History, Culture, and Philosophy of the Ancient Greeks to The Hellenistic Period

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History, Culture, and Philosophy of the Ancient Greeks to The Hellenistic Period
Mark Mercer

Department of Philosophy

Saint Mary’s University

Halifax, NS B3H 3C3

(902) 420-5825


Early Bronze Age Greece: People from areas north of present-day Greece speaking a proto-Greek language came into the Greek peninsula from as early as 2200 to 1700 BCE, and displaced and interbred with the scattered indigenous populations (the Pelasgoi and the Leleges, among others). The proto-Greeks had some settled agriculture and metal working, but little industry or civilization.
Mycenaean Period, or Late Bronze Age Greece: An advanced bronze-age civilization flourished in the Peloponnese from 1400 to 1200 BCE, after the city of Mycenae came into prominence around 1580 BCE. Other important cities of this civilization included Thebes, Argos, and Pylos. The people of this civilization wrote Greek in a syllabic script, known to us as Linear B. Their cities were centralized and bureaucratic states, similar to contemporaneous states in Northern Syria and Mesopotamia. Mycenaean civilization came to an abrupt and violent end around 1200 BCE. Just what political or social upheaval lead to the destruction of the palaces and the end of the Mycenaean civilization is unknown. Natural disaster, war, ecological collapse—each might have played a role.

After the fall of Mycenaean civilization, the Greek world entered a dark age. Greeks of the Archaic and Classical periods following the Dark Ages thought of the late bronze age as their Heroic Age but they knew little about the culture of their Mycenaean predecessors.

Dark Age or Obscure Era: After the fall of Mycenaean civilization, the Peloponnese entered a dark period of which little is now known. This period lasted some 400 years, until around 800 BCE. The people of this time were impoverished and most likely the population fell far below what it was during the Mycenaean Period. Literacy declined. Tribalism increased with the removal of central authorities, and tribes would migrate throughout the Peloponnese and the rest of Greece in search of food and land. There was much small-scale warfare. Between 1000 and 900 BCE, Greeks migrated into the coastal areas of Asia Minor (present day Western Turkey), and founded the Ionian cities that would flourish during the Archaic period.

Despite the famines and hardships the people had to endure, remarkable things happened during the Dark Age that laid the foundations for the great ages of Greece. 1) Poets began to busk from village to village, telling stories of gods and heroes. The oral literary traditions they started culminated in the Homeric poems. 2) Metallurgy improved dramatically. Ironwork developed, a major technological improvement over bronze, and methods of extracting silver from ore were refined. 3) Shipbuilding techniques steadily progressed. 4) Economic, political, and cultural institutions developed that were radically unlike those of the Mycenaean period and found nowhere else. 5) Toward 800 BCE, though maybe as late as 750 BCE, literacy reappeared and began to spread, this time with Greek written in a phonetic alphabet, rather than in a syllabic script.

Archaic Period: Around 800 BCE, prosperous city-states began to develop in the Peloponnese, in Euboia, and in Ionia. Iron, rather than bronze, was now the material of tools and weapons. Agriculture improved, famine and tribal warfare diminished, and industry and commerce began to come into their own. The Greeks began to sail throughout the Mediterranean and to found colonies and cities from the Black Sea in the East to Spain and North Africa in the West. This period lasted until around 500 BCE, with the start of the Persian Wars.

