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 Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor

Norman F. Cantor’s book is a good introduction to the Middle Ages, focusing more on the ideas and institutions than political events. The Medieval period covers roughly 300 AD to 1500 AD. Norman F. Cantor argues the origins of its societal power structures go back to Ancient Mesopotamia in which the first ruling aristocratic class took power and nominated from among themselves a theocratic king. Although taking many different forms during different time periods, in general, this aristocratic class controlled the majority of the wealth, power, and land until the 1700s.

From Rome, the Middle Ages got their laws, philosophical ideas, education model, and the Bible. Roman law served as the basis for much of Western Europe’s laws. The Middle Ages also inherited ideas from Platonism, Aristotle, Stoicism, and the Bible via Christianity. The Roman education system was based heavily in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric. It was designed to perpetuate the values, ideas, and lifestyles of the aristocratic elite.  The goal was to train aristocrats for power and government by shaping their values and training them for the linguistic-oriented law.

The Middle Ages were born from the fall of the Roman Empire. Cantor suggest the Roman Empire fell due to severe population shortages caused by outbreak of diseases. This population shortage affected Rome’s ability to field troops for the Roman Legions and also damaged the economy by killing off workers, merchants, and people to participate in trade. The understaffed army, which already consisted of many German mercenaries rather than native Romans, struggled to defend the vast frontier from the hordes of Germanic barbarians. Prior to all this, Roman society already had a weak industrial economy that relied too heavily on slavery. The nations within the Roman Empire felt resentment over high taxes, while receiving little in return from the Empire. Meanwhile, the aristocracy who lived off the work of others and avoided the military had an education that was designed to let them govern in an already existing system, but such an education failed to give them the tools to deal with the economic and social problems of their day. Likewise, the rise of Christianity and its organizational structure of Popes, bishops, and priests attracted many of the best and brightest from the Roman upper classes with the prospects of new career opportunities, while stealing their talent from the Roman government.

The soon-to-be Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge led to Christianity becoming mainstream in the Roman Empire. The Emperor’s acceptance of Christianity led to one of the major conflicts of the Middle Ages: “the relationship between the church and the Christian monarchy (55).”  Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea in which priests from throughout the Empire began to develop the Church’s official dogma. One issue the council attempted to deal with was the Arian controversy, a Greek-inspired philosophy founded in Alexandria by a priest named Arius, which put forth the idea that there was a difference between God and Christ, and one was inferior to the other. This stood in opposition to the doctrine that they were one and the same. Another heresy of this time was Donatism, an argument revolving around whether morally sinful priests could administer the sacraments. The official position of the Church was that the sacramental rites adhered in the office of the priest and didn’t depend on the individual character of the priest himself. Constantine also founded the city of Constantinople as a new Christian Rome in the East.

The Emperors following Constantine suppressed heretical forms of Christianity and began to attack Rome’s traditional paganism. Gratian removed the altar of Victory from the Roman Senate and eliminated the state subsidy of pagan priests. Theodosius made paganism illegal in the Roman Empire. These Christian Emperors granted the church exemptions from taxes and allowed them to hold their own law courts. By getting these advantages the church had the resources to survive the Germanic invasions and the destruction of Roman society. It is through the church that the knowledge of the Latin world would be brought into the Middle Ages.

