Ancient Greece: Minoans and Mycenaeans to the Hellenistic Age

Reconstructed illustration of the Palace of Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

By Lisa M. Lane / 10.09.2016
Professor of History
MiraCosta College

Greek Geography

Ancient Greece in the Aegean / SlideShare, Creative Commons

Whether you believe in geographic determinism or not, there is no doubt that ancient Greek people and culture were influenced by geography. The Peloponnesian peninsula and its surrounding islands contain soil that is sandy, rocky, and doesn’t hold water well. This meant that the people there raised plants and animals that thrived in those conditions: goats, sheep, olive trees, and grapes. Because of the rocky terrain, settlements formed in isolation from each other. Historians think that these conditions cause competition between settlements whose people didn’t know each other well.

The Minoans

Ancient Greek civilization did not begin on the mainland, but rather on the island of Crete. We know much about the Minoan civilization (so called from the 19th century in reference to King Minos, legendary king of Crete) from archaeological remains, particularly the Palace at Knossos. The Palace was built between 1700 and 1400 BC, in a configuration so complex it has been considered the origin of the myth of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. A reconstruction:

Reconstructed illustration of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

The complex hallways may have been designed to confuse visitors and possible invaders. Certainly ancient Crete had no other fortifications, suggesting that they lived at peace with their neighbors in a network of extensive trade. Among the indications of complex culture are images of men and women engaged in dance, celebrations, and activities related to the bull, which was likely an animal of religious worship.

Paintings on the walls of Knossos indicate that a sporting event (which I call “bull jumping”) was dangerous but popular for both men and women (men are painted in red, women in white). This is assumed to be an action cartoon of how the sport was done:

Bullleaping’ fresco from the Palace of Knossos, c.1450 BC / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

The many legends of ancient Crete were passed down to us through the stories of Homer, much later. The Minoan civilization disappeared. Around 1500 BC, the volcano known as Thera (or Santorini) seems to have erupted, although historians differ on its possible effects.

The Mycenaeans

Location of Mycenaea in Bronze Age Greece / Wikimedia Commons

The civilization which developed on the mainland was not as peaceful. The designation “Myceanaean” has been given to the era of ancient Greek history from about 1600-1100 BC.

The warlike, piratical Myceaneans were the source of the Greek pantheon of gods and the traditional origin of the warriors of Sparta. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenean archaeological remains feature massive fortifications. The goods found in graves were of extraordinary wealth and workmanship, including this famous “mask of Agamemnon” found by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s:

Found in shaft Grave V, Grave Circle A, Mycenae. Found in Tomb V in Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876. Gold death-mask known as the “Mask of Agamemnon”. This mask depicts the imposing face of a bearded noble man. It is made of a gold sheet with repoussé details. Two holes near the ears indicate that the mask was held in place of the deceased’s face with twine. This mask is believed to be a fake due to the high level of detail, such as the beard and ears. No other mask of it’s type has a similar amount of detail. Dated c.1550-1500 BC / National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Since the mask was made around 1500 BC, it was likely before the time of King Agamemnon, a legendary figure who participated in the Trojan War (traditionally dated 1194–1184 BC) and immortalized by Homer in The Iliad.


The ancient Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey (both dated around the 8th century BC) are attributed to the epic poet Homer. Because we don’t know exactly when he lived, or when anything was written down, it is best for historians to refer to the stories themselves as comprising the Greeks’ understanding of their own history and culture. Clearly the epics derive from a long oral tradition, and thus the written versions are not as important as the narratives contained therein. They were composed, when written, into complex and beautiful hexameter verse.

The Iliad is set during the Trojan War and tells the story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans (Troy was on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey). The Odyssey, written later, centers on the story of Odysseus (called Ulysses by the Romans) and his journey home after the fall of Troy. Like all narratives later referrred to as “epic”, themes such as heroism, loyalty and honor are key to both stories. The Odyssey also provides a model, taken up by many later narratives, of a young man becoming a full person through the challenges encountered on a journey (you can see this theme in many stories, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Iron Man). Because the focus of both stories is on the individuals and their decisions, these epic works can be seen as harbingers of the Greek aspect of individualism, which we do not see in the narratives of ancient Mespotamia or Egypt.

The Odyssey (ca. 800 BC)

Translation A. Lang

Book IX: Odysseus, his passage by the Sirens, and by Scylla and Charybdis. The sacrilege committed by his men in the isle Thrinacia. The destruction of his ships and men. How he swam on a plank nine days together, and came to Ogygia, where he stayed seven years with Calypso.

‘NOW after the ship had left the stream of the river Oceanus, and was come to the wave of the wide sea, and the isle Aeaean, where is the dwelling place of early Dawn and her dancing grounds, and the land of sunrising, upon our coming thither we beached the ship in the sand, and ourselves too stept ashore on the sea beach. There we fell on sound sleep and awaited the bright Dawn.

‘So soon as early Dawn shone forth, the rosy-fingered, I sent forth my fellows to the house of Circe to fetch the body of the dead Elpenor. And speedily we cut billets of wood and sadly we buried him, where the furthest headland runs out into the sea, shedding big tears. But when the dead man was burned and the arms of the dead, we piled a barrow and dragged up thereon a pillar, and on the topmost mound we set the shapen oar.

‘Now all that task we finished, and our coming from out of Hades was not unknown to Circe, but she arrayed herself and speedily drew nigh, and her handmaids with her bare flesh and bread in plenty and dark red wine. And the fair goddess stood in the midst and spake in our ears, saying:

‘“Men overbold, who have gone alive into the house of Hades, to know death twice, while all men else die once for all. Nay come, eat ye meat and drink wine here all day long; and with the breaking of the day ye shall set sail, and myself I will show you the path and declare each thing, that ye may not suffer pain or hurt through any grievous ill-contrivance by sea or on the land.”

