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THOUGH the particular persons and events, chronicled in the legendary poems of Greece, are not to be regarded as belonging to the province of real history, those poems are, nevertheless, full of instruction as pictures of life and manners; and the very same circumstances, which divest their composers of all credibility as historians, render them so much the more valuable as unconscious expositors of their own contemporary society. While professedly describing an uncertified past, their combinations are involuntarily borrowed from the surrounding present: for among communities, such as those of the primitive Greeks, without books, without means of extended travel, without acquaintance with foreign languages and habits, the imagination, even of highly gifted men, was naturally enslaved by the circumstances around them to a far greater degree than in the later days of Solon or Herodotus; insomuch that the characters which they conceived and the scenes which they described would for that reason bear a stronger generic resemblance to the realities of their own time and locality. Nor was the poetry of that age addressed to lettered and critical authors, watchful to detect plagiarism, sated with simple imagery, and requiring something of novelty or peculiarity in every fresh production. To captivate their emotions, it was sufficient to depict, with genius and fervor, the more obvious manifestations of human adventure or suffering, and to idealize that type of society, both private and public, with which the hearers around were familiar. Even in describing the gods, where a great degree of latitude and deviation might have been expected, we see that Homer introduces into Olympus the passions, the caprices, the love of power and patronage, the alternation of dignity and weakness, which animated the bosom of an ordinary Grecian chief; and this tendency, to reproduce in substance the social relations to which he had been accustomed, would operate still more powerfully when he had to describe simply human characters,—the chief and his people, the warrior and his comrades, the husband, wife, father, and son,—or the imperfect rudiments of judicial and administrative proceeding. That his narrative on all these points, even with fictitious characters and events, presents a close approximation to general reality, there can be no reason to doubt. The necessity under which he lay of drawing from a store, then happily unexhausted, of personal experience and observation, is one of the causes of that freshness and vivacity of description for which he stands unrivalled, and which constituted the imperishable charm of the Iliad and Odyssey from the beginning to the end of Grecian literature.

While, therefore, we renounce the idea of chronologizing or historicizing the events of Grecian legend, we may turn them to profit as valuable memorials of that state of society, feeling, and intelligence, which must be to us the starting-point of the history of the people. Of course, the legendary age, like all those which succeeded it, had its antecedent causes and determining conditions; but of these we know nothing, and we are compelled to assume it as a primary fact, for the purpose of following out its subsequent changes. To conceive absolute beginning or origin (as Niebuhr has justly remarked) is beyond the reach of our faculties: we can neither apprehend nor verify anything beyond progress, or development, or decay,—change from one set of circumstances to another, operated by some definite combination of physical or moral laws. In the case of the Greeks, the legendary age, as the earliest in any way known to us, must be taken as the initial state from which this series of changes commences. We must depict its prominent characteristics as well as we can, and show,—partly how it serves to prepare, partly how it forms a contrast to set off,— the subsequent ages of Solon, of Pericles, and of Demosthenes.


1. The political condition, which Grecian legend everywhere presents to us, is in its principal features strikingly different from that which had become universally prevalent among the Greeks in the time of the Peloponnesian war. Historical oligarchy, as well as democracy, agreed in requiring a certain established system of government, comprising the three elements of specialized functions, temporary functionaries, and ultimate responsibility (under some forms or other) to the mass of qualified citizens— either a Senate or an Ecclesia, or both. There were, of course, many and capital distinctions between one government and another, in respect to the qualification of the citizen, the attributes and efficiency of the general assembly, the admissibility to power, etc.; and men might often be dissatisfied with the way in which these questions were determined in their own city. But in the mind of every man, some determining rule or system—something like what in modern times is called a constitution—was indispensable to any government entitled to be called legitimate, or capable of creating in the mind of a Greek a feeling of moral obligation to obey it. The functionaries who exercised authority under it might be more or less competent or popular; but his personal feelings towards them were commonly lost in his attachment or aversion to the general system. If any energetic man could by audacity or craft break down the constitution, and render himself permanent ruler according to his own will and pleasure,—even though he might govern well, he could never inspire the people with any sentiment of duty towards him. His scepter was illegitimate from the beginning, and even the taking of his life, far from being interdicted by that moral feeling which condemned the shedding of blood in other cases, was considered meritorious. Nor could he be mentioned in the language except by a name (despot) which branded him as an object of mingled fear and dislike.

If we carry our eyes back from historical to legendary Greece, we find a picture the reverse of what has been here sketched. We discern a government in which there is little or no scheme or system,—still less any idea of responsibility to the governed,—but in which the mainspring of obedience on the part of the people consists in their personal feeling and reverence towards the chief. We remark, first and foremost, the king; next, a limited number of subordinate kings or chiefs; afterwards, the mass of armed freemen, husbandmen, artisans, freebooters, etc.; lowest of all, the free laborers for hire, and the bought slaves. The king is not distinguished by any broad or impassable boundary from the other chiefs, to each of whom the title basileus is applicable as well as to himself: his supremacy has been inherited from his ancestors, and passes by descent, as a general rule, to his eldest son, having been conferred upon the family as a privilege by the favor of Zeus. In war, he is the leader, foremost in personal prowess, and directing all military movements; in peace, he is the general protector of the injured and oppressed; he farther offers up those public prayers and sacrifices which are intended to obtain for the whole people the favor of the gods. An ample domain is assigned to him as an appurtenance of his lofty position, while the produce of his fields and his cattle is consecrated in part to an abundant, though rude hospitality. Moreover, he receives frequent presents, to avert his enmity, to conciliate his favor, or to buy off his exactions; and when plunder is taken from the enemy, a large previous share, comprising probably the most alluring female captive, is reserved for him, apart from the general distribution.

Such is the position of the king, in the heroic times of Greece,—the only person (if we except the heralds and priests, each both special and subordinate,) who is then presented to us as clothed with any individual authority,—the person by whom all the executive functions, then few in number, which the society requires, are either performed or directed. His personal ascendency—derived from divine countenance, bestowed both upon himself individually and upon his race, and probably from accredited divine descent—is the salient feature in the picture. The people hearken to his voice, embrace his propositions, and obey his orders: not merely resistance, but even criticism upon his acts, is generally exhibited in an odious point of view, and is, indeed, never heard of except from some one or more of the subordinate princes. To keep alive and justify such feelings in the public mind, however, the king must himself possess various accomplishments, bodily and mental, and that too in a superior degree. He must be brave in the field, wise in the council, and eloquent in the agora; he must be endued with bodily strength and activity above other men, and must be an adept, not only in the use of his arms, but also in those athletic exercises which the crowd delight to witness. Even the more homely varieties of manual acquirements are an addition to his character,—such as the craft of the carpenter or shipwright, the straight furrowing of the ploughman, or the indefatigable persistence of the mower without repose or refreshment throughout the longest day. The conditions of voluntary obedience, during the Grecian heroic times, are family descent with personal force and superiority mental as well as bodily, in the chief, coupled with the favor of the gods: an old chief, such as Peleus and Laertes, cannot retain his position. But, on the other hand, where these elements of force are present, a good deal of violence, caprice, and rapacity is tolerated: the ethical judgment is not exact in scrutinizing the conduct of individuals so preeminently endowed. As in the ease of the gods, the general epithets of good, just, etc., are applied to them as euphemisms arising from submission and fear, being not only not suggested, but often pointedly belied, by their particular acts. These words signify the man of birth, wealth, influence, and daring, whose arm is strong to destroy or to protect, whatever may be the turn of his moral sentiments; while the opposite epithet, bad, designates the poor, lowly, and weak; from whose dispositions, be they ever so virtuous, society has little either to hope or, to fear.

Aristotle, in his general theory of government, lays down the position, that the earliest sources of obedience and authority among mankind are personal, exhibiting themselves most perfectly in the type of paternal supremacy; and that therefore the kingly government, as most conformable to this stage of social sentiment, became probably the first established everywhere. And in fact it still continued in his time to be generally prevalent among the non-Hellenic nations, immediately around; though the Phoenician cities and Carthage, the most civilized of all non-Hellenic states, were republics. Nevertheless, so completely were the feelings about kingship reversed among his contemporary Greeks, that he finds it difficult to enter into the voluntary obedience paid by his ancestors to their early heroic chiefs. He cannot explain to his own satisfaction how any one man should have been so much superior to the companions around him as to maintain such immense personal ascendency: he suspects that in such small communities great merit was very rare, so that the chief had few competitors. Such remarks illustrate strongly the revolution which the Greek mind had undergone during the preceding centuries, in regard to the internal grounds of political submission But the connecting link, between the Homeric and the republican schemes of government, is to be found in two adjuncts of the Homeric royalty, which are now to be mentioned,—the boulê, or council of chiefs, and the agora, or general assembly of freemen.