The Greeks from Archaic times on, despite their far-flung cities, were a coastal people; few Greek sites of the time were more than 25 miles from salt water. The Greek world that began to emerge in 800 BCE was not united politically or territorially, yet was remarkably uniform linguistically and culturally. Outside the Greek peninsula and the Aegean islands, Greek cities were in lands populated by non-Greeks, but there was little mixing of Greek and non-Greek. The Greeks traded mainly among themselves, but also sometimes with uncivilized people to the North and with the Lydians, the Persians, the Etruscans, the Phoenicians, and the Egyptians. Homer and Hesiod lived in the early centuries of the archaic period, and Thales and the other first philosophers lived at the end of its last century.
Homer: Author of the Iliad and the Odyssey (drawing on a previous oral tradition), perhaps from Ionia, thought to have lived around 750 BCE. (A few scholars doubt that any one person Homer ever existed; some hold that the Homeric poems are entirely the product of a folk oral tradition.) The action of the Homeric poems is set in the late days of the Mycenaean civilization and may involve actual events; there did exist a city Troy that was destroyed before 1200 BCE. But Homer drew on over 400 years of oral traditions in crafting his poems, and whatever kernels of historical truth they contain are obscured by much imagination and anachronism. The poems do not give a good picture of the ways and customs of Mycenaeans; the Greeks in them are more how Greeks of Homer’s time would imagine Mycenaeans than they are like Mycenaeans themselves.
Hesiod: Boeotian farmer and poet, author of the Theogony (about the origin and character of the gods) and Works and Days (how to be an honest, hardworking farmer), thought to have lived around 700 BCE, a little later than Homer. Hesiod disliked the nobles and the sea, and perpetually feared disaster and poverty would overtake his farm. “A surly conservative countryman, given to reflection, no lover of women or of life, who felt the gods’ presence heavy about him” (according to the Oxford Dictionary). Hesiod’s telling of the myths is informed by his concern that the gods have stable personalities and a concern for justice. We find in Hesiod an early example of a Greek tendency toward system and coherence.
Lelantine War: Around 735 BCE, Chalcis and Eretria, two cities of Ionian Greeks on the island of Euboea, went to war with each other, apparently over disputes about trade with Greek cities on the mainland and in Ionia. Each side had many allies (Corinth, Samos, Sparta with Chalcis; Chios, Megara, Miletos with Eretria) and battles were fought throughout much of the Greek world. The war takes its name from the Lelantos River and its fertile plain, found between the two cities, a plain coveted by both cities and on which Chalcis won a battle. The war ended around 710 BCE. (Some scholars, though, think the Lelantine War was fought early in the 7th Century BCE.) It is not clear who won; certainly both sides suffered heavily and their influence in the Greek world declined as a result of the war.

The Lelantine War was the first war pitting Greek against Greek that arose from more than a simple territorial dispute, that was not confined to a local area involving just two or three cities, and that lasted more than a few years. Its primary significance in the development of Greek ways of life is that it marked the first major use of hoplites, soldiers in armour who fought in formation. The hoplites were drawn from the social middle class of the city, from people wealthy enough to afford their armour and weapons and able to take time to train as members of units but not so wealthy as to be able to join the calvary or to belong to the officer corps. The advent of the hoplite ended (at least on the field) the romance of the hero warrior who fought alone. Some scholars think that the hoplite experience in the Lelantine War was important in developing among the Greeks both the idea of political equality and the worth of the ordinary free-born individual.

Archilochus: Lyric poet of the late 8th or early 7th century BCE. His poems are sometimes satirical and often funny: “Some lucky Thracian has my noble shield....” Most of his work has been lost.

Sappho: Lyric poet from the island of Lesbos who flourished in the 7th or 6th century BCE. Her poetry expresses her love of women and of nature. Most of her work has been lost.
Presocratic philosophers: Philosophers active before (and some active at the same time as) Socrates, from late Archaic times to the Classical period. (Those philosophers contemporaneous with Socrates but who were aware of Socrates or of whom Socrates was aware are typically not counted presocratic.) The earliest presocratics were the first philosophers. No copies of texts by presocratics survived past the early middle ages. We today know what we do (which isn’t much) of the lives, doctrines, and arguments of the presocratics only through quotations and reports in surviving texts by later writers, quotations and reports that are not always trustworthy. For some presocratics all we have is a name, for others not even that.