The church fathers played a key role in developing the theology and role of the church. The three most important church fathers were St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. Jerome is most famous for his translation of the Bible into Latin, transforming Near Eastern concepts into Latin concepts. St. Ambrose had a governing role, which he used as the model for later medieval churchman as effective administrators. He also influenced the church’s views about love and marriage, suggesting virginity was ideal and women were too flawed to be given power in the church. He set a precedent in church and state relationships when he refused the sacraments to Theodosius after they quarreled over rebuilding a synagogue that Christian mobs had destroyed. Through this event, he established a line between church and state in which morality and religion were the concerns of the church and outside the control of the Emperor. He also argued that the church cannot tolerate incorrect beliefs, eliminating religious and moral pluralism.  St. Augustine went even further with this idea and argued that the City of God was different than state power. Governments should protect us as best they can in the earthly realm, but real good cannot be found through the government. Real good is religious and striving for heaven in the human heart. It is internal, not external. We should not look to governments and earthly matters for happiness and salvation. He also put forward an idea of linear history (Judaism) instead of cyclical history (Roman and Greek) that implied history is progressing rather than repeating. He influenced the early medieval education system, which kept classical ideas in the form of distilled summaries known as compendia and encyclopedias rather than reading the original works. Augustine’s idea influenced Gelasian Theory, which argued that church and state had separate spheres, but that the authority of the church was legislative and thus the executive state answered to the church. The Gelasian doctrine sowed the seeds of the later power struggles between Popes and Kings.

The German tribes who invaded the Roman Empire were a society of warriors who followed powerful chiefs to gain food and spoils for their service. The Germans had no sense of a state as an institution, but their loyalty was to individual chiefs. This was the opposite of Roman attitudes who had a strong conception of a Roman state. German law was not based on an abstract conception of justice, but rather the system was based on paying penalties of gold to avoid blood feud (private acts of revenge between families). When an assailant was uncertain, trials consisted not of evidence-based inquiry, but trial by ordeal and swearing of oaths.  Early medieval society had to rebuild from this “crude level” of society and political thought.

The Visigoths migrated to Rome in response to the Hun’s migrations in 370. They initially just wanted quality land to settle, but when they requested better land from the Empire and were ignored, Alaric sacked Rome in 410. They did no real damage to Rome, but instead held it hostage. Eventually the Visigoths settled in Gaul (Spain and France). The Visigoth’s action showed the other Germanic tribes that Rome wasn’t invincible. The terrifying and warlike Vandals sieged North Africa during the time of St. Augustine. The Ostrogoths invaded Italy and under Theodoric they formed an Ostrogothic Kingdom in Rome, which continued Roman society and culture. However, conspiracies fomented by the Byzantine Empire turned the end of Theodoric’s reign violent. One such victim of this violence was Boethius, a leading church scholar of his time and philosopher known for The Consolation of Philosophy. The Franks under Clovis I conquered France. Unlike Theodoric and the Ostrogoths, the Franks felt “hostility toward Roman civilization (112),” although they did adopt the Latin dialect spoken by the conquered Gallo-Romans in Gaul. Clovis I founded the Merovingian line of Kings after conquering most of modern France and a portion of southwest Germany. This territory was too big for the political institutions of the time and by the 7th century the provincial aristocracy who originally began as royal official sent out to help control these far off regions had taken most of the political power for themselves. The Merovingian Kings divided their land among all their heirs, which led to multiple kings in different areas of France and intense infighting.

As the West fell to barbarism, the Byzantine Empire, the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, maintained the traditions of Roman society. It had its highest point under Justinian’s rule, which featured the construction of the monumental Hagia Sophia and the Justinian Code (a code of all Roman law), which eventually formed the backbone of most legal systems in Europe. Right at its height, however, the Byzantine Empire faced a massive decline due to Justinian’s ambitions to win back Italy from the Ostrogoths. The decades of fighting during this 6th century war led to the de-urbanization of Italy’s major cities and ruined Italy economically until the 10th century. It led to the decline of Rome, Italy, and the Byzantine Empire as the cultural and economic hub of Europe. By the time Heraclius I (610 – 641) took power in the Byzantine Empire, he was forced to allow the Bulgar and Slavic people to settle the Balkans and parts of Greece, retaining only Constantinople and some surrounding territory under direct imperial control.

The spread of Islam occurred precisely when the Persian and Byzantine Empires were too weak to defend themselves. The Moslem invasions had major Impacts on the intellectual development of Medieval Europe, preserving Aristotle and other Greek and Roman works lost to the west, as well as bringing new scientific and mathematical ideas. They also became the major economic power, taking control of international trade all over Western Europe.

