It’s All Greek!


We look into history from motives of two kinds. There is curiosity about the past, what happened, who did what, and why; and there is the hope to understand the present, how to place and interpret our own times, experiences, and hopes for the future. The world of classical antiquity is one of the best instruments we have for both purposes. There is a good deal of evidence, much of it exceptionally interesting and sophisticated, for a world that existed and developed for more than a thousand years, and produced memorable works of art and literature. It is a world, as it happens, that is connected with our own by links much closer and more pervasive than those between us and, for example, ancient China (too far away from the West, and consequently in its formative period almost unknown to it).

Some have liked to dream of ancient Greece as a place of serenity and repose, with the “noble simplicity” that Winckelmann praised in Greek art; but the reality was very different. Between the ferociously independent city-states war was endemic, and defeat could mean the destruction of a city, the death of its fighting men, and the sale of its women and children into slavery. The greatest war in Greek history, between 431 and 404 BCE, was that between classical Athens and its empire on the one side and Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies on the other. Viewing it from the Athenian side, we call it the Peloponnesian War.

Athens was a democracy, the first in history. That portentous innovation had unleashed an explosion of energy. The city had acquired an empire, and it had become a magnet for artists and intellectuals. It could boast of being the home of the tragic poets, and of the comic poet Aristophanes, and of the philosopher Socrates and his disciple Plato, and of the supreme historian Thucydides, and of the unrivaled buildings and statues on the Acropolis.

In Sparta the Athenians faced a grimmer society which regularly expelled foreigners, and which prided itself on subordinating the individual to the state. The Spartan economy was based on the subjection to serfdom of a native Greek people, the Helots, on whom each group of annually elected magistrates, on taking office, formally declared war. The state existed permanently on the defensive. It had been a stranger, for a hundred years past, to literature and the arts. The great war dragged on for nearly thirty years. It proved disastrous for Greece, ruining its cities, bringing in an atmosphere of violent class hatred and unprecedented atrocities and massacres, and fatally setting back the arts not only of Greece but of the subsequent West.

Donald Kagan, of Yale, is the author of an extensive and widely praised four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, aimed at specialists. He has now condensed it into a narrative “for the non-professional reader.” That reader is offered a detailed account of the military history of the period. Leaning heavily, as he must, on Thucydides, Kagan unravels with skill and clarity the complexities of a long and often confusing war. On the whole he avoids the temptation to point modern parallels. That temptation was greater, of course, when Western society faced the closed and repressive Soviet system of Stalin and Brezhnev. The claim was indeed often made that we were Athens to their Sparta. The current antagonist, radical Islam, does not fit that bill quite so easily.

Kagan’s book can be commended to anyone who wants to find out what happened on the battlefield, or what were the strategic issues. The story of the war is fascinating, with its twists, alliances, and unexpected developments. It is perhaps disappointing that the perspective is not wider, that more is not made of the cultural life of the period, and of the contrast between the two sides. Kagan barely mentions Socrates—tolerated by the Atheni- ans for fifty years and finally put to death on charges to which the politics of the war were central—or the Parthenon, built on forced contributions from Athens’ “allies,” which had been levied to pay for the cost of defense against Persia. The use of this money for the Parthenon was bitterly resented by many, both inside and outside the city. (It is striking that the Parthenon does not appear in the full and helpful index.)

Nor does he discuss the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, which have so much to tell us about war, and which in many ways reflect its hopes, its glories, and its oppressive weight. Even Thucydides, after all, the least sentimental of historians, gives us at full length the Funeral Speech of Pericles, which sets out unforgettably the unique quality of democratic Athens, its openness, its freedom, and its cultural achievements, as well as recording its acts of increasing desperation and atrocity.

As for the culture of Sparta, that too is rather taken for granted in Kagan’s book. By benign chance, its peculiar character is well illustrated in The Spartans by Paul Cartledge, of Cambridge. Sparta was already, by the fourth century BCE, a place of mystery; less a place, in important respects, than an idea. Spartans did not write books, and they tried to avoid mixing with foreigners. They wanted to freeze change and to preserve their extraordinary society exactly as it was. Even such upsetting innovations as coined money were excluded—though all too many Spartans, serving their country abroad and exposed to temptation, earned a bad name for avarice.

