Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Complete
by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

XVII. But the most remarkable feature of the superstition of Greece was her sacred oracles. And these again bring our inquiries back to Egypt. Herodotus informs us that the oracle of Dodona was by far the most ancient in Greece [50], and he then proceeds to inform us of its origin, which he traces to Thebes in Egypt. But here we are beset by contradictions: Herodotus, on the authority of the Egyptian priests, ascribes the origin of the Dodona and Lybian oracles to two priestesses of the Theban Jupiter—stolen by Phoenician pirates—one of whom, sold into Greece, established at Dodona an oracle similar to that which she had served at Thebes. But in previous passages Herodotus informs us, 1st, that in Egypt, no priestesses served the temples of any deity, male or female; and 2dly, that when the Egyptians imparted to the Pelasgi the names of their divinities, the Pelasgi consulted the oracle of Dodona on the propriety of adopting them; so that that oracle existed before even the first and fundamental revelations of Egyptian religion. It seems to me, therefore, a supposition that demands less hardy assumption, and is equally conformable with the universal superstitions of mankind (since similar attempts at divination are to be found among so many nations similarly barbarous) to believe that the oracle arose from the impressions of the Pelasgi [51] and the natural phenomena of the spot; though at a subsequent period the manner of the divination was very probably imitated from that adopted by the Theban oracle. And in examining the place it indeed seems as if Nature herself had been the Egyptian priestess! Through a mighty grove of oaks there ran a stream, whose waters supplied a fountain that might well appear, to ignorant wonder, endowed with preternatural properties. At a certain hour of noon it was dry, and at midnight full. Such springs have usually been deemed oracular, not only in the East, but in almost every section of the globe.

At first, by the murmuring of waters, and afterward by noises among the trees, the sacred impostors interpreted the voice of the god. It is an old truth, that mystery is always imposing and often convenient. To plain questions were given dark answers, which might admit of interpretation according to the event. The importance attached to the oracle, the respect paid to the priest, and the presents heaped on the altar, indicated to craft and ambition a profitable profession. And that profession became doubly alluring to its members, because it proffered to the priests an authority in serving the oracles which they could not obtain in the general religion of the people. Oracles increased then, at first slowly, and afterward rapidly, until they grew so numerous that the single district of Boeotia contained no less than twenty-five. The oracle of Dodona long, however, maintained its pre-eminence over the rest, and was only at last eclipsed by that of Delphi [52], where strong and intoxicating exhalations from a neighbouring stream were supposed to confer prophetic phrensy. Experience augmented the sagacity of the oracles, and the priests, no doubt, intimately acquainted with all the affairs of the states around, and viewing the living contests of action with the coolness of spectators, were often enabled to give shrewd and sensible admonitions,—so that the forethought of wisdom passed for the prescience of divinity. Hence the greater part of their predictions were eminently successful; and when the reverse occurred, the fault was laid on the blind misconstruction of the human applicant. Thus no great design was executed, no city founded, no colony planted, no war undertaken, without the advice of an oracle. In the famine, the pestilence, and the battle, the divine voice was the assuager of terror and the inspirer of hope. All the instincts of our frailer nature, ever yearning for some support that is not of the world, were enlisted in behalf of a superstition which proffered solutions to doubt, and remedies to distress.

Besides this general cause for the influence of oracles, there was another cause calculated to give to the oracles of Greece a marked and popular pre-eminence over those in Egypt. A country divided into several small, free, and warlike states, would be more frequently in want of the divine advice, than one united under a single monarchy, or submitted to the rigid austerity of castes and priestcraft; and in which the inhabitants felt for political affairs all the languid indifference habitual to the subjects of a despotic government. Half a century might pass in Egypt without any political event that would send anxious thousands to the oracle; but in the wonderful ferment, activity, and restlessness of the numerous Grecian towns, every month, every week, there was some project or some feud for which the advice of a divinity was desired. Hence it was chiefly to a political cause that the immortal oracle of Delphi owed its pre-eminent importance. The Dorian worshippers of Apollo (long attached to that oracle, then comparatively obscure), passing from its neighbourhood and befriended by its predictions, obtained the mastership of the Peloponnesus;— their success was the triumph of the oracle. The Dorian Sparta (long the most powerful of the Grecian states), inviolably faithful to the Delphian god, upheld his authority, and spread the fame of his decrees. But in the more polished and enlightened times, the reputation of the oracle gradually decayed; it shone the brightest before and during the Persian war;—the appropriate light of an age of chivalry fading slowly as philosophy arose!

XVIII. But the practice of divination did not limit itself to these more solemn sources—its enthusiasm was contagious—its assistance was ever at hand [53]. Enthusiasm operated on the humblest individuals. One person imagined himself possessed by a spirit actually passing into his soul—another merely inspired by the divine breath—a third was cast into supernatural ecstasies, in which he beheld the shadow of events, or the visions of a god—a threefold species of divine possession, which we may still find recognised by the fanatics of a graver faith! Nor did this suffice: a world of omens surrounded every man. There were not only signs and warnings in the winds, the earthquake, the eclipse of the sun or moon, the meteor, or the thunderbolt—but dreams also were reduced to a science [54]; the entrails of victims were auguries of evil or of good; the flights of birds, the motions of serpents, the clustering of bees, had their mystic and boding interpretations. Even hasty words, an accident, a fall on the earth, a sneeze (for which we still invoke the ancient blessing), every singular or unwonted event, might become portentous, and were often rendered lucky or unlucky according to the dexterity or disposition of the person to whom they occurred.

And although in later times much of this more frivolous superstition passed away—although Theophrastus speaks of such lesser omens with the same witty disdain as that with which the Spectator ridicules our fears at the upsetting of a salt-cellar, or the appearance of a winding-sheet in a candle,—yet, in the more interesting period of Greece, these popular credulities were not disdained by the nobler or wiser few, and to the last they retained that influence upon the mass which they lost with individuals. And it is only by constantly remembering this universal atmosphere of religion, that we can imbue ourselves with a correct understanding of the character of the Greeks in their most Grecian age. Their faith was with them ever—in sorrow or in joy—at the funeral or the feast—in their uprisings and their downsittings—abroad and at home—at the hearth and in the market-place—in the camp or at the altar. Morning and night all the greater tribes of the elder world offered their supplications on high: and Plato has touchingly insisted on this sacred uniformity of custom, when he tells us that at the rising of the moon and at the dawning of the sun, you may behold Greeks and barbarians—all the nations of the earth—bowing in homage to the gods.

XIX. To sum up, the above remarks conduce to these principal conclusions; First, that the Grecian mythology cannot be moulded into any of the capricious and fantastic systems of erudite ingenuity: as a whole, no mythology can be considered more strikingly original, not only because its foundations appear indigenous, and based upon the character and impressions of the people—not only because at no one period, from the earliest even to the latest date, whatever occasional resemblances may exist, can any identify be established between its most popular and essential creations, and those of any other faith; but because, even all that it borrowed it rapidly remodelled and naturalized, growing yet more individual from its very complexity, yet more original from the plagiarisms which it embraced; Secondly, that it differed in many details in the different states, but under the development of a general intercourse, assisted by a common language, the plastic and tolerant genius of the people harmonized all discords —until (catholic in its fundamental principles) her religion united the whole of Greece in indissoluble bonds of faith and poetry—of daily customs and venerable traditions; Thirdly, that the influence of other creeds, though by no means unimportant in amplifying the character, and adding to the list of the primitive deities, appears far more evident in the ceremonies and usages than the personal creations of the faith. We may be reasonably skeptical as to what Herodotus heard of the origin of rites or gods from Egyptian priests; but there is no reason to disbelieve the testimony of his experience, when he asserts, that the forms and solemnities of one worship closely resemble those of another; the imitation of a foreign ceremony is perfectly compatible with the aboriginal invention of a national god. For the rest, I think it might be (and by many scholars appears to me to have been) abundantly shown, that the Phoenician influences upon the early mythology of the Greeks were far greater than the Egyptian, though by degrees, and long after the heroic age, the latter became more eagerly adopted and more superficially apparent.