These two meetings, more or less frequently convoked, and interwoven with the earliest habits of the primitive Grecian communities, are exhibited in the monuments of the legendary age as opportunities for advising the king, and media for promulgating his intentions to the people, rather than as restraints upon his authority. Unquestionably, they must have led in practice to the latter result as well as to the former; but this is not the light in which the Homeric poems describe them. The chiefs, kings, princes, or gerontes—for the same word in Greek designates both an old man and a man of conspicuous rank and position—compose the council, in which, according to the representations in the Iliad, the resolutions of Agamemnon on the one side, and of Hector on the other, appear uniformly to prevail. The harshness and even contempt with which Hector treats respectful opposition from his ancient companion Polydamas,—the desponding tone and conscious inferiority of the latter, and the unanimous assent which the former obtains, even when quite in the wrong—all this is clearly set forth in the poem: while in the Grecian camp we see Nestor tendering his advice in the most submissive and delicate manner to Agamemnon, to be adopted or rejected, as “the king of men” might determine. The council is a purely consultative body, assembled, not with any power of peremptorily arresting mischievous resolves of the king, but solely for his information and guidance. He himself is the presiding (boulephorus, or) member of council; the rest, collectively as well as individually, are his subordinates.


We proceed from the council to the agora: according to what seems the received custom, the king, after having talked over his intentions with the former, proceeds to announce them to the people. The heralds make the crowd sit down in order, and enforce silence: any one of the chiefs or councilors —but as it seems, no one else—is allowed to address them: the king first promulgates his intentions, which are then open to be commented upon by others. But in the Homeric agora, no division of affirmative or negative voices ever takes place, nor is any formal resolution ever adopted. The nullity of positive function strikes us even more in the agora than in the council. It is an assembly for talk, communication, and discussion, to a certain extent, by the chiefs, in presence of the people as listeners and sympathizers,— often for eloquence, and sometimes for quarrel,—but here its ostensible purposes end.

The agora in Ithaca, in the second book of the Odyssey, is convened by the youthful Telemachus, at the instigation of Athene, not for the purpose of submitting any proposition, but in order to give formal and public notice to the suitors to desist from their iniquitous intrusion and pillage of his substance, and to absolve himself farther, before godsend men, from all obligations towards them, if they refuse to comply. For the slaughter of the suitors, in all the security of the festive hall and banquet (which forms the catastrophe of the Odyssey), was a proceeding involving much that was shocking to Grecian feeling, and therefore required to be preceded by such ample formalities, as would leave both the delinquents themselves without the shadow of excuse, and their surviving relatives without any claim to the customary satisfaction. For this special purpose, Telemachus directs the heralds to summon an agora: but what seems most of all surprising is, that none had ever been summoned or held since the departure of Odysseus himself,—an interval of twenty years. “No agora or session has taken place amongst us (says the gray-headed Aegyptius, who opens the proceedings) since Odysseus went on shipboard; and now, who is he that has called us together? what man, young or old, has felt such a strong necessity? Has he received intelligence from our absent warriors, or has he other public news to communicate? He is our good friend for doing this : whatever his projects may be, I pray Zeus to grant him success”. Telemachus, answering the appeal forthwith, proceeds to tell the assembled Ithacans that he has no public news to communicate, but that he has convoked them upon his own private necessities. Next, he sets forth, pathetically, the wickedness of the suitors, calls upon them personally to desist, and upon the people to restrain them, and concludes by solemnly warning them, that, being henceforward free from all obligation towards them, he will invoke the avenging aid of Zeus, so “that they may be slain in the interior of his own house, without bringing upon him any subsequent penalty”.

We are not of course to construe the Homeric description as anything more than an idéal, approximating to actual reality. But, allowing all that can be required for such a limitation, it exhibits the agora more as a special medium of publicity and intercommunication, from the king to the body of the people, than as including any idea of responsibility on the part of the former or restraining force on the part of the latter, however such consequences may indirectly grow out of it. The primitive Grecian government is essentially monarchical, reposing on personal feeling and divine right: the memorable dictum in the Iliad is borne out by all that we hear of the actual practice: “The ruler of many is not a good thing : let us have one ruler only,— one king,—him to whom Zeus has given the scepter and the tutelary sanctions”.

The second book of the Iliad, full as it is of beauty and vivacity, not only confirms our idea of the passive, recipient, and listening character of the agora, but even presents a repulsive picture of the degradation of the mass of the people before the chiefs. Agamemnon convokes the agora for the purpose of immediately arming the Grecian host, under a full impression that the gods have at last determined forthwith to crown his arms with complete victory. Such impression has been created by a special visit of Oneirus (the Dream-god), sent by Zeus during his sleep,—being, indeed, an intentional fraud on the part of Zeus, though Agamemnon does not suspect its deceitful character. At this precise moment, when he may be conceived to be more than usually anxious to get his army into the field and snatch the prize, an unaccountable fancy seizes him, that, instead of inviting the troops to do what he really wishes, and encouraging their spirits for this one last effort, he will adopt a course directly contrary: he will try their courage by professing to believe that the siege had become desperate, and that there was no choice except to go on shipboard and flee. Announcing to Nestor and Odysseus, in preliminary council, his intention to hold this strange language, he at the same time tells them that he relies upon them to oppose it and counterwork its effect upon the multitude. The agora is presently assembled, and the king of men pours forth a speech full of dismay and despair, concluding by a distinct exhortation to all present to go aboard and return home at once. Immediately the whole army, chiefs as well as people, break up and proceed to execute his orders: every one rushes off to get his ship afloat, except Odysseus, who looks on in mournful silence and astonishment. The army would have been quickly on its voyage home, had not the goddesses Here and Athene stimulated Odysseus to an instantaneous interference. He hastens among the dispersing crowd and diverts them from their purpose of retreat: to the chiefs he addresses flattering words, trying to shame them by gentle expostulation: but the people he visits with harsh reprimand and blows from his scepter, thus driving them back to their seats in the agora.


Amidst the dissatisfied crowd thus unwillingly brought back, the voice of Thersites is heard the longest and the loudest,—a man ugly, deformed, and unwarlike, but fluent in speech, and especially severe and unsparing in his censure of the chiefs, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus. Upon this occasion, he addresses to the people a speech denouncing Agamemnon for selfish and greedy exaction generally, but particularly for his recent ill-treatment of Achilles,—and he endeavors, moreover, to induce them to persist in their scheme of departure. In reply, Odysseus not only rebukes Thersites sharply for his impudence in abusing the commander-in-chief, but threatens that, if ever such behavior is repeated, he will strip him naked, and thrash him out of the assembly with disgraceful blows; as an earnest of which, he administers to him at once a smart stroke with the studded scepter, imprinting its painful mark in a bloody weal across his back. Thersites, terrified and subdued, sits down weeping; while the surrounding crowd deride him, and express the warmest approbation of Odysseus for having thus by force put the reviler to silence.

  Both Odysseus and Nestor then address the agora, sympathizing with Agamemnon for the shame which the retreat of the Greeks is about to inflict upon him, and urging emphatically upon every one present the obligation of persevering until the siege shall he successfully consummated. Neither of them animadverts at all upon Agamemnon, either for his conduct towards Achilles, or for his childish freak of trying the temper of the army.

There cannot be a clearer indication than this description—so graphic in the original poem—of the true character of the Homeric agora. The multitude who compose it are listening and acquiescent, not often hesitating, and never refractory to the chief: The fate which awaits a presumptuous critic, even where his virulent reproaches are substantially well-founded, is plainly set forth in the treatment of Thersites; while the unpopularity of such a character is attested even more by the excessive pains which Homer takes to heap upon him repulsive personal deformities, than by the chastisement of Odysseus;—he is lame, bald, crook-backed, of misshapen head, and squinting vision.