‘So spake she, and our lordly souls consented thereto. Thus for that time we sat the livelong day, until the going down of the sun, feasting on abundant flesh and on sweet wine. Now when the sun sank and darkness came on, my company laid them to rest by the hawsers of the ship. Then she took me by the hand and led me apart from my dear company, and made me to sit down and laid herself at my feet, and asked all my tale. And I told her all in order duly. Then at the last the Lady Circe spake unto me, saying:

‘“Even so, now all these things have an end; do thou then hearken even as I tell thee, and the god himself shall bring it back to thy mind. To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who bewitch all men, whosoever shall come to them. Whoso draws nigh them unwittingly and hears the sound of the Sirens’ voice, never doth he see wife or babes stand by him on his return, nor have they joy at his coming; but the Sirens enchant him with their clear song, sitting in the meadow, and all about is a great heap of bones of men, corrupt in death, and round the bones the skin is wasting. But do thou drive thy ship past, and knead honey-sweet wax, and anoint therewith the ears of thy company, lest any of the rest hear the song; but if thou myself art minded to hear, let them bind thee in the swift ship hand and foot, upright in the mast-stead, and from the mast let rope-ends be tied, that with delight thou mayest hear the voice of the Sirens. And if thou shalt beseech thy company and bid them to loose thee, then let bind thee with yet more bonds. But when thy friends have driven they ship past these, I will not tell thee fully which path shall thenceforth be thine, but do thou thyself consider it, and I will speak to thee of either way. On the one side there are beetling rocks, and against them the great wave roars of dark-eyed Amphitrite. These, ye must know, are they the blessed gods call the Rocks Wandering. By this way even winged things may never pass, nay, not even the cowering doves that bear ambrosia to Father Zeus, but the sheer rock evermore takes away one even of these, and the Father sends in another to make up the tale. Thereby no ship of men ever escapes that comes thither, but the planks of ships and the bodies of men confusedly are tossed by the waves of the sea and the storms of ruinous fire. One ship only of all that fare by sea hath passed that way, even Argo, that is in all men’s minds, on her voyage from Aeetes. And even her the wave would lightly have cast there upon the mighty rocks, but Here sent her by for love of Jason.

‘“On the other part are two rocks, whereof the one reaches with sharp peak to the wide heaven, and a dark cloud encompasses it; this never streams away, and there is no clear air about the peak neither in summer nor in harvest tide. No mortal man may scale it or set foot thereon, not though he had twenty hands and feet. For the rock is smooth, and sheer, as it were polished. And in the midst of the cliff is a dim cave turned to Erebus, towards the place of darkness, whereby ye shall even steer your hollow ship, noble Odysseus. Not with an arrow from a bow might a man in his strength reach from his hollow ship into that deep cave. And therein dwelleth Scylla, yelping terribly. Her voice indeed is no greater than the voice of a new-born whelp, but a dreadful monster is she, nor would any look on her gladly, not if it were a god that met her. Verily she hath twelve feet all dangling down; and six necks exceeding long, and on each a hideous head, and therein three rows of teeth set thick and close, full of black death. Up to her middle is she sunk far down in the hollow cave, but forth she holds her heads from the dreadful gulf, and there she fishes, swooping round the rock, for dolphins or sea-dogs, or whatso greater beast she may anywhere take, whereof the deep-voiced Amphitrite feeds countless flocks. Thereby no sailors boast that they have fled scatheless ever with their ship, for with each head she carries off a man, whom she hath snatched from out the dark-prowed ship.

‘“But that other cliff, Odysseus, thou shalt note, lying lower, hard by the first: thou couldest send an arrow across. And thereon is a great fig-tree growing, in fullest leaf, and beneath it mighty Charybdis sucks down black water, for thrice a day she spouts it forth, and thrice a day she sucks it down in terrible wise. Never mayest thou be there when she sucks the water, for none might save thee then from thy bane, not even the Earth-Shaker! But take heed and swiftly drawing nigh to Scylla’s rock drive the ship past, since of a truth it is far better to mourn six of thy company in the ship, than all in the selfsame hour.”

‘So spake she, but I answered, and said unto her: “Come I pray thee herein, goddess, tell me true, if there be any means whereby I might escape from the deadly Charybdis and avenge me on that other, when she would prey upon my company.”

‘So spake I, and that fair goddess answered me: “Man overbold, lo, now again the deeds of war are in thy mind and the travail thereof. Wilt thou not yield thee even to the deathless gods? As for her, she is no mortal, but an immortal plague, dread, grievous, and fierce, and not to be fought with; and against her there is no defence; flight is the bravest way. For if thou tarry to do on thine armour by the cliff, I fear lest once again she sally forth and catch at thee with so many heads, and seize as many men as before. So drive past with all thy force, and call on Cratais, mother of Scylla, which bore her for a bane to mortals. And she will then let her from darting forth thereafter.

‘“Then thou shalt come unto the isle Thrinacia; there are the many kine of Helios and his brave flocks feeding, seven herds of kine and as many goodly flocks of sheep, and fifty in each flock. They have no part in birth or in corruption, and there are goddesses to shepherd them, nymphs with fair tresses, Phaethusa and Lampetie whom bright Neaera bare to Helios Hyperion. Now when the lady their mother had borne and nursed them, she carried them to the isle Thrinacia to dwell afar, that they should guard their father’s flocks and his kine with shambling gait. If thou doest these no hurt, being heedful of thy return, truly ye may even yet reach Ithaca, albeit in evil case. But if thou hurtest them, I foreshow ruin for thy ship and for thy men, and even though thou shouldest thyself escape, late shalt thou return in evil plight with the loss of all thy company.”

‘So spake she, and anon came the golden-throned Dawn. Then the fair goddess took her way up the island. But I departed to my ship and roused my men themselves to mount the vessel and loose the hawsers. And speedily they went aboard and sat upon the benches, and sitting orderly smote the grey sea water with their oars. And in the wake of our dark-prowed ship she sent a favouring wind that filled the sails, a kindly escort,—even Circe of the braided tresses, a dread goddess of human speech. And straightway we set in order the gear throughout the ship and sat us down, and the wind and the helmsman guided our barque.

‘Then I spake among my company with a heavy heart: “Friends, forasmuch as it is not well that one or two alone should know of the oracles that Circe, the fair goddess, spake unto me, therefore will I declare them, that with foreknowledge we may die, or haply shunning death and destiny escape. First she bade us avoid the sound of the voice of the wondrous Sirens, and their field of flowers, and me only she bade listen to their voices. So bind ye me in a hard bond, that I may abide unmoved in my place, upright in the mast-stead, and from the mast let rope-ends be tied, and if I beseech and bid you to set me free, then do ye straiten me with yet more bonds.”

