their own history. However, these festivals did not prevent real wars; in fact, they hardly interrupted them. People did not wish to forgo the old custom of coming together for sacrifices, athletic contests, and markets. The Olympic festival also provided an orderly chronology, for parallel to it local chronology, with special year and month designations, continued everywhere. Apollo at Delphi counseled Greeks at war with Greeks, and his shrine, as said above, was richly adorned with monuments of mutual hatred.

More even than religion, the cycle of heroic myths provided a common tie for the entire people, for its great epic poetry had taken on the character of a common possession. What a tremendous wealth of flowers wafted together from all quarters until these enchanted fields of myth were luxuriating!-that was something men lost sight of as soon as the epic cycle shaped the great national image, mirroring its feelings, reflections, and ambitions.

Though the semblance of the Oedipus, Agamemnon, and other cycles might appear among other races, the Greeks endowed them with their own unique characteristics and richly varied forms. These myths directly exerted a unifying effect by the fact that their heroes, in addition to their special local activities, assembled for a common enterprise which presented an ideal of collective Greek unity.

The voyage of the Argonauts and the Calydonian hunt present formative stages of these myths in a restricted geographical area. Later these myths were amplified so as to include heroes and men from all tribes, until finally they undertook the expedition to Troy. Thucydides regarded this in all sincerity as the first great Panhellenic venture and as a manifestation of the will of the nation as a whole.

As the heroes were the earliest glorified personalities, so their herald Homer was the earliest intellectual celebrity, universally recognized among the Hellenes; admittedly, he became the chief means used in educating the Greeks from childhood on. After Homer the Greek world became truly one; there are Greeks where there is a recollection of heroes. The beauty of these heroic legends touched and captivated the Latins, the primeval kindred of the Greeks in the west, and the wings of Greek art and maybe also their poesy carried rich treasure even to the dullish Etruscans.

As the unity of the myths conferred a high order of unity on Greek life, so this unity was gradually strengthened by their whole culture, which distinguished the Greeks as such by an abundance of common modes of life of all kinds, without which they would have regarded existence as a misfortune and which brought them together time and again despite all mutual antipathies. This culture complex was powerful enough to assimilate or expel backward elements at home and to turn the barbarians around the Greek colonies and in their interiors into half-Greeks who were at least eager to understand Greek culture. The Greek language above all had truly wonderful national characteristics.

In the early days there emerged, out of the diverse dialects, the language of epic chants understood and craved everywhere, the noblest vehicle for the legends and myths of the gods, the world, and the heroes. Whoever knew Greek became a man set apart from all others, and whoever spoke a good Greek became a Hellene, for he was fit to be one. And finally, the whole Greek existence was animated by a spirit we shall learn to know by the term agonistic in the broadest sense. In time a conscious mode of education was based on this concept, and when grammar, gymnastics, and cithara [lute] playing dominated the youth in the cities, everyone early understood what this Greek life was all about.

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