True Spartans were called homoioi, a stronger term than “equals”; Cartledge renders it “peers”: perhaps “interchangeables” might convey something of its force and oddity. Brought up in boarding establishments from the age of seven, required to dine in the mess even after marriage, visiting their wives (we read) only by stealth, they were bred for toughness and unquestioning devotion to the state. It was a regular part of the upbringing of young men to serve a term in the secret police (Krypteia), which prowled about by night to detect unrest among the subjugated Helots and to make away with those suspected of it.

Cartledge rightly stresses that the Spartans could on important occasions rise to military challenges. When in 480 BCE the Great King of Persia, which had conquered Babylon and Assyria and Lydia and Egypt, invaded Hellas with the countless hordes of Asia, drinking rivers dry as they passed, according to Herodotus, most Greeks quite reasonably assumed that resistance was futile. True, ten years before the Athenians had defeated an invading Persian army at Marathon; but that was a comparatively small, sea-borne expeditionary force, not in the same league as this vast array. Even the god Apollo, to judge by his disheartening responses from his prophetic shrine at Delphi, had written the Greeks off. No doubt that was because the staff of the oracle, with their international contacts and clientele, had a more accurate idea than other Greeks of the odds stacked by King Xerxes against Hellas.

But in the narrow pass of Thermopylae three hundred Spartans, under their king, Leonidas, and a couple of thousand other Greeks, fought to the last with a ferocity, a discipline, and an effectiveness that impressed the Persians and their own countrymen alike. “Their arrows will darken the sky? Good: we shall fight in the shade.” That was the classically laconic response of the Spartan warrior Dieneces to defeatists before the battle. The moral impact of the heroic stand was incalculable, in antiquity and far beyond. The idea that Europe really was different from Asia received here its decisive boost, and from the pass of Thermopylae to the thin red line of British troops standing fast against the Fuzzy Wuzzy was to prove, historically, quite a short step. No less important was its meaning for Greece during the Italian invasion and the German occupation in World War II.

The toughness of the Spartans, and the lack of reliable information about Sparta, impressed other Greeks. The impression was not always favorable, but the influential conservative tradition of Plato and others, hating democracy and inclining to paranoia about the dangers of free discussion and the arts, idolized Sparta as far preferable to the volatile and unreliable democracy of Athens. The extraordinary painting by J.-L. David Leonidas at Thermopylae, now in the Louvre and reproduced by Cartledge, gives that tradition memorable embodiment, as the doomed warriors, about to fight and die at Thermopylae, pose nobly in the nude. Napoleon, trying to be super macho, reproached the artist with having glorified men who, after all, were defeated: a truly leaden echo from that cracked military bell, but it would not be until the middle of the nineteenth century that sympathy would really swing back to Athens from Sparta.

The history and atmosphere of Sparta are well conveyed by Cartledge, who calls it “an authoritarian, hierarchical and repressive utopia.” It shows a remarkable, a more than Spartan, self-control to write,

The book will be divided into three Parts. The first, “Go, tell the Spartans,” which has also been used as the title of a movie based on the Vietnam War, is named after the opening words of the famous contemporary epitaph for the Thermopylae battle-dead attributed to [the poet] Simonides.

and not to quote the couplet itself:

Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passest by
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Is it so certain that everybody knows these lines nowadays? They certainly were well known at one time in England. In the days of the press barons Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook, they were drawn on by Anon for an “Epitaph on an Army of Journalists:

Go, tell his Lordship, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to his laws, we lie.

Cartledge describes with approval the comparative freedom of Spartan women, so shocking to Athenian democrats—for Athenian women were kept far more firmly in their place. Spartan girls got some education. In the fantasies, at least, of some European historians, they exercised naked with the young men. (In the London National Gallery there is a rather disappointing painting by Degas showing such a scene.) Other Greeks, pruriently disapproving, imagined Spartan girls as unchaste, and there were curious rumors of wife-swapping in the highest circles.