In quitting this part of our subject, let it be observed, as an additional illustration of the remarkable nationality of the Grecian mythology, that our best light to the manners of the Homeric men, is in the study of the Homeric gods. In Homer we behold the mythology of an era, for analogy to which we search in vain the records of the East—that mythology is inseparably connected with the constitution of limited monarchies,—with the manners of an heroic age:—the power of the sovereign of the aristocracy of heaven is the power of a Grecian king over a Grecian state:—the social life of the gods is the life most coveted by the Grecian heroes;—the uncertain attributes of the deities, rather physical or intellectual than moral—strength and beauty, sagacity mixed with cunning—valour with ferocity—inclination to war, yet faculties for the inventions of peace; such were the attributes most honoured among men, in the progressive, but still uncivilized age which makes the interval so pre-eminently Grecian— between the mythical and historic times. Vain and impotent are all attempts to identify that religion of Achaian warriors with the religion of oriental priests. It was indeed symbolical—but of the character of its believers; typical—but of the restless, yet poetical, daring, yet graceful temperament, which afterward conducted to great achievements and imperishable arts: the coming events of glory cast their shadows before, in fable.

XX. There now opens to us a far more important inquiry than that into the origin and form of the religion of the Greeks; namely, the influences of that religion itself upon their character—their morals —their social and intellectual tendencies.

The more we can approach the Deity to ourselves—the more we can invest him with human attributes—the more we can connect him with the affairs and sympathies of earth, the greater will be his influence upon our conduct—the more fondly we shall contemplate his attributes, the more timidly we shall shrink from his vigilance, the more anxiously we shall strive for his approval. When Epicurus allowed the gods to exist, but imagined them wholly indifferent to the concerns of men, contemplating only their own happiness, and regardless alike of our virtues or our crimes;—with that doctrine he robbed man of the divinity, as effectually as if he had denied his existence. The fear of the gods could not be before the eyes of votaries who believed that the gods were utterly careless of their conduct; and not only the awful control of religion was removed from their passions, but the more beautiful part of its influence, resulting not from terror but from hope, was equally blasted and destroyed: For if the fear of the divine power serves to restrain the less noble natures, so, on the other hand, with such as are more elevated and generous, there is no pleasure like the belief that we are regarded with approbation and love by a Being of ineffable majesty and goodness—who compassionates our misfortunes—who rewards our struggles with ourselves. It is this hope which gives us a pride in our own natures, and which not only restrains us from vice, but inspires us with an emulation to arouse within us all that is great and virtuous, in order the more to deserve his love, and feel the image of divinity reflected upon the soul. It is for this reason that we are not contented to leave the character of a God uncertain and unguessed, shrouded in the darkness of his own infinite power; we clothe him with the attributes of human excellence, carried only to an extent beyond humanity; and cannot conceive a deity not possessed of the qualities—such as justice, wisdom, and benevolence—which are most venerated among mankind. But if we believe that he has passed to earth—that he has borne our shape, that he has known our sorrows—the connexion becomes yet more intimate and close; we feel as if he could comprehend us better, and compassionate more benignly our infirmities and our griefs. The Christ that has walked the earth, and suffered on the cross, can be more readily pictured to our imagination, and is more familiarly before us, than the Dread Eternal One, who hath the heaven for his throne, and the earth only for his footstool [55]. And it is this very humanness of connexion, so to speak, between man and the Saviour, which gives to the Christian religion, rightly embraced, its peculiar sentiment of gentleness and of love.

But somewhat of this connexion, though in a more corrupt degree, marked also the religion of the Greeks; they too believed (at least the multitude) that most of the deities had appeared on earth, and been the actual dispensers of the great benefits of social life. Transferred to heaven, they could more readily understand that those divinities regarded with interest the nations to which they had been made visible, and exercised a permanent influence over the earth, which had been for a while their home.

Retaining the faith that the deities had visited the world, the Greeks did not however implicitly believe the fables which degraded them by our weaknesses and vices. They had, as it were—and this seems not to have been rightly understood by the moderns—two popular mythologies— the first consecrated to poetry, and the second to actual life. If a man were told to imitate the gods, it was by the virtues of justice, temperance, and benevolence [56]; and had he obeyed the mandate by emulating the intrigues of Jupiter, or the homicides of Mars, he would have been told by the more enlightened that those stories were the inventions of the poets; and by the more credulous that gods might be emancipated from laws, but men were bound by them—"Superis sea jura" [57]—their own laws to the gods! It is true, then, that those fables were preserved—were held in popular respect, but the reverence they excited among the Greeks was due to a poetry which flattered their national pride and enchained their taste, and not to the serious doctrines of their religion. Constantly bearing this distinction in mind, we shall gain considerable insight, not only into their religion, but into seeming contradictions in their literary history. They allowed Aristophanes to picture Bacchus as a buffoon, and Hercules as a glutton, in the same age in which they persecuted Socrates for neglect of the sacred mysteries and contempt of the national gods. To that part of their religion which belonged to the poets they permitted the fullest license; but to the graver portion of religion—to the existence of the gods—to a belief in their collective excellence, and providence, and power—to the sanctity of asylums—to the obligation of oaths—they showed the most jealous and inviolable respect. The religion of the Greeks, then, was a great support and sanction to their morals; it inculcated truth, mercy, justice, the virtues most necessary to mankind, and stimulated to them by the rigid and popular belief that excellence was approved and guilt was condemned by the superior powers [58]. And in that beautiful process by which the common sense of mankind rectifies the errors of imagination—those fables which subsequent philosophers rightly deemed dishonourable to the gods, and which the superficial survey of modern historians has deemed necessarily prejudicial to morals—had no unworthy effect upon the estimate taken by the Greeks whether of human actions or of heavenly natures.

XXI. For a considerable period the Greeks did not carry the notion of divine punishment beyond the grave, except in relation to those audacious criminals who had blasphemed or denied the gods; it was by punishments in this world that the guilty were afflicted. And this doctrine, if less sublime than that of eternal condemnation, was, I apprehend, on regarding the principles of human nature, equally effective in restraining crime: for our human and short-sighted minds are often affected by punishments, in proportion as they are human and speedy. A penance in the future world is less fearful and distinct, especially to the young and the passionate, than an unavoidable retribution in this. Man, too fondly or too vainly, hopes, by penitence at the close of life, to redeem the faults of the commencement, and punishment deferred loses more than half its terrors, and nearly all its certainty.

As long as the Greeks were left solely to their mythology, their views of a future state were melancholy and confused. Death was an evil, not a release. Even in their Elysium, their favourite heroes seem to enjoy but a frigid and unenviable immortality. Yet this saddening prospect of the grave rather served to exhilarate life, and stimulate to glory:—"Make the most of existence," say their early poets, "for soon comes the dreary Hades!" And placed beneath a delightful climate, and endowed with a vivacious and cheerful temperament, they yielded readily to the precept. Their religion was eminently glad and joyous; even the stern Spartans lost their austerity in their sacred rites, simple and manly though they were—and the gayer Athenians passed existence in an almost perpetual circle of festivals and holydays.

This uncertainty of posthumous happiness contributed also to the desire of earthly fame. For below at least, their heroes taught them, immortality was not impossible. Bounded by impenetrable shadows to this world, they coveted all that in this world was most to be desired [59]. A short life is acceptable to Achilles, not if it lead to Elysium, but if it be accompanied with glory. By degrees, however, prospects of a future state, nobler and more august, were opened by their philosophers to the hopes of the Greeks. Thales was asserted to be the first Greek who maintained the immortality of the soul, and that sublime doctrine was thus rather established by the philosopher than the priest. [60]

XXII. Besides the direct tenets of religion, the mysteries of the Greeks exercised an influence on their morals, which, though greatly exaggerated by modern speculators, was, upon the whole, beneficial, though not from the reasons that have been assigned. As they grew up into their ripened and mature importance—their ceremonial, rather than their doctrine, served to deepen and diffuse a reverence for religious things. Whatever the licentiousness of other mysteries (especially in Italy), the Eleusinian rites long retained their renown for purity and decorum; they were jealously watched by the Athenian magistracy, and one of the early Athenian laws enacted that the senate should assemble the day after their celebration to inquire into any abuse that might have sullied their sacred character. Nor is it, perhaps, without justice in the later times, that Isocrates lauds their effect on morality, and Cicero their influence on civilization and the knowledge of social principles. The lustrations and purifications, at whatever period their sanctity was generally acknowledged, could scarcely fail of salutary effects. They were supposed to absolve the culprit from former crimes, and restore him, a new man, to the bosom of society. This principle is a great agent of morality, and was felt as such in the earlier era of Christianity: no corrupter is so deadly as despair; to reconcile a criminal with self-esteem is to readmit him, as it were, to virtue.

