Saturday, June 20, 2009

The death of the West

The stories I learned when being taught to read from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology have lasted me my entire life, and are no doubt part of the reason I am such a Greco-phile today, however little I have written about it here (I count 1 post). After American History I have more books on ancient Greece than any other, at last count, somewhere in the forties, with Homer being the overwhelming favorite followed by Herodotus. No claim to originality there as they are (presuming Homer was an actual person) the two greatest authors in Greek History, with some few votes probably going to Thucydides and maybe Sophocles.

Last year, while surfing the web (is that phrase already archaic?) for Greek topics I came across a fellow who asked if Western civilization really owed that much to the Greeks. Immediately, after recovering from my cardiac arrest, I shot off a borderline condescending (possibly more than borderline) comment back. I can no longer find the give and take, but I listed something like (and including things that may not have originated there, but were greatly developed or passed down to us), for starters:

- the alphabet you are writing in, fellah, not to mention vowels,
- logic,
- ideas of individual liberty,
- democracy,
- many of the words we still use,
- philosophy (so many topics, you can add twenty more),
- the Olympics,
- drama,
- poetry,
- epic adventures,
- mythology (we still love stories about Hercules),
- history,
- medicine,
- Christian concepts like hell and the devil, and, what is usually called Platonism,
- the screw (thank you, Archimedes),
- algebra,
- geometry,
- physics,
- public speaking,
- rhetoric,
- architecture (Ionic, Doric and Corinthian styles still being in fashion).

Probably there are lots more which readers can add in comments if they feel like it. But most of the topics I listed encompass enormous amounts of cultural information. Just the imparted language is enough by itself to make it as great a contribution to Western civilization as exists – In just the area of medicine alone there are hundreds of words, if not thousands, directly derived from ancient Greece – schizophrenia, cardiac, urinary, anemia, trachea, chiropractor, artery, biology, thorax, cytoplasm, stethoscope, and so on, seemingly forever. Many of medical terms are derived from Latin too, but Rome was indebted to Greece for much, if not the best parts of its culture, including of course, their mythology and the Latin alphabet, which is almost the same as the ancient Greek alphabet, give or take a few letters.

It is often a pastime of people, and a literary genre, to wonder what would have been if one thing was changed in history. For example, what would have happened if England had not been successful in wresting New York from the Netherlands. Would America be a different country? Would our country have become more Germanic? Would America have sided with Germany in WWI and II? All food for thought, but for another time.

How different would our world have been if Ancient Greece had been destroyed or enslaved, particularly Athens, from whence comes so much of the Greek culture to us, and most of its heritage had been destroyed or kept from us? As it would have happened so long ago, it would have had a much larger effect than the English/Dutch situation. For one thing, there would have been a much greater effect on all of the subjects I listed above, from math to medicine to drama, etc. Unbeknownst to us, the world would look much different. I leave to fiction authors the hypotheticals, of what would have happened and prefer to talk about the times it almost happened and Athens escaped by the skin of its wine sacks.

The Dark Age

There was a dark age before the one in middle European times. It lasted from some time around 1180-1100 B.C. and lasted until sometime late in the eighth century B.C. It is not even known when the ancient Greeks, or those who brought or developed the proto-Greek language there arrived, although there is much scholarly discourse which I have read some, but won’t bore you with. It is all controversial and the range of time for when the Greeks became the Greeks we know is perhaps something less than two millennia - a big spread. But, safe to say thanks to heroic archeologists like Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of ancient Troy and Mycenae and Arthur Evans, who uncovered the Labyrinth in Crete and so much more, we know that there was (for lack of a better word), a Mycenaean Empire existing from around 1600 -1200 B.C.

This is roughly the time that Troy, located in modern Turkey, traditionally is deemed to have fallen to the Greeks, led by the King of Mycenae, Agamemnon who is most certainly fictionalized as were likely all the characters of the Iliad. These Greeks did not call themselves Greeks, but Danaans or Achaeans or Argoans, etc. The Egyptians of that time, already an ancient race, had a name for them much like Danaans and knew of Mycenae. It is possible these Greeks are the same people who had a treaty with the Hittite Empire, who called them the Ahhiyawa, close enough phonemically with "Achaeans" for some scholars to claim so. I am not persuaded as to any particulars.