‘Thus I rehearsed these things one and all, and declared them to my company. Meanwhile our good ship quickly came to the island of the Sirens twain, for a gentle breeze sped her on her way. Then straightway the wind ceased, and lo, there was a windless calm, and some god lulled the waves. Then my company rose up and drew in the ship’s sails, and stowed them in the hold of the ship, while they sat at the oars and whitened the water with their polished pine blades. But I with my sharp sword cleft in pieces a great circle of wax, and with my strong hands kneaded it. And soon the wax grew warm, for that my great might constrained it, and the beam of the lord Helios, son of Hyperion. And I anointed therewith the ears of all my men in their order, and in the ship they bound me hand and foot upright in the mast-stead, and from the mast they fastened rope-ends and themselves sat down, and smote the grey sea water with their oars. But when the ship was within the sound of a man’s shout from the land, we fleeing swiftly on our way, the Sirens espied the swift ship speeding toward them, and they raised their clear-toned song:

‘“Hither, come hither, renowned Odysseus, great glory of the Achaeans, here stay thy barque, that thou mayest listen to the voice of us twain. For none hath ever driven by this way in his black ship, till he hath heard from our lips the voice sweet as the honeycomb, and hath had joy thereof and gone on his way the wiser. For lo, we know all things, all the travail that in wide Troy-land the Argives and Trojans bare by the gods’ designs, yea, and we know all that shall hereafter be upon the fruitful earth.”

‘So spake they uttering a sweet voice, and my heart was fain to listen, and I bade my company unbind me, nodding at them with a frown, but they bent to their oars and rowed on. Then straight uprose Perimedes and Eurylochus and bound me with more cords and straitened me yet the more. Now when we had driven past them, nor heard we any longer the sound of the Sirens or their song, forthwith my dear company took away the wax wherewith I had anointed their ears and loosed me from my bonds.

Development of the Polis (City-State)

By the 5th century BC (the Golden Age) several settlements had developed politically, in many cases beginning as monarchies (Crete, Mycenae and Troy were all monarchies). Monarchy means “rule by the one” in Greek (mono=one, archy=rule). There seems to be a pattern of political development. A king would be challenged by nobles and warriors, who would take over, creating an oligarchy (rule by the few). When one person leads the people in revolt against the oligarchy, he is considered a tyrant when he becomes sole ruler, but unlike a monarch his source of support is the will of the people (tyranny). When the people take down a tyrant and rule themselves, it is considered democracy (demos=people, cracy=form of government).

Many city-states developed in Greece, and each polis (city-state) went through several forms government, most in this pattern, before the 5th century. We will focus on two for contrast: Sparta and Athens.

Horseman with a scrolling tendril growing from his head, under the feet of the horse the separated second segment, cup tondo of a name vase by the Rider Painter in Laconia, c. 550/530 BC / British Museum, London

Sparta considered itself the inheritor of ancient Mycenae. Geographically, the Spartans resided in the heart of the Peloponese on mainland Greece, in an area where farming was difficult. By 650 BC, Sparta was a major military power, their primary source of labor being the helots. Helots were serfs, agricultural laborers, who had originally been Messenians captured in war. True Spartans engaged almost exclusively in war. Children born deformed were left out to die, and sons were sent to the barracks at the age of 7 to be raised in the military. Once an adult, a young man was expected to find a woman and get married, but had to escape from the barracks to do so. Upon retirement, Spartan males were expected to become elders and continue serving the state as advisors in the government. Spartan women were expected to be physically and mentally strong, able to raise strong children and manage estates. At left you can see a warrior from the 6th century, painted on a vase by one of the great Spartan artists.

Athens considered itself the inheritor of the Ionians, who were a more peaceful, intellectual people in legendary times. Athens’ geographic location made sea trade, and a sea-based life, natural. Athens created a great trading empire after 900 BC, engaging in military (primarily naval) exploits in order to expand its control over trade in the Aegean. Athens went through the political stages in order, and democracy emerged under the leader Cleisthenes in 508 BC. In assisting the Ionian colonies along the coast of Anatolia, Athens came up against the great Persian Empire.

The Greco-Persian Wars featured both Athens and Sparta fighting the Persians from 499-449 BC. The facts of this war can be read anywhere, but when it was over Athens experience the Golden Age in which culture developed in ways that were passed down to modern Western civilization. This will be our focus.

The Golden Age of Athens

Athens Acropolis /  Wikimedia Commons

Modern Americans love the golden age because it features democracy, but the democracy of ancient Greece was not like ours. Only adult, male, free citizens could vote. Economically, almost all poleis relied on slave labor, allowing the upper classes to engage in other pursuits. In Athens, this group comprised about 6,000 men. They met in the agora (marketplace) to discuss and vote on issues. This was direct democracy, without named or elected representatives — a consensus was needed for action. 6,000 men arguing an issue was impossible. What happened was that leaders would emerge from within the group, men who could sway the crowd with their oratory and arguments.

Since most elite young men, and their families, sought political power, it became essential for them to learn to speak well in public. Education of this class of men took place with private tutors paid for by their families, so teachers who specialized in rhetoric were valuable. Such “Sophists”, far from emphasizing the development of a full education, instead focused on argumentation and the ability to convince others. One teacher, Socrates, objected to this approach as being amoral. Ethics were not taught with these methods, and students were not developing in terms of morality or character, only political influence. Socrates saw this as a threat to the wisdom of his civilization. He began teaching young men using a method designed to encouraged moral and ethical examination of ones own ideas. In other words, he emphasized critical thinking!

Unfortunately, at the time he was doing this there was conflict with Sparta, and the government of Athens saw Socrates as a threat to the unity they needed to face a possible war. Afraid that Socrates was encouraging individual morality (including the right to say no to a military draft), they accused him of impiety and corruption of the young. Because Socrates believed in universal morality, and the right of the state to make its own laws, he did not try to escape his punishment, but took poison rather than face execution. His student Plato, however, never forgave the government of Athens and wrote later about the wisdom of his teacher and the need for a republic where leaders of government were philosophers rather than those who sought power.

