A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture by Sarah Pomeroy, Stanley Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Roberts, and David Tandy

Some people loathe textbooks. A textbook tends to be good for gaining a broad overview of a subject and good ones tend to be more accurate than mass market popular histories, but they usually lack depth and vitality. They are best used when one wants to get a grasp of the larger picture of a subject. This textbook delivers in that regard, but like most textbooks wasn’t the most engaging read. The post was tricky to write because I was trying to capture the most important aspects of Ancient Greece history that I learned from the book from an already “brief history” on the topic, condensing hundreds of pages into a post just short of 5000 words.

    Bronze Age Greece

Humans first arrived in Greece over 40,000 years ago. Obsidian found at Francthi Cave reveals that by 10,000 BC these early humans could cross the seas to acquire volcanic materials from the nearby island of Melos. As villages grew in size and complexity, local men obtained leadership roles as chieftains and over time these chieftains consolidated power to become hereditary kings, which led to the two major Bronze Age cultures in Greece.

By 2000 BC, the first of these major civilizations had developed on the island of Crete. Today we call this civilization Minoan after the myths about King Minos. Although we aren’t sure if the Minoans were one single unified society, we do know that they built monumental maze-like royal palaces at many different sites on Crete. The most famous and biggest of these palaces was at Knossos. These palaces all had the same basic design with a central courtyard surrounded by administrative buildings on one side and private chambers on the other. The palaces were decorated with beautiful frescos of plants, animals, and youthful human figures, which indicates a strong aesthetic appreciation of nature. Behind the administrative buildings there was vast rooms to store grains in large jars called pithoi. These palaces served as the administrative, political, economic, and religious centers of the town. They were at the heart of a redistributive economy in which farmers who lived in more modest homes in the area outside the palace and surrounding villages sent their grain and other produce to the palace to be stored and redistributed back to the population as needed. Surplus was traded with other societies across the Mediterranean, while the Minoan upper-class received rare metals and luxury items in return. Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoans worshipped on mountain tops, caves, and house sanctuaries, while the palace also seems to have played an important role in religious rituals. Some writing survives in the form of Linear A, which has remained largely untranslated, and is presumed to deal with mostly economic matters. Unfortunately, this means there is no literary evidence from this time period, making it difficult to interpret important cultural aspects.

The other major Bronze Age culture was the Mycenaens. Around 2100 – 1600 BCE, the Greek mainland may have experienced an invasion by speakers of an Indo-European language that would form the basis of early Greek. Some of the evidence for this is the sudden appearance of pottery work similar in style to the type of pottery found in Anatolia (associated with Indo-European speaker migrations), the sudden appearance of Greek on the mainland in written records with its linguistic links to other Indo-European languages, and the sudden appearance of destruction sites in Southern and Central Greece at thriving towns such as at Lerna in Argolis.

Heinrich Schliemann was the pioneering excavator at Mycenae. During his excavations he found elaborate shaft graves of Mycenaean royalty, one of which contained the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. Subsequent archeological work, however, has shown that the golden mask predates by 300 years the supposed events of the Trojan War. The Mycenaeans would bury their leaders in deep shaft graves surrounded by rich burial offerings such as ceremonial swords, fancy drinking vessels, and other elaborate gold work. Archeologist have found a lot of gold objects at Mycenae, but mainland Greece is not rich in gold, which suggests that it was brought in from elsewhere. This piece of evidence shows that Mycenae was a major power in the larger Mediterranean trading network. Unlike Crete, Mycenae had huge stone walls around their palaces, which Greeks of the classical period thought were built by the cyclops. These vast walls, chariot grave stones, and the ceremonial swords buried with the dead leaders suggest that Mycenaean society was controlled by an elite class of warrior-kings. The palaces functioned much like Minoan palaces, revealing Cretan cultural influence on Mycenae. However, this influence didn’t last forever.

Around 1700 BC, the palaces at Crete were destroyed. A second destruction followed around 1450 BC – 1375 BC. Knossos was burned and looted, which corresponded with the rise of Mycenae on the mainland and the appearance of Linear B tablets, an early form of Ancient Greek. Excavations at many archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean reveal an abundance of pottery in the Minoan style in the early Bronze Age, but if you excavate many of those sites 200 years later the pottery is Mycenaean in style, suggesting Mycenaean got a stronger control of the Aegean trade and eclipsed Minoan culture. The destruction layers as well as the sudden appearance of Linear B on Crete after these destruction levels suggest that the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans.

There are many theories about why the Mycenaean culture collapsed. Some believe the volcanic explosion at the island of Thera was the cause, while other theories involve Dorian invasions, speakers of a Greek dialect, and sometimes identified with the sons of the Herakles, returning to take back their land. Modern historians now believe Mycenaean culture experienced a total systems collapse. Shortage of food may have led to lower classes uprising against the warrior class or simply abandoning the town centers. Around this time Egyptians record invasions by sea peoples, which list names that may be Egyptian for the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks in the Iliad). Likewise, around this time the Philistines settled in Palestine and the earliest Philistine archaeological layers have Mycenaean pottery, and it was also at this time that the Hittite Empire disintegrated from invasions. There is some archaeological evidence that the Trojan War may have happened. However, one shouldn’t confuse The Iliad, a poetic and mythical presentation of a part of these events, which may have an historical kernel, with real history.

A “dark age” followed the fall of the Mycenaean culture. People abandoned society and ran to the hills. Many perhaps becoming itinerant herdsmen. No longer was Greek life centered on kings and palace culture, but chieftains arose again, controlling a single house with few smaller houses of retainers around him. However, historians now think the decay wasn’t uniform. Excavations at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea show evidence of a wealthy town. Archaeologists have discovered an elaborate burial shaft there where they found the body of a warrior and his wife with horses sacrificed to him, weapons, and other items revealing wealth. Towards the end of this period, a Protogeometric style of pottery appears and transforms into the Geometric style around 900 – 700 B. C. This style features new shapes with circles and semicircle patterns being replaced with angular patterns such as the “meander pattern,” zigzags, triangles, and crosshatches. Although there was no written records, this period also saw the rise of oral poets. These poets would travel around Greece, telling stories about heroes and the cycles of myths. These skilled storytellers would incorporate changes every time they told a particular story in order to appeal to the local lords and accommodate local tastes. It was in these oral stories that we have the origin of Homer’s epics that would serve as a cultural document for all the Greeks.

    Classical Greece

Classic Greece and the City-States begin in the 8th century through a process called Synoecism. Households turn into small villages, which turn into towns, and eventually into City-States. Synoecism involved various smaller communities uniting together into a single political entity usually centered on a single major city. The City-States, however, included all the surrounding territory around the city walls and sometimes smaller nearby towns and islands. Initially most City-States were controlled by an elite aristocracy who had also taken control of the best land during the Dark Ages. Unlike in the Dark Ages where the rule of individual towns or villages was usually held by a single aristocratic household, the City-States saw these aristocrats sharing power and administrative roles. Unfortunately this led to endemic class strife and aristocratic feuding between families known as stasis, which became a dominant feature of many City-States throughout the Classical Age.