However, the Mycenaeans had a language which is now clearly understood to be ancestral Greek, but was probably a formalized administrative version for the empire's clerks, now known to us as Linear B. There is no certainty about which Greek dialects existed then, but only that, now that Linear B can be somewhat read, that the main Greek dialects either co-existed with the written language of the Mycenians or that a proto-Greek existed. Modern scholarship believes the language in general is derived from an Anatolian group (modern Turkey) known as the Luwians, although the evidence seems so slim to me that I would only say that there was a relationship between them.

About 1180 B.C. something was happening in the world. The hugely successful Hittite Empire was destroyed. Possibly Troy, a vassal state of the Hittite Empire (known in Linear B as Wilion, later Ilion, and then to the Latins, Ilium – hence The Iliad) and a huge town for its time, was destroyed by fire with it, and maybe by Greek warriors as described in Homer’s Iliad. I leave for another time what we know of that. And the world of the Mycenae either was destroyed too or just went dark. Linear B writing disappeared from the world as far as archaeology and scholarship can tell us and it appears that this is when a great migration to the islands and Asia Minor (mostly Turkey) occurred. Although writing in cuneiform and Middle Eastern alphabets existed during the dark stretch elsewhere, writing did not evolve again in Greece until some time between 800-700 B.C., when they improved on an alphabet they picked up from the Phoenicians (who picked it up or developed it from some Middle Eastern alphabets).

Know one knows who or what caused this to happen, how many people survived whatever happened (could have been a plague like the kind that almost destroyed the Greeks in The Iliad) or what changes if any resulted with the spoken languages. There is much speculation about what is called the Dorian Invasion, but nothing is clear there either, except that the traditions of it occurring and the names of descended tribes seem to match up with philological evidence. There is though a dearth of archaeological evidence to back up such an invasion. Perhaps it was very gradual.

There is enough to know though that in that cataclysmic time, the Greek culture seemed to disappear centuries before Homer (again, if he . . . ), before Marathon or Thermopylae, before Socrates and Plato, and so on, only to reappear centuries later. Although we know that the people did not all disappear, and the great colonization of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor occurred and perhaps there was an invasion by a group traditionally called the Dorians (no one is sure). But certainly, the political glue to the Mycenaean Empire fell apart or was destroyed. And aside from the language, much of what has descended to us that we consider valuable, came afterwards. If it never rekindled . . . . imagine.


But, they survived, these Greeks, or some of them did. And they spread out in the colony system they developed and many of those were on Islands in the Mediterranean or Aegean Sea. Some were on the coast of Anatolia. And they went on to prosper and create the city states which are so well known to us like Sparta and Athens. Homer (if . . .) probably wrote down the Iliad around 725 B.C. Several hundred years went by before Greece was almost destroyed again at a place you have heard of, or at least of the long distance race which bears its name – Marathon.

The Persian Empire was a much larger and far more powerful empire to Greece’s East. There is a relationship between the languages of the two groups, and, in fact, we are also heirs of those peoples, but that is for another day. The Greek colonies on the coast of modern day Turkey, and in many of the Island became under Persian domination. In the early fifth century B.C., they revolted, and were helped out by their cousins, the Greeks of the mainland, particularly by Athens and its ally, Eretria. The Ionians, even bolstered by the Athenians were no match for the Persians and were defeated after about six years.

At that time, the Persians were ruled by Darius I, of whom we know a great deal of history and legend. He was undoubtedly a reformer (relative to his time) and a respecter of religious beliefs and other political systems. He was a Napoleon of his time, remaking legal rights and dividing his empire up into divisions, experimenting with coinage and greatly expanding the empire from present day Iran into Europe, India and Egypt. The Achaemenid empire was founded by Cyrus, undoubtedly a great king, but many consider Darius the greater of the two.

He decided that newly democratic Athens need be punished for helping, even if unsuccessfully, the Ionians and he sent an amphibious navy/army into Greece under two successful generals, Datis, a Mede, and Artaphernes, Darius’ nephew, the son of the satrap of the city, Sardis, which the Greek invaders had partially burnt. They conquered Thrace and Macedonia first, invaded Greek islands first, even capturing and burning Eretria on the Island of Euboea, punishing at least one of the two city-states that had helped the Ionians burn Sardis before the tables were turned.