Plato: The Republic (360 BC)

AND now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is  enlightened or unenlightened: –Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching  all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and  have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can  only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round  their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance,  and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and  you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the  screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they  show the puppets.

I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Yes, he said.

And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true.

And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question, he replied.

To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain.

And now look again, and see what will naturally follow it — the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision. . . Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer. . . .

He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?


Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

Certainly. . . .

And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Certainly, he would.

And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

“Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,”

and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner? . . .

This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.  . . .and there is another thing which is likely. or rather a necessary inference from what has preceded, that neither the uneducated and uninformed of the truth, nor yet those who never make an end of their education, will be able ministers of State; not the former, because they have no single aim of duty which is the rule of all their actions, private as well as public; nor the latter, because they will not act at all except upon compulsion, fancying that they are already dwelling apart in the islands of the blest.

Very true, he replied.

Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all-they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good; but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them to do as they do now.

What do you mean?

I mean that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not.

But is not this unjust? he said; ought we to give them a worse life, when they might have a better?

You have again forgotten, my friend, I said, the intention of the legislator, who did not aim at making any one class in the State happy above the rest; the happiness was to be in the whole State, and he held the citizens together by persuasion and necessity, making them benefactors of the State, and therefore benefactors of one another; to this end he created them, not to please themselves, but to be his instruments in binding up the State.

True, he said, I had forgotten.

Observe, Glaucon, that there will be no injustice in compelling our philosophers to have a care and providence of others; we shall explain to them that in other States, men of their class are not obliged to share in the toils of politics: and this is reasonable, for they grow up at their own sweet will, and the government would rather not have them. Being self-taught, they cannot be expected to show any gratitude for a culture which they have never received. But we have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good. Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.

Quite true, he replied.

And will our pupils, when they hear this, refuse to take their turn at the toils of State, when they are allowed to spend the greater part of their time with one another in the heavenly light?

Impossible, he answered; for they are just men, and the commands which we impose upon them are just; there can be no doubt that every one of them will take office as a stern necessity, and not after the fashion of our present rulers of State.

Philosophy thus became a hallmark of ancient Athens, where people argued ethics, politics and power. They also studied nature, sponsoring “natural philosophers” (we would call them scientists) who would make extraordinary discoveries later during the 3rd century BC, the Hellenistic era.

Erotic scene of man and boy on the bottom of a drinking cup, c.490 BC / Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Both Socrates and the Sophists were part of the educational system of the ancient west. The educational system that provided the foundation for learning in 5th century Athens was based on a male-focused system. Formal education took place between a boy and his tutor. This relationship was special — the tutor taught the boy not only academic subjects but about life itself, including sex. The free, elite Greek male life cycle was to be copied in later times. Sexuality was not a separate subject of study, nor something to hide. As boys, Greek men were expected to learn sexually from their tutors. As young men, they were expected to date women, get married and become fathers. As older men, they were expected to tutor boys. Although ancient Greeks did not really have a concept of “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality”, they considered the same-sex relationship normal in boyhood and old age, and the male-female exclusive relationship normal in mid-life. Anyone deviating in either direction (such as an old man still chasing women, or a 25-year-old continuing with gay relationships) was considered abnormal.

Some women in elite families also developed educational systems, although many women were expected to dominate in the domestic sphere. Educated women ran schools and academies for other women. The great teacher and poet Sappho, who founded a school on the island of Lesbos, fell in love with some of her female students and thus provided us with terms like “lesbian” and “Sapphic love”. Her poetry, unfortunately, exists now in only bits and pieces, but we have enough to read her “lyric” style, which was focused on personal feelings and very different from Homeric-style “epic” poetry.

Sappho: Poem (d. c. 570 BC)

Thorned in splendor, beauteous child of mighty

Zeus, wile weaving, immortal Aphrodite,

smile again; your frowning so affrays me

woe overweighs me.

Come to me now, if ever in the olden days

you did hear me from afar, and from the

golden halls of your father fly with all speeding

unto my pleading.

Down through mid-ether from Love’s highest regions

swan-drawn in car convoyed by lovely legions

of bright-hued doves beclouding with their pinions

Earth’s broad dominions.

Quickly you came; and, Blessed One, with

smiling countenance immortal, my heavy heart

beguiling, asked the cause of my pitiful condition-

why my petition:

What most I craved in brain-bewildered yearning;

whom would I win, so winsome in her spurning;

“Who is she, Sappho, so evilly requiting

fond love with slighting?

“She who flees you soon shall turn pursuing,

cold to your love now, weary with wooing,

gifts once scorned with greater gifts reclaiming

unto her shaming.”

Come thus again; from cruel cares deliver;

of all that my heart wills graciously be giver-

greatest of gifts, your loving self and tender

to be my defender.

Other women became important politically. Ancient Athens boasted women known as courtesans, who provided men with sexual pleasure but were also educated. They were not ordinary prostitutes or street-walkers, but were literate and moved within society. Although frowned upon by wealthy and “respectable” Athenian wives, who were usually escorted everywhere by a companion or slave, they enjoyed great freedom. Because they catered to powerful men, they could exert significant influence. The most famous example is Aspasia, courtesan to Pericles, who may even have written some of his great speeches for him.

Greek Theatre

Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, Athens / Wikimedia Commons

In addition to poetry, rhetoric, and science, Golden Age Athens was known for theatre. “Tragedies” were performed stories based on a high-ranking member of society (such as a king or queen) meeting his/her downfall through hubris, or excessive pride. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, for example, the king Oedipus tries to avoid the fate told to him by an oracle: that he will kill his father and marry his mother. His own hubris encourages him to believe he can avoid this fate, but it happens anyway by accident. His humiliation and downfall lead him to blind himself in remorse at the end of the play, a man defeated by his own pride.

“Comedies” were more contemporary, sort of like an Athenian version of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Because they often feature contemporary jokes, they are harder to understand in our day than the tragedies. However, some still feature universal themes. Comedies had to be about ordinary people, who are usually shown outsmarting their “betters”. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the wives of soldiers go on strike, refusing sex to their men until they stop engaging in war. It is possible to see this play as pro-war (encouraging men to ignore their wives and get going) or anti-war, but either way one can see the Athenian concern with war, particularly with the rise of Sparta.