This period also featured an extensive colonization effort by these new City-States in which members would set out an expedition to found a new City-State on a different piece of land. Each of these colonies was initially sponsored by their parent city-state and received a foundation charter with divine approval from an oracle. If the colony was successful, any members who left the mother city-state for the colony would renounce their citizenship and become citizens of the new colony. One explanation of the extensive colonization that followed the formation of City-States was that founding new colonies served as an outlet for surplus population, food shortages, and aristocratic feuding. Greece is a relatively rocky infertile land and much of the good farming areas were controlled by the aristocracy. The creation of new colonies helped control overpopulation, send away troublesome members of aristocratic families prone to feuds, and giving an opportunity for younger siblings who would inherit only minor property from their parents to acquire new fertile land and potential new wealth.
This period also witnesses the reappearance of written language. It is during this time that the Homeric poems are written down. The epic poems of Homer were the closest equivalent the Greeks had to a sacred text. They formed the basis for their code of moral behavior. It was a code that encouraged excellence in character, which posited that the worst thing that could befall a person was to be seen as inferior. It was a code that celebrated valor in battle. It was the basis of what all Greek men thought they should be and how they ought to act, their ideal. In order to write these epics, the Greeks had adopted Phoenician letters for their writing system, which they likely encountered during colonization. Unlike the heroes in Homer’s epics, the military structure changed from a loose formation of single warrior aristocratic elites to hoplite warfare. These hoplite soldiers would dress in helmets, breastplates, and grieves constructed of bronze and would stand shoulder to shoulder in a formation of multiple ranks that stood one right behind the other. These soldiers were equipped with a long spear for jabbing and a short sword for close combat, while carrying a large shield called a hoplon, which was big enough to protect the man on the left of the holder. The goal was to push forward and break the enemy’s ranks.

The class tensions that pitted the oligarchic-ruled city-states against the middle-class hoplite farmers, and the poor culminated in 670 – 500 BC in the “age of tyrants.” In many city-states, individuals, usually of the aristocratic class, but often marginalized members or those not part of the elite groups within that class, seized power for themselves with the help of the other classes. The tyrants supported the poor by redistributing portions of aristocratic lands and sponsoring laws to curtail aristocratic privileges. The tyrants also spent money on civic projects such as temples, fortifications, and improved infrastructure. They decorated these projects with lavish paintings of mythological scenes, and the sculptors of this period borrowed artistic forms from the Egyptians to carve stone and bronze statues. It was during the reign of Cypselus, the tyrant of Corinth, that the city-state invented the “black figure” technique of pottery, which became one of Corinth’s major exports. As other city-states started copying this innovative style, the Athenians invented the “red figure” style of pottery around 530 BC. When Peisistratus made himself tyrant of Athens in in 560 BC he had silver coins with the image of Athena and owl minted, which later developed into one of the strongest currencies in the Aegean. He also instituted the rebuilding of the temple to Athena on the Acropolis and founded the festival of Dionysia in honor of the deity of the same name, which would be the festival in the 5th century that featured Greek tragedies as part of its celebration. The tyrants also supported the writing of lyric poetry.

The 6th century also featured the first philosophers known as the pre-socratics who speculated about the ultimate nature of the universe. Although the city-states were divided politically, there were panhellenic institutions such as certain sacred sites like the oracle of the Apollo at Delphi and the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared by all Greeks. Athletic competitions brought the various Greek city-states together to compete at the Olympics; its popularity spawned similar contests at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, along with many other less notable ones. The main events at the Olympics were foot races, pankration (a mix of boxing and wrestling), and the pentathlon (five events that included: a short foot race, javelin, discuss throws, the long jump, and wrestling).

    Sparta and Athens

The two most famous city-states were Sparta and Athens. Prior to the 6th century Sparta was a typical Greek city-state, not much different than its neighbors with sophisticated artwork in pottery and poetry and celebrated female choruses. Somewhere in the 8th to 7th century, they engaged in warfare with their neighbors in Messenia, which forever changed the social and political destiny of Sparta. Unlike most Greek warfare where the combatants fought, one side fled, and usually some sort of agreement was hashed out after the fact, around 650 – 600 B. C., the Spartans enslaved the Messenians and took their land. The Messenians were reduced to the lowly status of helots, a social class somewhere between a slave and a medieval serf, and had to work the land they once owned, but which was now owned and controlled by a Spartan overlord. They were beaten once a year and forced to wear ridiculous clothes to illustrate their inferiority to the Spartans. Unlike a traditional slave in other Greek city-states, they were communal property and couldn’t be sold by individual owners. This event led Sparta to drastically change their society into a rigidly military-oriented one, which legend says was handed down to them by the fabled Lycurgus. The impetus for this change was having a helot population of Messenians who greatly outnumbered the Spartans. In order to maintain control, they had to rearrange society along militaristic lines. Spartans were taken as children at a young age to be educated in the military arts. Up until the age of thirty they lived in mess halls with their comrades away from their wives. They had to provide a certain proportion of food and drink to their mess halls from their property; if they failed to do this, they could lose their status at the top of society. The government was controlled by two hereditary kings who each had equal authority. While one led troops out in the field, the other would stay at home and run domestic affairs. The kings had military authority, performed religious services, and judicial powers. There was also a council of elders composed on twenty-eight men over the age of sixty who served for life. Any societal change to law had to be debated first by the council of elders before it went to the assembly and the council could overrule the assembly’s decisions by dismissing it. It could also judge criminal court cases. Another important office was the five Ephors who had the power to depose the kings, monitor his activities, and two of these Ephors always accompanied a king on military campaigns. As a check to their own power, Ephors only served one year and could not be reelected to the position. They were also in charge of a secret police, which consisted of young men who went out for a year to spy on the helots and could kill any helot with impunity caught fomenting rebellion or not on their assigned land. Unlike the Athenian assembly, the Spartan Assembly didn’t get the opportunity to discuss a new law, but they did vote on them. Through much of Western culture, Sparta was seen in an idealistic light. Plato, for example, adopts many of their ideas of eugenics and communal life for his Republic. The Greeks viewed it as a society of good order and harmony. In reality, it was a coercive and rigidly conservative society. This intense military life came at a cost; the sudden disappearance of pottery and artistic achievements and other important hallmarks of culture disappears shortly after these major societal changes.

Like most city-states, early Athens was governed by aristocrats. A series of legal reformers and important political leaders instituted the democratic reforms moderns associate with the city-state. In 620 BC, Draco (from whom we get the word “Draconian”) published his laws, the most important of which transformed homicide from a personal act that had to be avenged by the victim’s family to a trail run by a state magistrate. This law transferred the authority from the family in making laws and enacting justice to the state. Solon’s laws in the 590s addressed economic equality and the growing problem of debt slavery. No longer could poor sharecroppers be enslaved or have their property confiscated for being unable to pay back a loan. He revised the political representation system so that the middle-class could now hold lower offices in the government and the poorer classes could participate in the assembly, although slaves, resident aliens, and women were still excluded from participation. His most radical reform was that any citizen who believed a crime had been committed could bring forth an indictment against an individual; originally only the victim or the victim’s family could do so. This transformed justice from a personal and private matter to a societal matter.