Like many others, Cartledge is fond of the early-fifth-century BCE Spartan princess Gorgo, of whom Herodotus and others give us charming glimpses. No little girl in Athens is comparably described in any literary source. When her father was offered a large sum by a foreign visitor for the use of Spartan troops, “Gorgo piped up: ‘Daddy, you had better go away, or the foreigner will corrupt you.’” But it is sad to find what Cartledge thinks about her name:

What was her father, King Cleomenes I, thinking when he so named her? That she would petrify anyone who looked her in the eye? Surely not. Yet “Gorgo” means “Gorgon,” as in the myth of the Gorgon called Medusa…. A truly terrifying name, but perhaps in Sparta it was not felt to be quite as odd as all that.

Not even in Sparta were fathers quite so peculiar. The adjective gorgos means “bright,” especially but not only of the eyes (Aristophanes uses it of a shiny cake); the sparkling eyes of brave young men or healthy children can be so called. The Gorgons were named for a very special kind of gaze, but Gorgo’s father meant to call his daughter Bright-Eyes.

Cartledge duly chronicles the successes of Sparta in the great war with Athens, its zenith of power in the early fourth century BCE, and its decline thereafter, to the sad time when its legendary toughness had dwindled into a sadistic show staged for Roman tourists, in which boys endured flogging without crying out. Sex tourism of an unattractive kind rears its head.

More puzzling is the question of origins. How, after all, did Sparta become so special? The ancients ascribe its distinctive government and customs to an early lawgiver, Lycurgus, who took the advice of the Delphic oracle and simply remade Spartan society. Modern scholars have great difficulty with this elusive figure. Cartledge toys with the possibility that he didn’t exist and was for the Spartans “a reified projection of Apollo”; and even in antiquity some people wondered whether he had been a man or a god. His dates, his position, what (if anything) he really did: all are the subject of longstanding controversy. Cartledge prudently declines to get too far enmeshed in the problem, leaving Lycurgus in abeyance and limiting himself to describing the peculiar Spartan society itself. The failure of scholars to agree about the origins of Sparta sadly suggests that this may be the right procedure.


One way in which ancient Greeks resembled us was, of course, that they had children. But matters are not so simple. Recently we have been reminded of the very different ways in which childhood is perceived in different societies and at different times. Childhood itself, we are told, is a recent invention. In the ancient world many children died; it can seem natural to infer that the adults were hardened to their deaths. Serious scholars have spent much ink on the question, Did people, do people, in other societies really grieve for the death of their children?

A very interesting exhibition on this theme opened at Dartmouth College on August 23 and continues until December 14.* The thoughtful introduction to the generously illustrated catalog quotes General Westmoreland on the Vietnamese—“They do not grieve the way we do”—and an Israeli soldier on the Palestinians: “Arabs don’t even notice when a child dies.” It would not be hard to accumulate parallels. Easy, comforting views. No doubt King Herod told himself something similar.

It is true that children do not figure prominently in the writings of the classical period, except when it comes to their death. But the Iliad, at the very beginning of Greek literature, leaves us in no doubt that the baby son of Hector and Andromache was loved in a way that we immediately recognize, and that we are to feel that his killing was terrible.

The evidence for such feelings is clear in Greek antiquity, and it is above all in the visual arts that we find it. The exhibition brings together a very wide range of objects, mostly from American collections. We find groups of mother and baby, from the misty past of Minoan Crete to the Roman period; there are pictures and models of children on swings, playing with knucklebones, being carried piggyback, learning to walk, playing with pet dogs and birds, going to school. Some of them are very fine.

In the early period the tendency is to depict children as miniature adults: a stereotyped representation eclipses what the eye actually saw when it looked at, but disregarded, the different proportions and chubby limbs of a small child. After the fifth century BCE we increasingly meet realistic images of babies and children, their characteristic shape and texture reproduced and appreciated. The parallel to developments in European art from the seventeenth century on is a striking one. With artists like Van Dyck and Rubens we find, again, the delight in depicting young children as something more than miniature adults or swaddled babies: as creatures appealing and interesting in themselves.