But we cease to wonder at the submissive character of the agora, when we read the proceedings of Odysseus towards the people themselves;—his fine words and flattery addressed to the chiefs, and his contemptuous reproof and manual violence towards the common men, at a moment when both were doing exactly the same thing,—fulfilling the express bidding of Agamemnon, upon whom Odysseus does not offer a single comment. This scene, which excited a sentiment of strong displeasure among the democrats of histories: Athens, affords a proof that the feeling of personal dignity, of which philosophic observers in Greece—Herodotus, Xenophon, Hippocrates, and Aristotle—boasted, as distinguishing the free Greek citizen from the slavish Asiatic, was yet undeveloped in the time of Homer. The ancient epic is commonly so filled with the personal adventures of the chiefs, and the people are so constantly depicted as simple appendages attached to them, that we rarely obtain a glimpse of the treatment of the one apart from the other, such as this memorable Homeric agora affords.


There remains one other point of view in which we are to regard the agora of primitive Greece,—as the scene in which justice was administered. The king is spoken of as constituted by Zeus the great judge of society: he has received from Zeus the scepter, and along with it the powers of command and sanction: the people obey these commands and enforce these sanctions, under him, enriching him at the same time with lucrative presents and payments. Sometimes the king separately, sometimes the kings or chiefs or gerontes in the plural number, are named as deciding disputes and awarding satisfaction to complainants; always, however, in public, in the midst of the assembled agora.

In one of the compartments of the shield of Achilles, the details of a judicial scene are described. While the agora is full of an eager and excited crowd, two men are disputing about the fine of satisfaction for the death of a murdered man,—one averring, the other denying, that the fine had already been paid, and both demanding an inquest. The gerontes are ranged on stone seats, in the holy circle, with two talents of gold lying before them, to be awarded to such of the litigants as shall make out his case to their satisfaction. The heralds with their scepters, repressing the warm sympathies of the crowd in favor of one or other of the parties, secure an alternate bearing to both. This interesting picture completely harmonizes with the brief allusion of Hesiod to the judicial trial—doubtless a real trial—between himself and his brother Perses. The two brothers disputed about their paternal inheritance, and the cause was carried to be tried by the chiefs in agora; but Perses bribed them, and obtained an unjust verdict for the whole. So at least Hesiod affirms, in the bitterness of his heart; earnestly exhorting his brother not to waste a precious time, required for necessary labors, in the unprofitable occupation of witnessing and abetting litigants in the agora,—for which (he adds) no man has proper leisure, unless his subsistence for the year beforehand be safely treasured up in his garners. He repeats, more than once, his complaints of the crooked and corrupt judgments of which the kings were habitually guilty; dwelling upon abuse of justice as the crying evil of his day, and predicting as well as invoking the vengeance of Zeus to repress it. And Homer ascribes the tremendous violence of the autumnal storms to the wrath of Zeus against those judges who disgrace the agora “with their wicked verdicts”.

Though it is certain that, in every state of society, the feelings of men when assembled in multitude will command a certain measure of attention, yet we thus find the agora, in judicial matters still more than in political, serving merely the purpose of publicity. It is the king who is the grand personal mover of Grecian heroic society. He is on earth, the equivalent of Zeus in the agora of the gods: the supreme god of Olympus is in the habit of carrying on his government with frequent publicity, of hearing some dissentient opinions, and of allowing himself occasionally to be wheedled by Aphrodite, or worried into compliance by Here: but his determination is at last conclusive, subject only to the overruling interference of the Mora, or Fates. Both the society of gods, and the various societies of men, are, according to the conceptions of Grecian legend, carried on by the personal rule of a legitimate sovereign, who does not derive his title from the special appointment of his subjects, though he governs with their full consent. In fact, Grecian legend presents to us hardly anything else, except these great individual personalities. The race, or nation, is as it were absorbed into the prince: eponymous persons, especially, are not merely princes, but fathers and representative unities, each the equivalent of that greater or less aggregate to which he gives name.

But though, in the primitive Grecian government, the king is the legitimate as well as the real sovereign, he is always conceived as acting through the council and agora. Both the one and the other are established and essential media through which his ascendency is brought to bear upon the society: the absence of such assemblies is the test and mark of savage men, as in the case of the Cyclopes. Accordingly, he must possess qualities fit to act with effect upon these two assemblies: wise reason for the council, unctuous eloquence for the agora. Such is the idéal of the heroic government: a king, not merely full of valor and resource as a soldier, but also sufficiently superior to those around him to insure both the deliberate concurrence of the chiefs, and the hearty adhesion of the masses. That this picture is not, in all individual cases, realized, is unquestionable; but the endowments so often predicated of good kings show it to have been the type present to the mind of the describer. Xenophon, in his Cyropaedia, depicts Cyrus as an improved edition of the Homeric Agamemnon,—“a good king and a powerful soldier”, thus idealizing the perfection of personal government.


It is important to point out these fundamental conceptions of government, discernible even before the dawn of Grecian history, and identified with the social life of the people. It shows us that the Greeks, in their subsequent revolutions, and in the political experiments which their countless autonomous communities presented, worked upon preéxisting materials,—developing and exalting elements which had been at first subordinate, and suppressing, or remodeling on a totally new principle, that which had been originally predominant. When we approach historical Greece, we find that (with the exception of Sparta) the primitive hereditary, unresponsible monarch, uniting in himself all the functions of government, has ceased to reign,— while the feeling of legitimacy, which originally induced his people to obey him willingly, has been exchanged for one of aversion towards the character and title generally. The multifarious functions which he once exercised, have been parceled out among temporary nominees. On the other hand, the council, or senate, and the agora, originally simple media through which the king acted, are elevated into standing and independent sources of authority, controlling and holding in responsibility the various special officers to whom executive duties of one kind or another are confided. The general principle here indicated is common both to the oligarchies and the democracies which grew up in historical Greece: much as these two governments differed from each other, and many as were the varieties even between one oligarchy or democracy and another, they all stood in equal contrast with the principle of the heroic government. Even in Sparta, where the hereditary kingship lasted, it was preserved with luster and influence exceedingly diminished, and such timely diminution of its power seems to have been one of the essential conditions of its preservation. Though the Spartan kings had the hereditary command of the military forces, yet, even in all foreign expeditions, they habitually acted in obedience to orders from home; while in affairs of the interior, the superior power of the ephors sensibly overshadowed them. So that, unless possessed of more than ordinary force of character, they seem to have exercised their chief influence as presiding members of the senate.


There is yet another point of view in which it behoves us to take notice of the council and the agora as integral portions of the legendary government of the Grecian communities. We are thus enabled to trace the employment of public speaking, as the standing engine of government and the proximate cause of obedience, to the social infancy of the nation. The power of speech in the direction of public affairs becomes more and more obvious, developed, and irresistible, as we advance towards the culminating period of Grecian history, the century preceding the battle of Chaeronea. That its development was greatest among the most enlightened sections of the Grecian name, and smallest among the more obtuse and stationary, is matter of notorious fact; nor is it less true, that the prevalence of this habit was one of the chief causes of the intellectual eminence of the nation generally. At a time when all the countries around were plunged comparatively in mental torpor, there was no motive sufficiently present and powerful to multiply so wonderfully the productive minds of Greece, except such as arose from the rewards of public speaking. The susceptibility of the multitude to this sort of guidance, their habit of requiring and enjoying the stimulus which it supplied, and the open discussion, combining regular forms with free opposition, of practical matters, political as well as judicial,—are the creative causes which formed such conspicuous adepts in the art of persuasion. Nor was it only professed orators who were thus produced; didactic aptitude was formed in the background, and the speculative tendencies were supplied with interesting phenomena for observation and combination, at a time when the truths of physical science were almost inaccessible. If the primary effect was to quicken the powers of expression, the secondary, but not less certain result, was to develop the habits of scientific thought. Not only the oratory of Demosthenes and Pericles, and the colloquial magic of Socrates, but also the philosophical speculations of Plato, and the systematic politics, rhetoric, and logic of Aristotle, are traceable to the same general tendencies in the minds of the Grecian people: and we find the germ of these expansive forces in the senate and agora of their legendary government. The poets, first epic and then lyric, were the precursors of the orators, in their power of moving the feelings of an assembled crowd; whilst the Homeric poems—the general training-book of educated Greeks—constituted a treasury of direct and animated expression, full of concrete forms, and rare in the use of abstractions, and thence better suited to the workings of oratory. The subsequent critics had no difficulty in selecting from the Iliad and Odyssey, samples of eloquence in all its phases and varieties.