Even the fundamental error of the religion in point of doctrine, viz., its polytheism, had one redeeming consequence in the toleration which it served to maintain—the grave evils which spring up from the fierce antagonism of religious opinions, were, save in a few solitary and dubious instances, unknown to the Greeks. And this general toleration, assisted yet more by the absence of a separate caste of priests, tended to lead to philosophy through the open and unchallenged portals of religion. Speculations on the gods connected themselves with bold inquiries into nature. Thought let loose in the wide space of creation—no obstacle to its wanderings—no monopoly of its commerce—achieved, after many a wild and fruitless voyage, discoveries unknown to the past—of imperishable importance to the future. The intellectual adventurers of Greece planted the first flag upon the shores of philosophy; for the competition of errors is necessary to the elucidation of truths; and the imagination indicates the soil which the reason is destined to culture and possess.

XXIII. While such was the influence of their religion on the morals and the philosophy of the Greeks, what was its effect upon their national genius?

We must again remember that the Greeks were the only nation among the more intellectual of that day, who stripped their deities of symbolical attributes, and did not aspire to invent for gods shapes differing (save in loftier beauty) from the aspect and form of man. And thus at once was opened to them the realm of sculpture. The people of the East, sometimes indeed depicting their deities in human forms, did not hesitate to change them into monsters, if the addition of another leg or another arm, a dog's head or a serpent's tail, could better express the emblem they represented. They perverted their images into allegorical deformities; and receded from the beautiful in proportion as they indulged their false conceptions of the sublime. Besides, a painter or a sculptor must have a clear idea presented to him, to be long cherished and often revolved, if we desire to call forth all the inspiration of which his genius may be capable; but how could the eastern artist form a clear idea of an image that should represent the sun entering Aries, or the productive principle of nature? Such creations could not fail of becoming stiff or extravagant, deformed or grotesque. But to the Greek, a god was something like the most majestic or the most beautiful of his own species. He studied the human shape for his conceptions of the divine. Intent upon the natural, he ascended to the ideal. [61]

If such the effect of the Grecian religion upon sculpture, similar and equal its influence upon poetry. The earliest verses of the Greeks appear to have been of a religious, though I see no sufficient reason for asserting that they were therefore of a typical and mystic, character. However that be, the narrative succeeding to the sacred poetry materialized all it touched. The shadows of Olympus received the breath of Homer, and the gods grew at once life-like and palpable to men. The traditions which connected the deities with humanity—the genius which divested them of allegory—gave at once to the epic and the tragic poet the supernatural world. The inhabitants of heaven itself became individualized—bore each a separate character—could be rendered distinct, dramatic, as the creatures of daily life. Thus—an advantage which no moderns ever have possessed—with all the ineffable grandeur of deities was combined all the familiar interest of mortals; and the poet, by preserving the characteristics allotted to each god, might make us feel the associations and sympathies of earth, even when he bore us aloft to the unknown Olympus, or plunged below amid the shades of Orcus.

The numerous fables mixed with the Grecian creed, sufficiently venerable, as we have seen, not to be disdained, but not so sacred as to be forbidden, were another advantage to the poet. For the traditions of a nation are its poetry! And if we moderns, in the German forest, or the Scottish highlands, or the green English fields, yet find inspiration in the notions of fiend, and sprite, and fairy, not acknowledged by our religion, not appended as an apocryphal adjunct to our belief, how much more were those fables adapted to poetry, which borrowed not indeed an absolute faith, but a certain shadow, a certain reverence and mystery, from religion! Hence we find that the greatest works of imagination which the Greeks have left us, whether of Homer, of Aeschylus, or of Sophocles, are deeply indebted to their mythological legends. The Grecian poetry, like the Grecian religion, was at once half human, half divine—majestic, vast, august —household, homely, and familiar. If we might borrow an illustration from the philosophy of Democritus, its earthlier dreams and divinations were indeed the impressions of mighty and spectral images inhabiting the air. [62]

XXIV. Of the religion of Greece, of its rites and ceremonies, and of its influence upon the moral and intellectual faculties—this— already, I fear, somewhat too prolixly told—is all that at present I deem it necessary to say. [63]

We have now to consider the origin of slavery in Greece, an inquiry almost equally important to our accurate knowledge of her polity and manners.

XXV. Wherever we look—to whatsoever period of history—conquest, or the settlement of more enlightened colonizers amid a barbarous tribe, seems the origin of slavery—modified according to the spirit of the times, the humanity of the victor, or the policy of the lawgiver. The aboriginals of Greece were probably its earliest slaves [64],—yet the aboriginals might be also its earliest lords. Suppose a certain tribe to overrun a certain country—conquer and possess it: new settlers are almost sure to be less numerous than the inhabitants they subdue; in proportion as they are the less powerful in number are they likely to be the more severe in authority: they will take away the arms of the vanquished—suppress the right of meetings—make stern and terrible examples against insurgents—and, in a word, quell by the moral constraint of law those whom it would be difficult to control merely by, physical force;—the rigidity of the law being in ratio to the deficiency of the force. In times semi-civilized, and even comparatively enlightened, conquerors have little respect for the conquered—an immense and insurmountable distinction is at once made between the natives and their lords. All ancient nations seem to have considered that the right of conquest gave a right to the lands of the conquered country. William dividing England among his Normans is but an imitator of every successful invader of ancient times. The new-comers having gained the land of a subdued people, that people, in order to subsist, must become the serfs of the land [65]. The more formidable warriors are mostly slain, or exiled, or conciliated by some remains of authority and possessions; the multitude remain the labourers of the soil, and slight alterations of law will imperceptibly convert the labourer into the slave. The earliest slaves appear chiefly to have been the agricultural population. If the possession of the government were acquited by colonizers [66],— not so much by the force of arms as by the influence of superior arts —the colonizers would in some instances still establish servitude for the multitude, though not under so harsh a name. The laws they would frame for an uncultured and wretched population, would distinguish between the colonizers and the aboriginals (excepting perhaps only the native chiefs, accustomed arbitrarily to command, though not systematically to enslave the rest). The laws for the aboriginal population would still be an improvement on their previous savage and irregulated state—and generations might pass before they would attain a character of severity, or before they made the final and ineffaceable distinction between the freeman and the slave. The perturbed restlessness and constant migration of tribes in Greece, recorded both by tradition and by history, would consequently tend at a very remote period to the institution and diffusion of slavery and the Pelasgi of one tribe would become the masters of the Pelasgi of another. There is, therefore, no necessity to look out of Greece for the establishment of servitude in that country by conquest and war. But the peaceful colonization of foreign settlers would (as we have seen) lead to it by slower and more gentle degrees. And the piracies of the Phoenicians, which embraced the human species as an article of their market, would be an example, more prevalent and constant than their own, to the piracies of the early Greeks. The custom of servitude, thus commenced, is soon fed by new sources. Prisoners of war are enslaved, or, at the will of the victor, exchanged as an article of commerce. Before the interchange of money, we have numerous instances of the barter of prisoners for food and arms. And as money became the medium of trade, so slaves became a regular article of sale and purchase. Hence the origin of the slave-market. Luxury increasing slaves were purchased not merely for the purposes of labour, but of pleasure. The accomplished musician of the beautiful virgin was an article of taste or a victim of passion. Thus, what it was the tendency of barbarism to originate, it became the tendency of civilization to increase.

Slavery, then, originated first in conquest and war, piracy, or colonization: secondly, in purchase. There were two other and subordinate sources of the institution—the first was crime, the second poverty. If a free citizen committed a heinous offence, he could be degraded into a slave—if he were unable to pay his debts, the creditor could claim his person. Incarceration is merely a remnant and substitute of servitude. The two latter sources failed as nations became more free. But in Attica it was not till the time of Solon, several centuries after the institution of slavery at Athens, that the right of the creditor to the personal services of the debtor was formally abolished.