At last, they turned their attention to Athens and landed in a bay off of the Town of Marathon. The Athenians were assisted this time from Plataea (which favor would be returned). From what we think we know, the Greeks first blocked off land retreats from the invaders and then, after a few more days, attacked the far numerically superior force, attacking at the flanks and then crushing their middle. Why they did this is hard to say, as if they waited just a few more days until the Spartan festival ended, they would have come to aid them (and did, just in time to say, wow, great job). But, for whatever reason, the great Athenian general, Miltiades, decided to attack (possibly because the Persian calvary took off for reasons unknown). They did not destroy the whole Persian force, but the Persians did leave (after perhaps unsuccessfully trying to directly attack Athens). Depending on who you believe, Datis did (Herodotus says he did) or did not survive the battle. Artaphernes definitely did.

The Greeks won perhaps because of surprise, their superior armor and hoplite troops, and Miltiades generalship. But, there can be no denying how close they came to the destruction of Athens. We are pretty sure there were 10,000 to 11,000 Greek hoplites present. The Persian force is much harder to figure, as reports range as high as 200,000 with 10,000 calvary, but modern scholars believe 25,000 is about right. Less than 200 Greeks died and between six and seven thousand Persians and their allies.

We are told the Athenian runner, Pheidippides or Phillipides ran 150 miles to Sparta to get their aid. According to various accounts (but not Herodotus), after the Athenians won, he ran another 26 miles home (probably 21 under modern measurements) to declare victory, and dropped dead. And from that, we get the name of the most popular long distance race even to this day.

As usual with these events, I can only go so far before I start to feel as if I should write a book, and that you can read others on. But, suffice to say, before this whole debacle, both Athens and Sparta had applied to aid from Persia to help destroy one another, and the Athenian involvement in the Ionian War resulted directly from those diplomatic attemps. Throughout the Persian-Greek wars, many Greeks would fight with the Persians and both the Spartans and Athenians tried to ally themselves with them at various times. So much for the idea of liberty.

I cannot stress enough how important Marathon was to the continued existence of Athens, which was just embarking on the greatest experimentation in mankind’s history until the American Revolution almost 2500 years later. The difference of the world had Persia succeeded, as any rationale person without a dog in the fight would have expected, can not be rationally conceived. As John Stuart Mill, the British polymath put it:

“The true ancestors of the European nations (it has well been said) are not thosefrom whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance. The battle of Marathon, even as an event in English history, is more important than the battle of Hastings. If the issue of that day had been different, the Britons and Saxons might still have been wandering in the woods.”

The Second Persian Invasion

So as to make this briefer, I treat Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea and Mycale as one, but the latter three are separate battles that the West as we know it was spared (Thermopylae was, of course, lost). Darius intended to invade Greece again and had good reason to think he would be victorious. But, he died.

His son, Xerxes, picked up the torch. After having a bridge built to cross the Dardanelles to Europe made of flax and papyrus ropes (well, that’s what they had) it was destroyed by a storm. Thus, 360 ships were lashed together to make a bridge for the troops, deemed at the time a feat of great engineering. Two notable events occurred when they were leaving. First, a solar eclipse occurred, which Xerxes magi interpreted as a bad omen for the Greeks. Then, a rich Lydian who had given Xerxes gifts asked a boon, which Xerxes granted before hearing it. The man had five sons and asked that the first-born could remain behind. Xerxes kept his promise. He had the son torn in two and placed on either side of the road so the troops who were leaving could walk between the pieces of his body.

Xerxes sent, according to legend, between two and three million troops and sailors plus camp followers and including a great naval armada as well, made up of all the nations of the empire. Perhaps five to seven thousand Greek hoplites marched to the gates of Thermopylae (Greek for Hot Gates), a natural defensive position where there was only a small opening, perhaps 50 feet or so, which the invading force could march through.

