Texts in Context:
A Rosy-Fingered Dawn

By Gabriel Blanchard

The Dark Age of the post-Bronze-Age Ægean is obscure to historians, but what happened next is far less so ...

This post is part of a series on the historical context of our Author Bank; it includes introductory posts on historiography, periodization, and pseudohistory.

Σὺ ἐπὶ Τοῦτῳ*

We left the Greeks in the ruins of Mycenæ, unable to give a full account of why they are ruins. Some of the myths that survive about this time probably contain elements of truth. Consider the idea that a Mycenæan queen took a lover during her husband’s absence at Wilusa, and agreed to murder said husband on his return: a series of plays on that subject are not strong evidence it happened, but it is the sort of thing that does happen.

Still, the ruin of Bronze-Age Greece could hardly be explained even by a team of Queens Clytæmnestra** working in tandem. The Greeks themselves related that the collapse was due to invasion, by the Dorian Greeks of the north. That may seem strange—why are Greeks invading Greece?—so let’s talk about what the word Greek meant. To the Greeks, as to a great many ancient peoples, there were essentially two sorts of people: fellow Greek-speakers, or Hellenes; and everybody else, barbaroi, or as we say now, “barbarians” (so called because the Greeks feigned that their languages simply sounded like “bar bar”). But of course, this is not to say all Hellenes were created equal! Despite being the birthplace of democracy, the Hellenes were quite as snobbish as anyone. There were “core” Hellenes, such as one found in places like Argolis, Attica, Ionia, and Lacedaemon; there were second-class Greeks, a list which changed from one city to another; and there were the dregs, from places like Macedon—hard to classify as barbarians, but they certainly weren’t invited to the next pan-Hellene reunion.

Orange labels denote Greek or semi-Greek regions; purple labels denote "barbarian" peoples." (Pale turquoise labels are strictly geographical.)

Still, Hellas, the realm of the Hellenes, was not a simple thing. Being a Hellene was like being “Celtic.” The word isn’t meaningless: it’s a specific thing you can contrast with being French or Egyptian or Japanese; but it only tells you so much, because there are many types of Celts (Bretons, Irish, Scots, Welsh, etc.), with subtypes within those types and long histories both external and internal. There were three main subtypes of Greeks, namely the Æolians, the Dorians, and the Ionians.† These ethnicities were jumbled among each other all over the Ægean, but they could tell each other apart as easily as the modern Celtic nations do. The Æolians spoke a conservative dialect and were famed for their poets, such as Sappho and by many accounts Homer, but they need not detain us further. The Dorians spoke the Doric dialect, which was somewhat like a “Southern drawl,” slower-paced and perceived as rustic. They had social structures that tended to be communal and militaristic, with greater independence for women than the other Hellenes. And there were the Ionians, which included the Athenians: mercurial types, much given to the arts and philosophy, and with a passion for democratic(-ish) governance. The Ionian dialects of Greek also showed a strong tendency to nasalize. If it helps you remember, it would not be too wide of the mark to think of them as the New Yorkers of ancient Greece.

Four of the regions noted on the map above will be of special importance as the story proceeds. Two are Ionia and Macedon; these proved to be keys to the diffusion of Greek culture throughout the world. The other two, Lacedæmonia and Attica, were decisive in establishing what the Greek culture that got diffused would be. This was thanks to the most eminent cities of each: Sparta and Athens.

The Proto-Classical Bookshelf

Whatever happened after Mycenæan Greece crumbled, for around four hundred years, Greece was an illiterate country. And then, somewhere around the early eighth century (so, c. 800-750 BC), the Hellenes laid ahold of the script the Phoenicians were using. This was what’s called an abjad: it had no vowels, which was a logical way of handling the Phoenician language.‡ It also happened to have signs for a number of sounds Greek did not use. So the clever person who borrowed Phoenician took these extra letters, assigned them vowel values, and hey presto—the world’s first true alphabet had been born.

This brings us to discussion of the Archaic Period in Greek history. Many of the most familiar and reverend institutions of Greek culture date to the Archaic Period. Besides the alphabet, Lycurgus had established the fiercely military culture of Sparta some time around 820 BC, and the Olympic Games began in 776 BC; reputedly, twenty-three years later and about a thousand kilometers away, a town called Roma was founded too—but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A century and some later, around 650 BC, coinage was invented in neighboring Lydia and quickly spread to Greece, being far more convenient as a means of exchange than lugging bullion around. Sculpture saw remarkable development toward realism, apparently under the influence of Egyptian models. The seventh century saw a particular flowering of the Greek intellect, and was the time when most of the Seven Sages of Greece lived, including Thales of Miletus and Solon of Athens, both Ionians.

And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink
Pouring unto us from the heavens' brink.

The Archaic Period is therefore certainly the context for two, probably for three, of the earliest names on our Author Bank: Homer, Hesiod, and Æsop. When exactly Homer lived (and whether he was a single person) remains unclear, and very likely always will; moreover, we have discussed his work already, in the context of the Bronze Age that it largely reflects. Hesiod and Æsop, however, each deserve a word. Not much is known with certainty about either. However, they did represent two groups of people that, despite making up the majority of the populace in every period of history till about 1800 or so, are extremely underrepresented in most literature: peasants and slaves.

The Farmer

Hesiod’s exact dates are not known. He is conjectured to have lived in the eighth century before Christ, and widely thought to have been contemporary with Homer (though Hesiod’s historicity is more generally accepted). His verse tends to be melancholy, a little like the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, though more laden with nostalgia for an irrecoverable past than with grief for a hopelessly transient present. Both his surviving works, the Theogony and the Works and Days, display an interest in the genealogies and internecine wars of the gods. Both also describe the Olympians deceitfully inflicting all evils on man by creating the first woman, Pandora.

To modern readers, however, one of his most striking characteristics is the subject matter of his second work: farming. Even during agricultural ages, it is not common for a person to earn renown by composing verse about agriculture. That Hesiod did is a testament to his skill as a poet; it is also, very likely, a testament to life in the early Archaic Period, when life was precarious enough that even something as dull and drudging as eking out crops from the unfriendly soil of the Balkan Peninsula could be recognized as something that, precisely because it was both hard and necessary work, merited praise.

The Servant

We’re in a position to pin Æsop down a little more closely. He lived in the late seventh to mid sixth centuries BC, probably from around 621 to about 565. He began life as a slave, but managed eventually to purchase his freedom, and went on to become not only a respected citizen of Samos but a diplomat on its behalf; some reports even say he dined with Solon, the great reformer of Athens. His fables, many of them starring anthropomorphic animals and all illustrating the shrewdness that must have made him an excellent diplomat, are reminiscent along one line of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and along another, of the parables of Jesus of Nazareth.

His importance here lies partly in the mere fact that he was a freedman. We cannot pause here to give a full articulation of the difference between classical slavery and slavery as it was practiced in the “triangular trade” of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries; however, a couple of points should be made. One is how much less brutal slavery was in the classical world. This is not to say it wasn’t brutal. We are still talking about a system in which a master typically had the power of life and death over a slave—but then, that would have seemed far less remarkable when (up to a certain age) he had the same power over his children. But it bears saying that there was at least no racial element in classical slavery: slaves were often simply people who had been defeated in battle, and might easily be fellow Hellenes or near neighbors (especially since there wasn’t much good having a slave who couldn’t understand your instructions). Additionally, slaves received wages, and it was not uncommon for slaves to purchase their freedom as Æsop did, or to be manumitted in an owner’s will. In short, the institution was not acceptable, but it had more ameliorations attached to it, and some of the added evils it later picked up had not yet entered it.

The other is how common slavery was. It grew less so over the Medieval era, to the point that the Early Modern slave trade was almost a new thing, and almost certainly felt like a new thing (that is, a thing to which old rules and especially old humane restrictions did not apply). Slavery was also probably less prevalent in the Archaic Period than it would become in the Classical Period, as the city-states of Greece were as yet less accomplished and prosperous than they would shortly become; yet this lesser prevalence, judging from what it became in the succeeding centuries, likely meant that something between a tenth and an eighth of the population of Greece were slaves. It might have been hard to see, or hard to believe in, the evil of something so ordinary.

*Or in Roman letters, sü epi toutō. The phrase means, roughly, “you are here.”
**Queen Clytæmnestras? Queens Clytæmnestræ?
†Well, really there were four. The Achæans have been left out here, or rather, they have been folded into the Dorians, on the grounds that they spoke Doric and exhibited roughly similar social structures.
‡Phoenician, like Arabic, Hebrew, etc., was a Semitic language, and Semitic languages form words differently than Indo-European languages like Greek (and English) do. Indo-European languages derive words from a root, a sequence of consonants and vowels, which can then receive prefixes and suffixes to create other forms of the word or related words. For instance, in English, b + oo + k = the stem book, to which we can add the suffix –s if we want multiple books, or the prefix text– if we want to talk about the kind of book used at a school. Semitic languages build words very differently, from things called radicals. These are sets of consonants only that encode an idea; vowels can be inserted into them in different ways to make words. Taking Arabic as our example, K-T-B is a radical that encodes the broad idea of “writing”: inserting one set of vowels gets you kitaab, “a book,” while another set will get you kutub, “books,” and a third set plus a prefix gets you a maktab, “a school.” Since the core idea is present as long as you have the radical, and the radical consists only in consonants, Semitic languages get by perfectly well with abjads.

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoy the Journal, be sure to check out our podcast, Anchored. Thank you for supporting the Classic Learning Test.

Published on 29th April, 2024. Map created courtesy of ScribbleMaps.

Share this post:
Scroll to Top