Philosophers tend to go their own way, not giving much thought to how their doctrines and arguments fit or fail to fit with doctrines or arguments typical of any school of philosophy. This was as true of the first philosophers as it is of contemporary philosophers. Still, it can sometimes be helpful in studying historically important philosophers to group two or more figures together as a school. Within presocratic philosophy, there are about seven different traditions of thought that we can call schools. Each school is marked by both the presence of certain core ideas and the absence of other ideas. The seven schools are: 1) the Ionian (or Milesian), which includes the philosophers Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, and Diogenes of Apollonia; 2) the Pythagorean, which includes Pythagoras and his disciples; 3) the Eleatic, which includes Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, and Melissus; 4) the Heraclitean, from Heraclitus; 5) pluralism, which includes Empedocles and Anaxagoras; 6) atomism, which includes Leucippus and Democritus; and 7) sophism, which includes Protagoras, Gorgias, Prodicus, and Hippias. (Some philosophers can be assigned to more than one school.) Each of these traditions of thought continued to find adherents through the times of Plato and Aristotle and well into the Hellenistic era.

Ionian or Milesian School: The first philosophers (they were physicists, astronomers, engineers, mathematicians, and men of business and politics as well as philosophers), in the early to mid 6th century BCE, who happened to reside in the Ionian city of Miletus, and then those who philosophized in their style. Ionia is the area on the western coast of Asia Minor, now part of Turkey. (The area came to be called Ionia because most of the Greeks who settled there were of the Ionian tribe.) The Greek cities of Ionia were, from the middle to the end of the Archaic period, among the most prosperous in the Greek world. Tradition has it that Thales was the teacher of Anaximander, and Anaximander the teacher of Anaximenes. Some commentators include Anaxagoras and Diogenes of Apollonia as later members of the Ionian school.

The Milesians were concerned with the nature of the universe, and attempted to understand it without recourse to supernatural or magical explanations. They looked for something permanent persisting through changes. They supposed that beneath the chaos of the world as it appears, there is unity and order and permanence. They thought they could find this permanent substance by discovering what the world is made of. Each developed a different account of what the ultimate substance is. The Milesians appear to have thought that they needed to describe a principle of cause as well as to describe the common substance of things, and they seem to have found this principle in either life or the gods, but this aspect of their thought was less central than their concern for substance.

The philosophies of the Milesians stand at the beginning of the venerable tradition of reductive and materialistic philosophical speculation, a tradition very much alive today in the attitudes and thought of J.J.C. Smart and Patricia and Paul Churchland, among others. Central to this tradition is the idea that there is a single privileged level of explanation, and that any explanation of phenomena not at this level either derives its legitimacy from an explanation at the privileged level or is actually not an explanation at all, but a pseudo-explanation. In this tradition there is little room for concepts of the form or structure within things or systems and even less for teleological concepts (concepts, that is, of purpose or goal or function).

No writings by Ionian philosophers have survived. Even by the time of Aristotle, just two centuries later, their own works had been lost; Aristotle knew their ideas only from secondary sources. Our knowledge of them comes entirely from third and fourth hand sources.