Monasticism played a major role in the intellectual redevelopment of Western Europe. Its origins stem from the Christian desire to separate from the material world. St. Benedict took the basic religious impulse of the earlier desert fathers who would retreat into the Egyptian desert to live an ascetic lifestyle, but shifted this private hermitic lifestyle into a communal monastic life. St. Benedict founded the Benedictine order of monks who wore black habits and lived in self-sufficient communities in which the monks were economically and politically independent from the world so they could concentrate on the spiritual concerns. These communities would elect an abbot who was in charge over the lives of all the other monastic brothers. The communities had strict rules focused on controlling human desires, but St. Benedict understood that complete asceticism was hard and so the monks still got two solid meals a day, and there was no self-flagellation or hairshirts required. The Benedictine Order founded schools, libraries, and scriptoria and functioned as the major educational institutions in the early Middle Ages. They preserved many classical texts. Cantor estimates “90 percent of the literate men between 600 and 1100 received their instruction in a monastic school (153).” As their role in society grew, rulers and nobility rewarded them with vast manors and they become advisers to kings.

It was Pepin II who invited Anglo-Saxon monks to France in order to convert the Frisians as a way of expanding Carolingian power. The Carolingians had replaced the inept Merovingian dynasty in France. St. Boniface took the lead in this effort and converted the Germanic tribes of France. As the Carolingians had overthrown the rightful rulers, Pepin III turned to the Pope to justify his rule. In turn, this served the Pope’s desire to substantiate previous Papal ideology. The Pope wanted to be seen as the leader of a Christian Europe in which kings gained their authority from the Pope. He supported this argument with a forged document known as the Donation of Constantine (supposedly from the time of the Emperor Constantine, but really forged in the 750s as a justification for the ideal relationship between Pope and ruler). In consequence, it brought the return of theocratic monarchy into Europe. This backfired on the papacy’s desire to consolidate its power and authority with the rise of Pepin’s son, Charlemagne (768 – 814).

Charlemagne was one of the greatest kings of early medieval Europe. He unified France and conquered parts of Germany. Charlemagne was a true political leader that Europe had not seen in ages. The historical period between 750 to 900 shows a significant increase in written documentary evidence compared to the 6th and 7th century of the Merovingian kingdom. The Anglo-Saxon monk Alciun assisted Charlemagne in the expansion of monastic schools, libraries, and scriptoria. Alciun even led a small group of scholars at court who would create their own Latin poetry. The Carolingian dynasty oversaw improvements in type script, the creation of silver currency, improvement of Germanic courts by including a group of sworn men to share their views on cases (which would later be imported by the Normans during their conquest of England and serve as the basis for the English jury), issued documents on ecclesiastical and governmental matter, military reforms that switched military service from free peasants to the better trained and better equipped single knight on cavalry, and created a system of control over the provincial nobility that involved random government inspections by representatives of his court. Unfortunately, his heirs weren’t capable soldiers and failed to command the respect of the provincial nobility with its cultural beliefs in the old Germanic warrior-kings. The arrival of the Vikings and the Carolingians inability to deal with them dealt another blow to the dynasty. The church had pinned its hopes on the Franks and the Carolingian dynasty as the revival of a new unified Christian Europe in which a theocratic king would bring peace, justice, and prosperity with the advice of the clergy. Instead the failure of the Carolingian dynasty led to the rise of the feudal organization of society with the provincial lords taking power.

The Feudalism that arose at this time was a system that encompassed all of life: political, economic, ecclesiastical, and cultural. It involved Lords who controlled large estates and ruled over a peasant class that were required to work the lord’s land for a piece of land of his own to farm. The Lord had power over free-man soldiers and had governmental and legal authority. The control over free-man soldiers led to the vassal system in which higher nobility would give important lower vassals their own plots of land in exchange for loyalty and service. In many cases, they, too, would give away a portion of their land. In 987, the Carolingian’s lost the royal title to Hugh Capet.

