Introduction #2.

A brief overview of ancient Greek history (a five-minute sketch):

A. Time.
The time-span covered in this course extends from the eighth through fourth centuries before our era (unless otherwise noted, all dates are “BC” or “BCE” = “Before Common Era”). Some of the sources we are using date from later periods, however: for example, Pausanias is dated to the second century CE (= “Common Era”) and Philostratus, to the early third century CE.) The term “ancient Greece” will include “Archaic” (up to roughly the middle of the fifth century), “Classical” (roughly, the second half of the fifth century), and “post-Classical” (fourth century and beyond). A convenient point for dividing “Classical” and “post-Classical” is the death of Socrates in 399 BCE. A convenient stopping-point for this course is the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.

B. Place.
In the ancient world of the “classical” period, “Greece” was not really a “country” or a “nation,” as we ordinarily think of these terms. Rather, it was a cultural constellation of competing city states that had a single language in common, Greek.

Among the most prominent of the ancient Greek city states were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Argos, and Thebes, all of them located in the Mediterranean region that we know today as “modern Greece” or “Hellas.” There were also other prominent ancient Greek city states in other Mediterranean regions. To the East, on the coast of Asia Minor, which is now part of the modern state of Turkey, were Greek cities like Miletus and Smyrna (now Izmir); facing the coast of Asia Minor were Greek island states like Samos and Chios. Further to the North was a federation of Greek cities on the island of Lesbos and on the facing mainland of Asia Minor. Still further to the North, guarding the entrance to the Black Sea, was the Greek city of Byzantium, later to be called Constantinople (now Istanbul). To the South, in African Lybia, was the Greek city of Cyrene. Further to the East in Northern Africa, in Egypt, was the arguably greatest of all Greek cities in the ancient world, Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. To the West were other great Greek cities like Syracuse on the island of Sicily as well as Tarentum and Naples in what is now the modern state of Italy. Still further to the West, in what is now the modern state of France, was the Greek city of Massalia (now Marseille).

The ancient Greeks would agree that they shared the same language, despite the staggering variety of local dialects. They would even agree that they shared a civilization, though they would be intensely contentious about what exactly their shared civilization would be. Each city-state had its own institutions, that is, its own government, constitution, laws, calendars, religious practices, and so on. Both the sharing and the contentiousness lie at the root of the very essence of the city-state. What I am translating here as “city-state” is the Greek word polis. This is the word from which our words political and politics are derived.

C. A most basic observation about ancient Greek society: ‘The human being is an organism of the polis’ - Aristotle, Politics I 1253a2–3. (Often mistranslated as ‘Man is a political animal’.) Here we see the basis for the concept of civilization. In other words, human beings achieve their ultimate potential within a society that is the polis. From this point of view, the ultimate humanism is achieved politically.

D. The most basic aspects of Greek civilization that most ancient Greeks could agree about:

1. interpolitical festivals; primary examples: the Olympic festival (= “Olympics”) at Olympia, the Pythian festival at Delphi

2. interpolitical repositories of shared knowledge; primary example: Delphi

3. interpolitical poetry; primary examples: the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, the Theogony and Works and Days of Hesiod.

E. I use “interpolitical” instead of “international” because I do not want to imply that each polis is a nation. In my own writings, I use a cover-term for “interpolitical”: Panhellenic. Panhellenism is the least common denominator of ancient Greek civilization.

F. The impulse of Panhellenism is already at work in Homeric and Hesiodic poetry. In the Iliad, the names “Achaeans” and “Danaans” and “Argives” are used synonymously in the sense of Panhellenes = “all Hellenes” = “all Greeks.”

G. We will start with Homer. Homer represents an interpolitical or Panhellenic perspective on the Greeks. Homeric poetry is not tied down to any one polis. It presents the least common denominator in the cultural education of the elite of all city-states. How can a narrative or “story” like the Iliad be an instrument of education? We will get to that later.

H. In the Classical period, an authoritative source is on record as saying that Homer and Hesiod are the foundation for all civilization. That source is the 5th-century historian Herodotus (2.116–117). Note that Herodotus defines civilization primarily in terms of religion (the forms and functions of gods).

I. Finally, an essential point about ancient Greek religion: not only were the gods worshipped. Heroes too were worshipped. The worship of heroes was very much like ancestor worship. (Compare similar customs in other traditional societies, including the Japanese.) Besides the word worship, we may use the word cult. As in hero cult. {Other relevant concepts: cultivate and culture. More on these concepts later.} That is one of the main topics of my book Best of the Achaeans. Another useful word: ritual. I will have more to say later on the concepts of worship, cult. {It is enough for now to give two main examples of ritual: sacrifice and war. A related ritual is the killing of animals to eat their meat, which is correlated in myth with the moral problem of killing other humans. A classic discussion is Walter Burkert's Homo necans. This book is not required for the course.}