    The Persian Wars

In the East, the Persian Empire arose in the 7th century and became a major world power. When Cyrus II conquered Lydia and defeated King Croesus he also captured the Greek city-states of Ionia that had begun as colonies. He placed puppet tyrants in charge of these city-states, which the Greeks resented. Eventually one of these tyrants, Aristagoras resigned his tyranny and led a rebellion that freed the city-states. However, six years into the rebellion the Ionian revolt was put down in a naval battle. The city of Miletus (a major cultural center where pre-socratic philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes had all lived and thrived) was destroyed, while the Persian King, Darius, desire for revenge for the destruction of Sardis led him to invade the Greek mainland. Many city-states such as Argos and Thebes submitted to Persian rule, believing they stood no chance against such a mighty empire, but the Athenians and Spartans held strong. The Persians had success at Eretria, burning the temples and exiling its people, but at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a major victory against the Persians. Although they were outnumbered, they were more heavily armored than the Persians and they surprised them. The Persian king Xerxes continued his father’s war. In 481, thirty-one Greek states met and formed the Hellenic League. The Athenians abandoned Attica and waited out the war on the island of Salamis. King Leonidas of Sparta brought seven thousand men to Thermopylae, but eventually dismissed the bulk of his forces, keeping only three hundred Spartans and a contingent of Thebans and Thespians to defend the pass. Although the Greeks were eventually defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae, they took an enormous amount of Persian troops with them, including many of the elite “Immortals,” the personal guard of the Persian king. The Battle of Salamis was a major naval victory against the Persians in which the Persians lost over two hundred ships. In 479, the Greeks assembled a massive army that defeated the Persian ground forces at Plataea and the naval ships liberated the Ionian city-states during the Battle of Mycale.

    The Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian War

The aftermath of the Persian Wars led to the founding of the Delian League. In 477 BC Athens and other Greek city-states met at Delos to unite in their fight against the Persians. Originally Sparta led the league, but dissatisfaction with Pausanias who served as commander of the league opened the door for Athenian leadership. The members of the league contributed either ships or monetary payments in which Athens held military command. However, when the island of Naxos attempted to leave the league, the Athenians and allies invaded and confiscated their ships, forcing the Naxians to continue making payments to the league. A similar fate happened to the Thracians when the island of Thasos rebelled against the league in 465 BC. The Athenians refusal to let any members leave and transformation of ships to money as payment for membership signaled the change from a temporarily alliance to the roots of an Athenian Empire based in the city-state’s superior naval power. At home, Athenains disagreed whether they should ally themselves with the Spartans. Cimon wanted to honor the alliance between Athens and Sparta. Cimon led a force of Athenians to Sparta to assist them against some rebelling helots who had taken advantage of the chaos brought on by a massive earthquake that occurred in 460 BC in the region. However, the conservative Spartans dismissed the Athenians, perhaps disturbed by their democratic notion so at odds with the Spartan mentality, which caused a breakdown of this alliance. Athens allied themselves with Argos, and Cimon was ostracized from the city. Cimon’s political rival, Ephialtes instituted democratic politic reforms, especially weakening the traditional Council of the Areopagus.

The early 5th century was a fecund period in art and literature. Simonides and Pindar developed epinician odes (poems about athletic victory). There was a transformation in the visual arts from stylistic archaic art inspired by Egypt to one that featured more action and naturalistic forms. It was this period that saw the birth of tragedy. The three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote their plays during this time. Aeschylus created an innovation by adding a second actor with a speaking role that enhanced the dramatic quality of Ancient Greek plays. Greek drama came in sets of four plays per day during the festival of Dionysus in March. Over the course of the festival, the audience would watch a new set of four plays each day and eventually vote on one playwright to win a prize for the best set of work. From Aeschylus we have the only surviving Greek trilogy intact, The Oresteia, which has three plays that are thematically linked.

The Peloponnesian War was a series of three separate wars stretching from 460 to 404. The famous leader, Pericles convinced the countryside farmers to take refuge in the city with the hopes that the enemy’s ground forces would tire of attacking unoccupied villages and ask for peace, which is a good strategy for a short-term war. Unfortunately a devastating plague broke out in the city in 430 BC, which took Pericles’ life. This left a political hole that allowed the rise of demagogues like Cleon, a tanner, whose success in business and anti-aristocratic attitudes brought him to power. As the fighting ensued, Sparta sent soldiers to the Island of Sphacteria in response to a fortress the Athenians were building at Pylos. An Athenian naval victory left these Spartan soldiers stranded and captive to Athens. Not wishing to lose any men, the Spartans sought an armistice that would have ended the war, but Athenian overconfidence and advantage prevented them from accepting. In 424, the Spartans had renewed success in the war with the rise of Brasidas, charismatic military leader. He persuaded Acanthus, Stagirus, and Argilus to revolt, but his most important achievement was bringing over Amphipolis, which was an important Athenian territory that protected their grain shipments. Cleon and Brasidas died in the Battle of Amphipolis. Shortly after, the Spartans and Athenians signed the Peace of Nicias (named after the Athenian negotiator of same name) and Aristophanes, a major comic playwright, wrote his play Peace. The terms of the treaty not only brought a temporary end to the fighting, but mostly maintained the status quo. Although Sparta wanted to sign it, most of its major allies—Corinth, Megara, and Boeotia—refused to sign.

The Athenians had their own members of society who wanted a return to war. Alcibiades, a student of Socrates and a flamboyant handsome aristocrat, wanted to rekindle the war in order to make a name for himself. He convinced the Athenians to invade Sicily in 415. The Athenians sent a huge navy and military force. On the way there, Alcibiades changed sides to Sparta in order to avoid trial at Athens for a sacrilegious prank that many Athenians blamed on him, although he may not have been responsible, involving the dismembering of herms outside Athenian homes (statues in front that bore Hermes face and phallus). Alcibiades convinced the Spartans that Athens was planning to conquer Sicily and Italy. Sparta reentered the war, and after underestimating Sicilian forces, Athens lost a bulk of their military forces, while gaining nothing for their troubles. Sparta defeated Athens eight years later. Although a huge loss, the war oscillated over the next few years with Athens looking like it would achieve victory only for Sparta to come back, then Athens, then Sparta. Finally the war ended at the Battle at Aegospotami, which was won by Lysander of Sparta who cut off Athens from their major source of grain and captured many ships. Thebans, Corinthians, and Spartan allies wanted to punish Athens by destroying the city, killing all the males, and selling the women and children into slavery (like the Athenians did the Melos earlier in the war), but Sparta spared Athens out of respect for their service to Greece’s earlier wars with Persia.
The Peloponnesian war drained city-states of resources and dwindled trade. This deadly war caused Greeks to rethink some of their treasured values and unsurprisingly this was the time of Socrates and the sophists who questioned traditional values, including at times, the system of democracy itself. Statis (class warfare) continued to plague most of the city-states and oligarchic forces vied with democratic forces for control, while Sparta often interfered in many city-states affairs and propped up pro-Spartan aristocrats.

    The Macedonians: Philip II and Alexander the Great

Persistent warfare and the city-states inability to unite left an opening for Philip II and the Macedonians. Although the Macedonians spoke a dialect of Greek, the Greeks considered them barbarians. Macedonian kings practiced polygamy, drank unmixed wine, and had tumulus burial rather than cremation and internment. Macedonian culture was not focused on city-states, but rural lands beholden to nobility. Born in 382 BC, Philip II stabilized Macedon by defeating neighboring enemies and dynastic rivals by introducing new military tactics. These tactics followed the principles of hoplite phalanx formation, but armed troops with long pikes that they could use to strike down enemies from a distance. When opposing armies would try to adjust to these tactics, Philip employed a reserve cavalry force to attack the confused forces. Philip not only united Macedon and his neighbors, but extended his influence over Greece. It was the Battle of Chaeronea in Boetia that established his dominance over Greece. Despite his military success, Philip was assassinated at Aegae in 336 by a member of his bodyguard who had grievances over his treatment at the hands of Philip’s 7th wife Cleopatra and her family. The marriage to Cleopatra also threatened Alexander’s position as heir.