The Capetian line would hold the French crown until the 14th century, but early kings had little governmental power and couldn’t control the mostly independent nobility. The strongest of these independent aristocrats were the Dukes of Normandy. Normandy was the most powerful feudal duchy in Western Europe between 980 and 1050. The Dukes used a number of strategies to solidify their power. They supported the Capetian rise to the kingship in exchange for relief from royal interference as they solidified their own position in their duchy. They provided monasteries with vast resources, while they also vassalized their church clergy and in turn this provided the duke with a large enough army of knights to challenge lay nobility within their dominions. The advantage of clergy vassals was that it provided them with effective administrators, while their children couldn’t inherit land or office, so church vassals had no dynastic self-interest like the lay nobility. Eventually the Dukes of Normandy attained enough control over the church that they could even control who gained a bishropic by not allowing candidates their land who didn’t have their approval. They used this power to bring lower nobility in line. William II (1035 – 1087) beat his enemies and was liege lord of all other vassals in the duchy of Normandy. Eventually William turned to England and gained the English throne, ending the Anglo-Saxon line of kings during the Battle of Hastings. The Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror turned Anglo-Saxon England from one of most backwards states in Europe into one of the most powerful by expanding Royal bureaucracy and institutions with extensive system of state records (as evidenced by the Domesday book) and advanced forms of taxation, such as the introduction of Scutage, which allowed feudal lords to provide money instead of knights for feudal service. It also introduced French culture into English society.

The 11th century witnessed new technology such as the horse collar and stirrup, watermills for grinding grain, and extended clearing of wooden lands and swamps, as well as use of field rotation (a few fields would go unused each year to restore ground fertility), which led to increased food supply and population growth. By 1050 Western Europe experienced the rise of medieval cities and bourgeoisie merchants and craftsmen. It also saw a rise in a new lay piety. Asceticism returned in Northern Italy in response to the great wealth of the 11th century, especially among the Benedictine monks. They viewed the Benedictine monks with their vast wealth as having betrayed the ideals of monastic life. This led to the Gregorian Reform Movement and the investiture controversy, which was “a turning point in medieval civilization (246).” Hildebrand who would become Gregory VII published the Dictatus Papae that advocated that the church was founded by God, universal papal authority, and exclusive power over Bishops appointments and removals. He further argued that the Pope could only be judged by God and all true Catholics have to agree with Pope. The goals the Gregorian Reform Movement were to assert the freedom of church from state authority, get rid of the concept of theocratic kingship, and reestablish the Pope’s authority over all secular rulers. Most churchman at this time felt annoyed by papal interference as they had been largely independent and often had powerful political roles with their secular rulers. Meanwhile, the rulers felt annoyed that the Pope was claiming supremacy over them and their political affairs. Henry IV of Germany challenged Pope Gregory VII over church appointments. Pope Gregory VII successfully excommunicated him and convinced the German nobility who were looking for a pretext to challenge Henry’s power to use the principles of elective monarchy to elect a new ruler. Henry IV had to humble himself before the Pope to keep his throne. The ultimate outcome led to the weakening of the German monarchy, allowing the fragmentary semi-autonomous German states to arise. It also showed the power the Pope could play in secular affairs.

Another important role the church played in medieval history was to initiate the Crusades. These were a series of religious war against the Muslims. The Seljuk Turks conquered the Arab Middle East and the nomadic Berbers took control of Moslem Spain. The consequence of these events was that political authority was assumed by religious fanatics who cared little about the philosophical and scientific progress that was occurring in the Muslim world and led to its intellectual decline. The Seljuk Turks also managed to defeat Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Alexius Comnenus turned to the Pope for help in defending Constantinople. Cantor has this to say about the popular image of the Crusades versus its reality:

 “The only event of the eleventh century known to the average graduate of American universities would be the first crusade of 1095, which he would visualize in terms of gigantic warriors dressed in burnished plate armor and riding magnificent steeds, following the standards of the cross to victory over the swarthy hordes of pusillanimous Arabs. No aspect of this picture is quite accurate. The average stature of the late eleventh-century knight, because of insufficient nourishment in infancy and a generally bad diet and medicine, was not above five feet three inches. The Knights of the first crusade still, for the most part, wore chain mail rather than plate armor, which did not come into general use until the latter part of the twelfth century. Their horses, by modern standards or even by those of the thirteenth century, were distinctly puny; it was increased crossbreeding with the superior Arab strains that improved the western breed in the following two centuries. It is true that the knights of the first crusade followed the cross, but by no means entirely for religious purposes. Finally, the Arabs were every bit as valiant and skilled in combat as were the western knights, and it was the internal political weakness of the Islamic world, not the personal inadequacies of the Arab warriors, that accounted for the success of the first crusade (289).”

The crusaders triumphed due to Muslim political “disunity.” The 1st Crusade occurred in 1095. Pope Urban II goal for the Crusade was to reunite Christendom after the divisiveness of Gregorian Reforms, increase Papal prestige, end the East and West church schism, and provide land for landless knights. The outcome of the first Crusade was the formation of a Latin kingdom in Palestine, which slowly declined and crumbled over the subsequent crusades. The knights in the Middle Eastern gained a new cultural tolerance that challenged many of their stereotypes about other cultures and religions as they mingled with their Muslim neighbors. There was a 2nd Crusade in 1144, a 3rd Crusade in 1190, a 4th Crusade in 1204, in which Latin forces conquered Byzantium rather than fought against Muslims.


The 12th century saw the formation of the European legal system as the Northern Italian scholars began to study Justinian’s code. This led to the rise of professional lawyers trained at the university. The first universities appeared during this time. Much of the academic study was centered on commentaries of the Bible and the Justinian code. Aristotle was reintroduced into Europe. Previously only his work on logic had been available. Latin translations were made in Spain, Sicily, and Provence from Arabic sources with assistance of Moslems and Jews. In France, the magnificent Gothic architecture appeared. With all this learning came in an increase in literary output. Although most writers were still churchmen, this is the first appearance of secular writing in the Middle Ages, as well as extensive writings in the vernacular languages. This was the age of chivalry as the values of the aristocracy as primarily a warrior class was replaced with ideas of courtly love and a new sentimentality. Important literature of this time were Arthurian Romances such as those by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram Von Eschenbach, the Chanson de geste such as the Song of Roland, and troubadour poetry. Another important writer and thinker of this time was Abelard. Abelard showed a new recognition of individuality and attempted to deal with the philosophical problem of universals. His work undermined the Platonic thought that dominated the early Middle Ages, moving away from ideal representative types for unique characters of individuals. Abelard was tried for heresy by St. Bernard who himself represented the new piety. Bernard was a leading figure in the development of the Virgin Mary cult and one of the heads of the rise of emotional Christianity of the 12th century. He argued that the ultimate religious experience could occur only when one desires to be one with God so much that said person loses all interest in corporeal matter and enters a “contemplative ecstasy.” His religion was less about rituals and more about a particular state of mind. His ideas emphasized individual morality over the corrupt church hierarchy. This attitude lead to 12th and 14th century heresies.

“By raising the puritan saint above the ministers of Christ and by his presumptuous moral judgement of the priesthood as instruments of Antichrist, he enunciated the doctrines that were to form the common ethos of the popular heresies. Bernard gave to medieval Catholicism a new emotional dimension that enriched and revitalized it, but at the same time he must be regarded as the gravedigger of sacerdotal authority (343).”