The exhibition and catalog do not limit themselves to infants. They go on to representations of youths and girls on the brink of adulthood. Their range is thus wide, and the selection has been perceptively done. This is a show that no parent could visit unmoved; and the catalog, well illustrated and intelligently written, is a valuable and lasting contribution. It is unavoidably true that many of these images are of the death of a child and of its commemoration. That is, after all, what made people pay to have their children represented in marble, a material which was lasting but also expensive.

There are many fine gravestones showing children, or young mothers with their offspring. Those from Attica in the archaic and classical periods do not depict the scenes of wild grief which we know occurred in daily life from the evidence of funerals in Attic tragedy and from disapproving references to such grief in literature, as well as from the attempts of moralists and legislators to curb them. A chastened sadness is the atmosphere on tombs and on painted pottery, as the living bid farewell to their dead. When we see a deity of the Beyond, it is regularly not a demon or a monster but the sober figure of Charon, ferryman of the dead, who receives the dead child or parent and transports them in quiet dignity across the river which cuts them off forever from the living.

It is the fundamental function of a mythology to attempt to make sense of the world in which its people find themselves. They are aware that they are weak and vulnerable, exposed without apparent redress to the blind workings of events and the unforeseen consequences of their own actions and decisions. Different societies have gone about the task of explanation in very different ways. The Greeks developed a very particular religious system, marked by brilliant narratives, the Homeric epics above all, which explored the relations of gods and men with unforgettable bravura, and which formed a permanent and fundamental part of Greek religious thought. Increasingly, however, they came to present worrying moral problems, as the Greeks continued to meditate on them, to rework them, and to apply to them the ever-increasing sophistication of their philosophical and historical thought.

The particular approach of the book by Mary Lefkowitz, who teaches at Wellesley, is to follow, in the case of each mythological story, one central Greek source, whether from Homer, Hesiod, or Greek plays. She resists the temptation to add complexity by bringing in details and motifs from other treatments, and instead shows the workings and determining influence of the gods within her chosen text. The attempt is on the whole a great success. There may be disagreement about particular judgments, but the main argument—about the centrality and seriousness of the gods in ancient Greece—carries conviction.

Every living person retains the memory, and perhaps the lasting anxiety, of a time of helplessness, when as a child he was in the hands, and at the mercy, of beings enormously stronger and more capable than himself, whose purposes were often hard to comprehend and not always easy to share, and who seemed to combine, in perplexing and unpredictable ways, underlying benevolence with occasional injustice. Mary Lefkowitz wants to show how the Greeks created a more or less lucid and intelligible pantheon of gods who continue to exhibit the same parental characteristics. The gods are basically on the side of right order, and they will respond well to the right kind of behavior on our part; but they may be impatient, they are not always paying close attention, and, as Lefkowitz correctly insists, they have a different time scale. That is not, of course, unique to them; a familiar hymn says to the Christian God:

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone….

What are the most basic features of the world, of which the human heart demands a satisfying account? Lefkowitz argues that the religion of classical Greece is far from being, as many have supposed from a very early date, frivolous or immoral or irrelevant to our deepest needs. It is, she claims, a religion which

describes mortal life as it really is, fragile, threatened, uncertain, and never consistently happy…it is a religion for adults.

That is, of course, a polemical view. The religion of the Olympians, for Lefkowitz, is more grown up, more true, than the familiar religions of the modern world. Its lack of comfort, specifically, is what distinguishes it from the religions of salvation which have been more fashionable in the last couple of millennia.

The world was not, in the classical Greek religious perspective, created for man. The gods have other interests, and they have histories of their own, in which men figure peripherally or not at all, as in the tales of the father and grandfather who preceded Zeus as Top God and were in turn overthrown. Every human being must suffer. Often people are involved in suffering or ruin through no fault of their own. Hector’s wife is enslaved, and her child killed, as part of the consequences of the crime of Paris in carrying off Helen: but Helen was promised to him by Aphrodite, goddess of love, as a bribe, if he would vote for her in a beauty contest with two other goddesses. By no means everything about these gods is edifying, either for us or for the Greeks.