The Milesians are important and inspirational to us today as the first thinkers (of whom we know, at least) who attempted to dispense with myth and the supernatural in their attempts to understand things. They did not found cults dedicated to a master’s vision but instead challenged each other to criticise their views and to develop better ones.
Thales of Miletus: Ionian thinker, generally accredited the first philosopher (also considered the first physicist and the first geometer), who lived in the early 6th century BCE, active perhaps until 580 BCE. We know little of his philosophy; his central doctrine is said to be that everything is composed of water. The typical anecdotes about philosophers as absentminded and unwordly were told even of the first philosopher, and were old hat before the time of Plato. (Another anecdote about Thales, though, portrays him as a business man who used his intelligence to make himself rich.)
Anaximander of Miletus: Ionian thinker, traditionally said to be a pupil of Thales, who lived from around 611 to 547 BCE. Attempting to improve on his teacher’s account of the underlying order of things, Anaximander proposed that the one substance was the boundless (apeiron) and that it sustained four qualities, hot, cold, wet, and dry. Hot and cold are in tension, as are wet and dry, and from the conflicts between them come both cyclical and evolutionary change. The earliest tensions among the four qualities resulted in a vortex that created a cylindrically shaped cold, damp earth surrounded by the fiery, dry sun, moon, and stars. Anaximander reasoned that since there was no place for the earth to fall, it rests unsupported by anything. Anaximander held that life arose from heated slime, and humans and other terrestrial animals evolved from fish. What little evidence of his thought we have suggests that Anaximander was as brilliant a philosopher as any history has seen.
Anaximenes of Miletus: Ionian thinker, perhaps a pupil of Anaximander, died c. 502 BCE. The primary substance, of which all things are made, is air. Solid things are composed of condensed air, while fluids and vapours are composed of progressively more rarified air. Air in its most rarified form is the stuff of life. All changes are condensations or rarifactions.
Aesop: A storyteller who lived as a slave on the island of Samos in the early 6th century BCE. He told moral fables that had animals as characters.
Pindar: Lyric poet, 518-438 BCE, who wrote grand choral hymns in celebration of victories.
Pythagoras of Croton: A cult leader, an Eastern Greek from Samos, who migrated early in life to Croton in southern Italy where he founded his school, active around 530 BCE. There’s no telling where Pythagoras the man ends and the Pythagoreans, first his disciples and then the members of his school of thought, begin, especially given that Pythagoras himself might never have put pen to papyrus. The sect Pythagoras founded developed into a religious brotherhood that existed for many centuries after his death. Members of this sect were secretive and held themselves aloof from others, and sometimes were persecuted for their beliefs or behaviour.

Most likely Pythagoras himself was neither a philosopher nor a mathematician. The cult he introduced or developed had both an otherwordly and a political agenda and Pythagoras and his early followers came to hold a measure of political power in the Greek cities of Italy. Mathematicians were attracted to the number mysticism of Pythagoreanism; they tended to credit their discoveries to Pythagoras and that lead to the idea that Pythagoras himself was a mathematician.

The Pythagorean philosophers held that even physical bodies are but number and ratio (this puzzling ontological claim might actually be the more reasonable doctrine that all physical phenomena are mathematically tractable), that the soul can break the cycle of reincarnation by purifying itself, and that both eating meat and eating beans corrupt the soul.

The Pythagorean philosophers can be contrasted with the reductionist and materialist Milesians by noting that their primary concern is with the forms that things and systems of things take. The essence of a thing or system is not to be had in what the thing is made of but how its components are arranged. How they are arranged can be described using the concepts of number and ratio. The principles of change and development in the universe, they said, are order, proportion, and measure. All differences between things are essentially quantitative differences and, thus, can be expressed numerically.

Especially striking is the influence of Pythagorean ideas on medicine: physicians from Greek times through the middle ages to the present have thought of limit and order as creating harmony in the body, and have thought that health consists in maintaining the right quantitative relations among contrasting ingredients in the body.

The Pythagoreans were teleological thinkers, supposing that there was a point to existence and a proper way to live. The point of existence seems for them to have been to annihilate the self through its reabsorption in the One, the unity of existence. Unlike other religious sects, though, such as the sect of Orpheus, they rejected ritual and devotion as pathways to enlightenment but instead advocated the study of the form or structure of existence such that one could learn one’s place in it. As well, they held that the study of order itself would make one orderly in one’s soul. For the Pythagoreans, the universe is limited and ordered, and the good life for each individual is a life well-organized to fit within the order of the universe.

Mathematics is the science of order and form and, thus, is the route to understanding and enlightenment. The number one corresponds to the point, two to the line, three to the plane figure, four to the solid figure. Ten, being the sum of the first four counting numbers, is the perfect number. Perfect consonances are ratios involving these five numbers.