The once important Benedictine community were no longer the leaders of education, no longer had important role in politics, having been replaced by university trained clerks, and rulers no longer need their knights for military service as money from feudal taxes and scutage was enough to hire mercenaries, nor were they the center of religious devotion as the cathedral and parish clergy had taken back those roles. Their extensive wealth also lost them social approval. This led to many new monastic orders.  One such order known as the Cistercian order wore white habits, advocated asceticism, and wanted to escape society. They focused on acquiring frontier lands from rulers to accomplish this goal. Other orders that arose during the 13th century was the Franciscan and Dominican Friars (who advocated asceticism, but with a strong emphasis on public welfare).  This period also featured the rise of heresies, which channeled the new piety, and those frustrated with moral corruption among the clergy. The Waldensians in North Italy (Proto-Protestants, antisacerdotal, antisacrament, and Donatist) believed the church was not an institution, but a “spiritual fellowship of saintly men and women who had experienced divine love and grace (388).” Other heresies included the Cathari and Albigensian heresy.

The rise of Capetian power in France begins with Louis VII (1137 – 1180) divorce from Eleanor of Aquitaine. Through his marriage to her, Louis had acquired huge sections of France, and with her remarriage to Henry II of England, the English now controlled these territories. However, the French nobility started to turn to royal court in order to receive neutral judgements in disputes with each other. At this point, the nobles had equal power to each other so they couldn’t dominate each other militarily to solve those arguments. The royal court was seen as a way of solving certain disagreements without resolving to inconclusive military action. The nobility also feared Henry II’s control over large portions of France as a factor that could unbalance their own independent power. So Louis’s divorce from Eleanor might have lost him land, but it led to his nominal vassals at least turning to him for judgements in their affairs.  Philip II Augustus (1180 – 1223) introduced a new system of officials with administrative, judicial, and financial authority. These clerks trained in the university were sent out by the royal government had no roots in the region and whose income and status depended solely on their position. Slowly as the kings gained authority over new territory, this administrative system was extended to these new feudal territories. Likewise, Philip II gained Normandy and other Northern France territories to his realm after taking them from the ineffectual King John of England. The last strategy the Capetians used to strengthen their position was to ally themselves with the Pope. It was Innocent III who called for an inquisition in Southern France to deal with heresy, which brought Southern France under Capetian power. The suppression of the Albigensian hersey became a pretext for the French King to bring Southern France under royal authority.

The 13th century was defined by an increase of social control and expansion of government and legal institutions, a transition from a society of status to one of money, and a long period of peace. The 13th century attempted to systematize all knowledge, which led to extensive use of summaries and encyclopedias. Scholastics dominated the university and these professors produced all the important works on philosophy, law, and science of the time. The universities had become a competitive environment, which was a major factor in refining and challenging previously accepted ideas as one had to challenge the status quo to compete with rival professors in the university. The basic pedagogy involved a professor reading a passage from a text such as Aristotle, the Bible, or the Justinian Code, and then adding his commentary as part of the lecture. Students would work their way through a prescribed program and eventually after a certain length of time of study would earn a Master’s degree. Possessing this degree allowed them to teach at the university. Most students came from families of the burghers or lesser knights. The classics was the basis of study for all students, but the focus wasn’t on the aesthetic or moral qualities of these works. Instead the professors used it to teach dialectic and rhetoric. Students then advanced on to the more important subjects of law, theology, and medicine. This explains the “hostility that the Renaissance humanists frequently expressed toward scholasticism and the universities (442).”