Aristophanes: Lysistrata (410 BC)

Cleonice: . . . What is this very important business you wish to inform us about?

Lysistrata: I will tell you. But first answer me one question.

Cleonice: Anything you wish.

Lysistrata: Don’t you feel sad and sorry because the fathers of your children are far away from you with the army? For I’ll wager there is not one of you whose husband is not abroad at this moment.

Cleonice: Mine has been the last five months in Thrace-looking after Eucrates.

Myrrhine: It’s seven long months since mine left for Pylos.

Lampito: As for mine, if he ever does return from service, he’s no sooner home than he takes down his shield again and flies back to the wars.

Lysistrata: And not so much as the shadow of a lover! Since the day the Milesians betrayed us, I have never once seen an eight-inch gadget even, to be a leathern consolation to us poor widows…. Now tell me, if I have discovered a means of ending the war, will you all second me?

Cleonice: Yes verily, by all the goddesses, I swear I will, though I have to put my gown in pawn, and drink the money the same day.

Myrrhine: And so will I, though I must be split in two like a flat-fish, and have half myself removed.

Lampito: And I too; why to secure peace, I would climb to the top of Mount Taygetus.

Lysistrata: Then I will out with it at last, my mighty secret! Oh! sister women, if we would compel our husbands to make peace, we must refrain…

Cleonice: Refrain from what? tell us, tell us!

Lysistrata: But will you do it?

Myrrhine: We will, we will, though we should die of it.

Lysistrata: We must refrain from the male altogether…. Nay, why do you turn your backs on me? Where are you going? So, you bite your lips, and shake your heads, eh? Why these pale, sad looks? why these tears? Come, will you do it-yes or no? Do you hesitate?

Cleonice: I will not do it, let the war go on.

Myrrhine: Nor will I; let the war go on.

Lysistrata (to Myrrhine): And you say this, my pretty flat-fish, who declared just now they might split you in two?

Cleonice: Anything, anything but that! Bid me go through the fire, if you will,-but to rob us of the sweetest thing in all the world, Lysistrata darling!

Lysistrata (to Myrrhine): And you?

Myrrhine: Yes, I agree with the others; I too would sooner go through the fire.

Lysistrata: Oh, wanton, vicious sex! the poets have done well to make tragedies upon us; we are good for nothing then but love and lewdness! But you, my dear, you from hardy Sparta, if you join me, all may yet be well; help me, second me, I beg you.

Lampito: ‘Tis a hard thing, by the two goddesses it is! for a woman to sleep alone without ever a strong male in her bed. But there, peace must come first.

Lysistrata: Oh, my darling, my dearest, best friend, you are the only one deserving the name of woman!

Cleonice: But if-which the gods forbid-we do refrain altogether from what you say, should we get peace any sooner?

Lysistrata: Of course we should, by the goddesses twain! We need only sit indoors with painted cheeks, and meet our mates lightly clad in transparent gowns of Amorgos silk, and perfectly depilated; they will get their tools up and be wild to lie with us. That will be the time to refuse, and they will hasten to make peace, I am convinced of that! . . .

Cleonice: Now, my dears, let me swear first, if you please.

Lysistrata: No, by Aphrodite, unless it’s decided by lot. But come, then, Lampito, and all of you, put your hands to the bowl; and do you, Cleonice, repeat for all the rest the solemn terms I am going to recite. Then you must all swear, and pledge yourselves by the same promises,-I will have naught to do whether with lover or husband…

Cleonice (faintly): I will have naught to do whether with lover or husband…

Lysistrata: Albeit he come to me with an erection…

Cleonice (her voice quavering): Albeit he come to me with an erection… (in despair) Oh! Lysistrata, I cannot bear it!

Lysistrata (ignoring this outburst): I will live at home unbulled…

Cleonice: I will live at home unbulled…

Lysistrata: Beautifully dressed and wearing a saffron-coloured gown

Cleonice: Beautifully dressed and wearing a saffron-coloured gown…

Lysistrata: To the end I may inspire my husband with the most ardent longings.

Cleonice: To the end I may inspire my husband with the most ardent longings.

Lysistrata: Never will I give myself voluntarily…

Cleonice: Never will I give myself voluntarily…

Lysistrata: And if he has me by force…

Cleonice: And if he has me by force…

Lysistrata: I will be cold as ice, and never stir a limb…

Cleonice: I will be cold as ice, and never stir a limb…

Lysistrata: I will neither extend my Persian slippers toward the ceiling…

Cleonice: I will neither extend my Persian slippers toward the ceiling…

Lysistrata: Nor will I crouch like the carven lions on a knife-handle.

Cleonice: Nor will I crouch like the carven lions on a knife-handle.

Lysistrata: And if I keep my oath, may I be suffered to drink of this wine.

Cleonice (more courageously): And if I keep my oath, may I be suffered to drink of this wine.

Lysistrata: But if I break it, let my bowl be filled with water.

Cleonice: But if I break it, let my bowl be filled with water.

Lysistrata: Will you all take this oath?

All: We do.

Lysistrata: Then I’ll now consume this remnant. (She drinks.)

Cleonice (reaching for the cup): Enough, enough, my dear; now let us all drink in turn to cement our friendship. (They pass the cup around and all drink. A great commotion is heard off stage.)

Lampito: Listen! what do those cries mean?

Lysistrata: It’s what I was telling you; the women have just occupied the Acropolis. So now, Lampito, you return to Sparta to organize the plot, while your comrades here remain as hostages. For ourselves, let us go and join the rest in the citadel, and let us push the bolts well home.

Cleonice: But don’t you think the men will march up against us?

Lysistrata: I laugh at them. Neither threats nor flames shall force our doors; they shall open only on the conditions I have named.

Cleonice: Yes, yes, by Aphrodite; otherwise we should be called cowardly and wretched women. (She follows Lysistrata out.)

Greek Art

Replica of the Statue of Athena at the Nashville Parthenon reconstruction, by Alan LeQuire / Wikimedia Commons

Inside the Parthenon, there was a huge 40-foot statue of Athena, painted and gilded. In fact, the vision we have of Greek art and architecture as being all white marble is completely wrong. Athenians painted and gilded much of their art. In 1990, artists in Nashville, Tennessee, created a modern replica of the statue of Athena, but it was plain white until 2002, when they gilded it to make it appear as it would have in ancient Athens.