Xenophanes of Colophon: Social critic, critic of popular religion, and theologian, born in Colophon around 570 BCE, who held positions in courts throughout the Greek world, and who died around 470 BCE, having lived over a hundred years. Xenophanes expressed his views in elegiac and satirical poems.

A contemporary of Pythagoras, Xenophanes might have been a Pythagorean in his early days, but he evolved into a forerunner of Parmenides when he arrived at the conclusion that whatever is has always been and, therefore, the universe is One, a conclusion based on the argument that if there had ever been a time when nothing existed, then nothing could ever have come to exist. (Some identify Xenophanes as the founder of the Eleatic school.)

Xenophanes might well be the first critical theologian. Some of what he said would indicate that his theological views were pantheistic and, thus, consistent with his ontological contention that the universe is one and eternal. Other things he said, though, would tend to indicate that his views were vaguely monotheistic, with the one God existing somewhat separately from the rest of the world. God cannot be described, Xenophanes argues, for words were developed within this world and, thus, can apply only to the things of this world. God is known to us negatively, if at all. We can correctly say of God only that He is not limited, not embodied, not located in space or time, and so on. It is not clear that Xenophanes entirely rejected polytheism, though, or even that he had a definite conception of monotheism. It is possible that he held that there is a single chief god among other gods, and that the gods reside at the edge of the universe (it is doubtful that the thought of God as a spiritual being entirely distinct from creation ever occurred to him). In any case, the gods do not move, but work their will on the world directly through their minds.

Xenophanes’s criticisms of popular religion stem from his theological views. He attacked the humanized gods of Homer and Hesiod, and ridiculed all forms of anthropocentrism in accounts of the gods. He opposed any form of polytheism in which the gods could be in conflict with each other. (No doubt he would have ridiculed petitionary prayer or rituals intended to curry favour with the gods.) His criticisms of popular religion had an ethical point. He worried that anthropomorphism in religion leads to moral corruption by making divine such human qualities as greed, sloth, and vengefulness. In this, he anticipated Plato’s attacks in The Republic on Homeric conceptions of the gods.

Xenophanes seems also to have arrived at certain epistemological conclusions from his theological reflections and studies of popular religion. While there is much about which people can have true or false beliefs, there is very little about which they can have knowledge. Moreover, we can have knowledge only in those areas in which we can verify our claims. Xenophanes’s epistemological conclusions also have an ethical point: we must, as far as we can, avoid speculation and turn instead to research into verifiable claims; and, so far as we do speculate about things, we must be clear to ourselves and others that we are only speculating.

Classical Age: The fifth and fourth centuries, from the outbreak of the Persian Wars to the death of Alexander the Great and the beginning of the Hellenistic period (from about 500 BCE to after 323 BCE). This is the age of Greece in which the independent city states came into their own and industry, commerce, the arts, and philosophy flourished. (Of course, great poets and philosophers—from Homer to Pythagoras—lived also in the prior Archaic period, as we have seen.) It is also, though, a time of imperialism, slavery, and war, including the ruinous Peloponnesian War.
Persian wars: The Persian empire pushed steadily westward throughout the 6th century BCE, and around the early 5th century BCE was exacting tribute from Greek cities in Ionia and elsewhere in Asia Minor. Perceiving that they themselves would soon be threatened by the Persians, Greek city-states from the Greek mainland and all over the Aegean banded together, and in 490 BCE full-scale war broke out between the Greeks and the Persians. The united Greek effort was first lead by Sparta, but soon came to be guided by Athens. It was during this time that Athens laid the foundation for its later empire. Hostilities continued on and off until 449 BCE, when the Persian invaders, exhausted by their futile project, gave up and returned East. Their common enemy repelled, the Greek city-states were free to resume their small-scale wars with each other. Herodotus, the “Father of History,” took the Persian wars as his subject.

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