Nevertheless, Alexander did ascend to the throne and became a great military leader who defeated the Persian Empire in a series of campaigns. The Battle of Granicus (334 BC) won him Anatolia from Persia, while the Battle of Issus (333 BC) destroyed the main forces of Persia and forced Darius III to flee. Alexander’s success and pursuit of Darius III led Darius’ own generals to assassinate him. Alexander in his victory over Persia also destroyed Persepolis, the spiritual heart of the Persian Empire. Alexander’s legendary military prowess could easily be described as recklessness and in many battles he was only seconds away from being killed. At various points of his campaign his own soldiers mutinied, resenting their extensive time away from Macedon and the growing importance of former Persian citizens in Alexander’s army. Alexander died 323 BC likely from a disease contracted from wounds gained on the battlefield.


The Histories by Herodotus (trans. Aubrey De Selincourt)

“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.”

“No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace—in peace sons bury fathers, but in war fathers bury sons.”

Herodotus combined history, folktales, geography, zoology, astronomy, ethnography, and travel writing into a remarkable work of literature yet to be matched in its uniqueness. There really is nothing else quite like it. Readers expecting a traditional work of history in the modern sense of the word will be sorely disappointed. Herodotus loves digressions. All of this makes for a read that is both extremely entertaining at times, when focusing on the main historical narrative, the literary folktales, and the strange practices of other cultures, and which can be painfully dull at other times, when focusing on zoology and long-winded geography lessons.

Herodotus main narrative takes us through the Persian War, the epic battle between Greece and Persia where the two sides fought in the name of freedom and slavery. However, the Battle at Thermopylae where three hundred Spartans successfully guarded the pass against thousands of Persians, the naval Battle at Salamis that established Athens as a naval power, the burning of Athens and subjugation of Attica, and the Battle at Plataea to end the war, only occupy the last three books of Herodotus. The first six books record the conquests of Asia and history of Persia from Cyrus the Great to Darius. In between we get all sorts of odd stories as well as deeper looks at the cultures that the Persians conquer.

The major conflict of the novel is one that still plagues us in modern times, the battle between the so-called East and so-called West. Herodotus works in the tradition of Homer—as does all Ancient Greek literature—who is the first writer to develop the West versus East conflict. Herodotus opens his work by exploring the origins of this conflict; he blames it on an incident where Phoenician merchants stole Greek women when they put to port. This begins an unjust cycle of vengeance as the Greeks soon return the favor by stealing Europa from the Phoenicians. Of course, not long after the Trojan Paris comes along and steals Helen from Spartan Menelaus, igniting the Trojan War. Persia in the work stands as the embodiment of Asia: decadent, rich, lavish, soft, imperialistic, and ruled by a King. These values stand in stark contrast to the impoverished disunited Greeks made hard by their rugged and infertile environment, but enjoying liberty as free citizens. These are stereotypes that persist today when we think of Iran or another Muslim country or even China in contrast to The United States of America and other “Western” nations. This book reminds us that the conflict between East and West has ancient origins, and much to the chagrin of many Western-naysayers that other nations besides Europe have engaged in vicious imperialism.

However, the portrait is far more complicated. Herodotus isn’t content with mere binary divisions of us versus them, although he paints the various cultures of the Asian world as strange and abnormal in their practices compared to Greece; still, he complicates matters by discussing the Greek states ruled by tyranny, each a kind of Persian Empire writ small. These states tended to be nonfunctional and weak militarily, which is why they were unable to resist Persian occupation while the Greeks from the mainland easily defeat the Persian army. The tyrannies of the Greek world are another reminder that history repeats itself; the tyrants usually come to power because the disgruntled and disenfranchised commoners of the various city-states resented the monopoly of power the aristocracy held. With this in mind, it is worth noting that many dictators in the modern world came to power on the backs of the poor who often saw either Marxism or Fascism as the only options in protecting their interests.

This theme of freedom versus slavery is Herodotus’ most important and most pronounced themes. When Xerxes invades Greece he cannot image freedom inspiring men to fight harder than a tyrant’s whip:

“But let me put my point as reasonably as I can – how is it possible that a thousand men, or ten thousand, or fifty thousand, should stand up to an army as big as mine, especially if they were not under a single master, but all perfectly free to do as they pleased?”

Two Spartans who visit Persia have a discussion with a Persian named Hydarnes who tells them of all the riches and luxuries they would receive if only they submitted to the King. He cannot understand why the Spartans continue to resist Persian rule when it would mean gold, riches and luxury beyond their wildest dreams. The Spartans have a powerful response:

“You understand well enough what slavery is, but freedom you have never experienced, so you do not know if it tastes sweet or bitter. If you ever did come to experience it, you would advise us to fight for it not with spears only, but with axes too.”

Here we see two different viewpoints of the world. Is it better to be rich and a slave or poor and free? Herodotus continually emphasizes the differences in cultures. At times, he admires elements of others cultures, but more often he contrasts them to Greek standards as being abnormal and unnatural, the most obvious case being the different gender roles of other societies. His ethnography covers a wide variety of ancient societies, such as India, Arabia, Egypt, Scythia, Lydia, Syria, Palestine, and even a few mentions of the Celts. It is surprising to learn that the Ancient Greeks knew about cultures as far flung as India, and it is also surprising that China is absent from the work, not even as a rumor. Among these major cultural regions existed hundreds of little tribes and societies; the first element that stands out in this work is the wide dispersion of tribes and factions, a hodgepodge of unfamiliar names, which have long since died and disappeared from this earth. In our modern world where too often people get criticized for the faintest hint of nationalism or cultural pride, Herodotus is an important reminder of how fragile cultures, societies, and unique ways of life can be and why we need to fight for them; all too easily your society, your beliefs, your dreams can be erased from history as nothing more than a footnote.

One needs to be careful in accepting all of Herodotus’ historical claims and facts about these cultures. At times his history matches up well with records from these societies. For example, after the Persian King Cambyses falls to the Massagetae (see, ever hear of them?), the Magi, a priest-class in Persia, revolt against Persian rule. Seven Persian conspirators ally to form a counter-rebellion that brings Darius to the throne. According the Persian sources in the form of the Behistun Inscription, this rebellion actually took place and Herodotus gets 6 of the 7 conspirators’ names correct. Most of our knowledge about Scythia relies heavily on Herodotus since they left no written records. He tells us the Scythians buried their kings with their servants and horses, drank the blood of their enemies, included women as warriors, and were a nomadic culture. For awhile scholars assumed Herodotus was embellishing for effect and didn’t take these statements to be historically accurate. However, later archaeological evidence confirms that kings were buried with their servants in Scythia and women did serve as warriors. When discussing the origins of the Scythians Herodotus recounts a story about Heracles mating with a snake-woman in the region. Archaeology has uncovered pictures of a snake-woman as serving a prominent function in Scythian society; historians assume it was some sort of goddess, but without written records it is hard to tell.

Still, Herodotus also gets plenty wrong. Much of his commentary on Ancient Egyptian religion does not match up with what hieroglyphic records tell us about their practices and beliefs. His history of Egypt is practically useless for Egyptologists when compared to other sources at their disposal. The general consensus among scholars is that he viewed and interpreted the Egyptians through a Greek lens, admiring their Ancientness and wanting to appropriate their culture to give Greeks a more ancient origin. This was a common practice in the ancient world; for example, Virgil appropriates the Ancient Trojans to give the newer Roman Empire that had conquered the older Greece, a more ancient origin. There is even debate whether Herodotus ever visited Egypt or not, with scholars falling on both sides of the equation.

As I already mentioned, history is not the only type of narrative that fills these pages. More interesting than the historical parts of the narrative is the plethora of folktales spread across the books. Herodotus tells us about Candaules, the king of Lydia, who invites his servant Gyges to spy on his wife while she is changing because he fears his servant doesn’t believe him about his wife’s immense beauty. The wife discovers Gyges spying on her and realizes her husband’s betrayal. She offers Gyges an ultimatum to kill the king and become her husband or he must die for his impropriety. Gyges chooses the latter and becomes the new king. However, an oracle warns that five generations later the king’s descendants will have their revenge. Five generations later King Croesus of Lydia, an actual historical figure, starts a war with Persia and is deposed. The folktales tie into the larger historical narratives. Similarly many of these folktales involve taboo subjects like cannibalism, incest, and even necrophilia.

Names from famous myths appear in Herodotus, but he transforms them into historical figures. Despite stripping the supernatural away from history, the work makes clear that he still believes in oracles, the gods, and fate. In fact, a major theme of the work is you cannot avoid fate. Constantly Kings and leaders attempt to change fate or misread oracles, omens, and dreams in their own favor. The most famous example is when Croesus wanting to know if he should attack the Persian Empire receives the response that if he attacks he would destroy a great empire. Of course he fails to note the ambiguity of the prophecy, and the empire turns out to be his own.

Kings fall because of their hubris, their false belief that they can transgress nature and possess invincibility. They believe they can change fate and their good fortunes will never alter. Herodotus tells of Solon meeting with Croesus, an encounter which probably never happened historically. Solon warns him against the mutability of human fortune, a theme that plays throughout Greek literature. The gods grow jealous of too much human success. Croesus soon learns this the hard way when his son is killed by a freak accident, and Persia conquers his lands and subjects him to slavery. King after king succumbs to their own hubris, even Xerxes the Persian king who loses to Greece.

The strength of Herodotus’ work is that even with its focus on ancient conflicts so many of the issues it raises feels extremely modern. We find ancient propaganda, imperialism, ethnic cleansing, tyranny, democracy, and the usual foibles of human behavior, Even as many of the elements that Herodotus records might revolt the moral sensibilities of some people, it is worth admitting the cold hard truth that we are still dealing with almost all of these problems in our modern world. So although the narrative might be about the Ancient world, cannot be entirely trusted as accurate history, in so many ways this work still speaks to our modern world and the difficulties we face today, which is why I think more people ought to spend the time reading it.

Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton (trans. B. P. Reardon)

Chaereas and Callirhoe is the first European novel. Well, if we wish to be technical it is really a romance. It is our oldest example of a Greek romance novel. Another accurate description would be to call it a melodrama with comical overtones that reads like the Ancient equivalent of a Soap Opera.

The handsome Chaereas and beautiful Callirhoe, noble citizens from Syracuse, fall passionately in love with each and get married. Former suitors of Callirhoe conspire against Chaereas; they plan to trick him into believing that Callirhoe is cheating on him. Their schemes convince him that she is unfaithful and in a fit of rage he kicks her in the stomach, which knocks the wind out of her. He believes he has killed his wife. The town buries beloved Callirhoe with the family treasure. A pirate named Theron spies all this free money and plots to steal it with a crew.

The pirates rob the grave, and discover a living, breathing Callirhoe inside the tomb. The pirates take her along and sell her overseas in Miletus. Her new master, Dionysius, grieving over the death of his wife, forgets his sorrow as the beautiful Callirhoe reawakens his passion. She is so beautiful that the citizens mistake her for Aphrodite walking around in the flesh. Callirhoe finds out that she is pregnant wit Chaereas’ kid; she would rather die than betray the marriage bed of Chaereas, but eventually decides the extremely rich and powerful Dionysius would make a good step-father for her son. She marries him and pretends the child was actually his own.

Back at home, Chaereas and the citizens of Syracuse discover the empty tomb. They sail out in search of the missing Callirhoe. They discover Theron the pirate and torture a confession out of him. Chaereas ends up in Miletus where one of Dionysius’ servants discovers him, learning his true identity as Callirhoe’s first husband. The servant fears Chaereas will upset his  master’s happiness so the servant burns Chaereas’ ship, and sells Chaereas into slavery.

In slavery, Chaereas ends up in the service of Mithridates who has also fallen in love with Callirhoe during a party that Dionysius hosted. Mithridates discovers his slave’s real identity and schemes for a ways to use this to his own advantage in winning Callirhoe for himself. He writes a letter informing Callirhoe that Chaereas is alive, which Dionysius intercepts. Dionysius believes Mithridates is trying to seduce his wife. He asks the King of Persia to judge the case. All the parties head to Babylon. Mithridates successfully defends himself from the spurious charges by producing Chaereas. The two lovers reunite, but now the King of Persia must stand in judgement of a new case: who is Callirhoe actually married to, Chaereas or Dionysius?

The King of Persia delays sitting in judgement because it turns out he too has fallen in love with Callirhoe. However, an Egyptian rebellion interrupts his pining; he drags his whole court, along with Dionysius and Callirhoe, to respond to this uprising. Chaereas thinking that the King of Persia has betrayed him decides to join up with the king’s enemies, the Egyptian. Chaereas becomes a prominent military commander for the rebellion, and eventually rescues Callirhoe. The two sail off home and they live happily ever after.

If you’ve made it through the long plot outline let me inform you that my description is an extremely boiled down version of the plot, missing plenty of the details. I think one immediately understands what I mean when I say it reads like a Soap Opera: (Jim loved Maria, but his jealous passion caused him to kill her her, but wait . . . it turns out she wasn’t really dead, and pirates came to rescue her). The narrative is clearly plot-oriented, lacking rich characters, and instead populated by overacting stick figures. Melodrama is the order of the day. The introduction of my edition notes it has “a certain affinity with opera.” One of the motifs in the novel is that Chaereas continually tries to kill himself when he believes Callirhoe is lost to him forever, only to be saved by his good friend, Polycharmus. This may seem morbid, but it is done in such an over-the-top fashion and repeatedly that it comes off as hilarious instead.

This a novel that I suspect would make many a modern feminist cringe. Callirhoe bemoans her fate because of her beauty. In the melodramatic fashion I described she curses her beauty and prostrates herself in tears before Aphrodite wishing she had never been born beautiful. Likewise, her beauty itself becomes a magnet for men throughout the text, each plotting and scheming against each other so they can be with Callirhoe. The story also places value on her chastity and loyalty to Chaereas; at least, we find out from her perspective that she values them. She claims that she would rather die than remarry and betray Chaereas, but only chooses to shack up with Dionysius for the sake of her unborn child.

We learn towards the conclusion of the novel that the tragic events of the two lovers occurred because Aphrodite wanted to punish Chaereas for his unwarranted jealousy. The irony is that at the beginning Chaereas is jealous even though Callirhoe remains loyal to him and chaste, however, later she clearly sleeps with Dionysius in order to legitimize her child and now Chaereas has a real reason to be jealous.  Aphrodite’s punishment fits the crime; she decides to teach him a lesson about being frivilous about nonexistence paramours by sending her off to commit real adultery. If he had not been jealous in the first place none of this would have happened. Dionysius, too, is bested by jealousy. He covets her beauty so much that he slowly grows paranoid that everyone around him is trying to sleep with Callirhoe; jealousy is what leads him to take legal action about the letters from Mithridates and accuse him of jealousy, which leads to the two lovers, Chaereas and Callirhoe being united. Dionysius later curses himself for his jealousy, realizing if he had just kept quiet about the letters he could have prevented Callirhoe from ever discovering that Chaereas was alive and would still be with her. The novel not only scrutinizes the lives of women, but also the conduct of men; jealousy unravels lives.