On the whole, then, the society depicted in the old Greek poems is loose and unsettled, presenting very little of legal restraint, and still less of legal protection,—but concentrating such political power as does exist in the hands of a legitimate hereditary king, whose ascendency over the other chiefs is more or less complete according to his personal force and character. Whether that ascendency be greater or less, however, the mass of the people is in either ease politically passive and of little account. Though the Grecian freeman of the heroic age is above the degraded level of the Gallic plebs, as described by Caesar, he is far from rivaling the fierce independence and sense of dignity, combined with individual force, which characterize the Germanic tribes before their establishment in the Roman empire. Still less does his condition, or the society in which he moves, correspond to those pleasing dreams of spontaneous rectitude and innocence, in which Tacitus and Seneca indulge with regard to primitive man.


2. The state of moral and social feeling, prevalent in legendary Greece, exhibits a scene in harmony with the rudimentary political fabrics just described. Throughout the long stream of legendary narrative on which the Greeks looked back as their past history, the larger social motives hardly ever come into play: either individual valor and cruelty, or the personal attachments and quarrels of relatives and war-companions, or the feuds of private enemies, are ever before us. There is no sense of obligation then existing, between man and man as such,—and very little between each man and the entire community of which he is a member; such sentiments are neither operative in the real world, nor present to the imaginations of the poets. Personal feelings, either towards the gods, the king, or some near and known individual, fill the whole of a man's bosom: out of them arise all the motives to beneficence, and all the internal restraints upon violence, antipathy, or rapacity: and special communion, as well as special solemnities, are essential to their existence. The ceremony of an oath, so imposing, so paramount, and so indispensable in those days, illustrates strikingly this principle. And even in the case of the stranger suppliant,—in which an apparently spontaneous sympathy manifests itself;—the succor and kindness shown to him arise mainly from his having gone through the consecrated formalities of supplication, such as that of sitting down in the ashes by the sacred hearth, thus obtaining a sort of privilege of sanctuary. That ceremony exalts him into something more than a mere suffering man,—it places him in express fellowship with the master of the house, under the tutelary sanctions of Zeus Hiketesios. There is great difference between one form of supplication and another; the suppliant, however, in any form, becomes more or less the object of a particular sympathy.

The sense of obligation towards the gods manifests itself separately in habitual acts of worship, sacrifice, and libations, or by votive presents, such as that of the hair of Achilles, which he has pledged to the river-god Spercheius, and such as the constant dedicated offerings which men who stand in urgent need of the divine aid first promise and afterwards fulfill. But the feeling towards the gods also appears, and that not less frequently, as mingling itself with and enforcing obligations towards some particular human person. The tie which binds a man to his father, his kinsman, his guest, or any special promise towards whom he has taken the engagement of an oath, is conceived in conjunction with the idea of Zeus, as witness and guarantee; and the intimacy of the association is attested by some surname or special appellation of the god. Such personal feelings composed all the moral influences of which a Greek of that day was susceptible,—a state of mind which we can best appreciate by contrasting it with that of the subsequent citizen of historical Athens. In the view of the latter, the great impersonal authority, called “The Laws”, stood out separately, both as guide and sanction, distinct from religious duty or private sympathies: but of this discriminated conception of positive law and positive morality, the germ only can be detected in the Homeric poems. The appropriate Greek word for human laws never occurs. Amidst a very wavering phraseology, we can detect a gradual transition from the primitive idea of a personal goddess Themis, attached to Zeus, first to his sentences or orders called Themistes, and next by a still farther remove to various established customs, which those sentences were believed to sanctify, —the authority of religion and that of custom coalescing into one indivisible obligation.


The family relations, as we might expect, are set forth in our pictures of the legendary world as the grand sources of lasting union and devoted attachment. The paternal authority is highly reverenced: the son who lives to years of maturity, repays by affection to his parents the charge of his maintenance in infancy, which the language notes by a special word; whilst on the other hand, the Erinnys, whose avenging hand is put in motion by the curse of a father or mother, is an object of deep dread.

In regard to marriage, we find the wife occupying a station of great dignity and influence, though it was the practice for the husband to purchase her by valuable presents to her parents, a practice extensively prevalent among early communities, and treated by Aristotle as an evidence of barbarism. She even seems to live less secluded and to enjoy a wider sphere of action than was allotted to her in historical Greece. Concubines are frequent with the chiefs, and occasionally the jealousy of the wife breaks out in reckless excess against her husband, as may be seen in the tragic history of Phoenix. The continence of Laertes, from fear of displeasing his wife Antikleia, is especially noticed. A large portion of the romantic interest which Grecian legend inspires is derived from the women: Penelope, Andromache, Helen, Clytemnestra, Eriphyle, Iokasta, Hekabe, etc., all stand in the foreground of the picture, either from their virtues their beauty, their crimes, or their sufferings.

Not only brothers, but also cousins, and the more distant blood-relations and clansmen, appear connected together by a strong feeling of attachment, sharing among them universally the obligation of mutual self-defense and revenge, in the event of injury to any individual of the race. The legitimate brothers divide between them by lot the paternal inheritance,—a bastard brother receiving only a small share; he is, however, commonly very well treated, though the murder of Phokus, by Telamon and Peleus, constitutes a flagrant exception. The furtive pregnancy of young women, often by a god, is one of the most frequently recurring incidents in the legendary narratives; and the severity with which such a fact, when discovered, is visited by the father, is generally extreme. As an extension of the family connection, we read of larger unions, called the phratry and the tribe, which are respectfully, but not frequently, mentioned.

The generous readiness with which hospitality is afforded to the stranger who asks for it, the facility with which he is allowed to contract the peculiar connection of guest with his host, and the permanence with which that connection, when created by partaking of the same food and exchanging presents, is maintained even through a long period of separation, and even transmitted from father to son—these are among the most captivating features of the heroic society. The Homeric chief welcomes the stranger who comes to ask shelter in his house, first gives him refreshment, and then inquires his name and the purpose of his voyage. Though not inclined to invite strangers to his house, he cannot repel them when they spontaneously enter it craving a lodging. The suppliant is also commonly a stranger, but a stranger under peculiar circumstances; who proclaims his own calamitous and abject condition, and seeks to place himself in a relation to the chief whom be solicits, something like that in which men stand to the gods. Onerous as such special tie may become to him, the chief cannot decline it, if solicited in the proper form: the ceremony of supplication has a binding effect, and the Erinnys punish the hardhearted person who disallows it. A conquered enemy may sometimes throw himself at the feet of his conqueror, and solicit mercy, but he cannot by doing so acquire the character and claims of a suppliant properly so called: the conqueror has free discretion either to kill him, or to spare him and accept a ransom.


There are in the legendary narratives abundant examples of individuals who transgress in particular acts even the holiest of these personal ties, but the savage Cyclops is the only person described as professedly indifferent to them, and careless of that sanction of the gods which in Grecian belief accompanied them all. In fact, the tragic horror which pervades the lineage of Athamas or Kadmus, and which attaches to many of the acts of Heracles, of Peleus and Telamon, of Jason and Medea, of Atreus and Thyestes, etc., is founded upon a deep feeling and sympathy with those special obligations, which conspicuous individuals, under the temporary stimulus of the maddening Ate, are driven to violate. In such conflict of sentiments, between the obligation generally reverenced and the exceptional deviation in an individual otherwise admired, consists the pathos of the story.

These feelings—of mutual devotion between kinsmen and companions in arms—of generous hospitality to the stranger, and of helping protection to the suppliant,—constitute the bright spots in a dark age. We find them very generally prevalent amongst communities essentially rude and barbarous,—amongst the ancient Germans as described by Tacitus, the Druses in Lebanon, the Arabian tribes in the desert, and even the North American Indians.