A view of the moral effects of slavery—of the condition of the slaves at Athens—of the advantages of the system and its evils—of the light in which it was regarded by the ancients themselves, other and more fitting opportunities will present to us.

XXVI. The introduction of an hereditary aristocracy into a particular country, as yet uncivilized, is often simultaneous with that of slavery. A tribe of warriors possess and subdue a territory;—they share its soil with the chief in proportion to their connexion with his person, or their military services and repute—each becomes the lord of lands and slaves—each has privileges above the herd of the conquered population. Suppose again, that the dominion is acquired by colonizers rather than conquerors; the colonizers, superior in civilization to the natives,—and regarded by the latter with reverence and awe, would become at once a privileged and noble order. Hence, from either source, an aristocracy permanent and hereditary [67]. If founded on conquest, in proportion to the number of the victors, is that aristocracy more or less oligarchical. The extreme paucity of force with which the Dorians conquered their neighbours, was one of the main causes why the governments they established were rigidly oligarchical.

XXVII. Proceeding onward, we find that in this aristocracy, are preserved the seeds of liberty and the germe of republicanism. These conquerors, like our feudal barons, being sharers of the profit of the conquest and the glory of the enterprise, by no means allow undivided and absolute authority to their chiefs. Governed by separate laws— distinguished by separate privileges from the subdued community, they are proud of their own freedom, the more it is contrasted with the servitude of the population: they preserve liberty for themselves— they resist the undue assumptions of the king [68]—and keep alive that spirit and knowledge of freedom which in after times (as their numbers increase, and they become a people, distinct still from the aboriginal natives, who continue slaves) are transfused from the nobles to the multitude. In proportion as the new race are warlike will their unconscious spirit be that of republicanism; the connexion between martial and republican tendencies was especially recognised by all ancient writers: and the warlike habits of the Hellenes were the cradle of their political institutions. Thus, in conquest (or sometimes in immigration) we may trace the origin of an aristocracy [69], as of slavery, and thus, by a deeper inquiry, we may find also that the slavery of a population and the freedom of a state have their date, though dim and undeveloped, in the same epoch.

XXVIII. I have thought that the supposed Egyptian colonization of Attica under Cecrops afforded the best occasion to treat of the above matters, not so much in reference to Cecrops himself as to the migration of Eastern and Egyptian adventurers. Of such migrations the dates may be uncertain—of such adventurers the names may be unknown. But it seems to me impossible to deny the fact of foreign settlements in Greece, in her remoter and more barbarous era, though we may dispute as to the precise amount of the influence they exercised, and the exact nature of the rites and customs they established.

A belief in the early connexion between the Egyptians and Athenians, encouraged by the artful vanity of the one, was welcomed by the lively credulity of the other. Many ages after the reputed sway of the mythical Cecrops, it was fondly imagined that traces of their origin from the solemn Egypt [70] were yet visible among the graceful and versatile people, whose character was as various, yet as individualized, as their religion—who, viewed in whatsoever aspect of their intellectual history, may appear constantly differing, yet remain invariably Athenian. Whether clamouring in the Agora—whether loitering in the Academe—whether sacrificing to Hercules in the temple—whether laughing at Hercules on the stage—whether with Miltiades arming against the Mede—whether with Demosthenes declaiming against the Macedonian—still unmistakeable, unexampled, original, and alone—in their strength or their weakness, their wisdom or their foibles their turbulent action, their cultivated repose.


The unimportant consequences to be deduced from the admission that Cecrops might be Egyptian.—Attic Kings before Theseus.—The Hellenes.—Their Genealogy.—Ionians and Achaeans Pelasgic.—Contrast between Dorians and Ionians.—Amphictyonic League.

I. In allowing that there does not appear sufficient evidence to induce us to reject the tale of the Egyptian origin of Cecrops, it will be already observed, that I attach no great importance to the dispute: and I am not inclined reverently to regard the innumerable theories that have been built on so uncertain a foundation. An Egyptian may have migrated to Attica, but Egyptian influence in Attica was faint and evanescent;—arrived at the first dawn of historical fact, it is with difficulty that we discover the most dubious and shadowy vestiges of its existence. Neither Cecrops nor any other Egyptian in those ages is recorded to have founded a dynasty in Attica—it is clear that none established a different language—and all the boasted analogies of religion fade, on a close examination, into an occasional resemblance between the symbols and attributes of Egyptian and Grecian deities, or a similarity in mystic ceremonies and solemn institutions, which, for the most part, was almost indisputably formed by intercourse between Greece and Egypt in a far later age. Taking the earliest epoch at which history opens, and comparing the whole character of the Athenian people—moral, social, religious, and political—with that of any Egyptian population, it is not possible to select a more startling contrast, or one in which national character seems more indelibly formed by the early and habitual adoption of utterly opposite principles of thought and action. [71]

I said that Cecrops founded no dynasty: the same traditions that bring him from Egypt give him Cranaus, a native, for his successor. The darkness of fable closes over the interval between the reign of Cranaus and the time of Theseus: if tradition be any guide whatsoever, the history of that period was the history of the human race—it was the gradual passage of men from a barbarous state to the dawn of civilization—and the national mythi only gather in wild and beautiful fictions round every landmark in their slow and encumbered progress.

It would be very possible, by a little ingenious application of the various fables transmitted to us, to construct a history of imagined conquests and invented revolutions; and thus to win the unmerited praise of throwing a new light upon those remote ages. But when fable is our only basis—no fabric we erect, however imposing in itself, can be rightly entitled to the name of history. And, as in certain ancient chronicles it is recorded merely of undistinguished monarchs that they "lived and died," so such an assertion is precisely that which it would be the most presumptuous to make respecting the shadowy kings who, whether in Eusebius or the Parian marble, give dates and chronicles to the legendary gloom which preceded the heroic age.

The principal event recorded in these early times, for which there seems some foundation, is a war between Erechtheus of Athens and the Eleusinians;—the last assisted or headed by the Thracian Eumolpus. Erechtheus is said to have fallen a victim in this contest. But a treaty afterward concluded with the Eleusinians confirmed the ascendency of Athens, and, possibly, by a religious ceremonial, laid the foundation of the Eleusinian mysteries. In this contest is introduced a very doubtful personage, under the appellation of Ion (to whom I shall afterward recur), who appears on the side of the Athenians, and who may be allowed to have exercised a certain influence over them, whether in religious rites or political institutions, though he neither attained to the throne, nor seems to have exceeded the peaceful authority of an ally. Upon the dim and confused traditions relative to Ion, the wildest and most luxuriant speculations have been grafted—prolix to notice, unnecessary to contradict.

II. During this period there occurred—not rapidly, but slowly—the most important revolution of early Greece, viz., the spread of that tribe termed the Hellenes, who gradually established their predominance throughout the land, impressed indelible traces on the national character, and finally converted their own into the national name.

I have already expressed my belief that the Pelasgi were not a barbarous race, speaking a barbarous tongue, but that they were akin to the Hellenes, who spoke the Grecian language, and are considered the proper Grecian family. Even the dubious record of genealogy (which, if fabulous in itself, often under the names of individuals typifies the affinity of tribes) makes the Hellenes kindred to the Pelasgi. Deucalion, the founder of the Hellenes, was of Pelasgic origin—son of Prometheus, and nephew of Atlas, king of the Pelasgic Arcadia.

However this may be, we find the Hellenes driven from Phocis, their earliest recorded seat, by a flood in the time of Deucalion. Migrating into Thessaly, they expelled the Pelasgi; and afterward spreading themselves through Greece, they attained a general ascendency over the earlier habitants, enslaving, doubtless, the bulk of the population among which they formed a settlement, but ejecting numbers of the more resolute or the more noble families, and causing those celebrated migrations by which the Pelasgi carried their name and arts into Italy, as well as into Crete and various other isles. On the continent of Greece, when the revolution became complete, the Pelasgi appear to have retained only Arcadia, the greater part of Thessaly [72], the land of Dodona, and Attica.