One of the most important thinkers of this time period was Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1272) who wrote the Summa Theologica. The Muslim and Jewish world had struggled to reconcile Aristotelian ideas with their respective religious traditions. Thinkers such Avicenna, Averroes, and Maimonides attempted to tackle this problem. Aquinas was the Christian world’s attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity and the other church fathers. Aquinas argued that knowledge was built on sensory experience, yet some truths cannot be proved rationality and must be based on faith. Still, you can prove rationally the existence of God and some of his attributes. He used Aristotelian causality to prove God is perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, and free, and the creation ex nihilo. Although his ideas proved a major intellectual turning point, during its day it still had many critics such as St. Bonaventura (1221-1274) who advocated a position based on the Franciscan worldview of religious love and respecting the glory of God. This intellectual period also saw the rise of the first “modern” scientist: Robert Grosseteste (1170 – 1253) and Roger Bacon. There were gains in knowledge in fields such as optics and astronomy.  In the political realm, a baronial rebellion against King John of England led to the creation of Magna Carta, which limited the financial powers of the Angevin monarchy and argued kings should observe the law of the land and must follow rules of due process. The Nobility of the 13th century were more cultured and literate than their 10th century predecessors.  They had a small amount of literacy in which they could write in French, which had become the international language, and read Romances. There lives were dominated by a highly symbolic set of conventions such as the ritual of knighthood where another noble would dub a squire serving in his household as a knight, a code of gentility, and an established system of heraldry. This allowed the nobility to create their own unique habits in which they could reassert their superiority and exclusivity to the rest of society. Due to these expensive habits, much of the landed class was in debt. The long peace of the 13th century decreased the nobility’s role in the military further. Although knights remained central, there was increased use of massed infantry. Other technological revolutions in warfare included the use of the crossbow, which shot bolts that could penetrate knight’s armor, and the longbow, a rapid-fire long-range weapon. However, despite not having many wars to fight, the nobility still maintained a strong place in the military due to tradition. During this period peasants’ lives also changed as many of them were able to work out deals with the indebted nobility that allowed them to become independent farmers.

In the 14th century came the plague, which killed one third of Europe’s population. There was also a “Little Ice Age,” which produced colder, worse winters that decreased the period of the growing season and reduced harvest yields.  The 14th century was one of disease, wars, economic depression, and chaos. There was a labor shortage due to plague. There were many urban and peasant revolts. This was the period of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France, which encouraged nationalism and led to the final elimination of English territory in France. The English under Henry V were at first successful and ended up controlling most of Northern France. Eventually they lost this territory and Henry’s weak heirs led to Civil War at home between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal family known as the War of the Roses. This civil war ended with the Battle of Bosworth Field in which Henry VII became the undisputed ruler of England and formed the Tudor dynasty. From the Hundred Years’ War, the French king emerged even more powerful with new sources of taxes (such as the salt tax) and a strong standing army. The 14th century saw a short term increase in the influence of the nobility in military and governmental affairs because of all this chaos. On the other hand, the nobility during this time also saw a weakening of their economic and political power in the long term due to the increase freedom of peasants stemming from all the labor shortages. The Popes of this period became tools of the monarchs. The cardinals that selected the Pope had come to be dominated by acrimonious Roman and French factions. Eventually this led to the election of Pope Clement V and the “Babylonian captivity” when he moved the Papal court from Rome to Avignon. The Popes of Avignon served the interests of the French monarchy. This led further to the “Great schism” where there were two reigning Popes, two colleges of cardinals, and a divided Christian world. The high death rate caused by the plague led to an increase in superstition among the populace, which in turn encouraged the medieval church to sell indulgences as a fund raising for church and as insurance for a person’s soul. The 15th Century saw a new European power with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella that united most of Spain. The Ottaman Empire had conquered Constantinople in 1453, closing off Eastern trade sources from Europe. Portugal and Spain took the lead in finding new trade routes and initiated the Age of Exploration and one of the largest overseas empires in South America. These tough time spurred creative and intellectual thought and gave rise to humanism and the Italian Renaissance.

“The humanist philosophy was wholly compatible with the outlook the Italian upper class. The secular educational system developing in Italian cities was directed toward education in the humanities—that is, in art and letter—to prepare the young man of a good family to take his place in society. The young man’s goal was not to become a highly trained scholar, but to develop the proper social values and the right forms of expression. He was more concerned with ethics than with philosophy or theology. The search for truth was an accepted value, but it was no isolated from secular concerns. Rather, the student was supposed to become a man of affairs, a citizen who took an active part in public matters. With a few notable exceptions, even professional scholars and teachers did not exclude themselves from public life (551).”

This Humanism led to a new focus on the liberal arts. Literature and the Classics were no longer just a precursor to more important studies, but were now the main focus of an education.

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.