When the Persians arrived they were shocked to see naked Spartans combing their long hair, although that was their custom before battle. One Spartan, upon being told that the arrows from the Persians would block the sun, said then they would get to fight in the shade. After two few days of battle it was more than obvious that eventually, the Greeks must all die. Not only were they slowly being chopped up, but a Greek traitor had led the Persians on a pass that would allow them to come from behind. Lookouts warned the Greeks that the Persians had found the pass and were on their way. All the remaining warriors were sent home except the Spartans three hundred, led by one of their Kings, Leonidas and a few hundred more of their allies, perhaps a little over a thousand in all.

The Persians won, but the prowess of the Spartans had a great effect on them and on the Greeks. Later, memorials were placed on the site, and though a defeat, it became the most celebrated of the battles. Of the memorials placed on the field, one read:

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by that here, obeying their commands, we lie.”

At the same time as Thermopylae, the Greeks were meeting the Persian navy in battle at Artemisium. Fortunately for the Greeks (and see the hand of God, if you wish – I’m sure they did), while the empire’s fleet greatly dwarfed the Greek, two storms diminished them. They fought for three days and although the Greeks held their own, it would be a battle of attrition. When they learned what happened at Thermopylae, they decided to make for Salamis, an island off of Athens. There they waited for the Persian Navy (when I say this, it was comprised also of many nations under Persian rule, and included the powerful Phoenicians.

Athens had been abandoned and it was burned by the Persians. It was probably a moral victory but little else as the industrious Greeks would quickly rebuild.

By some clever maneuvering, the Athenian Themistocles tricked the Persians into attacking into the straight between Athens and Salamis. The overcrowded navy was swarmed by the Greek ships and a massacre occurred. Salamis was a much greater cause of Greece’s victory over the Persians than was Thermopylae.

As a result, Xerxes left, leaving only a small portion of his army under his senior general, Mardonius, but believed sufficient to destroy the Greeks. Not quite. A year after Salamis, the Greeks met with the Persians at Plataea (remember the Greeks who helped the Athenians at Marathon). Mardonius had sacked and destroyed Athens again. Ironically, it was this act which perhaps set off the building and intellectual stimulation which led to the golden age of Greece centered in Athens.

Once again it appeared that the Spartans would not answer the Athenian call because of a festival, but when they were convinced that the Athenians, promised independence by Mardonius, would side with Persia, they marched. By the own standards, the Greeks fielded a huge army, providing tens of thousands of heavily armed hoplites, almost half either Spartan or Athenians. After over a week of looking at each other, the Greeks decided to retreat at night to better secure their position and water. They botched it and in the morning it appeared that their army had walked off and the remainder was in disarray (that much was true). Mardonius attacked and the Spartans, Athenians and Tegeans were left to battle all by themselves. This they did with their usual efficiency and defeated another huge army, anywhere from 80,000 (some modern scholars) to 300,000 (Herodotus’ belief) man army.

On possibly the same day the Greek navy defeated defeated the Persians at sea. It ended the second and greatest invasion of Greece and set off what was probably a worse war.

For the Persian wars had given super-status to Sparta, who were deemed virtually indestructible on land and the Athens, who had the same status at sea. Not that the battles with Persia ended. Indeed, they would last almost another thirty years with Athens leading the Delian league and freeing or at least aiding in freeing the Ionian cities, Thrace, Macedonia and many other areas. Finally, the Persians approached Athens to resolve it diplomatically and a treaty was signed highly favorable to the Greeks, by then led by Pericles.

The Peloponnesian War

But more than a decade before that peace, Athens, who was militarily active and led the Delian league and Sparta, who had eventually petered out in the fight against Persia after their great contribution, were battling, beginning when Athens supported Argos in battle against Sparta. This was the start of The First Peloponnesian War. It ended in a supposed thirty year treaty that lasted about fifteen years and led to the Second Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 B.C. and ended twenty seven years later.

While I would love to write about this war, which, other than our own Revolution, I have probably spent the most time studying since I believe 1981 when I bought a copy of Thucydides, I will spare you, because I am only writing here about the survival of Greece and its importance to Western civilization.

So, I skip to the end of this bloody war in which both sides committed atrocities, violating the usual rules of war of their own time, where both sides had their day in the sun and caused destruction to their lands as bad or worse than the Persians had. In the end, Sparta won by allying itself with Persia, and by finally managing with their allies to create a navy superior even to that of the Athenians. Despite anything you learned in high school, the body centered non-literature loving Sparta won. Athens surrendered in 404 B.C.