Hesiod, the other great early poet, describes all men as suffering in consequence of a quarrel between gods. Life was originally easy, but then Zeus “hid livelihood from men” and forced them to live an existence of toil. He even carried malevolence so far as to invent woman as a plague for man, attractive but dishonest and demanding—and all this without having had the decency to issue an advance warning, like the one which Jehovah gave to Adam and Eve about the fruit of the forbidden tree. On the contrary, the father of gods and men laughed aloud, we read, as he planned the woman’s creation. The world as it now is, we are told, is a much inferior place to that once inhabited by a Golden Race of men and then by a Silver Race, both abolished by the gods without explanation. Mortals must be careful, pay due honor to the gods, and work hard.

The Iliad, most important of all Greek texts, shows a world in which, Lefkowitz writes,

The cruel realities of mortal life stand out more strongly against the background of the blessed existence of the gods…. On the whole the gods are not concerned with the affairs or feelings of most human beings…. The gods concentrate on those few mortals who are important to them, but they are prepared to abandon even their favorites when it is time for them to die. Communication with the gods is brief and lacking in comfort….

This bleak world view is applauded by Lefkowitz as essentially true. We observe that it is a view that the Greeks themselves found very hard to maintain. Even in the Iliad, characters complain of the cruelty and injustice of heaven, and the next great work to appear, the Odyssey, makes a systematic attempt to present the world as a place in which the wicked are punished, the good are rewarded, and the workings of the gods are fully and explicitly justified. Not even early Greece could for long gaze without blinking into the eyes of the hard and austere vision of the Iliad.

Between Homer and Attic tragedy came philosophers who protested vehemently against the lightheartedness and immorality of these gods, even to the point of denying that they were gods at all. On the tragic stage the gods are quite often the subject of criticism and complaint, much of it, to our eyes, justified. Lefkowitz makes a case for the defense that is thoughtful and often effective, but sometimes perhaps rather strained. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King Oedipus fulfills an oracle given before his birth by killing his father and engendering children with his mother, in ignorance, in both cases, of their identity. The disclosure causes her to kill herself and him to blind himself.

Why should Oedipus, who had committed no crime, be punished in this way? The answer is that he was the victim of a family curse…. This form of justice offers little comfort to Oedipus, or to the chorus, or indeed to any mortal, unless it be the cold comfort that comes from understanding. He is now blind, penniless, about to be sent into exile; but he does understand that he cannot control everything.

So too in Antigone, in which we watch the deaths by successive suicide of Antigone and of her betrothed cousin Haemon, and of the young man’s mother, the moral is that

by not intervening directly to prevent the mortals from making further mistakes,…the gods see to it that the earlier crimes of the family of Oedipus are avenged, and so they determine the terrible outcome of the drama.

These are cold comforts indeed. What sort of vengeance, one is tempted to ask, is it for crimes, that gods should cause the death of later generations of a family?

And what of the horrendous sufferings of mortals in Euripides, as when, in Bacchae, Pentheus, having denied the divinity of Dionysus and persecuted his worshipers, is torn to pieces by his mother and aunts, acting under the maddening influence of the god? Or when Heracles, in Euripides’ Heracles, is driven mad by Hera and kills his own wife and children? In the plays we hear eloquent denunciations of the cruelty of heaven. Mary Lefkowitz comments:

Such lack of concern for human suffering is not uncharacteristic of divinity…. Dramas bring out even more vividly than the Homeric epics the ruthlessness of the gods in pursuit of their own honor.

At moments in reading her acute and fascinating book, one is struck by the thought that the gods of Olympus have found, fifteen hundred years after their last shrine was desecrated or turned into a church, their last worshiper: a votary whose zeal will defend them, not only against the remonstrances of the Christians, but even against the cries of moral protest that ring out in the pages of the pagans themselves.

  1. *

    The exhibition continues at the Onassis Cultural Center, New York, January 19–April 1, 2004; at the Cincinnati Art Museum, May 1–August 1, 2004; and at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, September 14–December 5, 2004.