Getty Kouros, c.530 BC / J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California

My favorite Greek statue is the Getty Kouros, showing the free-standing, positive style that expresses Greek pride and craftsmanship. It is dated about 530 BC, before the Golden Age, but it clearly represents not only the balance and moderation that are part of ancient Greek culture, but the positive image of the male body.

The male figure was a significat cultural icon in ancient Greece, and the male body the ultimate symbol of beauty. Women were beautiful too, but statues of them tend to be clothed. The moment in a male’s life when he became a man was of fascination to ancient Greeks, and may be a reflection of what became the universal story of boy-becoming-man featured in epics from Homer to the present.

The Golden Age ended with the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. I often joke that democracy is not an efficient way to run a government, especially when you’re under attack. The two great powers of the Aegean had almost come to blows over rebellions in their colonies and among their separate allies. Athenian trade sanctions led to resistance and ultimately war. Although through much of the war Sparta won on land and Athens won at sea, a number of circumstances led to an Athenian naval defeat, and Sparta starved out Athens and won the war. Democracy was suspended, and although Athens survived, the Golden Age was over. Its narrative would be revived by Alexander the Great.

Here is a half hour about Greek art, beginning with its significance to us and concluding with some examples of the style from the Hellenistic Era (our topic next week).

The Hellenist Age

Philip of Macedon

Alexander the Great was the son of Philip of Macedon, a king who wanted to reunify ancient Greece and then defeat the Persians as punishment for annexing Greece. He achieved the first part, but was assassinated before he could achieve the second. His son went on to create this:

Empire of Alexander the Great / Wikimedia Commons


Bust of a young Alexander the Great from the Hellenistic era / British Museum, London

Yes, it’s big. It’s so big it didn’t really fit on the page, and now defines its space. It’s the empire of Alexander the Great.

As a young man, Alexander had been tutored by Aristotle. Aristotle, having been tutored by Plato, was therefore very familiar with the Golden Age of Greece in terms of its science, philosophy, history and culture. Alexander set out to complete his father’s plans to conquer much of the Aegean, and headed eastward to ultimately defeat Persia. He was 20 when he became king, and conquered all the way to the Indus River (now Pakistan). His goal of conquering the known world ended when his army mutinied, wanting to go home.

Alexander cemented control over the large area he conquered by marrying his generals off to local queens and princesses, often by force. He died at age 32, probably from an infection caused by an old battle wound. After his death, his generals divided the huge empire into what became four areas: the Antigonid dynasty (Macedon and Greece), the Ptolemaic dynasty (Egypt), the Seleucid dynasty (Mesopotamia and Syria) and the Attalid dynasty (Anatolia). The Ptolemaic dynasty became the new pharoahs of Egypt, giving rise to generations of Hellenistic pharoahs down to Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies.

Alexander’s Empire

Although founded on military conquest, Alexander’s Empire was short-lived as a political entity. What’s more significant is the cultural expansion of Greek ideals and knowledge caused by his journeys and takeover of other peoples. Alexander’s ambitions had focused on the founding and revitalization of cities as centers of administration and power. Humility is not a Greek virtue, and Alexander named over 20 cities after himself, including the most famous: Alexandria in Egypt. Alexandria became home to a great library in the 3rd century BC, and a center of learning. The spread of Greek culture not only served to unify a highly diverse empire, but combined with local knowledge to create a highly dynamic environment for society and intellectual endeavors.

Cosmopolitanism (cosmos = universe, politan = polis) is thus a hallmark of the Hellenistic Era, as historians call it. Hellas was the original Greek name for Greece itself, so Hellenistic implies that the empire was Greek-like, or in imitation of Greece. Certainly many who promoted Greek culture were somewhat romantic in their view of the Golden Age, and wanted to revive it and expand it. Because we are talking about a huge geographic area, with many cultures and languages, it is difficult to make too many definite statements of what life was like. However, as centers of trade, administration and learning, the cities of the Hellenistic world show us major changes in how people related to the world around them.

Unlike villages, where everyone knows everyone and social mobility is somewhat static, cities are always changing. They are crowded, and people come there from everywhere to live and work. Leaving their rural homes and small towns means that people could feel alienated or isolated in a city, and the philosophies of the time expanded on Hellenic (Golden Age) ideas to incorporate personal, individual development. While many people attribute modern Western individualism to Golden Age Athens, that society was actually rather closed and based on kinship clans, even during the time of democracy. In fact, much of our attitudes about personal development (or personal anything, really) derive instead from Hellenistic times. So do many of our attitudes about culture, society and art.

Roles of Women

Figure of Isis-Aphrodite, 2nd century AD / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In Hellenic Greece, at least in cities, women were protected and confined to a private role, either as housemaid or house mistress, with a few notable exceptions. But in the Hellenistic cities, private life was appreciated as much as public life, part of the appreciation of the personal and individual. Private life itself was a topic of conversation and debate.

Women led more public lives and were appreciated in various roles. There are records of female magistrates, poets, scholars, and pristesses, and evidence of literacy and education for females. In marriage contracts, the wife’s privileges are emphasized as much as the husband’s. As an example of the openness of female life, in a scene from a play by Herodas, two women discuss the characteristics of a dildo one of them has purchased. And, as in ancient Egypt, women continued to control their own property after marriage.