It is hard to imagine what would have happened to our culture if the Athenians had been enslaved, as some in Sparta called for, or the men killed and the women and children enslaved as the Spartans had enslaved the Helots who lived in their neighborhood. But, it didn’t happen, and this marks (if you count the entire Second Persian War) at least the fourth time it almost happened. All of the Periclean age washed away and no chance for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and so on to be handed down through history. Or at least that is the way that might have happened.

But, Sparta spared Athens. They knocked down the walls that had protected Athens for a quarter century against their superior army. They instituted a dictatorship in place of the democracy. And . . .

they went home. A year year later Athens through out the tyrannical Counsel of Thirty, picked by Sparta, reinstalled its Democracy and carried on as ever before. A little over a decade later they fought one more battle at sea, which Athens won. Although this battle cannot possibly be called a part of The Peloponnesian War there are some few who say so, apparently not able to stand that their beloved Athenians were defeated by the body centered intellectual Spartans.

Phillip of Macedonia

And then Athens was safe for a while. At least for another few decades. For when Phillip II became King of Macedonia in 359 B.C., he soon started eating up the rest of Greece. Ironically, he stopped moving South when the Athenians alone barred his way at Thermopylae. Obviously the reputation of the place held back Phillip, because, it is doubtful that the Athenians could have held him off long (actually during the hiatus, Thebes had risen as the principal city and Sparta decidedly declined). But Phillip had an easier way. With plenty of access to gold, he began buying Athens’ allies. Athens faced off with him multiple times, but finally saw the writing on their walls. They could not compete with him. Fortunately, he had visions of conquering Persia and a treaty was reached in 338 leaving Phillip in charge of Greece, save Sparta. But, Athens was spared and Persia became the enemy, and was later conquered, as you well know, by Phillip’s son (unless, as his mother claimed, she was impregnated by a God), Alexander the Great.

Everybody else jumps in

By then, the Golden Age of Athens was over and I will fly through history now. All Athens had left was its reputation and its history. It often was on the verge of rebelling against Macedon and when it did and lost, it was spared yet again by another admirer, who like many other victors over it, had earlier lived there and loved it. Rome defeated Macedonia in a series of wars in the late third century and early second century and saved Athens, essentially liberating it from over a century and a half of Macedonian rule. Rome conquered Greece, and fought several wars there, but essentially left Athens relatively free, although part of a Roman province.

When Sulla took Athens in 86 B.C. after a very long siege during the Mithridatic War, his men raped, slaughtered and destroyed whatever they could find, but by then, the transmission of Greece’s golden age of knowledge throughout the Mediterranean and the seeds for the whole Western world, had already occurred, particularly as Athens had long since culturally “taken” Rome and much of the Mediterranean had been long Hellenized. Ironically, Athens always seemed to pick wrong when it came to choosing which Roman soldier-statesman to side with in civil wars too and Caesar himself said “How often will the glory of your ancestors save you from self destruction.”

But, even Rome couldn’t protect Athens for ever. It was repeatedly sacked by the Goths in the fourth and fifth century A.D. It was the French Crusaders’ turn in the twelfth century and here I leave off, because even then Athens was no longer the Athens of old. Whatever greatness it had had, other than a few monumental buildings like the Parthenon, was already spread to the world and would be returned to the West with breathtaking power by the Byzantines, Muslims and Catholic monks, and once again in Italy during the Renaissance.

Although nothing was left of Athens’ greatness but its legacy, it was one that has taken hold of the West as no other power on Earth ever had or would ever again, save Christianity, and that is a toss up.


  1. Very interesting stuff. Good work. Keep it up.

  2. Wait a minute. That's what my drawing teacher used to say when she'd have to look at my stuff - and I was horrible!

  3. Wait aminute.
    I thought that the current teaching philosophy in colleges today is:
    Hey Hey, Ho Ho
    Western Civ has got to go....

  4. Now, class, would you say that comment reflects liberal or conservative tendencies?

  5. Actually, it's effect in higher education results in ignorant tendencies.

  6. I'm not your daddy's art teacher! Take the compliment, suck it up and move on, trooper!


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .