The legacy of Greece summary



The legacy of Greece summary


The following texts are the property of their respective authors and we thank them for giving us the opportunity to share for free to students, teachers and users of the Web their texts will used only for illustrative educational and scientific purposes only.



The information of medicine and health contained in the site are of a general nature and purpose which is purely informative and for this reason may not replace in any case, the council of a doctor or a qualified entity legally to the profession.



The legacy of Greece summary




The rocky peninsula of Greece was the home of the civilization that fundamentally shaped Western civilization. The Greeks were the first to explore most of the questions that continue to concern Western thinkers to this day. Going beyond mythmaking and religion, the Greeks strove to understand, in logical, rational terms, both the universe and the position of men and women in it. The result was the birth of philosophy and science-subjects that were far more important to most Greek thinkers than religion. The Greeks speculated on human beings and society and created the very concept of politics. 


While the scribes of the ancient Near East produced king lists, the Greeks invented history to record, and understand, how people and states functioned in time and space. In poetry the Greeks spoke as individuals. In drama they dealt with the grandeur and weakness of humanity and with the demands of society on the individual. The greatest monuments of the Greeks were not temples, statues, or tombs, but profound thoughts set down in terms as fresh and immediate today as they were some 2,400 years ago. 


The history of the Greeks is divided into two broad periods: the Hellenic period (the subject of this chapter), roughly the time between the arrival of the Greeks (approximately 2000 B.C.) and the victory over Greece in 338 B.C. by Philip of Macedon; and the Hellenistic period (the subject of Chapter 4), the age beginning with the remarkable reign of Philip's son, Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) and ending with the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic East (200-148 B.C.). 


*What geographical factors helped to mold the evolution of the city-state and to shape the course of the Greek experience? 

*What was the nature of the early Greek experience, and how did the impact of the Minoans and Mycenaean’s lead to the concept of a heroic past? 

*How did the Greeks develop basic political forms, forms as different as democracy and tyranny that have influenced all of later Western history? 

*What did the Greek intellectual triumph entail, and what were its effects? 

*Last, how and why did the Greeks eventually fail?  

These profound questions, which can never be fully answered, are the themes of this chapter. 



Hellas, as the ancient Greeks called their land, encompassed the Aegean Sea and its islands as well as the Greek peninsula (Map 3. 1). The Greek peninsula itself, stretching in the direction of Egypt and the Near East, is an extension of the Balkan system of mountains. Perhaps the best and most eloquent description of Greece comes from the eminent German historian K. J. Beloch: 


Greece is an alpine land, which rises from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, scenically probably the most beautiful region in southern Europe. The noble contours of the mountains, the bare, rocky slopes, the dusty green of the conifer forests, the white cover of snow that envelops the higher summits for the greatest part of the year, added to which is the profound blue surface of the sea below, and above everything the diffused brightness of the southern sun; this gives a total picture, the charm of which impresses itself unforgettably on the soul of the observer. 

The rivers of Greece are never more than creeks, and most of them go dry in the summer. Greece is, however, a land blessed with good harbors, the most important of which look to the cast. The islands of the Aegean serve as steppingstones to Asia Minor. 

Despite the beauty of the region, geography acted as an enormously divisive force in Greek life. The mountains of Greece dominate the landscape, cutting the land into many small pockets and isolating areas of habitation. Innumerable small peninsulas open to the sea, which is dotted with islands, most of them small and many uninhabitable. The geographical fragmentation of Greece encouraged political fragmentation. Furthermore, communications were extraordinarily poor. Rocky tracks were far more common than roads, and the few roads were unpaved. Usually a road consisted of nothing more than a pair of ruts cut into the rock to accommodate wheels. These conditions discouraged the growth of great empires. 



The origins of Greek civilization are obscure. Neither historians, archaeologists, nor linguists can confidently establish when Greek-speaking peoples made the Balkan Peninsula of Greece their homeland. All that can now safely be said is that by about 1650 B.C. Greeks had established themselves at the great city of Mycenae in the Peloponnesus and elsewhere in Greece. Before then, the area from Thessaly in the north to Messenia in the south was inhabited by small farming communities. Quite probably the Greeks merged with these natives, and from that union emerged the society that modern scholars call "Mycenaean," after Mycenae, the most important site of this new Greek-speaking culture. 

Of this epoch later Greeks themselves remembered almost nothing. The Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer's magnificent epic poems (eighth century B.C.), retain some dim memory of this period but very little that is authentic. One of the sterling achievements of modern archaeology is the discovery of this lost past. In the nineteenth century Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman, fell in love with the Iliad and decided to find the sites it mentioned. He excavated Troy in modern Turkey, Mycenae, and several other sites in Greece to discover the lost past of the Greek people. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the remains of an entirely unknown civilization at Cnossus in Crete, and he gave it the name "Minoan" after the mythical Cretan king Minos. Scholars since then have further illuminated this long-lost era, and despite many uncertainties a reasonably clear picture of the Minoans and Mycenaean’s has begun to emerge. 

By about 1650 B.C. the island of Crete was the home of the flourishing and vibrant Minoan culture. The Minoans had occupied Crete from at least the Neolithic period. They had also developed a script, now called "Linear A" (and yet to be deciphered), to express their language in writing. Because Linear A is still a riddle, it is as yet worthless to historians as a literary source and can provide no information on the status of men and women in society and politics or any idea of the course of Minoan history. Only archaeology and art offer clues to Minoan life. The symbol of Minoan culture was the palace. Around 1650 B.C. Crete was dotted with palaces, such as those at Mallia on the northern coast and Kato Zakro on the eastern tip of the island. Towering above all others in importance was the palace at Cnossus. The palace was the political and economic center of Minoan society, which, like many ancient Near Eastern societies, was rigorously controlled from above. Few specifics are known about Minoan society except that at its head stood a king and his nobles, who governed the lives and toil of Crete's farmers, sailors, shepherds, and artisans. The implements of the Minoans, like those of the Mycenaean’s, were bronze, so archaeologists have named this period the "Bronze Age." Minoan society was wealthy and, to judge from the absence of fortifications on the island, peaceful. Enthusiastic sailors and merchants, the Minoans traded with Egypt and the cities of the Levant, the area known today as the Middle East. Their ships also penetrated the Aegean Sea, throughout which they established trading posts. Their voyages in this direction brought them into contact with the Mycenaean’s on the Greek peninsula. 

By about 1650 B.C. Greek-speakers were firmly settled at Mycenae, which became a major city and trading center. Later, other Mycenaean palaces and cities developed at Thebes, Athens, Tiryns, and Pylos. As in Crete, the political unit was the kingdom. The king and his warrior aristocracy stood at the top of society. The seat and symbol of the king's power and wealth was his palace, which was also the economic center of the kingdom. Within its walls royal craftsmen fashioned jewelry and rich ornaments, made and decorated fine pottery, forged weapons, prepared hides and wool for clothing, and manufactured the other goods needed by the king and his retainers. Palace scribes kept records in Greek with a script known as "Linear B," which was derived from Minoan Linear A. The scribes kept account of taxes and drew up inventories of the king's possessions. From the palace, as at Cnossus, the Mycenaean king directed the lives of his subjects. Little is known of the king's subjects except that they were the artisans, traders, and farmers of Mycenaean society. The Mycenaean economy was marked by an extensive division of labor, all tightly controlled from the palace. At the bottom of the social scale were the slaves, who were normally owned by the king and aristocrats but who also worked for ordinary craftsmen. 

The Linear B tablets also held a surprise for those interested in Greek religion. Some of them recorded offerings to deities such as Zeus, Apollo, and Athena, the traditional Olympian gods. As late as 1995 Greek archaeologists in Thebes discovered over two hundred new Linear B tablets that are as yet unpublished. The excavators were gracious enough to allow foreign scholars to examine them before publication. These tablets, as well as those already known, prove that the Greeks brought their traditional deities with them on their journey to Greece. 

Contacts between the Minoans and Mycenaean’s were originally peaceful, and Minoan culture flooded the Greek mainland. But around 1450 B.C. the Mycenaean’s attacked Crete, destroying many Minoan palaces and taking possession of the grand palace at Cnossus. For about the next fifty years the Mycenaean’s ruled much of the island until a further wave of violence left Cnossus in ashes. These events are more disputed than understood, and the fate of Cnossus in particular has sparked controversy. Theories that Cnossus was destroyed by natural catastrophe have long since been disproved. Without a doubt, human beings were responsible for the conflagration. Archaeologists cannot, however, determine who was responsible-whether the Mycenaean’s at Cnossus were attacked by other Mycenaean’s or whether the conquered Minoans rose in revolt. 

Whatever the answer, the Mycenaean kingdoms in Greece benefited from the fall of Cnossus and the collapse of its trade. Mycenaean commerce quickly expanded throughout the Aegean, reaching as far abroad as Anatolia, Cyprus, and Egypt. Throughout central and southern Greece Mycenaean culture flourished as never before. Palaces became grander, and citadels were often protected by mammoth stone walls. Prosperity, however, did not bring peace, and between 1300 and 1000 B.C. kingdom after kingdom suffered attack and destruction. 

Later Greeks accused the Dorians, who spoke a particular dialect of Greek, of overthrowing the Mycenaean kingdoms. Yet some modern linguists argue that the Dorians dwelt in Greece during the Mycenaean period. Archaeologists generally conclude that the Dorians, if not already present, could have entered Greece only long after the era of destruction. Furthermore, not one alien artifact has been found on any of these sites; thus there is no archaeological evidence for outside invaders. Normally, foreign invaders leave traces of themselves-for example, broken pottery and weapons-that are different from those of the attacked. 

We can conclude, therefore, that no outside intrusion destroyed the Mycenaean world. In fact, the legends preserved by later Greeks told of grim wars between Mycenaean kingdoms and of the fall of great royal families. Apparently Mycenaean Greece destroyed itself in a long series of internecine wars, a pattern that later Greeks would repeat. 

The fall of the Mycenaean kingdoms ushered in a period of such poverty, disruption, and backwardness that historians usually call it the "Dark Age" of Greece (ca 1100-800 B.C.). Even literacy, which was not widespread in any case, was a casualty of the chaos. Nonetheless, the Greeks survived the storm to preserve their culture and civilization. Greece remained Greek; nothing essential was swept away. Greek religious cults remained vital to the people, and basic elements of social organization continued to function effectively. It was a time of change and challenge, but not of utter collapse. 

This period also saw a development of enormous importance for the course of Western civilization. The disruption of Mycenaean societies caused the widespread movement of Greek peoples. Some Greeks sailed to Crete, where they established new communities. The most important line of immigration was east to the shores of Asia Minor. The Greeks arrived during a time when the traditional states and empires had collapsed. Economic hardship was common, and various peoples wandered for years. The age saw both the displacement of peoples throughout the region and ethnic intermixing. Whereas the Sea Peoples (see page 3 1) had eventually dissolved into their various parts and gone their separate ways, the Greeks spread the culture of their homeland throughout the eastern Mediterranean. 

Upon landing in Asia Minor, the Greeks encountered peoples who had been influenced by the older cultures of the region. Furthermore, the Greeks themselves had had long associations with these peoples. Thus they were hardly strangers, nor was Greek culture alien or unknown to the natives. By the end of the Dark Age of Greece, the Greeks had established a string of settlements along a coast already accustomed to them. Their arrival resulted in the spread of Greek culture throughout the area, not through force of arms but because of its freedom of ideas, the right of individuals to express them, and the vitality of Greek social life. 



The Greeks, unlike the Hebrews, had no sacred book that chronicled their past. Instead they had Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to describe a time when gods still walked the earth. And they learned the origin and descent of the gods from the Theogony, an epic poem by Hesiod. Instead of authentic history, the poems of Homer and Hesiod offered the Greeks an ideal past, a largely legendary Heroic Age. In terms of pure history these poems contain scraps of information about the Bronze Age, much about the early Dark Age, and some about the poets' own era. Chronologically, then, the Heroic Age falls mainly in the period between the collapse of the Mycenaean world and the rebirth of literacy. 

The Iliad recounts an expedition of Mycenaean’s, whom Homer called "Achaeans," to besiege the city of Troy in Asia Minor. The heart of the Iliad, however, concerns the quarrel between Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, and Achilles, the tragic hero of the poem, and how their quarrel brought suffering to the Achaeans. Only when Achilles put away his anger and pride did he consent to come forward, face, and kill the Trojan hero Hector. The Odyssey, probably composed later than the Iliad, narrates the adventures of Odysseus, one of the Achaean heroes who fought at Troy, during his voyage home from the fighting. 

The splendor of these poems does not lie in their plots, although the Odyssey is a marvelous adventure story. Rather, both poems portray engaging but often flawed characters who are larger than life and yet typically human. Homer was also strikingly successful in depicting the great gods, who generally sit on Mount Olympus and watch the fighting at Troy like spectators at a baseball game, although they sometimes participate in the action. Homer's deities are reminiscent of Mesopotamian gods and goddesses. Hardly a decorous lot, the Olympians are raucous, petty, deceitful, and splendid. In short, they are human. 

Homer at times portrayed the gods in a serious vein, but he never treated them in a systematic fashion, as did Hesiod, who lived somewhat later than Homer. Hesiod's epic poem the Theogony traces the descent of Zeus. Hesiod was influenced by Mesopotamian myths, which the Hittites had adopted and spread to the Aegean. Hesiod's poem claims that in the beginning there was chaos, the "yawning deep." From chaos came Gaea (Earth), who gave birth to Uranus (Heaven). Gaea and Uranus then gave birth to Cronus and Ocean (the deep-swelling waters). Cronus, the son of Earth and Heaven, like the Mesopotamian Enlil, separated the two and became king of the gods. 

Like the Hebrews, Hesiod envisaged his cosmogony-his account of the way the universe developed in moral terms. Zeus, the son of Cronus, defeated his evil father and took his place as king of the gods. He then sired Lawfulness, Right, Peace, and other powers of light and beauty. Thus, in Hesiod's conception, Zeus was the god of righteousness, who loved justice and hated wrongdoing. 

In another epic poem, Works and Days, Hesiod wrote of his own time and his own village of Ascra in Boeotia, a scenic place set between beautiful mountains and fertile plains. In his will, Hesiod's father had divided his lands between Hesiod and his brother, Perses. Perses bribed the aristocratic authorities to give him the larger part of the inheritance and then squandered his wealth. Undaunted by the injustice of the powerful, Hesiod thundered back: 

Bribe-devouring lords, make straight your decisions,

Forget entirely crooked judgments.

He who causes evil to another harms himself.

Evil designs are most evil to the plotter 2

The similarities are striking between the fictional Khunanup and Hesiod, both of whom were oppressed by the rich and powerful. Yet the differences are even more significant. Hesiod, unlike Khunanup, did not receive justice from the political authorities of the day, but he fully expected divine vindication. Hesiod's call for justice has gone ringing through the centuries, its appeal as fresh today as when he first uttered it more than two millennia ago. Hesiod spoke of Zeus as Jeremiah had spoken of Yahweh, warning that Zeus would see that justice was done and injustice punished. He cautioned his readers that Zeus was angered by those who committed adultery, harmed orphans, and offended the aged. Hesiod's ethical concepts and faith in divine justice were the products of his belief that the world was governed by the power of good. 



The mountainous geography of Greece divides the land into small pockets, so that at first small settlements were the natural pattern of human inhabitation. Never cut off from one another, these settlements evolved a common political and social institution, the polis. Although the causes for this common development are still unknown, the polis proved basic to Greek life. It was far different from the political institutions of the earlier Minoan and Mycenaean kingdoms, which did, however, leave all Greeks the heritage of a heroic past. Through the poetry of Homer and the monumental ruins of the Bronze Age, later Greeks remembered a time when great kings ruled the lan& The polis, however, was a dramatic break with this past, and in this atmosphere the Greeks developed basic political forms that are still alive in the contemporary world. The Greeks gave serious thought to the relationship between society and the polis and the nature of political rights. From these thoughts, which they put into practice, developed concepts such as democracy and tyranny. The polis was, however, never by any means utopian. It did not reflect the modern ideas of equality and universal citizenship, but its emphasis on the various and compatible roles that different people filled in the polis made for a harmonious society. The Greek passion for open debate and exchange of ideas was also important to the intellectual explosion of Greek philosophy. Not bound to religion, Greek philosophy considered the human mind to be a sufficient tool to understand the cosmos. This line of thinking underlies modern scientific thought. In view of all their great achievements, it seems incomprehensible that the Greeks and their polis could fail. Yet the desire of several powerful city-states to dominate the others led to years of warfare that eventually weakened them all and left them vulnerable to the successful invasion of the Macedonian king, Philip II. 


The Great Plague at Athens, 430 BC

In 430 B. C. many of the people of Attica sought refuge in Athens to escape the Spartan invasion. The overcrowding of people, the lack of proper sanitation, and the scarcity of clean water exposed the huddled population to virulent disease. Under these conditions, a severe plague attacked the crowded masses. The great historian Thucydides lived in Athens at the time and contracted the disease himself. He was one of thefortunate ones who survived the ordeal. For most people, however, the disease proved fatal. Thucydides left a vivid description of the nature of the plague and of people's reaction to it. 

People in perfect health suddenly began to have burning feelings in the head; their eyes became red and inflamed; inside their mouths there was bleeding from the throat and tongue, and the breath became unnatural and unpleasant. The next symptoms were sneezing and hoarseness of voice, and before long the pain settled on the chest and was accompanied by coughing. Next the stomach was affected with stomach-aches and with vomitings of every kind of bile that has been given a name by the medical profession, all this being accompanied by great pain and difficulty. In most cases there were attacks of ineffectual retching, producing violent spasms; this sometimes ended with this stage of the disease, but sometimes continued long afterwards. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor was there any pallor: the skin was rather reddish and livid, breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But inside there was a feeling of burning, so that people could not bear the touch even of the lightest linen clothing, but wanted to be completely naked, and indeed most of all would have liked to plunge into cold water. Many of the sick who were uncared for actually did so, plunging into the watertanks in an effort to relieve a thirst which was unquenchable; for it was just the same with them whether they drank much or little. Then all the time they were afflicted with insomnia and the desperate feeling of not being able to keep still. 

In the period when the disease was at its height, the body, so far from wasting away, showed surprising powers of resistance to all the agony, so that there was still some strength left on the seventh or eighth day, which was the time when, in most cases, death came from the internal fever. But if people survived this critical period, then the disease descended to the bowels, producing violent ulceration and uncontrollable diarrhea, so that most of them died later as a result of the weakness caused by this. For the disease, first settling in the head, went on to affect every part of the body in turn, and even when people escaped its worst effects, it still left its traces on them by fastening upon the extremities of the body. It affected the genitals, the fingers, and the toes, and many of those who recovered lost the use of these members; some, too, went blind. There were some also who, when they first began to get better, suffered from a total loss of memory, not knowing who they were themselves and being unable to recognize their friends. 

Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the suffering of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure. Here in particular is a point where the plague showed itself to be something quite different from ordinary diseases: though there were many dead bodies lying about unburied, the birds and animals that eat human flesh either did not come near them or, if they did taste the flesh, died of it afterwards. Evidence for this may be found in the fact that there was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey: they were not to be seen either around the bodies or anywhere else. But dogs, being domestic animals, provided the best opportunity of observing this effect of the plague. 

These, then, were the general features of the disease, though I have omitted all kinds of peculiarities which occurred in various individual cases. Meanwhile, during all this time there was no serious outbreak of any of the usual kinds of illness; if any such cases did occur, they ended in the plague. Some died in neglect, some in spite of every possible care being taken of them. As for a recognized method of treatment, it would be true to say that no such thing existed what did good in some cases did harm in others. Those with naturally strong constitutions were no better able than the weak to resist the disease, which carried away all alike, even those who were treated and dieted with the greatest care. The most terrible thing of all was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague. Terrible, too, was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others. This indeed caused more deaths than anything else. For when people were afraid to visit the sick, then they died with no one to look after them. Indeed, there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of attention. When, on the other hand, they did visit the sick, they lost their own lives, and this was particularly true of those who made it a point of honor to act properly. Such people felt ashamed to think of their own safety and went into their friends' houses at times when even the members of the household were so overwhelmed by the weight of their calamities that they had actually given up the usual practice of making laments for the dead. Yet still the ones who felt most pity for the sick and the dying were those who had had the plague themselves and had recovered from, it. They knew what it was like and at the same time felt themselves to be safe, for no one caught the disease twice, or, if he did, the second attack was never fatal.... 

A factor that made matters much worse than they were already was the removal of people from the country into the city, and this particularly affected the newcomers. There were no houses for them, and, living as they did during the hot season in badly ventilated huts, they died like flies. The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water. 

The catastrophe was so overwhelming that people, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion and law. Athens owed to the plague the beginnings of a state of unprecedented lawlessness. People now began openly to venture on acts of self indulgence which before then they used to keep in the dark. Thus they resolved to spend their money quickly and to spend it on pleasure, since money and life alike seemed equally ephemeral. As for what is called honor, no one showed himself willing to abide by its laws, so doubtful was it whether one would survive to enjoy the name for it. It was generally agreed that what was both honorable and valuable was the pleasure of the moment and everything that might conceivably contribute to that pleasure. No fear of god or law of man had a restraining influence. As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshiped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to be punished. Instead, everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived, it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life. 

This, then, was the calamity that fell upon Athens, and the times were hard indeed, with people dying inside the city and the land outside being laid waste. 

Questions for Analysis 

1. What does this account of the plague say about human nature when put in an extreme crisis? 

2. Does popular religion offer any solace during such a catastrophe? 

3. How did public laws and customs cope with such a disaster? 

Source: R. Warner, trans., Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 152-156. Used by permission of Penguin Books Ltd. 



Source :

Web site link:

Google key word : The legacy of Greece summary file type : doc

Author : not indicated on the source document of the above text

If you are the author of the text above and you not agree to share your knowledge for teaching, research, scholarship (for fair use as indicated in the United States copyrigh low) please send us an e-mail and we will remove your text quickly.


The legacy of Greece summary


If you want to quickly find the pages about a particular topic as The legacy of Greece summary use the following search engine:




The legacy of Greece summary


Please visit our home page Terms of service and privacy page




The legacy of Greece summary