They are the instinctive manifestations of human sociality, standing at first alone, and for that reason appearing to possess a greater tutelary force than really belongs to them -beneficent, indeed, in a high degree, with reference to their own appropriate period, but serving as a very imperfect compensation for the impotence of the magistrate, and for the absence of any all-pervading sympathy or sense of obligation between man and man. We best appreciate their importance when we compare the Homeric society with that of barbarians like the Thracians, who tattooed their bodies, as the mark of a generous lineage,—sold their children for export as slaves,—considered robbery, not merely as one admissible occupation among others, but as the only honorable mode of life; agriculture being held contemptible,—and above all, delighted in the shedding of blood as a luxury. Such were the Thracians in the days of Herodotus and Thucydides: and the Homeric society forms a mean term between that which these two historians yet saw in Thrace, and that which they witnessed among their own civilized countrymen.


When, however, among the Homeric men we pass beyond the influence of the private ties above enumerated, we find scarcely any other moralizing forces in operation. The acts and adventures commemorated imply a community wherein neither the protection nor the restraints of law are practically felt, and where in ferocity, rapine, and the aggressive propensities generally, seem restrained by no internal counterbalancing scruples. Homicide, especially, is of frequent occurrence, sometimes by open violence, sometimes by fraud: expatriation for homicide is among the most constantly recurring acts of the Homeric poems: and savage brutalities are often ascribed, even to admired heroes, with apparent indifference. Achilles sacrifices twelve Trojan prisoners on the tomb of Patroklus, while his son Neoptolemus not only slaughters the aged Priam, but also seizes by the leg the child Astyanax (son of the slain Hector) and hurls him from one of the lofty towers of Troy. Moreover, the celebrity of Autolykus, the maternal grandfather of Odysseus, in the career of wholesale robbery and perjury, and the wealth which it enabled him to acquire, are described with the same unaffected admiration as the wisdom of Nestor or the strength of Ajax. Achilles, Menelaus, Odysseus, pillage in person, wherever they can find an opportunity, employing both force and stratagem to surmount resistance. The vocation of a pirate is recognized and honorable, so that a host, when he asks his guest what is the purpose of his voyage, enumerates enrichment by indiscriminate maritime plunder as among those projects which may naturally enter into his contemplation. Abduction of cattle, and expeditions for unprovoked ravage as well as for retaliation, between neighboring tribes, appear ordinary phenomena; and the established inviolability of heralds seems the only evidence of any settled feeling of obligation between one community and another. While the house and property of Odysseus, during his long absence, enjoys no public protection, those unprincipled chiefs, who consume his substance, find sympathy rather than disapprobation among the people of Ithaca. As a general rule, he who cannot protect himself finds no protection from society: his own kinsmen and immediate companions are the only parties to whom he can look with confidence for support. And in this respect, the representation given by Hesiod makes the picture even worse. In his emphatic denunciation of the fifth age, that poet deplores not only the absence of all social justice and sense of obligation among his contemporaries, but also the relaxation of the ties of family and hospitality. There are marks of querulous exaggeration in the poem of the Works and Days; yet the author professes to describe the real state of things around him, and the features of his picture, soften them as we may, will still appear dark and calamitous. It is, however, to he remarked, that he contemplates a state of peace,—thus forming a contrast with the Homeric poems. His copious catalogue of social evils scarcely mentions liability to plunder by a foreign enemy, nor does he compute the chances of predatory aggression as a source of profit.

There are two special veins of estimable sentiment, on which it may be interesting to contrast heroic and historical Greece, and which exhibit the latter as an improvement on the former, not less in the affections than in the intellect.

The law of Athens was peculiarly watchful and provident with respect both to the persons and the property of orphan minors; but the description given in the Iliad of the utter and hopeless destitution of the orphan boy, despoiled of his paternal inheritance, and abandoned by all the friends of his father, whom he urgently supplicates, and who all harshly cast him off, is one of the most pathetic morsels in the whole poem. In reference again to the treatment of the dead body of an enemy we find all the Greek chiefs who come near (not to mention the conduct of Achilles himself) piercing with their spears the corpse of the slain Hector, while some of them even pass disgusting taunts upon it. We may add, from the lost epics, the mutilation of the dead bodies of Paris and Deiphobus by the hand of Menelaus. But at the time of the Persian invasion, it was regarded as unworthy of a right-minded Greek to maltreat in any way the dead body of an enemy, even where such a deed might seem to be justified on the plea of retaliation. After the battle of Plataea, a proposition was made to the Spartan king Pausanias, to retaliate upon the dead body of Mardonius the indignities which Xerxes had heaped upon that of Leonidas at Thermopylae. He indignantly spurned the suggestion, not without a severe rebuke, or rather a half-suppressed menace, towards the proposer: and the feeling of Herodotus himself goes heartily along with him.


The different manner of dealing with homicide presents a third test, perhaps more striking yet, of the change in Grecian feelings and manners during the three centuries preceding the Persian invasion. That which the murderer in the Homeric times had to dread, was, not public prosecution and punishment, but the personal vengeance of the kinsmen and friends of the deceased, who were stimulated by the keenest impulses of honor and obligation to avenge the deed, and were considered by the public as specially privileged to do so. To escape from this danger, he is obliged to flee the country, unless he can prevail upon the incensed kinsmen to accept of a valuable payment (we must not speak of coined money, in the days of Homer) as satisfaction for their slain comrade. They may, if they please, decline the offer, and persist in their right of revenge; but if they accept, they are bound to leave the offender unmolested, and he accordingly remains at home without farther consequences. The chiefs in agora do not seem to interfere, except to insure payment of the stipulated sum.

Here we recognize once more the characteristic attribute of the Grecian heroic age,—the omnipotence of private force, tempered and guided by family sympathies, and the practical nullity of that collective sovereign afterwards called The City, who in historical Greece becomes the central and paramount source of obligation, but who appears yet only in the background, as a germ of premise for the future. And the manner in which, in the case of homicide, that germ was developed into a powerful reality, presents an interesting field of comparison with other nations.

For the practice, here designated, of leaving the party guilty of homicide to compromise by valuable payment with the relatives of the deceased, and also of allowing to the latter a free choice whether they would accept such compromise or enforce their right of personal revenge,—has been remarked in many rude communities, but is particularly memorable among the early German tribes. Among the many separate Teutonic establishments which rose upon the ruins of the Western Empire of Rome, the right as well as duty of private revenge, for personal injury or insult offered to any member of a family,—and the endeavor to avert its effects by means of a pecuniary composition levied upon the offender, chiefly as satisfaction to the party injured, but partly also as perquisite to the king,—was adopted as the basis of their legislation. This fundamental idea was worked out in elaborate detail as to the valuation of the injury inflicted, where in one main circumstance was the rank, condition, and power of the sufferer. The object of the legislator was to preserve the society from standing feuds, but at the same time to accord such full satisfaction as would induce the injured person to waive his acknowledged right of personal revenge,—the full luxury of which, as it presented itself to the mind of an Homeric Greek, may be read in more than one passage of the Iliad. The German codes begin by trying to bring about the acceptance of a fixed pecuniary composition as a constant voluntary custom, and proceed ultimately to enforce it as a peremptory necessity: the idea of society is at first altogether subordinate, and its influence passes only by slow degrees from amicable arbitration into imperative control.

The Homeric society, in regard to this capital point in human progression, is on a level with that of the German tribes as described by Tacitus. But the subsequent course of Grecian legislation takes a direction completely different from that of the German codes: the primitive and acknowledged right of private revenge (unless where bought off by pecuniary payment), instead of being developed into practical working, is superseded by more comprehensive views of a public wrong requiring public intervention, or by religious fears respecting the posthumous wrath of the murdered person. In historical Athens, this right of private revenge was discountenanced and put out of sight, even so early as the Draconian legislation, and at last restricted to a few extreme and special cases; while the murderer came to be considered, first as having sinned against the gods, next as having deeply injured the society, and thus at once as requiring absolution and deserving punishment. On the first of these two grounds, he is interdicted from the agora and from all holy places, as well as from public functions, even while yet untried and simply a suspected person; for if this were not done, the wrath of the gods would manifest itself in bad crops and other national calamities. On the second ground, he is tried before the council of Areiopagus, and if found guilty, is condemned to death, or perhaps to disfranchisement and banishment. The idea of a propitiatory payment to the relatives of the deceased has ceased altogether to be admitted: it is the protection of society which dictates, and the force of society which inflicts, a measure of punishment calculated to deter for the future.