There is no reason to suppose the Hellenes more enlightened and civilized than the Pelasgi; but they seem, if only by the record of their conquests, to have been a more stern, warlike, and adventurous branch of the Grecian family. I conclude them, in fact, to have been that part of the Pelasgic race who the longest retained the fierce and vigorous character of a mountain tribe, and who found the nations they invaded in that imperfect period of civilization which is so favourable to the designs of a conqueror—when the first warlike nature of a predatory tribe is indeed abandoned—but before the discipline, order, and providence of a social community are acquired. Like the Saxons into Britain, the Hellenes were invited [73] by the different Pelasgic chiefs as auxiliaries, and remained as conquerors. But in other respects they rather resembled the more knightly and energetic race by whom in Britain the Saxon dynasty was overturned:— the Hellenes were the Normans of antiquity. It is impossible to decide the exact date when the Hellenes obtained the general ascendency or when the Greeks received from that Thessalian tribe their common appellation. The Greeks were not termed Hellenes in the time in which the Iliad was composed—they were so termed in the time of Hesiod. But even in the Iliad, the word Panhellenes, applied to the Greeks, testifies the progress of the revolution [74], and in the Odyssey, the Hellenic name is no longer limited to the dominion of Achilles.

III. The Hellenic nation became popularly subdivided into four principal families, viz., the Dorians, the Aeolians, the Ionians, and Achaeans, of which I consider the former two alone genuinely Hellenic. The fable which makes Dorus, Aeolus, and Xuthus, the sons of Helen, declares that while Dorus was sent forth to conquer other lands, Aeolus succeeded to the domain of Phthiotis, and records no conquests of his own; but attributes to his sons the origin of most of the principal families of Greece. If rightly construed, this account would denote that the Aeolians remained for a generation at least subsequent to the first migration of the Dorians, in their Thessalian territories; and thence splitting into various hordes, descended as warriors and invaders upon the different states of Greece. They appear to have attached themselves to maritime situations, and the wealth of their early settlements is the theme of many a legend. The opulence of Orchomenus is compared by Homer to that of Egyptian Thebes. And in the time of the Trojan war, Corinth was already termed "the wealthy." By degrees the Aeolians became in a great measure blended and intermingled with the Dorians. Yet so intimately connected are the Hellenes and Pelasgi, that even these, the lineal descendants of Helen through the eldest branch, are no less confounded with the Pelasgic than the Dorian race. Strabo and Pausanias alike affirm the Aeolians to be Pelasgic, and in the Aeolic dialect we approach to the Pelasgic tongue.

The Dorians, first appearing in Phthiotis, are found two generations afterward in the mountainous district of Histiaeotis, comprising within their territory, according to Herodotus, the immemorial Vale of Tempe. Neighboured by warlike hordes, more especially the heroic Lapithae, with whom their earliest legends record fierce and continued war, this mountain tribe took from nature and from circumstance their hardy and martial character. Unable to establish secure settlements in the fertile Thessalian plains, and ranging to the defiles through which the romantic Peneus winds into the sea, several of the tribe migrated early into Crete, where, though forming only a part of the population of the isle, they are supposed by some to have established the Doric constitution and customs, which in their later settlements served them for a model. Other migrations marked their progress to the foot of Mount Pindus; thence to Dryopis, afterward called Doris; and from Dryopis to the Peloponnesus; which celebrated migration, under the name of the "Return of the Heraclidae," I shall hereafter more especially describe. I have said that genealogy attributes the origin of the Dorians and that of the Aeolians to Dorus and Aeolus, sons of Helen. This connects them with the Hellenes and with each other. The adventures of Xuthus, the third son of Helen, are not recorded by the legends of Thessaly, and he seems merely a fictitious creation, invented to bring into affinity with the Hellenes the families, properly Pelasgic, of the Achaeans and Ionians. It is by writers comparatively recent that we are told that Xuthus was driven from Thessaly by his brothers—that he took refuge in Attica, and on the plains of Marathon built four towns—Oenoe, Marathon, Probalinthus, and Tricorythus [75], and that he wedded Creusa, daughter of Erechtheus, king of Attica, and that by her he had two sons, Achaeus and Ion. By some we are told that Achaeus, entering the eastern side of Peloponnesus, founded a dominion in Laconia and Argolis; by others, on the contrary, that he conducted a band, partly Athenian, into Thessaly, and recovered the domains of which his father had been despoiled [76]. Both these accounts of Achaeus, as the representative of the Achaeans, are correct in this, that the Achaeans, had two settlements from remote periods—the one in the south of Thessaly—the other in the Peloponnesus.

The Achaeans were long the most eminent of the Grecian tribes. Possessed of nearly the whole of the Peloponnesus, except, by a singular chance, that part which afterward bore their name, they boasted the warlike fame of the opulent Menelaus and the haughty Agamemnon, the king of men. The dominant tribe of the heroic age, the Achaeans form the kindred link between the several epochs of the Pelasgic and Hellenic sway—their character indeed Hellenic, but their descent apparently Pelasgic. Dionysius of Halicarnassus derives them from Pelasgus himself, and they existed as Achaeans before the Hellenic Xuthus was even born. The legend which makes Achaeus the brother of Ion, tends likewise to prove, that if the Ionians were originally Pelasgic, so also were the Achaeans. Let us then come to Ion.

Although Ion is said to have given the name of Ionians to the Atticans, yet long before his time the Iaones were among the ancient inhabitants of the country; and Herodotus (the best authority on the subject) declares that the Ionians were Pelasgic and indigenous. There is not sufficient reason to suppose, therefore, that they were Hellenic conquerors or Hellenic settlers. They appear, on the contrary, to have been one of the aboriginal tribes of Attica:—a part of them proceeded into the Peloponnesus (typified under the migration thither of Xuthus), and these again returning (as typified by the arrival of Ion at Athens), in conjunction with such of their fraternity as had remained in their native settlement, became the most powerful and renowned of the several divisions of the Attic population. Their intercourse with the Peloponnesians would lead the Ionians to establish some of the political institutions and religious rites they had become acquainted with in their migration; and thus may we most probably account for the introduction of the worship of Apollo into Attica, and for that peaceful political influence which the mythical Ion is said to have exercised over his countrymen.

At all events, we cannot trace, any distinct and satisfactory connexion between this, the most intellectual and brilliant tribe of the Grecian family, and that roving and fortunate Thessalian horde to which the Hellenes gave the general name, and of which the Dorians were the fittest representative and the most powerful section. Nor, despite the bold assumptions of Mueller, is there any evidence of a Hellenic conquest in Attica. [77]

And that land which, according to tradition and to history, was the early refuge of exiles, derived from the admission and intercourse of strangers and immigrants those social and political improvements which in other states have been wrought by conquest.

IV. After the Dorians obtained possession of the Peloponnesus, the whole face of Greece was gradually changed. The return of the Heraclidae was the true consummation of the Hellenic revolution. The tribes hitherto migratory became fixed in the settlements they acquired. The Dorians rose to the rank of the most powerful race of Greece: and the Ionians, their sole rivals, possessed only on the continent the narrow soil of Attica, though their colonies covered the fertile coast of Asia Minor. Greece thus reduced to two main tribes, the Doric and the Ionian, historians have justly and generally concurred in noticing between them the strongest and most marked distinctions,—the Dorians grave, inflexible, austere,—the Ionians lively, versatile, prone to change. The very dialect of the one was more harsh and masculine than that of the other; and the music, the dances of the Dorians, bore the impress of their severe simplicity. The sentiment of veneration which pervaded their national character taught the Dorians not only, on the one hand, the firmest allegiance to the rites of religion—and a patriarchal respect for age—but, on the other hand, a blind and superstitious attachment to institutions merely on account of their antiquity—and an almost servile regard for birth, producing rather the feelings of clanship than the sympathy of citizens. We shall see hereafter, that while Athens established republics, Sparta planted oligarchies. The Dorians were proud of independence, but it was the independence of nobles rather than of a people. Their severity preserved them long from innovation—no less by what was vicious in its excess than by what was wise in its principle. With many great and heroic qualities, they were yet harsh to enemies—cruel to dependants—selfish to allies. Their whole policy was to preserve themselves as they were; if they knew not the rash excesses, neither were they impelled by the generous emotions, which belong to men whose constant aspirations are to be better and to be greater;—they did not desire to be better or to be greater; their only wish was not to be different. They sought in the future nothing but the continuance of the past; and to that past they bound themselves with customs and laws of iron. The respect in which they held their women, as well as their disdain of pleasure, preserved them in some measure from the licentiousness common to states in which women are despised; but the respect had little of the delicacy and sentiment of individual attachment—attachment was chiefly for their own sex [78]. The Ionians, on the contrary, were susceptible, flexile, and more characterized by the generosity of modern knighthood than the sternness of ancient heroism. Them, not the past, but the future, charmed. Ever eager to advance, they were impatient even of the good, from desire of the better. Once urged to democracy— democracy fixed their character, as oligarchy fixed the Spartan. For, to change is the ambition of a democracy—to conserve of an oligarchy. The taste, love, and intuition of the beautiful stamped the Greeks above all nations, and the Ionians above all the Greeks. It was not only that the Ionians were more inventive than their neighbours, but that whatever was beautiful in invention they at once seized and appropriated. Restless, inquisitive, ardent, they attempted all things, and perfected art—searched into all things, and consummated philosophy.