The novel also offers some interesting insights into history. Often we think of crucifixion as a Roman invention, but if this Hellenistic novel is to be believed it was a common method of punishment long before the Romans. I was also surprised to learn that contact with China in the Hellenistic world is attested during the 1st century B.C. as one of the footnotes mention when talking about a silk outfit the Persian king wears.

Moral themes and historical curiosities aside, the true strength of the story is as a story. It is not as complex or interesting as a modern novel. It lacks anything resembling deep characters with realistic and complicated motivations. However, Chariton knows how to tell a fun over-the-top adventure story. It was nice to just sit back for a change, not wrack my brain with deep symbolism, and have some fun with my Ancient Soaps.

Gorgias by Plato (trans. Donald J. Zeyl)

“I’m referring to the ability to persuade by speeches judges in a law court, councillors in a council meeting, and assemblymen in an assembly or in any other political gathering that might take place. In point of fact, with this ability you’ll have the doctor for your slave, and the physical trainer, too. As for this financial expert of yours, he’ll turn out to be making more money for somebody else instead of himself; for you, in fact, if you’ve got the ability to speak and to persuade the crowds.”

In this famous dialogue that served as a test run for The Republic, the reader witnesses Socrates shift from the defensive posture of earlier dialogues to an aggressive attack on Sophistry. Like the Protagoras, Socrates attempts to prove the superiority of philosophy in comparison to the cheap tricks of rhetoric.

The dialogue opens with Socrates arriving late for a banquet where the sophist Gorgias was giving a speech. A politician named Callicles greets Socrates. With him is Polus, a dim-witted student of Gorgias, and Chaerophon, a student of Socrates.

Socrates is interested in questioning Gorgias about the nature of oratory because he has seen how influential this new method of teaching is among the youths and politicians. During his speeches, Gorgias promises to answer any questions his audience asks about any topic in the world.

As a preliminary to the great debate that will follow, the two students of the great masters go at each other. Chaerephon attempts to ask questions of Polus about the nature of rhetoric; he wants to know what craft Gorgias is knowledgeable in, and what would be the correct title to call someone who teaches this craft. Polus gives an ornate response about how their craft is the most admirable of all the crafts, but never answers the actual question. In this introductory debate, Plato sets the tone of the conflict by pitting the two methods of dialectic and rhetoric against each other. Any time someone turns to long speeches in the dialogue, it usually is a way of avoiding the answers to tough questions.

Socrates and Gorgias take over at this point. Gorgias defines himself as an orator and calls his craft oratory. Gorgias claims that oratory is knowledge about how to make speeches. Socrates questions whether the orator is concerned with all forms of speeches like explaining how sick people should be treated in order to get well, which are clearly the domain of doctors and the craft of medicine. He extends this line of reasoning by pointing out that all crafts are concerned with speech-making in their own specialized areas.  Gorgias tries to slip out of this by claiming that the reason these other crafts are not oratory is because they still consist of mostly working with your hands rather than speech-making. Socrates scrutinizes this claim by breaking down certain concrete disciplines like math and sculpting, showing that certain disciplines require more hands-on work than speeches, while other disciplines approach their craft with words. By establishing this, Plato shows that many disciplines share the methods of oratory in how they deliver knowledge to pupils, and that Gorgias still has not explained with what area of knowledge oratory concerns itself.

Gorgias continues to avoid defining it, until finally he claims that oratory allows you to manipulate others for your own personal gain. Ironically, Gorgias paints oratory in a particularly bad light in this instance; oratory is the knowledge of how to manipulate others through words. It is the craft of persuasion.

Gorgias notes that oratory can convince a person with no knowledge to appoint himself over a person with real knowledge of a subject. The specific example he uses is a doctor. This claim demonstrates the full corrupting power of sophistry: when you go into surgery you probably do not want a fake doctor performing the procedure, but rhetoric’s primary purpose is allow the charlatans who have no knowledge to put themselves in positions of power.

One lecture I listened to compares Gorgias to Darth Vader. When Gorgias says,

“Oh yes, Socrates, if only you knew all of it, that it encompasses and subordinates to itself just about everything that can be accomplished.”

I can not help when reading this but hear Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker, “if only you knew the power of the Darkside.” In fact that might be a good way to frame this entire debate, Socrates’ philosophy is the light-side of the force, espousing truth and justice, while Gorgias’ sophistry is the darkside. One teaches a true understanding of justice, the other gives the illusion of it and perverts it.

At this point, Polus, the student reenters the fray, thinking he can best Socrates, even though his master pretty much just got schooled by him. In reverse of a typical Socratic dialogue, we now have the sophist asking questions and Socrates answering them. Socrates claims that he does not think oratory is a craft at all, but rather a knack. He compares it to pastry-baking whose counterpart would be medicine. Pastry-bakers will try to convince you that the sweets they produce is good for you, that they know better than doctors, even as the sugary foods slowly fatten you up and rot your body. Oratory has the same effect on the soul.

Socrates  noted earlier in the dialogue that learning and convincing are not the same thing. Convictions, by which I think he means beliefs or opinions, can be true or false. Real knowledge for Socrates can never be true or false; it is knowledge by the very fact that it is the truth. Oratory produces the persuasion that comes from being convinced, not the persuasion that comes from genuine learning, of what is just and unjust.

The student of Gorgias goes on to claim that the life of a tyrant is enviable because they can do whatever they want without repercussion and, therefore, must be happy. Rhetoric gives one the power to do what one pleases — even to engage in injustice. Socrates disproves this notion by showing that tyrants do not do what they truly want or what is best for themselves. In relation to this argument, Polus also suggests that it is worse to suffer injustice than to commit injustice, thus implying that you might as well be on the living at the top of the power food chain than living at the bottom. Socrates responds to this argument by showing the opposite is true; it is in fact better to suffer violence than to commit it. He points out that it is more shameful to commit a violent act against another human being than to be the one who suffered from it.

Polus’ defense of tyranny and unlimited power to do evil reaches its peak in the dialogue quoted below. I have never seen Socrates take to task anyone like he does Polus.

Polus: As if you wouldn’t be envious whenever you’d see anyone putting to death some person he saw fit, or confiscating his property or tying him up!
Socrates: Justly, you mean, or unjustly?
Polus: Whichever way he does it, isn’t he to be envied either way?
Socrates: Hush, Polus.
Polus: What for?
Socrates: Because you’re not supposed to envy the unenviable or the miserable. You’re supposed to pity them.

Socrates says you are supposed to pity the unenviable or the miserable, yet he is not just claiming it, but showing us this idea in action. Socrates’ response to Polus’ belief that tyrants should be envied is to pity him for believing such a terrible thing. Polus only proves Socrates’ point about the corrupting nature of rhetoric.

Earlier in the dialogue, Gorgias goes on an impassioned defense of his art, noting that if a boxer abuses his training and starts beating up people in the streets, you do not exile or blame their trainer for the bad apples. Socrates turns this argument around on Gorgias; if oratory trains young men in the way of justice as Gorgias claims, and many of them are still engaging in unjust acts nonetheless, then surely oratory is not very good at what it claims to teach. The irony, which Plato excels at, is that Polus himself is a shining example of how oratory degrades the soul; he is made worse by Gorgias’ teaching.

Last up is Callicles the politician; we had the teacher, pupil, and now the practical application of oratory. Callicles thinks Socrates a child for still engaging in philosophy. Much of this part of the dialogue is spent recapitulating the earlier points made in the dialogue. In particular, Socrates shows that the most celebrated Athenian politicians of the past and present are prime examples of what he has been criticizing thus far. Callicles responses are hilarious; he gets frustrated with Socrates, and seems to constantly be rolling his eyes as he grudgingly goes along with the dialectic. Many parts of this section foreshadow the events of the Apology.

