the Greek Epic, Part I: in the beginning, there was Chaos
We’ll start our historical discussions by looking at the Greek epic, which for the most part we'll restrict to the years between 776-323 BC in the land along the shores of the Mediterranean. An important thing to note is that I bracket our grand Greek epic with the first Olympics in 776 BC and the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, excluding essentially all of the Hellenistic period. The principal reason for this being that good ol’ Alex changed the face of Greece so much in his 33-year lifetime that it kind of writes a whole new movie - a later post on the Hellenistic period will describe the intermittent period between the end of Greece and the rise of Rome.
As stated in a previous post, when I think history, I think movies. And when I think movies, I remember them by the faces of their main characters. Fortunately for us, the study of Greek history lends itself quite well to this kind of thought as we can sort of trace the 500ish year Greek epic through the eyes of thirteen key characters (with some throw-ins in between). When we study history, we think of names and remember years. When we study Greek history, we think of these names and remember these years:
1. Homer: 776 BC
2. Lycurgus: 750 BC
3. Solon: 638-558 BC
4. Peisistratus: 608 – 527 BC
5. Cleisthenes: 570 – 492 BC
6. Miltiades: 550 – 489 BC
7. Themistocles: 524-459 BC
8. Pericles: 495-429 BC
9. Alcibiades: 450-404 BC
10. Lysander: d. 395 BC
11. Epaminondas: 418-362 BC
12. Philip of Macedon: 382-336 BC
13. Alexander the Great: 356-323 BC
I believe that if you truly understand the stories of these 13 characters then you will understand the story of Ancient Greece - these are the eyes of whom I view the Greek epic through. Conveniently, there is overlap between each successive member on this list, allowing for a complete view of how life changed during Pax Grecia. For some individuals, we attach a key event; for instance, Miltiades fought in the first Persian War against King Darius of Persia, and Themistocles fought in the second Persian war versus King Xerxes (also of Persia). Pericles built Athens (as we view it in our mind), and Philip of Macedon united Greece under one common flag. Notably I’ve chosen to leave the likes of Socrates, Aristotle, and other “academics” of the period off of this list… we’ll deal with them in a later post.
Naturally, I guess it’s only fitting to start our chat on Greek history with the face of the character responsible for writing what contemporaries of Miltiades, Pericles and Philip of Macedon would have referred to as “Greek history”. We’ll start with a name that’s all-too-familiar with our plastic fantastic TV-souls – we’ll start with Homer, and we'll start in the early 8th century, BC.
776 BC was the year that the first Olympics were celebrated – consequently this year is commonly regarded as the “start of ancient Greek history”. Around the same time, the author Homer – residing in the city-state of Ionia – first published the Iliad and the Odyssey, two massive books that sought to chronicle the early 'history' of the lands which would later come to be known as “Greece”. Within these pages originate the stories of the Trojan war, Achilles and Agamemnon, Hector and Odysseus and beyond. These scrolls would turn to scripture as the citizens of the lands which would become Greece sought to personify the qualities, behaviours and morals of the heroes that graced their pages. The Iliad and the Odyssey formed the foundation of Grecian society; it is without doubt that they exist as the greatest influence on Grecian culture, education and religion. In fact historians even chronicle our friend Alex the Greatest as sleeping with his own personal copy of the Iliad under his pillow each night – quite the feat when one realizes that the Iliad runs at about 560 pages in a contemporary Barnes and Noble store. Even more crazy when one realizes that during his lifetime these pages would have only been available as handwritten scrolls.
I like to imagine a scene during these early beginnings of Greece. If I close my eyes I can really visualize Homer sitting in the stands during the very first Olympics. Homer turns to speak amongst his contemporaries of the tales he would eventually spin into his history-changing epic poems. I wonder if anyone ever told him to shut up as he repeated the story of Odysseus traversing endlessly across the Mediterranean? I wonder if anyone thought him mad as he told stories of princesses and monsters and heroes alike. I wonder what history class would have been like in those days, 2500 years ago – I wonder what could be taught when so little is known for certain? I mean, I am sure that ancient Grecians circa 776 BC were privy to some knowledge of Egyptian civilization (which had already existed for two millennia) but that’s likely it. Looking at both the Iliad and the Odyssey, I suppose that we see the intertwining nature of history and mythology during times where there simply wasn’t much written history to work off of.
To me, it appears that in the absence of solid, fact-based history humanity turns towards mythology for explanations. And I mean, when looking through the eyes of ancient Grecians – before the fossil record was really a thing, before the time of carbon-dating and vast archeological exploration – what can we even really use to differentiate between the two? Can we telescope this thought as it pertains to modernity? I believe that this is definitely a question worth thinking about.
“The lands which would become Greece” – I have said this a couple of times now, but why do I make this distinction? Because it is imperative to understand that what we call “Greece” wasn’t even united until Philip of Macedon came down from the north to conquer the lands under one flag around 355 BC. Prior to this, the ‘lands which would become Greece’ existed as a collection of mostly-independent city states including Corinth, Thebes and Argos, among others. And it’s likely that we already know that two of these city-states reign supreme over Greek history – Sparta and Athens. Cue the next two characters in our grand Greek epic: Lycurgus, the legendary Wolf king of Sparta, and Solon, the wise sage who nurtured the flickering flame of Athens until it became the intellectual forest fire that would result in its centrality among Greek history.
With that, I feel it appropriate to snip this for the night and resume our story in a subsequent post. I'll conclude with a few lines paraphrased from the Greek creation myth as written by Hesiod, a poet who lived at around the same time as Homer:
"In the beginning there was Chaos - a yawning nothingness that existed without form or purpose. Residing within this void were two figures: a vast, eternal darkness (Erebus) and the lonesome black bird of night (Nyx). Erebus and Nyx birthed the heavens (Aether) and the light of day (Hemera), along with a great golden egg upon which Nyx sat perched for eons.
Eventually the egg hatched, and out of it emerged love (Eros). One half of the golden eggshell rose into the air to become the sky as the other sunk to become the earth. Eros named the sky as Uranus, and the earth as Gaia - then he made them fall in love. The love between the sky and the earth gave rise to three sets of children, each of which would come to shape the Grecian world - the one-eyed Cyclopes, the hundred-handed Hecatoncheires and the twelve Titans.
Growing jealous of the love between the sky and the earth, the lonesome black bird Nyx fashioned the thirteen evils - none of whom reigned more prominent than the triplets of Fate, Doom and Death. With that, the primordial wheels were set in motion for the creation of a nation that will shape humanity."