The Ionic character existed everywhere among Ionians, but the Doric was not equally preserved among the Dorians. The reason is evident. The essence of the Ionian character consisted in the spirit of change —that of the Dorian in resistance to innovation. When any Doric state abandoned its hereditary customs and institutions, it soon lost the Doric character—became lax, effeminate, luxurious—a corruption of the character of the Ionians; but no change could assimilate the Ionian to the Doric; for they belonged to different eras of civilization—the Doric to the elder, the Ionian to the more advanced. The two races of Scotland have become more alike than heretofore; but it is by making the highlander resemble the lowlander—and not by converting the lowland citizen into the mountain Gael. The habits of commerce, the substitution of democratic for oligarchic institutions, were sufficient to alter the whole character of the Dorians. The voluptuous Corinth—the trading Aegina (Doric states)—infinitely more resembled Athens than Sparta.

It is, then, to Sparta, that in the historical times we must look chiefly for the representative of the Doric tribe, in its proper and elementary features; and there, pure, vigorous, and concentrated, the Doric character presents a perpetual contrast to the Athenian. This contrast continued so long as either nation retained a character to itself;—and (no matter what the pretences of hostility) was the real and inevitable cause of that enmity between Athens and Sparta, the results of which fixed the destiny of Greece.

Yet were the contests of that enmity less the contests between opposing tribes than between those opposing principles which every nation may be said to nurse within itself; viz., the principle to change, and the principle to preserve; the principle to popularize, and the principle to limit the governing power; here the genius of an oligarchy, there of a people; here adherence to the past, there desire of the future. Each principle produced its excesses, and furnishes a salutary warning. The feuds of Sparta and Athens may be regarded as historical allegories, clothing the moral struggles, which, with all their perils and all their fluctuations, will last to the end of time.

V. This period is also celebrated for the supposed foundation of that assembly of the Grecian states, called the Amphictyonic Confederacy. Genealogy attributes its origin to a son of Deucalion, called Amphictyon. [79]

This fable would intimate a Hellenic origin, since Deucalion is the fabled founder of the Hellenes; but out of twelve tribes which composed the confederacy, only three were Hellenic, and the rest Pelasgic. But with the increasing influence of the Dorian oracle of Delphi, with which it was connected, it became gradually considered a Hellenic institution. It is not possible to decipher the first intention of this league. The meeting was held at two places, near Anthela, in the pass of Thermopylae, and Delphi; at the latter place in the spring, at the former in the autumn. If tradition imputed to Amphictyon the origin of the council, it ascribed to Acrisius, king of Argos [80], the formation of its proper power and laws. He is said to have founded one of the assemblies, either that in Delphi or Thermopylae (accounts vary), and to have combined the two, increased the number of the members, and extended the privileges of the body. We can only interpret this legend by the probable supposition, that the date of holding the same assembly at two different places, at different seasons of the year, marks the epoch of some important conjunction of various tribes, and, it may be, of deities hitherto distinct. It might be an attempt to associate the Hellenes with the Pelasgi, in the early and unsettled power of the former race: and this supposition is rendered the more plausible by the evident union of the worship of the Dorian Apollo at Delphi with that of the Pelasgian Ceres at Thermopylae [81]. The constitution of the league was this— each city belonging to an Amphictyonic state sent usually two deputies—the one called Pylagoras, the other Hieromnemon. The functions of the two deputies seem to have differed, and those of the latter to have related more particularly to whatsoever appertained to religion. On extraordinary occasions more than one pylagoras was deputed—Athens at one time sent no less than three. But the number of deputies sent did not alter the number of votes in the council. Each city had two votes and no more, no matter how many delegates it employed.

All the deputies assembled,—solemn sacrifices were offered at Delphi to Apollo, Diana, Latona, and Minerva; at Thermopylae to Ceres. An oath was then administered, the form of which is preserved to us by Aeschines.

"I swear," runs the oath, "never to subvert any Amphictyonic city— never to stop the courses of its waters in peace or in war. Those who attempt such outrages I will oppose by arms; and the cities that so offend I will destroy. If any ravages be committed in the territory of the god, if any connive at such a crime, if any conceive a design hostile to the temple, against them will I use my hands, my feet, my whole power and strength, so that the offenders may be brought to punishment."

Fearful and solemn imprecations on any violation of this engagement followed the oath.

These ceremonies performed, one of the hieromnemons [82] presided over the council; to him were intrusted the collecting the votes, the reporting the resolutions, and the power of summoning the general assembly, which was a convention separate from the council, held only on extraordinary occasions, and composed of residents and strangers, whom the solemnity of the meeting congregated in the neighbourhood.

VI. Throughout the historical times we can trace in this league no attempt to combine against the aggression of foreign states, except for the purposes of preserving the sanctity of the temple. The functions of the league were limited to the Amphictyonic tribes and whether or not its early, and undefined, and obscure purpose, was to check wars among the confederate tribes, it could not attain even that object. Its offices were almost wholly confined to religion. The league never interfered when one Amphictyonic state exercised the worst severities against the other, curbing neither the ambition of the Athenian fleet nor the cruelties of the Spartan sword. But, upon all matters relative to religion, especially to the worship of Apollo, the assembly maintained an authority in theory supreme—in practice, equivocal and capricious.

As a political institution, the league contained one vice which could not fail to destroy its power. Each city in the twelve Amphictyonic tribes, the most unimportant as the most powerful, had the same number of votes. This rendered it against the interest of the greater states (on whom its consideration necessarily depended) to cement or increase its political influence and thus it was quietly left to its natural tendency to sacred purposes. Like all institutions which bestow upon man the proper prerogative of God, and affect authority over religious and not civil opinions, the Amphictyonic council was not very efficient in good: even in its punishment of sacrilege, it was only dignified and powerful whenever the interests of the Delphic temple were at stake. Its most celebrated interference was with the town of Crissa, against which the Amphictyons decreed war B. C. 505; the territory of Crissa was then dedicated to the god of the temple.

VII. But if not efficient in good, the Amphictyonic council was not active in evil. Many causes conspired to prevent the worst excesses to which religious domination is prone,—and this cause in particular. It was not composed of a separate, interested, and permanent class, but of citizens annually chosen from every state, who had a much greater interest in the welfare of their own state than in the increased authority of the Amphictyonic council [83]. They were priests but for an occasion—they were citizens by profession. The jealousies of the various states, the constant change in the delegates, prevented that energy and oneness necessary to any settled design of ecclesiastical ambition. Hence, the real influence of the Amphictyonic council was by no means commensurate with its grave renown; and when, in the time of Philip, it became an important political agent, it was only as the corrupt and servile tool of that able monarch. Still it long continued, under the panoply of a great religious name, to preserve the aspect of dignity and power, until, at the time of Constantine, it fell amid the ruins of the faith it had aspired to protect. The creed that became the successor of the religion of Delphi found a mightier Amphictyonic assembly in the conclaves of Rome. The papal institution possessed precisely those qualities for directing the energies of states, for dictating to the ambition of kings, for obtaining temporal authority under spiritual pretexts—which were wanting to the pagan.


