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  • Adam Cook

the Greek Epic Part II: from vice grows virtue

In the first chapter of our Greek epic, we spoke of Homer and his tales of Mycenaean lore that would become engrained within the minds and attitudes of Grecians for centuries. We ended by mentioning the idea of the "city state" (or, "polis"). As we step beyond the 8th century BC we will illustrate the key role that these city states play in the history of the lands which would one day become known as Greece.

Cape Sounion, Temple of Poseidon

As mentioned last time, we'll begin by looking at the two most recognizable city states - Sparta and Athens (unless you're from Toronto, where everyone knows of the Argos). And we will glimpse at this point in history through the eyes of two characters: Lycurgus, the courageous and law-driven Wolf king of Spartan legend, and Solon, the wise sage responsible for nurturing the flickering flame of Athens until it became the intellectual forest fire that would flower into its central role in Greek history.


When we think of ancient Greece, we undoubtedly think of two differing cultures – one of great military strength and one of great democratic wisdom. Looking at these cultures from 30 000 feet in the sky, it may be difficult to see the overlap – it is only with an appreciation for the great Greek epic that we realize they actually exist synergistically. When it comes to anthropomorphizing the core Greek ideals, I think of Lycurgus as the origins of the Grecian might and Solon as the origins for the Grecian mind.


Lycurgus (~750 BC) personifies the ideal Spartan and for this reason he is the figure I choose to highlight when speaking on the history of Sparta. Remember - this is circa 750 BC - we are still treading water in the first 20 minutes of our Greek film. We're still green out of the post-Mycenaean dark age. Sparta was the land of warriors. Sparta was harsh – I mean everyone has heard the story of how they threw “undesirable” babies – those who could not grow into strong warriors – to their deaths down the side of a mountaintop (as oh-so-brilliantly depicted in the film 300). That's kind of true. Lycurgus – the “Wolf king” of Sparta – his name etymologically relating to the metaphysical battle with the wolf-within that all Spartans would come to embody. He was the first ruler of Sparta – the God-king whose virtues of equality, military fitness and austerity would morph into the Spartan ideal. Following in his God-sized footsteps (or, paw prints?), Sparta would reign as one of the most feared and powerful city-states of the Mediterranean over the forthcoming centuries.

Although there is contrasting evidence as to whether or not Lycurgus actually existed, there is irrefutable evidence that his ideals echoed over all further generations of Spartan warriors. When I think of Sparta, I like to think philosophically – what is going on in the minds of citizens who are bred to believe that their life – from birth until death – is a battle? I think of the difficulty that must have been associated with living such a harsh lifestyle – what is happiness when the only thing you know for certain from birth is that you must be ready to ride into battle at the drop of a helmet? What was the mindset of a young Spartan – did they dream of becoming a doctor? What of the mindset of a young helot – did they share the same dream. Did citizens strive for more, or were they content in their ways? What a life it must have been.


That was Sparta. That was around 750 BC. Much of the land which we call Greece was governed under similarly draconian structures at this point in history - albeit tempered relative to the Spartans. Not only did the flames of bloodshed blister the skin of individuals all across the Mediterranean peninsula, but they fused with Homeric literature to fuel the development of a new, humanistic ideology. The Grecian man was still man, but he now knew that he was made in the image of the gods. As we will see, this kind of thought evolved as time progressed, nowhere more so than in the ever-growing city-state of Athens.


Whereas the Wolf King of Sparta embodied the fierceness of ancient Grecian soldiers, Athenian sage-figure Solon (638-558 BC) serves as the first real-life embodiment of the wisdom of Grecian thinkers – he represents the first historical movements from a primitive, pseudo-feudal civilization into a democratic one. In many ways, Solon was the first democrat.


As a thought experiment, I ask you to close your eyes for a moment and think about what comes to your mind when you think of Athens. Most likely your mind will be filled of images of great philosophers and great architecture – after all, this is the land where democracy was birthed and geometry was ripened. Personally, my mind goes immediately to the Acropolis and other works of grandiose architecture.

It becomes quite incredible, then, it is to imagine that this same Athens was born out of the minds of a draconian collection of individuals, fueled by slavery and turmoil and guided by a search for power. This was the Athens that Solon grew up in – this was the Athens that Solon, upon being elected as the very first leader (or, “Archon”) of the city-state of Athens in 594 BC (at the ever-green age of 44), would set forth to eradicate. Solon was a noble, middle class man, reputable for his respect for the intellectual process. He set the stage for democratic developments in the forthcoming centuries by establishing the council of 400, abolishing slave debts and drastically reforming the previously-draconian laws of Athens. He opened participation in Athenian society to individuals beyond the wealthy and established penalties by law to limit their power. Unfortunately for Solon, he would fall out of favour in the eyes of Athenian citizens towards the end of his life as they turned towards the bright eyes of our next character, Peisistratus. In 558 BC, Solon died on the isle of Cyprus.


Out of the wisdom and principles seeded by Solon grew Athenian thought. Personally, I believe that he exists as one of the best personifications the landmark historical change from “power by birth” into “power by merit” – by Solon's hand, the flame of Athens flickered into the first beacon of western humanity.


To end this chapter in the Greek epic, I feel it poetic to note that even the rich flowers of Athenian civilization, democracy and wisdom evolved out of soil permeated with the indiscriminate blood of warlords, kings and citizens. From vice, grows virtue. And, as we progress through the Greek epic, we'll come to observe the opposite as well. Virtue, vice and the ever-equilibrating scales of justice; Le Chatelier's principle, anyone?