George Grote.

A history of Greece from the earliest period to the close of the ..., Volume 1 online

. (page 39 of 98)
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in the copious notes annexed to the first half of his first volume. As
I consider all such researches not merely as fruitless in regard to any
tMisi^orthy result, but as serving to divert attention from the genu-
ine form and really illustrative character of Grecian legend, I have
not thought it right to go over the same ground in the present work.

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Differing as I do, however, from Mr. Clinton's views on this sub-
ject, I concur witli him in deprecating the application of etymol-
ogy (Introd. pp. xi., xii.) as a general scheme of explanation to the
characters and events of Greek legend. Among the many causes
which operated as suggestives and stimulants to Greek fancy in tlie
creation of these interesting tales, doubtless etymology has had its
share; but it cannot be applied (as Hermann, above all others, has
sought tQ apply it) for the purpose of imparting supposed sense and
system to the general body of mythical narrative. I have alreacl, ;
remarked on this topic in a foimer chapter. ^

It would be curious to ascertain at what time, or by whom, tht
earliest continuous genealogies, connecting existing persons with the
supposed antecedent age of legend, were formed and preserved.
Neither Homer nor Hesiod mention any verifiable pre^nt pei-sons or
circumstances: had they done so, the age of one or other of them
could have been determined upon good evidence, which we may
fairly presume to have been impossible, from the endless contro-
versies upon this topic among ancient writers. In the Hesiodic
"Works and Days, the heroes of Trojr and Thebes are even pre-
sented as an extinct race, radically different from the poet's own
contemporaries, who are a new race, far too depraved to be con-
ceived as sprung from the loins of the heroes; so that we can hardly
suppose Hesiod (though his father was a native of the -^olic Kyme)
to have admitted the pedigree of the ^olic chiefs, as. reputed
descendants of Agamemnon. Certain it is tliat the earliest poets
did not attempt to measure or bridge over the supposed interval,
between their own age and the war of Troy, bjr any definite series
of fathers and sons: whether Eumelus or Asms made any such
attempt, we cannot tell, but the earliest continuous backward gene-
alogies which we find mentioned are those of Pherekydes, Hellani-
kus, and Herodotus. It is well known that Herodotus, in his man-
ner of computing the upward genealogy of the Spartan kings,
assigns the date of the Trojan war to a period 800 years earlier than
himself, equivalent about to b.c. 1270-1250; while the subsequent
Alexandrine chronologists, Eratosthenes and Apollodorus, place that
event in 1184 and 1188 b.c. ; and the Parian marble refers it to an inter-
mediate date different from either — 1209 b.c. Ephorus, Phanias,
Timaeus, Kleitarchus, and Durius had each his own conjectural date;
but the computation of the Alexandrine chronologists was the most
generally followed by those who succeeded them, and seems to have 4
passed to modem times as the received date of this great legendarv
event — though some distinguished inquirers have adopted the epoch
of Herodotus, which Larcher has attempted to vindicate in an elab-
orate, but feeble, dissertation. It is unnecessary to state that in my
view the inquiry has no other value except to illustrate the ideas
which guided the Greek mind, and to exhibit its progress from the
days of Homer to those of Herodotus. For it argues a considerable

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mental progress wlien men begin to methodize the past, even though
"tiiey do so on fictitious principles, being as yet unprovided with
those records which alone could put theui on a better course. The
pomeric man was satisfied with feeling, imagining, and believing
particular incidents of a supposed past, without any attempt to

Graduate the line of connection between them and himself: to intro-
uce fictitious hypotheses and media of connection is the business of
a succeeding age, when the stimulus of rational curiosity is first felt,
without any authentic materials to supply it. Wc have then tho
form of history operating upon the matter of legend — the transitioc-
^tate between legend and history ; less interesting, indeed, than eithcC
s^^arately, yet necessary as a step between the two.


., . LEGEND.