The Heroic Age.—Theseus.—His legislative Influence upon Athens.— Qualities of the Greek Heroes.—Effect of a Traditional Age upon the Character of a People.

I. As one who has been journeying through the dark [84] begins at length to perceive the night breaking away in mist and shadow, so that the forms of things, yet uncertain and undefined, assume an exaggerated and gigantic outline, half lost amid the clouds,—so now, through the obscurity of fable, we descry the dim and mighty outline of the HEROIC AGE. The careful and skeptical Thucydides has left us, in the commencement of his immortal history, a masterly portraiture of the manners of those times in which individual prowess elevates the possessor to the rank of a demigod; times of unsettled law and indistinct control;—of adventure—of excitement;—of daring qualities and lofty crime. We recognise in the picture features familiar to the North: the roving warriors and the pirate kings who scoured the seas, descended upon unguarded coasts, and deemed the exercise of plunder a profession of honour, remind us of the exploits of the Scandinavian Her-Kongr, and the boding banners of the Dane. The seas of Greece tempted to piratical adventures: their numerous isles, their winding bays, and wood-clad shores, proffered ample enterprise to the bold— ample booty to the rapacious; the voyages were short for the inexperienced, the refuges numerous for the defeated. In early ages, valour is the true virtue—it dignifies the pursuits in which it is engaged, and the profession of a pirate was long deemed as honourable in the Aegean as among the bold rovers of the Scandinavian race [85]. If the coast was thus exposed to constant incursion and alarm, neither were the interior recesses of the country more protected from the violence of marauders. The various tribes that passed into Greece, to colonize or conquer, dislodged from their settlements many of the inhabitants, who, retreating up the country, maintained themselves by plunder, or avenged themselves by outrage. The many crags and mountains, the caverns and the woods, which diversify the beautiful land of Greece, afforded their natural fortresses to these barbarous hordes. The chief who had committed a murder, or aspired unsuccessfully to an unsteady throne, betook himself, with his friends, to some convenient fastness, made a descent on the surrounding villages, and bore off the women or the herds, as lust or want excited to the enterprise. No home was safe, no journey free from peril, and the Greeks passed their lives in armour. Thus, gradually, the profession and system of robbery spread itself throughout Greece, until the evil became insufferable—until the public opinion of all the states and tribes, in which society had established laws, was enlisted against the freebooter—until it grew an object of ambition to rid the neighbourhood of a scourge—and the success of the attempt made the glory of the adventurer. Then naturally arose the race of heroes—men who volunteered to seek the robber in his hold—and, by the gratitude of a later age, the courage of the knight-errant was rewarded with the sanctity of the demigod. At that time, too, internal circumstances in the different states— whether from the predominance of, or the resistance to, the warlike Hellenes, had gradually conspired to raise a military and fierce aristocracy above the rest of the population; and as arms became the instruments of renown and power, so the wildest feats would lead to the most extended fame.

II. The woods and mountains of Greece were not then cleared of the first rude aboriginals of nature—wild beasts lurked within its caverns;—wolves abounded everywhere—herds of wild bulls, the large horns of which Herodotus names with admiration, were common; and even the lion himself, so late as the invasion of Xerxes, was found in wide districts from the Thracian Abdera to the Acarnanian Achelous. Thus, the feats of the early heroes appear to have been mainly directed against the freebooter or the wild beast; and among the triumphs of Hercules are recorded the extermination of the Lydian robbers, the death of Cacus, and the conquest of the lion of Nemea and the boar of Erymanthus.

Hercules himself shines conspicuously forth the great model of these useful adventurers. There is no doubt that a prince [86], so named, actually existed in Greece; and under the title of the Theban Hercules, is to be carefully distinguished, both from the god of Egypt and the peaceful Hercules of Phoenicia [87], whose worship was not unknown to the Greeks previous to the labours of his namesake. As the name of Hercules was given to the Theban hero (originally called Alcaeus), in consequence of his exploits, it may be that his countrymen recognised in his character or his history something analogous to the traditional accounts of the Eastern god. It was the custom of the early Greeks to attribute to one man the actions which he performed in concert with others, and the reputation of Hercules was doubtless acquired no less as the leader of an army than by the achievements of his personal prowess. His fame and his success excited the emulation of his contemporaries, and pre-eminent among these ranks the Athenian Theseus.

III. In the romance which Plutarch has bequeathed to us, under the title of a "History of Theseus," we seem to read the legends of our own fabulous days of chivalry. The adventures of an Amadis or a Palmerin are not more knightly nor more extravagant.

According to Plutarch, Aegeus, king of Athens, having no children, went to Delphi to consult the oracle how that misfortune might be repaired. He was commanded not to approach any woman till he returned to Athens; but the answer was couched in mystic and allegorical terms, and the good king was rather puzzled than enlightened by the reply. He betook himself therefore to Troezene, a small town in Peloponnesus, founded by Pittheus, of the race of Pelops, a man eminent in that day for wisdom and sagacity. He communicated to him the oracle, and besought his interpretation. Something there was in the divine answer which induced Pittheus to draw the Athenian king into an illicit intercourse with his own daughter, Aethra. The princess became with child; and, before his departure from Troezene, Aegeus deposited a sword and a pair of sandals in a cavity concealed by a huge stone [88], and left injunctions with Aethra that, should the fruit of their intercourse prove a male child, and able, when grown up, to remove the stone, she should send him privately to Athens with the sword and sandals in proof of his birth; for Aegeus had a brother named Pallas, who, having a large family of sons, naturally expected, from the failure of the direct line, to possess himself or his children of the Athenian throne; and the king feared, should the secret of his intercourse with Aethra be discovered before the expected child had arrived to sufficient strength to protect himself, that either by treason or assassination the sons of Pallas would despoil the rightful heir of his claim to the royal honours. Aethra gave birth to Theseus, and Pittheus concealed the dishonour of his family by asserting that Neptune, the god most honoured at Troezene, had condescended to be the father of the child:—the gods were very convenient personages in those days. As the boy grew up, he evinced equal strength of body and nobleness of mind; and at length the time arrived when Aethra communicated to him the secret of his birth, and led him to the stone which concealed the tokens of his origin. He easily removed it, and repaired by land to Athens.

At that time, as I have before stated, Greece was overrun by robbers: Hercules had suppressed them for awhile; but the Theban hero was now at the feet of the Lydian Omphale, and the freebooters had reappeared along the mountainous recesses of the Peloponnesus; the journey by land was therefore not only longer, but far more perilous, than a voyage by sea, and Pittheus earnestly besought his grandson to prefer the latter. But it was the peril of the way that made its charm in the eyes of the young hero, and the fame of Hercules had long inspired his dreams by night [89], and his thoughts by day. With his father's sword, then, he repaired to Athens. Strange and wild were the adventures that befell him. In Epidauria he was attacked by a celebrated robber, whom he slew, and whose club he retained as his favourite weapon. In the Isthmus, Sinnis, another bandit, who had been accustomed to destroy the unfortunate travellers who fell in his way by binding them to the boughs of two pine trees (so that when the trees, released, swung back to their natural position, the victim was torn asunder, limb by limb), was punished by the same death he had devised for others; and here occurs one of those anecdotes illustrative of the romance of the period, and singularly analogous to the chivalry of Northern fable, which taught deference to women, and rewarded by the smiles of the fair the exploits of the bold. Sinnis, "the pine bender," had a daughter remarkable for beauty, who concealed herself amid the shrubs and rushes in terror of the victor. Theseus discovered her, praying, says Plutarch, in childish innocence or folly, to the plants and bushes, and promising, if they would shelter her, never to destroy or burn them. A graceful legend, that reminds us of the rich inventions of Spenser. But Theseus, with all gentle words and soothing vows, allured the maiden from her retreat, and succeeded at last in obtaining her love and its rewards.

