فصل 09

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فصل 09

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I said earlier that Greece, when set against the Persian empire, was no more than a small peninsula, dotted here and there with little cities of busy merchants, a country of barren mountain ranges and stony fields, able to sustain only a handful of people. And also, as you may remember, that the Greeks belonged to a number of tribes, the most important of them being the Dorians in the south and the Ionians and the Aeolians in the north. These tribes differed little from one another, either in appearance or in language. They spoke different dialects, which they could all understand if they chose. But they very rarely did. For, as is often the case, these closerelated, neighbouring tribes were unable to get on with one another. They spent all their time exchanging insults and ridicule, when actually they were jealous of each other. For Greece had no one king or administration in common. Instead, each city was a kingdom in itself.

But one thing united the Greeks: their religion and their sport. And I say ‘one thing’ because, strangely enough, sport and religion weren’t two separate things ­ they were closely connected. For instance, in honour of Zeus, the Father of the Gods, great sporting contests were held every four years in his sanctuary at Olympia. As well as large temples there was a stadium at Olympia, and all the Greeks ­ the Dorians, Ionians, Spartans and Athenians ­ came there to show how well they could run, throw the discus and the javelin, fight hand to hand and race chariots. To be victorious at Olympia was the greatest honour in a man’s life. The prize was no more than a simple garland made from sprigs of wild olive, but what fame for the winners: the greatest poets sang their praises, the greatest sculptors carved their statues to stand for ever in Olympia. They were shown in their chariots, throwing the discus, or rubbing oil into their bodies before the fight. Victory statues like these can still be seen today ­ there may even be one in your local museum.

Since the Olympic Games took place once every four years, and were attended by all the Greeks, they provided everyone with a convenient way to measure time. This was gradually adopted throughout Greece. Just as we say BC meaning ‘Before the birth of Christ’ or AD for after the birth of Christ (Anno Domini which means the year of our Lord in Latin), the Greeks would say: ‘At the time of this or that Olympiad’. The first Olympiad was in 776 BC. Can you work out when the tenth would have been? But don’t forget! They only happened every four years.

But it wasn’t only the Olympic Games that brought all the Greeks together. There was another sanctuary which they all held sacred. This one was at Delphi, and belonged to the sun god Apollo, and there was something most peculiar about it. As sometimes happens in volcanic regions, there was a fissure in the ground from which vapour issued. If anyone inhaled it, it literally clouded their mind. It was as if they were drunk or delirious, and nothing they said made any sense.

The very meaninglessness of these utterances seemed deeply mysterious to the Greeks, who said that ‘the god himself speaks through a mortal mouth’. So they had a priestess ­ whom they called Pythia ­ sit over the fissure on a three-legged stool, while other priests interpreted her babble as predictions of the future.

The shrine was known as the Delphic Oracle, and at difficult moments of their lives Greeks from everywhere made pilgrimages to Delphi, to consult the god Apollo. The answer they received was often far from clear, and could be understood in a variety of ways. And in fact we still say that a vague or enigmatic answer is ‘oracular’.

Let us now take a closer look at two of Greece’s most important cities: Sparta and Athens. We already know something about the Spartans: they were Dorians, who, when they arrived in Greece, in around 1100 BC, enslaved the former inhabitants and put them to work on the land. But the slaves outnumbered their masters, and the danger of rebellion meant that the Spartans had to be constantly on the alert lest they find themselves homeless again. They only had one aim in life: to be fighting fit, ready to crush any uprising by their slaves, and to protect themselves from the surrounding peoples still at liberty.

And they really did think of nothing else. Their lawgiver, Lycurgus, had already seen to that. A Spartan baby that appeared weak, and unlikely to grow up to be a warrior, was killed at birth. A strong infant had to be made stronger. From a very young age he must train from dawn till dusk, learn to endure pain, hunger and cold, must eat poorly and be denied all pleasure. Boys were beaten just to harden them to pain. A harsh upbringing is still called ‘spartan’ today, and as you know, it worked: at Thermopylae, in 480 BC, in obedience to their law, the Spartans allowed themselves to be massacred by the Persians. Knowing how to die like that isn’t easy. But knowing how to live is, perhaps, even harder. And this is what the Athenians aimed to do. They weren’t looking for an easy, comfortable life, but one which had meaning. A life of which something remained after one’s death. Something of benefit to those who came after. You shall see how they succeeded.

Had they not lived in fear ­ fear of their own slaves ­ the Spartans might never have become so warlike and brave. Athenians had fewer reasons to be afraid and they didn’t live under the same pressures. Things were different for them even though, as in Sparta, the nobles who once ruled Athens imposed harsh laws drawn up by an Athenian named Draco. (These laws were so strict that people still speak of ‘Draconian’ severity.) But the people of Athens, who had roamed the seas in their ships, and had heard and seen so many different things, did not consent to this for long.