' Though the particular persons and events'chronicled in the legend-
aVy poems of Greece are not to be regarded as belonging to the
Y>Tovince of real history, those poems are nevertheless full of instruc-
xion as pictures of life and manners; and the very same circum-
stalices which divest their composers of all credibility as historians
Tender them so much the more valuable as unconscious expositors of
their own contemporary society. While professedly describing an
uncertified past, their combinations are involuntarily borrowed from
the surrounding present. For among communities such as those of
ttie primitive Greeks, without books, without means of extended
travel, without acquaintance with foreign languages and habits, the
imagination even of highly gifted men was naturally enslaved by the
Circumstances aroutid them to a far greater degree than in the later
days of Solon or Herodotus; insomuch that the characters which they
conceived and the scenes which they described would, for that rejison,
bear a stronger generic resemblance to the realities of their own time
and locality. Nor was the poetry of that age addressed to lettered and
critical authors, watchful to detect plagiarism, sated with simple
Imagery, and requiring something of novelty or peculiarity in every
fresh production. To captivate their emotions, it was sufl9cient to
aepict with genius and fervor the more obvious manifestations of
human adventure or suffering, and to idealize that type of society,
both private and public, with which the hearers around were familiar.
Even in describing the gods, where a great degree of latitude and
O^vtetion might have been expected, we see that Homer introduces
" H. G. 1.-11

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into Olympus the passions, the caprices, the love of power and pat-
ronage, the alternation of dignity and weakness, which animated the
bosom of an ordinary Grecian chief; and this tendency, to reproduce
in substance the social relations to which he had been accustomed,
would operate still more powerfully when he had to describe simply
human characters — the chief and his people, the warrior and his
comrades, the husband, wife, father, and son— or the imperfect
rudiments of judicial and administrative proceeding. That his nar-
rative on all these points, even with fictitious characters and events,
presents a close approximation to general reality there can be no
reason to doubt. The necessity under which he lay of drawing from,
a store, then happily unexhausted; of personal experience and obser-
vation, is one of the causes of that freshness and vivacity of descrip-
tion for which he stands unrivaled, and which constituted the
imperishable charm of the Iliad and Odyssey from the beginning to
the end of Grecian literature.

While, therefore, we renounce the idea of chronolo<rizing orhistori-
cizing the events of Grecian legend, we may turn them to profit as
valuable memorials of that state of society, feeling, and intelligence
which must be to us tlic starting-point of the history of the people.
Of course, the legendary age, like all those which succeeded it, had
its antecedent causes and determining condhions; but of these we
know nothing, and we are compelled to assume it as a primary fact
for the purpose of following out its subsequent changes. To con-
ceive absolute beginning or origin (as Niebuhr has justly remarked)
is beyond the reach uf our faculties: we can neither apprehend nor
verify anything beyond progress, or development, or decay — change
from one set of circumstances to another, operated by some definite
combination of physical or moral laws. In the case of the Greeks,
the legendary age, as the earliest in any way known to us, must be
taken as the initial state from whicli this series of changes com-
mences. We must depict its prominent characteristics as well as we
can, and show — partly how it serves to prepare, partly how it forms a
contrast to set on — the subsequent ages of Solon, of rerikles, and of

1. The political condition which Grecian legend everywhere
presents to us is, in its principal features, strikingly different from
that which had become universally prevalent among the Greeks in
the time of the Peloponnesian war. Historical oligarchy, as well as
democracy, agreed in requiring a certain established system of
government, comprising these three elements — specialized functions,
temporary functionaries, and ultimate responsibility (under some
forms or other) to the mass of qualified citizens— either a senate or
an ecclesia, or both. There were, of course, many and capital dis-
tinctions between one government and another, in respect to the quali-
fication of the citizen, the attributes and efficiency of the general
assembly, the admissibility to power, etc. ; and men might often be

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dissatisfied with the w&j in which these questions were determined
in their own city. But in the mind of every man, some determining
rule or system — something like what in moaern times is called a con-
stitution — was indispensable to any government entitled to be called
legitimate, or capable of creating in the mind of a Greek a feeling of
moral obligation to obey it. The functionaries who exercised author-
ity under it might be more or less competent or popular; but his
personal feelings toward them were commonly lost in his attacli-
ment or aversion to the general system. If any energetic man could
by audacity or craft break down the constitution and render himself
permanent ruler according to his own will and pleasure — even though
he might goverti well, he could never inspire the people with any
ficntiment of duty toward him. His scepter was illegitimate from
the beginning; and even the taking of his life, far from being inter-
dicted by that moral feeling which condemned the shedding of blood
in other cases, was considered meritorious. Nor could he be men-
tioned in the language except by a nttme (rvpavvo?, despot) which
branded him as an object of mingled fear and dislike.