Although there was no unifying religion across the Hellenistic empire, one goddess was represented everywhere. She was called Aphrodite in Greece and Isis in Egypt. Often show naked, she was considered the Creator in many hymns, and in some places her devotion was almost monotheistic. An example of a hymn to her from this time, told from her viewpoint:

I gave and ordained laws for all men and women, which no one is able to change. I am the eldest daughter of Kronos. I am the wife and sister of King Osiris. I am She who findeth fruit for men and women I am the Mother of King Horus. I am She that riseth in the Dog Star. I am she that is called goddess by women. For me was the city of Bubastis built. I divided the earth from the heavens. I showed the paths of the stars. I ordered the course of the sun and moon. I devised business in the sea. I made strong the right. I brought together man and woman. I appointed women to bring their infants to birth in the tenth lunar month. I ordained that parents should be loved by children. I laid punishment upon those disposed without natural affection towards their parents. I made with my brother Osiris an end to the eating of human flesh. I revealed mysteries unto men. I taught men and women to honor the images of the gods. I consecrated the precincts of the gods. I broke down the governments of tyrants. I made an end to murders. I compelled women to be loved by men. I made the right to be stronger than gold and silver. I ordained that the true should be thought good. I devised marriage contracts. I assigned to Greeks and to barbarians their languages. I made the beautiful and the shameful to be distinguished by nature. I ordained that nothing should be more feared than an oath. I have delivered the plotter of evil against other men into the hands of the one he plotted against. I established penalties for those who practice injustice. I decree mercy to suppliants. I protect and honor righteous guards. With me the right prevails.
I am the Queen of rivers and winds and sea. No one is held in honor without my knowing it. I am Queen of War. I am Queen of the Thunderbolt. I stir up the sea and I calm it once again. I am in the rays of the sun. Whatever I please, this too shall come to an end. With me everything is reasonable. I set free those in bonds. I am the Queen of seamanship. I make the navigable unnavigable when it pleases me. I create walls for cities. I am called the Lawgiver. I brought up islands out of the depths into the light. I am Lord of Rainstorms.

Women as queens (and there were many Hellenistic queens, Cleopatra among them) and women as goddesses do not necessarily imply that women were respected in daily life, but in the Hellenistic cities this seemed to be more the case than in previous eras.

Hellenistic Philosophy

Roman marble bust of Epicurus / Wikimedia Commons

There were many schools of Hellenistic philosophy, but I’m going to focus on just three.

Cynicism was based on the rejection of materialism (including wealth and fame) in favor of the natural. The most famous Cynic was probably Diogenes. Stories about him give you an idea of the Cynics’ perspective.

Diogenes Laërtius: Life of Diogenes the Cynic (d. 325 BC)

Once, when some strangers wished to see Demosthenes, he stretched out his middle finger and said, “This is the great demagogue of the Athenian people.” When some one had dropped a loaf, and was ashamed to pick it up again, he, wishing to give him a lesson, tied a cord round the neck of a bottle and dragged it all through the Ceramicus. He used to say, that he imitated the teachers of choruses, for that they spoke too loud, in order that the rest might catch the proper tone. Another of his sayings, was that most men were within a finger’s breadth of being mad. If, then, any one were to walk along, stretching out his middle finger, he will seem to be mad; but if he puts out his forefinger, he will not be thought so. Another of his sayings was, that things of great value were often sold for nothing, and vice versâ. Accordingly, that a statue would fetch three thousand drachmas, and a bushel of meal only two obols. . .

On one occasion he saw a child drinking out of its hands, and so he threw away the cup which belonged to his wallet, saying, “That child has beaten me in simplicity.” He also threw away his spoon, after seeing a boy, when he had broken his vessel, take up his lentils with a crust of bread. And he used to argue thus, – “Everything belongs to the gods; and wise men are the friends of the gods. All things are in common among friends; therefore everything belongs to wise men.” Once he saw a woman falling down before the Gods in an unbecoming attitude; he, wishing to cure her of her superstition, as Zoilus of Perga tells us, came up to her, and said, “Are you not afraid, O woman, to be in such an indecent attitude, when some God may be behind you, for every place is full of him?” . . .

Once, while he was sitting in the sun in the Craneum, Alexander was standing by, and said to him, “Ask any favour you choose of me.” And he replied, ” Cease to shade me from the sun.” On one occasion a man was reading some long passages, and when he came to the end of the book and showed that there was nothing more written, “Be of good cheer, my friends,” exclaimed Diogenes, “I see land.” A man once proved to him syllogistically that he had horns, so he put his hand to his forehead and said, “I do not see them.” And in a similar manner he replied to one who had been asserting that there was no such thing as motion, by getting up and walking away. When a man was talking about the heavenly bodies and meteors, “Pray how many days,” said he to him, “is it since you came down from heaven?”

Nowadays, we use the word cynicism to mean a kind of skepticism that is borne of experience, but may be a bit too pessimistic. That tone may come from Diogenes.


With their appreciation of food and drink, Epicureans are these days assumed to have been hedonists, enjoying life to excess. But that was not the idea. Epicureans promoted simplicity and freedom from pain (eating and drinking too much would cause pain, right?). Pleasure was seen as an ethical good, something that humans were meant to pursue. These days, an epicure (or reader of Epicurean magazine) is one who enjoys the best of food, wine, and life’s benefits. At the time, this philosophy was seen as the opposite of….


Stoics believed that the “real” world was an illusion, a layer between the individual soul and the spiritual reality of the cosmos. Emotions were seen as destructive and useless, since they were based on things that had no meaning. Stoics emphasized self-control and strength in the face of life’s varying conditions. During Roman times, Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about philosophy in the context of duty and service to Rome. Christians engaged the techniques of Stoicism in response to Roman persecution (which made them lousy entertainment when thrown to the lions — they just knelt and prayed to move on to their eternal life).

Hellenistic Judaism

One of the biggest threats to Judaism came about during the Hellenistic Era. The spread of Jews throughout the empire (known as diaspora, or scattering) led to encounters with many different religions, cultures, and languages. You may recall that the greatest strength of Judaism was cohesion without a country, the ability to be a Jew regardless of the dominant culture. The dominant elite culture in much of the Hellenistic world was Greek, or at the elite levels was at least based on Greek education, language, and culture. Much of the philosophical and intellectual exploration going on at the time undermined a monotheistic system dedicated to the ethics of God. There emerged in this environment Hellenized Jews, who combined their Jewish religion with Greek learning and culture. This was opposed by traditionalists, who believed that Greek ways tainted Judaism and pulled Jews away from their faith.

Jerusalem, the major Jewish center, had been in the Ptolemaic empire after the death of Alexander, but had been won by the Seleucid Empire in a war in 200 BC. The Jews in the city were promised the continued right to worship at the Temple. When a pro-Ptolemaic faction gained enough power to push out a group of Hellenized Jews known as the Tobians, the Tobians contacted the new Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus IV, and asked him to take Jerusalem back. For whatever reason, Antiochus IV Epiphanes did begin to threaten Jewish practice in Judea, and the traditionalists rebelled. A war ensued, with atrocities committed on all sides, particularly against Hellenized Jews, who were seen as traitors. Led by Judah Maccabee, the traditionalists were victorious against the Seleucids, and their victory is the foundation of the holiday of Hanukkah. Their Hasmonean Dynasty, as this independent Jewish state was called, was short-lived, but expanded territory until defeated by the Romans.

The conflict has been portrayed in various ways – as victorious Jews against a foreign invader, or as a battle between traditional Judaism and Hellenized Judaism. Both traditional and Hellenized Judaism survived the conflict, with Hellenized Jews such as the philosopher Philo successfully combining Jewish monotheism with Greek values of reason and wisdom.

Hellenistic Science

Illustration of operation of Archimedes’ Screw

The library in Alexandria, Egypt, was the finest in the world, and contained many scrolls of knowledge. The city became a center for science, funded by Hellenistic Ptolemies. Many of the scientific achievements we say came from “ancient Greece” were actually from the Hellenistic Era (except for Pythagoras’ work in math). In the third century, Archimedes (mathematician, physicist, technologist) created machines that could lift ships from the water and lift water from a river. The Archimedes screw (right, image created by Silberwolf) is still in use around the world for moving water and grain in industrial processes, and was the model for the powerful screw-drive engines that would propel early steamships. Euclid’s geometry is still the foundation for our study of mathematics, Aristarchus of Samos calculated that the planets must circle the sun, Hipparchus created an accurate chart of the heavens, and Claudius Ptolemy (who invented lines of latitude) and Eratosthenes (who correctly estimated the size of the earth) created maps of the world that were used for hundreds of years.

Medical advancement during this era was extraordinary. In the second century, Galen of Pergamon dissected corpses and developed our modern understanding of the circulatory system. His work was read in medical schools for centuries, well into the 1800s, and his studies of nerve and muscle control are still the foundation of our understanding in these areas. In balancing the methods of empiricists (those who dissected and experimented) with those of rationalists, Galen shows the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation. So does Hippocrates, whose oath (which starts “first, do no harm”) is still taken by medical students. Hippocrates may or may not have been a real person — it’s possible that the works attributed to him are collections — but the influence on our practice of medicine is unmistakable. His tenet that “Neither satiety nor hunger nor any other thing which exceeds the natural bounds can be good or healthful” shows the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation.

Hippocrates (c. 400 BC)

Let us inquire then regarding what is admitted to be Medicine; namely, that which was invented for the sake of the sick, which possesses a name and practitioners, whether it also seeks to accomplish the same objects, and whence it derived its origin. To me, then, it appears, as I said at the commencement, that nobody would have sought for medicine at all, provided the same kinds of diet had suited with men in sickness as in good health. Wherefore, even yet, such races of men as make no use of medicine, namely, barbarians, and even certain of the Greeks, live in the same way when sick as when in health; that is to say, they take what suits their appetite, and neither abstain from, nor restrict themselves in anything for which they have a desire. But those who have cultivated and invented medicine, having the same object in view as those of whom I formerly spoke, in the first place, I suppose, diminished the quantity of the articles of food which they used, and this alone would be sufficient for certain of the sick, and be manifestly beneficial to them, although not to all, for there would be some so affected as not to be able to manage even small quantities of their usual food, and as such persons would seem to require something weaker, they invented soups, by mixing a few strong things with much water, and thus abstracting that which was strong in them by dilution and boiling. But such as could not manage even soups, laid them aside, and had recourse to drinks, and so regulated them as to mixture and quantity, that they were administered neither stronger nor weaker than what was required.

Inventions in the Hellenistic age included many that weren’t built for centuries: a compressed-air catapult, steam engine, slot machine, and hydraulic organ. They also created gearing, canal locks, lighthouses, alarm clocks, wind vanes, fire engines, siphons, and pumps. Even a computer.

To me, this is an important lesson in lost knowledge, and in the choices that are made in each era to emphasize one technology over others, sometimes to the detriment of society. Ptolemy’s calculation of the size of the earth was wrong, and yet became standard knowledge and was used by Columbus to underestimate his journey, which nearly caused his death by mutiny. Aristotle’s view that the earth was at the center of the heavens was adopted by the Church so that Copernicus and Galileo had to later defy the Church to get their ideas heard. Sometimes technologies are dismissed as “old fashioned” when a new design is superior for a particular use. Ideas left behind often need to be revived later, such as Hippocrates’ emphasis on diet and non-interference in medicine.

Hellenistic Art

Gigantomachy depiction from the Pergamon frieze, 2nd century BC / Pergamon Museum, Berlin

Hellenistic art broke from the Greek emphasis on idealized forms and went in for drama in a big way. Sculptures and friezes show emotion and dynamism. The figures seem to move. Unfortunately, many of these works are only available to us through Roman copies, which may have been because they were originally bronze and were melted down to reuse that valuable metal. We do, however, have the Pergamon Frieze from the 2nd century BC, showing a battle between the Olympian Gods and the Giants.

The figures writhe and move in a natural way. We can see the emotions and pain. It may be an extension of the Hellenistic emphasis on the individual to move away from idealized forms to emphasize feeling. It may also be a rejection of Greek ideal forms to focus on feeling in a way that was less balanced with rationalism.

Venus de Milo, by Alexandros of Antioch, c.130-100 BC / Louvre Museum, Paris

Unlike in Hellenic times, the female form was often shown nude (further indicating a greater role for women). This image of Aphrodite of Milos (in Latin, the Venus de Milo) is from the 2nd century BC, and clearly shows appreciation of the female form in a similar way to that shown by Hellenic artists for the male figure.

Roman marble copy, c.25-50 AD, of the lost 3rd century BC Hellenistic original of the type. Found on the Esquiline. The base of the statue is worked as a rock, with a hole for a fountain pipe./ From the Castellani Collection, British Museum

We also see in art the emphasis on daily life, on private life, on small moments. Another Roman copy of a Hellenistic figure is Boy with Thorn. I can’t even imagine 5th century Greece producing such a sculpture on such a mundane everyday subject.

Although the Romans at first copied these styles to learn from them, they eventually moved away from naturalism to a much more stylized and formal way of portraying people.