3. The society of legendary Greece includes, besides the chiefs, the general mass of freemen, among whom stand out by special names certain professional men, such as the carpenter, the smith, the leather-dresser, the leech, the prophet, the bard, and the fisherman. We have no means of appreciating their condition. Though lots of arable land were assigned in special property to individuals, with boundaries both carefully marked and jealously watched, yet the larger proportion of surface was devoted to pasture. Cattle formed both the chief item in the substance of a wealthy man, the chief means of making payments, and the common ground of quarrels,—bread and meat, in large quantities, being the constant food of every one. The estates of the owners were tilled, and their cattle tended, mostly by bought slaves, but to a certain degree also by poor freemen called Thetes, working for hire and for stated periods. The principal slaves, who were entrusted with the care of large herds of oxen, swine, or goats, were of necessity men worthy of confidence, their duties placing them away from their master’s immediate eye. They had other slaves subordinate to them, and appear to have been well-treated: the deep and unshaken attachment of Eumaeus the swineherd and Philoetius the neat herd to the family and affairs of the absent Odysseus, is among the most interesting points in the ancient epic. Slavery was a calamity, which in that period of insecurity might befall any one: the chief who conducted a freebooting expedition, if he succeeded, brought back with him a numerous troop of slaves, as many as he could seize,— if he failed, became very likely a slave himself: so that the slave was often by birth of equal dignity with his master: Eumaeus was himself the son of a chief, conveyed away when a child by his nurse, and sold by Phoenician kidnappers to Laertes. A slave of this character, if he conducted himself well, might often expect to be enfranchised by his master and placed in an independent holding.

On the whole, the slavery of legendary Greece does not present itself as existing under a peculiarly harsh form, especially if we consider that all the classes of society were then very much upon a level in point of taste, sentiment, and instruction. In the absence of legal security or an effective social sanction, it is probable that the condition of a slave under an average master, may have been as good as that of the free Thete. The class of slaves whose lot appears to have been the most pitiable were the females,—more numerous than the males, and performing the principal work in the interior of the house. Not only do they seem to have been more harshly treated than the males, but they were charged with the hardest and most exhausting labor which the establishment of a Greek chief required: they brought in water from the spring, and turned by hand the house-mills, which ground the large quantity of flour consumed in his family. This oppressive task was performed generally by female slaves, in historical as well as legendary Greece. Spinning and weaving was the constant occupation of women, whether free or slave, of every rank and station: all the garments worn both by men and women were fashioned at home, and Helen as well as Penelope is expert and assiduous at the occupation. The daughters of Keleos at Eleusis go to the well with their basins for water, and Nausikaa, daughter of Alkinous, joins her female slaves in the business of washing her garments in the river. If we are obliged to point out the fierceness and insecurity of an early society, we may at the same time note with pleasure its characteristic simplicity of manners: Rebecca, Rachel, and the daughters of Jethro, in the early Mosaic narrative, as well as the wife of the native Macedonian chief (with whom the Temenid Perdiccas, ancestor of Philip and Alexander, first took service on retiring from Argos), baking her own cakes on the hearth, exhibit a parallel in this respect to the Homeric pictures.

We obtain no particulars respecting either the common freemen generally, or the particular class of them called Thetes. These latter, engaged for special jobs, or at the harvest and other busy seasons of field labor, seem to have given their labor in exchange for board and clothing: they are mentioned in the same line with the slaves, and were (as has been just observed) probably on the whole little better off. The condition of a poor freeman in those days, without a lot of land of his own, going about from one temporary job to another, and having no powerful family and no social authority to look up to for protection, must have been sufficiently miserable. When Eumaeus indulged his expectation of being manumitted by his masters, he thought at the same time that they would give him a wife, a house, and a lot of land near to themselves; without which collateral advantages, simple manumission might perhaps have been no improvement in his condition. To be Thete in the service of a very poor farmer is selected by Achilles as the maximum of human hardship: such a person could not give to his Thete the same ample food, and good shoes and clothing, as the wealthy chief Eurymachus, while he would exact more severe labor. It was probably among such smaller occupants, who could not advance the price necessary to purchase slaves, and were glad to save the cost of keep when they did not need service, that the Thetes found employment: though we may conclude that the brave and strong amongst these poor freemen found it preferable to accompany some freebooting chief and to live by the plunder acquired. The exact Hesiod advises his farmer, whose work is chiefly performed by slaves, to employ and maintain the Thete during summertime, but to dismiss him as soon as the harvest is completely got in, and then to take into his house for the winter a woman “without any child”; who would of course be more useful than the Thete for the indoor occupations of that season.


In a state of society such as that which we have been describing, Grecian commerce was necessarily trifling and restricted. The Homeric poems mark either total ignorance or great vagueness of apprehension respecting all that lies beyond the coasts of Greece and Asia Minor, and the islands between or adjoining them. Libya and Egypt are supposed so distant as to be known only by name and hearsay: indeed, when the city of Cyrene was founded, a century and a half after the first Olympiad, it was difficult to find anywhere a Greek navigator who had ever visited the coast of Libya, or was fit to serve as guide to the colonists. The mention of the Sikels in the Odyssey, leads us to conclude that Corcyra, Italy, and Sicily were not wholly unknown to the poet: among seafaring Greeks, the knowledge of the latter implied the knowledge of the two former, since the habitual track, even of a well-equipped Athenian trireme during the Peloponnesian war, from Peloponnesus to Sicily, was by Corcyra and the Gulf of Tarentum. The Phokians, long afterwards, were the first Greeks who explored either the Adriatic or Tyrrhenian sea. Of the Euxine sea no knowledge is manifested in Homer, who, as a general rule, presents to us the names of distant regions only in connection with romantic or monstrous accompaniments. The Cretans, and still more the Taphians (who are supposed to have occupied the western islands off the coast of Acarnania), are mentioned as skillful mariners, and the Taphian Mentes professes to be conveying iron to Temesa to be there exchanged for copper but both Taphians and Cretans are more corsairs than traders. The strong sense of the dangers of the sea, expressed by the poet Hesiod, and the imperfect structure of the early Grecian ship, attested by Thucydides (who points out the more recent date of that improved ship-building which prevailed in his time, concur to demonstrate the then narrow range of nautical enterprise.

Such was the state of the Greeks, as traders, at a time when Babylon combined a crowded and industrious population with extensive commerce, and when the Phoenician merchantships visited in one direction the Southern coast of Arabia, perhaps even the island of Ceylon,—in another direction, the British islands.


The Phoenician, the kinsman of the ancient Jew, exhibits the type of character belonging to the latter, with greater enterprise and ingenuity, and less of religious exclusiveness, yet still different from, and even antipathetic to, the character of the Greeks. In the Homeric poems, he appears somewhat like the Jew of the Middle Ages, a crafty trader, turning to profit the violence and rapacity of others,—bringing them ornaments, decorations, the finest and brightest products of the loom, gold, silver, electrum, ivory, tin, etc., in exchange for which he received landed produce, skins, wool, and slaves, the only commodities which even a wealthy Greek chief of those early times had to offer,—prepared at the same time for dishonest gain, in any manner which chance might throw in his way. He is, however, really a trader, not undertaking expeditions with the deliberate purpose of surprise and plunder, and standing distinguished in this respect from the Tyrrhenian, Cretan, or Taphian pirate. Tin, ivory, and electrum, all of which are acknowledged in the Homeric poems, were the fruit of Phoenician trade with the West as well as with the East.

Thucydides tells us that the Phoenicians and Carians, in very early periods, occupied many of the islands of the Aegean, and we know, from the striking remnant of their mining works which Herodotus himself saw in Thasus, off the coast of Thrace, that they had once extracted gold from the mountains of that island,—at a period indeed very far back, since their occupation must have been abandoned prior to the settlement of the poet Archilochus. Yet few of the islands in the Aegean were rich in such valuable products, nor was it in the usual course of Phoenician proceeding to occupy islands, except where there was an adjoining mainland with which trade could be carried on. The traffic of these active mariners required no permanent settlement, but as occasional visitors they were convenient, in enabling a Greek chief to turn his captives to account,—to get rid of slaves or friendless Thetes who were troublesome,—and to supply himself with the metals, precious as well as useful. The halls of Alkinous and Menelaus glitter with gold, copper, and electrum; while large stocks of yet unemployed metal—gold, copper, and iron—are stored up in the treasure-chamber of Odysseus and other chiefs. Coined money is unknown to the Homeric age,—the trade carried on being one of barter. In reference also to the metals, it deserves to be remarked that the Homeric description universally suppose copper, and not iron, to be employed for arms, both offensive and defensive. By what process the copper was tempered and hardened, so as to serve the purposes of the warrior, we do not know; but the use of iron for these objects belongs to a later age, though the Works and Days of Hesiod suppose this change to have been already introduced.


The mode of fighting among the Homeric heroes is not less different from the historical times, than the material of which their arms were composed. The Hoplites, or heavy-armed infantry of historical Greece, maintained a close order and well-dressed line, charging the enemy with their spears portended at even distance, and coming thus to close conflict without breaking their rank: there were special troops, bowmen, slingers, etc. armed with missiles, but the hoplite had no weapon to employ in this manner. The heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey, on the contrary, habitually employ the spear as a missile, which they launch with tremendous force: each of them is mounted in his war-chariot, drawn by two horses, and calculated to contain the warrior and his charioteer; in which latter capacity a friend or comrade will sometimes consent to serve. Advancing in his chariot at full speed, in front of his own soldiers, he hurls his spear against the enemy: sometimes, indeed, he will fight on foot, and hand to hand, but the chariot is usually near to receive him if he chooses, or to insure his retreat. The mass of the Greeks and Trojans, coming forward to the charge, without any regular step or evenly-maintained line, make their attack in the same way by hurling their spears. Each chief wears habitually a long sword and a short dagger, besides his two spears to be launched forward,—the spear being also used, if occasion serves, as a weapon for thrust. Every man is protected by shield, helmet, breastplate, and greaves: but the armor of the chiefs is greatly superior to that of the common men, while they themselves are both stronger and more expert in the use of their weapons. There are a few bowmen, as rare exceptions, but the general equipment and proceeding is as here described.

Such loose array, immortalized as it is in the Iliad, is familiar to everyone; and the contrast which it presents, with those inflexible ranks, and that irresistible simultaneous charge which bore down the Persian throng at Plataea and Cunaxa, is such as to illustrate forcibly the general difference between heroic and historical Greece. While in the former, a few splendid figures stand forward, in prominent relief, the remainder being a mere unorganized and ineffective mass, in the latter, these units have been combined into a system, in which every man, officer and soldier, has his assigned place and duty, and the victory, when gained, is the joint work of all. Preeminent individual prowess is indeed materially abridged, if not wholly excluded, no man can do more than maintain his station in the line; but on the other hand, the grand purposes, aggressive or defensive, for which alone arms are taken up, become more assured and easy, and long-sighted combinations of the general are rendered for the first time practicable, when he has a disciplined body of men to obey him. In tracing the picture of civil society, we have to remark a similar transition—we pass from Heracles, Theseus, Jason, Achilles, to Solon, Pythagoras, and Pericles—from “the shepherd of his people”, (to use the phrase in which Homer depicts the good side of the heroic king) to the legislator who introduces, and the statesman who maintains, a preconcerted system by which willing citizens consent to bind themselves. If commanding individual talent is not always to be found, the whole community is so trained as to be able to maintain its course under inferior leaders; the rights as well as the duties of each citizen being predetermined in the social order, according to principles more or less wisely laid down. The contrast is similar, and the transition equally remarkable, in the civil as in the military picture. In fact, the military organization of the Grecian republics is an element of the greatest importance in respect to the conspicuous part which they have played in human affairs,—their superiority over other contemporary nations in this respect being hardly less striking than it is in many others, as we shall have occasion to see in a subsequent stage of this history.


Even at the most advanced point of their tactics, the Greeks could effect little against a walled city, whilst the heroic weapons and array were still less available for such an undertaking as a siege. Fortifications are a feature of the age deserving considerable notice. There was a time, we are told, in which the primitive Greek towns or villages derived a precarious security, not from their walls, but merely from sites lofty and difficult of access. They were not built immediately upon the shore, or close upon any convenient landing-place, but at some distance inland, on a rock or elevation which could not be approached without notice or scaled without difficulty. It was thought sufficient at that time to guard against piratical or marauding surprise: but as the state of society became assured,—as the chance of sudden assault comparatively diminished and industry increased,—these uninviting abodes were exchanged for more convenient sites on the plain or declivity beneath; or a portion of the latter was enclosed within larger boundaries and joined on to the original foundation, which thus became the Acropolis of the new town. Thebes, Athens, Argos, etc., belonged to the latter class of cities; but there were in many parts of Greece deserted sites on hilltops, still retaining, even in historical times, the traces of former habitation, and some of them still bearing the name of the old towns. Among the mountainous parts of Crete, in Aegina and Rhodes, in portions of Mount Ida and Parnassus, similar remnants might be perceived.

Probably, in such primitive hill villages, a continuous circle of wall would hardly be required as an additional means of defense, and would often be rendered very difficult by the rugged nature of the ground. But Thucydides represents the earliest Greeks—those whom he conceives anterior to the Trojan war—as living thus universally in unfortified villages, chiefly on account of their poverty, rudeness, and thorough carelessness for the morrow. Oppressed, and held apart from each other by perpetual fear, they had not yet contracted the sentiment of fixed abodes: they were unwilling even to plant fruit-trees because of the uncertainty of gathering the produce,—and were always ready to dislodge, because there was nothing to gain by staying, and a bare subsistence might be had anywhere. He compares them to the mountaineers of Aetolia and of the Ozolian Lokris in his own time, who dwelt in their unfortified hill villages with little or no intercommunication, always armed and fighting, and subsisting on the produce of their cattle and their woods,—clothed in undressed hides, and eating raw meat.

The picture given by Thucydides, of these very early and unrecorded times, can only be taken as conjectural,—the conjectures, indeed, of a statesman and a philosopher,—generalized too, in part, from the many particular instances of contention and expulsion of chiefs which he found in the old legendary poems. The Homeric poems, however, present to us a different picture. They recognize walled towns, fixed abodes, strong local attachments, hereditary individual property in land, vineyards planted and carefully cultivated, established temples of the gods, and splendid palaces of the chiefs. The description of Thucydides belongs to a lower form of society, and bears more analogy to that which the poet himself conceives as antiquated and barbarous,—to the savage Cyclopes, who dwell on the tops of mountains, in hollow caves, without the plough, without vine or fruit culture, without arts or instruments,—or to the primitive settlement of Dardanus son of Zeus, on the higher ground of Ida, while it was reserved for his descendants and successors to found the holy Ilium on the plain. Ilium or Troy represents the perfection of Homeric society. It is a consecrated spot, containing temples of the gods as well as the palace of Priam, and surrounded by walls which are the fabric of the gods; while the antecedent form of ruder society, which the poet briefly glances at, is the parallel of that which the theory of Thucydides ascribes to his own early semi-barbarous ancestors.


Walled towns serve thus as one of the evidences, that a large part of the population of Greece had, even in the Homeric times, reached a level higher than that of the Aetolians and Lokrians of the days of Thucydides. The remains of Mycenae and Tiryns demonstrate the massy and Cyclopean style of architecture employed in those early days: but we may remark that, while modern observers seem inclined to treat the remains of the former is very imposing, and significant of a great princely family, Thucydides, on the contrary, speaks of it as a small place, and labors to elude the inference, which might be deduced from its insignificant size, in disproof of the grandeur of Agamemnon. Such fortifications supplied a means of defense incomparably superior to those of attack. Indeed, even in historical Greece, and after the invention of battering engines, no city could be taken except by surprise or blockade, or by ruining the country around, and thus depriving the inhabitants of their means of subsistence. And in the two great sieges of the legendary time, Troy and Thebes, the former is captured by the stratagem of the wooden horse, while the latter is evacuated by its citizens, under the warning of the gods, after their defeat in the field.

This decided superiority of the means of defense over those of attack, in rude ages, has been one of the grand promotive causes both of the growth of civic life and of the general march of human improvement. It has enabled the progressive portions of mankind not only to maintain their acquisitions against the predatory instincts of the ruder and poorer, and to surmount the difficulties of incipient organization,—but ultimately, when their organization has been matured, both to acquire predominance, and to uphold it until their own disciplined habits have in part passed to their enemies. The important truth here stated is illustrated not less by the history of ancient Greece, than by that of modern Europe during the Middle Ages. The Homeric chief, combining superior rank with superior force, and ready to rob at every convenient opportunity, greatly resembles the feudal baron of the Middle Ages, but circumstances absorb him more easily into a city life, and convert the independent potentate into the member of a governing aristocracy. Traffic by sea continued to be beset with danger from pirates, long after it had become tolerably assured by land: the “wet ways” have always been the last resort of lawlessness and violence, and the Aegean, in particular, has in all times suffered more than other waters under this calamity.


Aggressions of the sort here described were of course most numerous in those earliest times when the Aegean was not yet an Hellenic sea, and when many of the Cyclades were occupied, not by Greeks, but by Carians,—perhaps by Phoenicians the number of Carian sepulchers discovered in the sacred island of Delos seems to attest such occupation as an historical fact. According to the legendary account, espoused both by Herodotus and by Thucydides, it was the Cretan Minos who subdued these islands and established his sons as rulers in them; either expelling the Carians, or reducing them to servitude and tribute. Thucydides presumes that he must of course have put down piracy, in order to enable his tribute to be remitted in safety, like the Athenians during the time of their hegemony. Upon the legendary thalassocracy of Minos, I have already remarked in another place: it is sufficient here to repeat, that, in the Homeric poems (long subsequent to Minos in the current chronology), we find piracy both frequent and held in honorable estimation, as Thucydides himself emphatically tells us,—remarking, moreover, that the vessels of those early days were only half-decked, built and equipped after the piratical fashion, in a manner upon which the nautical men of his time looked back with disdain. Improved and enlarged shipbuilding, and the trireme, or ship with three banks of oars, common for warlike purposes during the Persian invasion, began only with the growing skill, activity, and importance of the Corinthians, three quarters of a century after the first Olympiad. Corinth, even in the Homeric poems, is distinguished by the epithet of wealthy, which it acquired principally from its remarkable situation on the Isthmus, and from its two harbors of Lechaeum and Kenchreae, the one on the Corinthian, the other on the Saronic gulf. It thus supplied a convenient connection between Epirus and Italy on the one side, and the Aegean sea on the other, without imposing upon the unskillful and timid navigator of those days the necessity of circumnavigating Peloponnesus.

The extension of Grecian traffic and shipping is manifested by a comparison of the Homeric with the Hesiodic poems; in respect to knowledge of places and countries,—the latter being probably referable to dates between BC 740 and BC 640. In Homer, acquaintance is shown (the accuracy of such acquaintance, however, being exaggerated by Strabo and other friendly critics) with continental Greece and its neighboring islands, with Crete and the principal islands of the Aegean, and with Thrace, the Troad, the Hellespont, and Asia Minor between Paphlagonia northward and Lycia southward. The Sikels are mentioned in the Odyssey, and Sikania in the last book of that poem, but nothing is said to evince a knowledge of Italy or the realities of the western world. Libya, Egypt, and Phoenike, are known by name and by vague hearsay, but the Nile is only mentioned as “the river Egypt” : while the Euxine sea is not mentioned at all. In the Hesiodic poems, on the other hand, the Nile, the Ister, the Phasis, and the Eridanus, are all specified by name; Mount Etna, and the island of Ortygia near to Syracuse, the Tyrrhenians and Ligurians in the west, and the Scythians in the north, were also noticed. Indeed, within forty years after the first Olympiad, the cities of Corcyra and Syracuse were founded from Corinth,—the first of a numerous and powerful series of colonies, destined to impart a new character both to the south of Italy and to Sicily.


In reference to the astronomy and physics of the Homeric Greek, it has already been remarked that be connected together the sensible phenomena which form the subject matter of these sciences by threads of religious and personifying fancy, to which the real analogies among them were made subordinate; and that these analogies did not begin to be studied by themselves, apart from the religious element by which they had been at first overlaid, until the age of Thales,—coinciding as that period did with the increased opportunities for visiting Egypt and the interior of Asia. The Greeks obtained access in both of these countries to an enlarged stock of astronomical observations, to the use of the gnomon, or sundial, and to a more exact determination of the length of the solar year, than that which served as the basis of their various lunar periods. It is pretended that Thales was the first who predicted an eclipse of the sun,—not, indeed. accurately, but with large limits of error as to the time of its occurrence,—and that he also possessed so profound an acquaintance with meteorological phenomena and probabilities, as to be able to foretell an abundant crop of olives for the coming year, and to realize a large sum of money by an olive speculation.

From Thales downward we trace a succession of astronomical and physical theories, more or less successful, into which I do not intend here to enter: it is sufficient at present to contrast the father of the Ionic philosophy with the times preceding him, and to mark the first commencement of scientific prediction among the Greeks, however imperfect at the outset, as distinguished from the inspired dicta of prophets or oracles, and from those special signs of the purposes of the gods, which formed the habitual reliance of the Homeric man We shall see these two modes of anticipating the future,—one based upon the philosophical, the other upon the religious appreciation of nature,—running simultaneously on throughout Grecian history, and sharing between them in unequal portions the empire of the Greek mind; the former acquiring both greater predominance and wider application among the intellectual men, and partially restricting, but never abolishing, the spontaneous employment of the latter among the vulgar.

Neither coined money, nor the art of writing, nor painting, nor sculpture, nor imaginative architecture, belong to the Homeric and Hesiodic times. Such rudiments of arts, destined ultimately to acquire so great a development in Greece, as may have existed in these early days, served only as a sort of nucleus to the fancy of the poet, to shape out for himself the fabulous creations ascribed to Hephaetus or Daelalus. No statues of the gods, not even of wood, are mentioned in the Homeric poems. All the many varieties, in Grecian music, poetry, and dancing,—the former chiefly borrowed from Lydia and Phrygia,—date from a period considerably later than the first Olympiad: Terpander, the earliest musician whose date is assigned, and the inventor of the harp with seven strings instead of that with four strings, does not come until the 26th Olympiad, or 676 BC; the poet Archilochus is nearly of the same date. The iambic and elegiac metres—the first deviations from the primitive epic strain and subject—do not reach up to the year 700 BC.

It is this epic poetry which forms at once both the undoubted prerogative and the solitary jewel of the earliest era of Greece. Of the many epic poems which existed in Greece during the eight century before the Christian era, none have been preserved except the Iliad and Odyssey: the Athiopis of Arktinus, the Ilias Minor of Lesches, the Cyprian Verses, the Capture of Oechalia, the Returns of the Heroes from Troy, the Maas and the Epigoni,—several of them passing in antiquity under the name of Homer,—have all been lost. But the two which remain are quite sufficient to demonstrate in the primitive Greeks, a mental organization unparalleled in any other people, and powers of invention and expression which prepared, as well as foreboded, the future eminence of the nation in all the various departments to which thought and language can be applied. Great as the power of thought afterwards became among the Greeks, their power of expression was still greater: in the former, other nations have built upon their foundations and surpassed them,— in the latter, they still remained unrivalled. It is not too much to say that this flexible, emphatic, and transparent character of the language as an instrument of communication,—its perfect aptitude for narrative and discussion, as well as for stirring all the veins of human emotion without ever forfeiting that character of simplicity which adapts it to all men and all times,—may be traced mainly to the existence and the widespread influence of the Iliad and Odyssey. To us, these compositions are interesting as beautiful poems, depicting life and manners, and unfolding certain types of character with the utmost vivacity and artlessness to their original hearer; they possessed all these sources of attraction, together with others more powerful still, to which we are now strangers. Upon him, they bore with the full weight and solemnity of history and religion combined, while the charm of the poetry was only secondary and instrumental. The poet was then the teacher and preacher of the community, not simply the amuser of their leisure hours : they looked to him for revelations of the unknown past and for expositions of the attributes and dispensations of the gods, just as they consulted the prophet for his privileged insight into the future. The ancient epic comprised many different poets and poetical compositions, which fulfilled this purpose with more or less completeness: but it is the exclusive prerogative of the Iliad and Odyssey, that, after the minds of men had ceased to be in full harmony with their original design, they yet retained their empire by the mere force of secondary excellences: while the remaining epics—though serving as food for the curious, and as storehouses for logographers, tragedians, and artists—never seem to have acquired very wide popularity even among intellectual Greeks.