If we carry our eyes back from historical to legendary Greece, we
find a picture the reverse of what has been here sketched. We dis-
cern a government in which there is little or no scheme or system, —
still less any idea of responsibility to the governed, — but m which
the main-spring of obedience on the part of the people consists in
their personal feeling and reverence toward the chief. We remark,
first and foremost, the King; next, a limited number of subordinate
kings or chiefs; afterward, the mass of armed freemen, husband-
men, artisans, freebooters, etc. ; lowest of all, the free laborers for hire
and the bought slaves. The king is not distinguished by any broad
or impassable boundary from the other chiefs, to each of whom the
title J^mfews is applicable as well as to himself; his supremacy has
been inherited frotn his ancestors, and passes by descent, as a gen-
eral rule, to his eldest son, having been conferred, upon the famDy as
a privilege by the favor of Zeus. In war, he is the leader, foremost
in personal prowess, and directing all military movements; in peace,
he is the general protector of the injured and oppressed; he larther
offers up those public prayers and sacrifices which are intended to
obtain for the whole people the favor of the gods. An ample domain
is assigned to him as an appurtenance of his lofty position, while the
produce of his fields and his cattle is consecrated, in part to an abun-
dant, though rude, hospitality. Moreover, he receives frequent pres-
ents, to avert his enmity, to conciliate his favor, or to buy oil his
exactions; and when plunder is taken from the enemy, a large pre-
vious share, comprising probably the most alluring female captive,
is reserved for him apart from the general distribution.

Such is the position of the king m the heroic times of Greece, —
the only person (if we except the heralds and priests, each both
special and subordinate) who is then presented to us as clothed with

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any in^ividujil authority, — the person by whom all the executive
functions, then few in number, which the society requires, are either
performed or directed. His personal ascendency-— derived from
aivine countenance bestowed both upon himself individu^ly and
upon his race, aud probably from accredited divine descent — is i\\e
salient feature in the picture. The people hearkep to his voice,
embrace his propositions, and obey his orders: not merely resistance*
but even criticism upon his acts, is generally exhibited m an odioua
point of view, and is, indeed, never heard of except from some one or
more of the subordinate princes. To keep alive and justify sucli,
feelings in the public mind, however, the king must himself possess
various accomplishments, bodily and mental, and that, too, in a^
superior degree. He must be brave in the field, wise in the couuci.l,
and eloquent in the agora; he must be endued with bodily strength
and activity above other men, and must be an adept, not only in the,
use of his arms, but also in those athletic exercises which the crowd
delight to wituess. Even the more homely varieties of manual
acquirements are an addition to his character, — such as the craft of
the carpenter or shipAvright, the straight furrowing of the plow-
man, or the indefatigable persistence of the mower without reposo.
or refreshment throughout the longest day. The conditions of vol-
untary obedience, during the Grecian heroic times, are family
descent with personal force and superioritj-, mental as well as bodily,
in the chief, coupled with the favor of the gods: an old chief, sucli
as Peleus and LaGrtes, cannot retain his position. But, on the other
hand, where these elements of force are present, a good deal of vio-
lence, caprice, and rapacity is tolerated: the ethical judgment is not.
^xact in scrutinizing the conduct of individuals so pre-eminently
endowed. As in the case of the gods, the general epithets of good,
just, etc., are applied to them as euphemisms arising from sUbmissioa
and fear, being not only not suggested, but often pointedly belied,
by their particular acts. These words signify the man of birth,
wealth, influence, and daring, whose arm is strong to destroy or to
protect, whatever may be the turn of his moral sentiments; while
the opposite epithTst, bad, designates the poor, lowly, and weak, from
whose dispositions, be they ever so virtuous, society has little either
to hope or to fear.

Aristotle, in his general theory of government, lays down the posi-
tion that the earliest sources of obedience and authority among man-
kind are personal, exhibiting themselves most perfectly in the type
of paternal supremacy; and that, therefore, the kingly government, a3
most conformable to this stage of social sentiment, became probably
the first established everywhere. And in fact it still continued in hia
time to be generally prevalent among the non-Hellenic nations
immediately around; though the Phoenician cities and Carthage, tha
most civilized of all non-Hellenic states, were republics. Neverthe-
less, so completely were the feelmgs about king§hip reversed among

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his contempoTaFy Greeks that he finds it difficult to enter into tlie
voluntary obedience paid by his ancestors to their early heroic chiefs.
He cannot explain to his own satisfaction how any one man should
have been so much superior to the companions around him as to
maintain such immense personal ascendency: he suspects that in
such small communities great merit was very rare, so that the chief
had few competitors. Such remarks illustrate strongly the revolu-
tion which the Greek mind had undergone during the preceding cen-
turies, in regard to the internal grounds of political submission. But
the connecting link between the Homeric and the republican schemes
of government is to be found in two adjuncts of the Homeric
royalty; which are now to be mentioned — the Boule, or council of
chiefs, and the Agora, or general assembly of freemen.

These two meetings, more or less frequently convoked and inter-
woven with the earliest haoits of the primitive Grecian communities,
are exhibited in the monuments of the legendary age as opportuni-
ties for advising the king, and media for promulgating his intentions
to the people, rather than as restraints upon his authority. Unques-
tionably they must have conduced in practice to the latter result as
well as to the former; but this is not the light in which the Homeric
poems describe them. The chiefs, kings, princes, or gerontes — for
the same word in Greek designates both an old man and a man of
conspicuous rank and position — compose the council, in which,
according to the representations in the Iliad, the resolutions of Aga-
memnon, on the one side, and of Hector, on the other, appear uni-
formly to prevail. The harshness and even contempt with which
Hector ti-eats respectful opposition from his ancient companion Polyd-
amas — the desponding tone and conscious inferiority of the latter,
and the unanimous assent which the former obtains, even when quite
in the wrong — all this is clearly set forth in the poem; while in the
Grecian camp we see Nestor tendering his advice in the most sub-
missive and delicate manner to Agamemnon, to be adopted or
rejected as the ** king of men" might determine. The council is a
purely consultative body, assembled not with any power of peremp-
torily arresting mischievous resolves of the king, but solely for his
information and guidance. He himself is the presiding (boulephonis
or) member of council; the rest, collectively as well as individually,
are his subordinates.

We proceed from the council to the agora. According to what
seems the received custom, the king, after having talked over his
intentions with the former, proceeds to announce them to the people.
The heralds make the crowd sit down in order, and enforce silence :
any one of the chiefs or councilors — but as it seems, no one else — is
allowed to address them : the king first promulgates his intentions,
which are then open to be commented upon by others. But in the
Homeric agora no division of affirmative or negative voices ever
takes place, nor is any formal resolutioa ever adopted. The nullity

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of positive function strikes us even more in the agora than in the
council. It is an assembly for talk, communication, and discussion
to a certain extent by the chiefs, in presence of the people as listen-
ers and sympathizers— often for eloquence, and sometimes for quar-
rel — but here its ostensible purposes end.