Like The Republic, this dialogue closes with a myth about the survival of the soul after death in which Socrates claims that at death the soul appears in the underworld naked, stripped of body and identity before mythological judges who will then proceed to assess its quality based its virtue and wickedness. Plato reminds us once again that philosophy’s main purpose is to prepare us for death

Protagoras by Plato (trans. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell)

“While the power of appearance often makes us wander all over the place in confusion, often changing our minds about the same things and regretting our actions and choices with respect to things large and small, the art of measurement in contrast, would make the appearances lose their power by showing us the truth, would give us peace of mind firmly rooted in the truth and would save our life” – Socrates.

The Protagoras presents a comical theatrical performance that pits two Greek intellectual heavy weights against each other in an all out battle of methods where the central questions are: What is virtue? And can it be taught?

At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates meets up with a friend where he recounts a philosophical discussion he had with Protagoras, along with other well-known Sophists. Hippocrates wakes Socrates up in excitement that Protagoras is in town. Hippocrates would like to train with Protagoras, but Socrates warns him that he should know what he is paying for before he spends his money. So Socrates goes with him to visit Protagoras who is staying at another sophist’s house. When they arrive, Socrates asks Protagoras what he teaches. The famous sophist responds that he teaches virtue to young man. Socrates is not sure that virtue can be taught, and wants to see if Protagoras can convince him otherwise. Protagoras presents a myth and a long-winded speech that at first seems to effectively prove his point. However, Socrates is still not entirely convinced and has a few minor quibbles. He attempts to engage Protagoras in a back-and-forth Socratic dialogue to discover what virtue is and whether it can be taught, which the infamous sophist participates in reluctantly.

This dialogue reads like a comedy that could make Aristophanes blush with envy, poking fun at the Sophists featured in it. Plato consistently mocks them, especially Prodicus who consistently splits hairs about the meaning of words. Socrates’ attitudes towards Protagoras might also be seen as ironic more than genuine; he continually refers to him as a wise man, despite showing that he knows very little about the teaching of virtue.

One major theme of the dialogue is the battle between Sophistic Rhetoric versus Socratic Dialectic as methods for the inquiry into truth. Socrates wants to engage the issue with a question-and-answer method, while Protagoras wants to address the problem with long-winded polemics. The problem with bloated speeches is that they are difficult to follow, jump from point to point without really saying anything significant, and it is far too easy to manipulate listeners by giving superficial answers to complex topics without any real precision; likewise, it encourages your opponent to spend his time coming up with his or her own speech without having to pay much attention to what you are actually saying. The sophist Hippias does just that when he compliments Socrates on his thorough analysis of the Simonides poem that they end up briefly discussing and then wants to deliver his own speech about the poem, while completing missing the fact that Socrates was spouting nonsense about the poem. In other words, Hippias did not pay close attention to what Socrates was actually saying. The difference of the dialectic method is its question-and-answer structure forces speakers to pay attention to each other and requires precision in the inquiry of the topic; it allows you to get into the details of a topic and better see contradictions and inconsistencies in a response rather than gloss over the substance for polished superficial responses.

Socrates repeatedly claims he cannot follow the argument of long speeches. However, we realize right away that this statement is untrue by the fact that Socrates has thus far responded point-by-point to Protagoras’ initial speech. Likewise, the entire dialogue is frame-story in which Socrates is recalling this event and the speeches Protagoras gave during it to a friend by memory. Is Socrates being duplicitous then? Well, we can say with certainty that this is one of those times Plato is demonstrating his characteristic irony. Socrates’ goal here is to disarm Protagoras’ greatest strength and the biggest detriment to discovering truth, long meandering speeches that lack precision. He wants Protagoras to engage in a Socratic dialogue, while Protagoras is reluctant to do so.

On the other hand, one might be tempted to read the character of Protagoras more generously and Socrates slightly less so. Instead of reading this as a play that mocks Protagoras as ignorant along with his fellow Sophists, we can instead read it as a play where both Socrates and Protagoras have some of their initial points confirmed and some of their initial thoughts proven wrong: Protagoras was right that virtue can be taught, but has the wrong method at getting to that point. Socrates is wrong in his belief, but has the right method to get at the truth.

In the middle of the dialogue, Socrates threatens to leave like a petulant child because Protagoras will not play along with his method. However, is this really all that different from the behavior Protagoras displays when he refuses to engage in the dialectic any longer and wants to debate with his own method? I think the parallels between the two characters are no accident, and it may be fair to judge Socrates at times as acting like a hypocrite. However, the real test of their characters come at the end when we see that Socrates does not mind being proven wrong so long as it leads to the truth, but Protagoras chooses to end the dialogue apparently from sour grapes.

Protagoras tries to con his way around Socrates by drawing on an argument from a Simonides poem. Protagoras claims early on in the play that Homer, Hesiod, and the poets were the early Sophists, while Plato demonstrates his characteristic mistrust of literature. It is with a great sense of irony that Protagoras opens his initial speech about virtue with a myth, a literary construct. This only furthers the divisions between the two men’s methods.

Socrates pokes fun at the art of literary criticism by concocting wild and crazy interpretations of the Simonides poem; one of the most hilarious interpretations of the poem proved that the success of the Spartans during the Peloponessian War was not because of their intense military training, but because they possess a secret cabal of philosophers to guide them that they horde and keep away from the other city-states. He notes the slippery nature of literary criticism, while mocking those who engage in it:

“Discussing poetry strikes me as no different from the second-rate drinking parties of the agora crowd. . . . When a poet is brougnt up in a discussion, almost everyone has a different opinion about what he means, and they wind up arguing about something they can never finally decide.”

Socrates glorifies the precision and accuracy of math over the relativisitic subject of literature. He is attempting to apply mathematic principles to human knowledge of abstract concepts. Where Protagoras, famous for his statement, “Man is the Measure of all Things,” flourishes in plurality and relativism, Socrates wants to delimit truth to one precise answer.

The dialogue resolves with only a partial resolution and without a completely satisfactory answer to the question: what is virtue, and can it be taught? Keeping Plato’s other dialogues in mind, the answer seems to be that virtue can be taught, but only to those with a certain philosophical inclination already born in them.

Plato in this dialogue states that no one willingly does bad or what he believes to be bad. However, he also recognizes that despite this truth people still perform bad actions. He suggests that when people do bad it is from ignorance, they literally do not understand that what they are doing is harmful to themselves and others; they might even mistake the good with the bad, as many of the Sophists do in this very dialogue.

Plato seems to suggest that all people are born essentially good, but some are born with a higher capacity for good than others. Still, anyone no matter what their aptitude can improve their level of virtue and become more virtuous with practice, sort of like practicing the guitar. Anyone can become a better guitarist with practice and time, but not everyone will end up as the next Jimi Hendrix. The exception is that some people become so tainted with evil over time by making the wrong decisions that they can never improve themselves. Another way to think of this concept is to imagine that one is born with a seed inside them that we’ll call virtue, and when someone more virtuous than yourself teaches you it functions as water to nourish that seed and help it blossom into a full grown tree; however, if nobody ever properly nourishes the seed it can rot and wither. And, of course, the proper method of teaching virtue is through the Socratic dialogue.

Crito by Plato (trans. G.M.A. Grube)

“My good Crito, why should we care so much for what the majority think? The most reasonable people, to whom one should pay more attention, will believe that things were done as they were done.” – Socrates

After his trial, Socrates’ execution is delayed until the return of an Athenian ship sailing on an annual religious mission to the island of Delos. Crito discovers the ship will soon return to port. He comes to beg Socrates to flee into exile, afraid that people in the community will believe that he did nothing to save his friend and mentor. He plans to bribe the guards and lodge Socrates with friends in another city, but first he must convince Socrates that fleeing would be just, and staying unjust.

Crito’s main argument is not only an impassioned plea for his own honor, but also a genuine belief that a person dedicated to the philosophical life ought not to accept an unjust verdict of those who despise such a life. He also adds an additional appeal to the duty Socrates owes his family, especially his children. Socrates reminds us that one should care more about truth than public opinion. A thematic undercurrent that runs throughout the dialogue is to disregard the opinions of the majority, especially when it conflicts with truth. The truth is more important than public opinion because it is the key to achieving the good life, which is all that matters to Socrates.

Socrates elaborates on many of his views found in The Apology. In that work, Socrates shrugs off the prospect of death as just another adventure not to be feared. For Socrates life has no value in itself, but the good life is everything. The good life gravitates around following the principles of justice. One must try their best to constantly strive towards the good life, what Socrates also calls the beautiful life and the just life. He points out it is never right to retaliate against mistreatment with more mistreatment, presenting a sophisticated version of the general principle that two wrongs do not make a right.

As my introduction points out there is a problem with this line of thinking; it disregards the possibility that if Socrates fled he would not actually be retaliating, but rather would simply be preventing himself from being mistreated by those who wish to mistreat him. Socrates avoids this line of thinking, and perhaps addresses it implicitly with his conception of the social contract.

In the work, Socrates offers a version of a social contract. He states that one’s nation takes precedent over one’s family; likewise, that if one does not like their country and its rules they have the opportunity to leave it, seemingly anticipating the future American conservative’s favorite line, “love it or leave it.” On the other hand, he argues that he owes allegiance to his country due to the benefits he has reaped from its social services; they gave him an education and took care of him. He emphasizes the communal spirit and reciprocal nature of the community.

The concept of the social contract that Socrates develops explains why he chooses to respect the court’s decision. If he is willing to reap the benefits of his society, he should also accept its decisions, even if those decisions are bad. You can’t pick and choose which parts of the system you want to participate in and which parts you don’t. Society and the justice system function because people agree to these rules. If everyone simply escaped prison for exile whenever they disliked the verdict of a case, then justice could not exist and the rule of law would mean nothing. Unfortunately this also means that sometimes innocent people get convicted. Crito offers very little defense to this argument, meekly responding to Socrates throughout the entire dialogue as if he gave up long before he even got started.

The Greek Lyrics Poets edited by M. L. West

This collection covers the Greek lyrics poets from the seventh century to the fifth century with the exception of Pindar and Bachyliddes. Too often readers stop with Homer and Hesiod at the expense of missing the powerful love poetry of Sappho, the erotic and vindictive iambis of Archilocus, the morbid and fatalistic poetry of Semonides, the victory odes and mini-epics of Stesichorus, and the traditional mythical themes of Ibycus, many of whom were considered the nine most important lyrics poets worth studying according to Hellenistic Alexandrian standards. Many of the works found in this collection exist in only the tinniest of fragments, no more than a line or two.

The often personal nature of the poetry reveals the evolution of Greek literature; we have come a long way from Homer’s impersonal epics about the deeds and exploits of larger than life heroes. The individual comes to life in these poems for the first time and focuses quotidian existence into sharp relief. Take this fragment from Archilocus:

Some Saian sports my splendid shield:
I had to leave it in a wood,
but saved my skin. Well, I don’t care–
I’ll get another just as good.

Could you picture any of Homer’s heroes leaving behind his prized shield for the enemy to snatch? One need only consider Sophocles’ Ajax who temporarily loses his sanity because he lost to Odysseus in a competition for Achilles’ armor to recognize the different attitudes that rules the world of heroes versus the Greece of Archilocus.

This is not to say that the Homeric strain has disappeared or that these poets fail to glorify courage and heroism. Similar to the theme of Homer’s epics, many of the poets struggle with the ideals of courage and battle prowess against the cruelties and horrors of war. War brings you glory and tests your manhood, but it also kills your friends, threatens your polis, and brings about an early death. Like most Greek literature this creates a sense of fatalism as the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus captures in these powerful lines:

Fear not the throng of men, turn not to flight,
but straight toward the front line bear you
despising life and welcoming the dark
contingencies of death like shafts of sun.

The various poets constantly remind us that death can occur at any moment; life, fortune, prosperity fluctuate on the whims of the gods. The Greeks of this period live in a tumultuous time that saw the rise of tyrants in many of the city-states and the violent overthrow of the aristocracy. This situation characterizes the poetry of Theognis, a bitter aristocrat disenfranchised by the lower-class:

Cyrnus, the town’s a town still, but it has new
who knew no justice previously, no laws.
They used to wear old goatskins on their flanks,
and lived
outside the town like deer. And now they are
the gentry, Polypaides, while yesterday’s
gentry are dregs. Who can support the sight —
the men of worth reviled, the lower class esteemed?

The rest of Theognis’ poetry addressed to his friend, Cyrnus, in the form of advice, bears a lot of similarity to Hesiod’s work. It deals especially with typical Greek themes of friendship as well as his continual rant against those who overthrew him from power. He claims that wealth is not the measure of the man, but rather noble birth. He shows the same anxiety over the newly rich that subsequent societies will continue to feel; art, too, will continue to express distrust, fear, or at least note the problem of the newly rich being accepted by the established elite (think of such works as Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for example).

Another surprising feature of the poetry is the raunchy Iambi. The graphicness of the poems might shock unsuspecting readers who wrongfully assume the Ancient world to be more prude and reserved than our own society. Archilochus is one lyricist who writes some of this graphic poetry, especially about Neoboule, a woman he was supposed to marry, but whose father broke off the engagement for another man. This is a poetry of ridicule as much as it is about erotic titillation; its purpose is to embarrass and humiliate the person featured in its lines. Another example of this genre comes from Hipponax, a low-class poet who admits to being a thief and having committed burglary on occasion, who writes about his sexual exploits with the mistress of Bupalus, a sculptor who once made the mistake of mocking him in public.

Other notable poets includes Solon the Athenian reformer of the law, Sappho the female bi-sexual poet, Anacreon the “archetypal merry old soul” whose work proved influential on European literature from the 16th century onwards, Simonides a contemporary of Pindar, and various other tantalizing fragments.

Is this great poetry? Well, maybe. The lines I quoted above have some nice poetic qualities, capture issues related to the human experience, and reveal a lot about the honor-oriented culture that characterized Ancient Greece, but I also selected and was drawn to lines that were relatively intact. The fragmentary nature of the extant poetry is the greatest detraction of this collection, with many pieces being borderline unreadable. Imagine if I took the famous Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope” is the Thing with Feathers and only the following words and lines remained:

‘Hope’  . . . with feathers—
sings . . . the words—

And sweetest . . . is heard—
And sore must be the storm—

I’ve heard . . .
And on . . .

. . . a crumb . . .

In the example, I deleted whole lines, words from the middle of individual lines, and even kept one full line in tact to show how much is lost even when an entire line of a poem is retained perfectly, but the rest is fragmentary. It is frustrating to read a poem with missing words, missing lines, and in the case of longer poems sometimes missing their entire middle.  Of course, this is no fault of the translator and editor, but rather important writings get lost in time.