It was, in fact, a nobleman who had the wisdom to try to give the little state a new system of government. His name was Solon, and the laws he introduced in 594 BC ­ at the time of Nebuchadnezzar ­ were named after him. They stated that the people, that is, the city’s inhabitants, should decide the city’s affairs themselves. They should assemble in the marketplace of Athens and vote. The majority should decide and should elect a council of experts to put those decisions into effect. This sort of government is called democracy, or ‘the rule of the people’, in Greek. This didn’t mean that everyone who lived in Athens was entitled to vote in the Assembly. Citizenship depended on wealth and influence, and many people, including women and slaves, played no part in government. But many Athenians could at least have their say, and so they took an interest in how their city was run. ‘Polis’ is Greek for city, ‘politics’, the affairs of a city.

For a while, individual noblemen curried favour with the people to win their votes, and then seized power. Rulers like these were called tyrants. But the people soon expelled them and took better care next time to ensure that it was they themselves who really governed. I have already told you about the wayward nature of the Athenians. And it was this, together with a real fear of losing their freedom once again, which led them to banish any politician who showed signs of becoming too popular, lest he seize power for himself and rule as a tyrant. The same free people of Athens who defeated the Persians later treated Miltiades and Themistocles with just such ingratitude.

But there was one politician who avoided this fate. His name was Pericles. When he spoke in the Assembly, the Athenians always believed that it was they who had made the decisions, whereas in fact it was Pericles, who had made up his mind long before. This wasn’t because he held any special office or had any particular power ­ he was simply the wisest and the most intelligent. And so he gradually worked his way up until, by 444 BC ­ a number as beautiful as the time it represents ­ he was, in effect, the city’s sole ruler. His chief concern was that Athens should maintain its power at sea, and this he achieved through alliances with other Ionian cities who paid Athens for its protection. In this way the Athenians grew rich and could at last afford to make use of their great gifts.

And now I can hear you asking: ‘But what exactly did they do that was so great?’ And I can only say ‘everything’. But two things interested them most and these were truth and beauty.

Their assemblies had taught the Athenians how to discuss all matters openly, with arguments for and against. This was good training in learning how to think. Soon they were using arguments and counter-arguments, not just when they were debating everyday matters like whether or not to increase taxation, but in discussions about the whole of nature. The Ionians in the colonial outposts may have been ahead of them here, for they had already reflected on what the world was actually made of, and what might be the cause of all events and experiences.

This sort of reflection is what we call philosophy. In Athens, however, their reflecting ­ or philosophising ­ went much further. They also wanted to know how people should act, what was good and what was evil, and what was just and what was unjust. They wanted to find an explanation for human existence and discover the essence of all things. Of course, not everyone agreed on matters as complex as these ­ there were various theories and opinions that were argued back and forth, just as in the people’s Assembly. And since that time, the sort of reflection and reasoned argument we call philosophy has never stopped.

But the Athenians didn’t only pace up and down their porticos and sports fields talking about things like the essence of life and how to recognise it, and where it came from. They didn’t just picture the world in a new way in their minds, they saw it with new eyes. When you look at the works of Greek artists, and see how fresh and simple and beautiful they are, it is as if their creators were seeing the world for the first time. We spoke of the statues of Olympic champions earlier. They show fine human beings, not posed, but looking as if the position they are shown in is the most natural one in the world. And it is because they seem so natural that they are so beautiful.

The Greeks portrayed their gods with the same beauty and humanity. The most famous sculptor of such statues was Phidias. He did not create mysterious and supernatural images, like the colossal statues in Egyptian temples. Although some of his temple statues were large and splendid and made of precious materials like ivory and gold, their beauty was never insipid, and they had a noble and natural grace which must have inspired confidence in the gods they represented, and the same can be said for Athenian paintings and buildings. But nothing remains of the pictures they painted on the walls of their halls and assembly rooms. All we have are little paintings on pottery ­ on vases and urns. Their loveliness tells us what we have lost.

However, the temples are still standing. Even in Athens. And best of all, the citadel of Athens is still there ­ the Acropolis ­ where new sanctuaries made of marble were erected in the time of Pericles, because the old ones had been burnt and destroyed by the Persians while the Athenians watched from the island of Salamis. The Acropolis still contains the most beautiful buildings we know. Not the grandest, or the most splendid. Simply the most beautiful. Every detail is so clear and so simple that one cannot imagine it otherwise. All the forms which the Greeks employed in these buildings were to be used again and again in architecture. You will find Greek columns ­ of which there are several kinds ­ in almost every city of the world, once you have learnt to recognise them. But none of them is as beautiful as those on the Acropolis where they are used not for show and decoration but for the purpose for which they were invented: as elegant supports for the roof.

Both wisdom of thought and beauty of form were to be united by the Athenians in a third art: the art of poetry. And here, too, they invented something new: the theatre. Their theatre, like their sport, was also once bound up with their religion, with festivals held in honour of their god Dionysus (also known as Bacchus). On his feast-day, a performance was held which could last all day. It took place in the open air, and the actors wore huge masks and high heels, so that they could be easily seen from a distance. We still have plays which they performed. Some are serious, grand and solemn. They are called tragedies. But there were other ones that were very sharp, witty and lively, which made fun of certain Athenian citizens. These are called comedies. I could tell you lots more about the Athenians ­ about their historians and their doctors, their singers, their thinkers and their artists, but I think it would be better for you to find out about them yourself, one day. Then you’ll see that I haven’t exaggerated.

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