The agora in Itliaka, in the second book of the Odyssey, is con-
vened by the youthful Telemachus, at the instigation of Athene, not
for the purpose of submitting any proposition, but in order to give
formal and public notice to the suitors to desist from their iniquitous
intrusion and pillage of his substance, and to absolve himself fur-
ther, before gods and men, from all obligations toward them, if they
refuse to comply. For the slaughter of the suitors in all the security
of the festive hall and banquet (which forms the catastrophe of the
Odyssey) was a proceeding involving much that was shocking to
Grecian feeling, and tlierefore required to be preceded by such ample
formalities as would leave both the delinquents themselves without
the shadow of excuse, and their surviving relatives without any claim
to the customaiy satisfaction. For this special purpose Telemachus
directs the heralds to summon an agora; but what seems most of all
surprising is, that none had ever been summoned or held since the
departure of Odysseus himself, an interval of twenty years. "No
agora or session has taken place among us," says the gmy-headed
uEgyptius, who opens the proceedings, ** since Odysseus went on ship-
board: and now who is he that has called us together? what man,
young or old, has felt such a strong necessity? Has he received
intelligence from our absent warriors, or has he other public news to
communicate? He is our good friend for doing •this: whatever his
projects may be, I pray Zeus to grant him success." Telemachus,
answering the appeal forthwith, proceeds to tell the assembled Itha-
kans that he has no public news to communicate, but that he has
convoked them upon hi3 own private necessities. Next, he sets forth
pathetically the wickedness of the suitors, calls upon them person-
ally to desist, and upon the people to restrain them, and concludes
by solemnly warning them that, being henceforward free from all
obligation toward them, he will invoke the avenging aid of Zeus, so
*Mhat they may be slain in the interior of his own house, without
bringing upon him any subsequent penalty."

I We are not, of course, to construe the Homeric description as any-
thing more than an ideal, approximating to actual reality. But,.
Allowing all that can be required for such a limitation, it exhibits I
the agora more as a special medium of publicity and intercommuni- 1
cation, 'from the king to the body of the people, than as including
any idea of responsibility on the part of the fomier or restraining
force on the part of the latter, however such consequences may indi-
rectly grow out of it. The primitive Grecian government is essen-
tially monarchical, reposing on personal feeling and divine right: the
memorable dictum in the Iliad is borne out by all that we hear of the

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actual practice: " The rule of many is not a good thing: let us have
one ruler only — one king, — him to whom Zeus has given tlie scepter
and the tutelaij sanctions."

The second book of the Iliad, full as it is of beauty and vivacity,
not only confirms our idea of the passive, recipient, and listenirg
chai'acter of the agora, but even presents a repulsive picture of the
degradation of the mass of the people before the chiefs. Agamem-
non convokes the agora for the purpose of immediately arming the
Grecian host, under a full impression that the gods have at last
determined forthwith to crown his arms with complete victory.
Such impression has been created by a special visit of Oneirus (the
Dream-god), sent by Zeus during his' sleep — being, indeed, an inten-
tional fraud on the part of Zeus, though Agamemnon does not sus-
pect its deceitful character. At this precise moment, when he may
be conceived to be more than usually anxious to g^t his army into
the held and snatch the prize, an unaccountable fancy seizes him
tUiit, instead of inviting the troops to do what he really wishes, and
encouraging their spirits for this one last effort, he will adopt a
course directly contrary; he will try their courage by professing to
believe .that the siege had become desperate;, and that there was no
choice except to go on shipboard and flee. Announcing to Nestor
and Odysseus, in preliminary council, his intention to hold this
strange language, he at the same time tells them that he relies upon
them to oppose it and counteract its effect upon the multitude. The
agora is presently assembled, and the k'ng of men pours forth a
speech full of dismay and despair, concluding by a distinct exhorta-
tion to all present 4o go aboard and return honae at once. Immedi-
ately, the whole army, chiefs as well as people, break up and proceed
to execute his orders: everyone rushes off to get his ship afloat,
except Odysseus, who looks on in mournful silence and astonish-
ment. The army would have been quickly on its voyage home had
not the goddesses Here and Athene stimulated Odysseus to an instant-
aneous interference. He hastens among the dirpersing crowd and
diverts them from their purpose of retreat: to the chiefs he addresses
flattering words, trying to shame them by gentle expostulation : but
the people he visits with harsh reprimand and blows from his scepter,
thus driving them back to their seats in the agora.

Online LibraryGeorge GroteA history of Greece from the earliest period to the close of the ..., Volume 1 → online text (page 39 of 98)