Continued adventures—the conquest of Phaea, a wild sow (or a female robber, so styled from the brutality of her life)—the robber Sciron cast headlong from a precipice—Procrustes stretched on his own bed— attested the courage and fortune of the wanderer, and at length he arrived at the banks of the Cephisus. Here he was saluted by some of the Phytalidae, a sacred family descended from Phytalus, the beloved of Ceres, and was duly purified from the blood of the savages he had slain. Athens was the first place at which he was hospitably entertained. He arrived at an opportune moment; the Colchian Medea, of evil and magic fame, had fled from Corinth and taken refuge with Aegeus, whose affections she had insnared. By her art she promised him children to supply his failing line, and she gave full trial to the experiment by establishing herself the partner of the royal couch. But it was not likely that the numerous sons of Pallas would regard this connexion with indifference, and faction and feud reigned throughout the city. Medea discovered the secret of the birth of Theseus; and, resolved by poison to rid herself of one who would naturally interfere with her designs on Aegeus, she took advantage of the fear and jealousies of the old king, and persuaded him to become her accomplice in the premeditated crime. A banquet, according to the wont of those hospitable times, was given to the stranger. The king was at the board, the cup of poison at hand, when Theseus, wishing to prepare his father for the welcome news he had to divulge, drew the sword or cutlass which Aegeus had made the token of his birth, and prepared to carve with it the meat that was set before him. The sword caught the eye of the king—he dashed the poison to the ground, and after a few eager and rapid questions, recognised his son in his intended victim. The people were assembled—Theseus was acknowledged by the king, and received with joy by the multitude, who had already heard of the feats of the hero. The traditionary place where the poison fell was still shown in the time of Plutarch. The sons of Pallas ill brooked the arrival and acknowledgment of this unexpected heir to the throne. They armed themselves and their followers, and prepared for war. But one half of their troops, concealed in ambush, were cut off by Theseus (instructed in their movements by the treachery of a herald), and the other half, thus reduced, were obliged to disperse. So Theseus remained the undisputed heir to the Athenian throne.

IV. It would be vain for the historian, but delightful for the poet, to follow at length this romantic hero through all his reputed enterprises. I can only rapidly sketch the more remarkable. I pass, then, over the tale how he captured alive the wild bull of Marathon, and come at once to that expedition to Crete, which is indissolubly intwined with immortal features of love and poetry. It is related that Androgeus, a son of Minos, the celebrated King of Crete, and by his valour worthy of such a sire, had been murdered in Attica; some suppose by the jealousies of Aegeus, who appears to have had a singular distrust of all distinguished strangers. Minos retaliated by a war which wasted Attica, and was assisted in its ravages by the pestilence and the famine. The oracle of Apollo, which often laudably reconciled the quarrels of princes, terminated the contest by enjoining the Athenians to appease the just indignation of Minos. They despatched, therefore, ambassadors to Crete, and consented, in token of submission, to send every ninth year a tribute of seven virgins and seven young men. The little intercourse that then existed between states, conjoined with the indignant grief of the parents at the loss of their children, exaggerated the evil of the tribute. The hostages were said by the Athenians to be exposed in an intricate labyrinth, and devoured by a monster, the creature of unnatural intercourse, half man half bull; but the Cretans, certainly the best authority in the matter, stripped the account of the fable, and declared that the labyrinth was only a prison in which the youths and maidens were confined on their arrival—that Minos instituted games in honour of Androgeus, and that the Athenian captives were the prize of the victors. The first victor was the chief of the Cretan army, named Taurus, and he, being fierce and unmerciful, treated the slaves he thus acquired with considerable cruelty. Hence the origin of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. And Plutarch, giving this explanation of the Cretans, cites Aristotle to prove that the youths thus sent were not put to death by Minos, but retained in servile employments, and that their descendants afterward passed into Thrace, and were called Bottiaeans. We must suppose, therefore, in consonance not only with these accounts, but the manners of the age, that the tribute was merely a token of submission, and the objects of it merely considered as slaves. [90]

Of Minos himself all accounts are uncertain. There seems no sufficient ground to doubt, indeed, his existence, nor the extended power which, during his reign, Crete obtained in Greece. It is most probable that it was under Phoenician influence that Crete obtained its maritime renown; but there is no reason to suppose Minos himself Phoenician.

After the return of Theseus, the time came when the tribute to Crete was again to be rendered. The people murmured their dissatisfaction. "It was the guilt of Aegeus," said they, "which caused the wrath of Minos, yet Aegeus alone escaped its penalty; their lawful children were sacrificed to the Cretan barbarity, but the doubtful and illegitimate stranger, whom Aegeus had adopted, went safe and free." Theseus generously appeased these popular tumults: he insisted on being himself included in the seven.

V. Twice before had this human tribute been sent to Crete; and in token of the miserable and desperate fate which, according to vulgar belief, awaited the victims, a black sail had been fastened to the ship.

But this time, Aegeus, inspired by the cheerful confidence of his son, gave the pilot a white sail, which he was to hoist, if, on his return, he bore back Theseus in safety: if not, the black was once more to be the herald of an unhappier fate. It is probable that Theseus did not esteem this among the most dangerous of his adventures. At the court of the wise Pittheus, or in the course of his travels, he had doubtless heard enough of the character of Minos, the greatest and most sagacious monarch of his time, to be convinced that the son of the Athenian king would have little to fear from his severity. He arrived at Crete, and obtained the love of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos. Now follows a variety of contradictory accounts, the most probable and least poetical of which are given by Plutarch; but as he concludes them all by the remark that none are of certainty, it is a needless task to repeat them: it suffices to relate, that either with or without the consent of Minos, Theseus departed from Crete, in company with Ariadne, and that by one means or the other he thenceforth freed the Athenians from the payment of the accustomed tribute. As it is obvious that with the petty force with which, by all accounts, he sailed to Crete, he could not have conquered the powerful Minos in his own city, so it is reasonable to conclude, as one of the traditions hath it, that the king consented to his alliance with his daughter, and, in consequence of that marriage, waived all farther claim to the tribute of the Athenians. [91]

Equal obscurity veils the fate of the loving Ariadne; but the supposition which seems least objectionable is, that Theseus was driven by storm either on Cyprus or Naxos, and Ariadne being then with child, and rendered ill by the violence of the waves, was left on shore by her lover while he returned to take charge of his vessel; that she died in childbed, and that Theseus, on his return, was greatly afflicted, and instituted an annual festival in her honour. While we adopt the story most probable in itself, and most honourable to the character of the Athenian hero, we cannot regret the various romance which is interwoven with the tale of the unfortunate Cretan, since it has given us some of the most beautiful inventions of poetry;—the Labyrinth love-lighted by Ariadne—the Cretan maid deserted by the stranger with whom she fled—left forlorn and alone on the Naxian shore—and consoled by Bacchus and his satyr horde.

VI. Before he arrived at Athens, Theseus rested at Delos, where he is said to have instituted games, and to have originated the custom of crowning the victor with the palm. Meanwhile Aegeus waited the return of his son. On the Cecropian rock that yet fronts the sea, he watched the coming of the vessel and the waving of the white sail: the masts appeared—the ship approached—the white sail was not visible: in the joy and the impatience of the homeward crew, the pilot had forgotten to hoist the appointed signal, and the old man in despair threw himself from the rock and was dashed to pieces. Theseus received the news of his father's death with sorrow and lamentation. His triumph and return were recorded by periodical festivals, in which the fate of Aegeus was typically alluded to, and the vessel of thirty oars with which he had sailed to Crete was preserved by the Athenians to the times of Demetrius the Phalerean—so often new-pieced and repaired, that it furnished a favourite thesis to philosophical disputants, whether it was or was not the same vessel which Theseus had employed.

VII. Possessed of the supreme power, Theseus now bent his genius to the task of legislation, and in this part of his life we tread upon firmer ground, because the most judicious of the ancient historians [92] expressly attributes to the son of Aegeus those enactments which so mainly contributed to consolidate the strength and union of the Athenian people.

Although Cecrops is said to have brought the tribes of Attica under one government, yet it will be remembered that he had divided the territory into twelve districts, with a fortress or capital to each. By degrees these several districts had become more and more distinct from each other, and in many cases of emergency it was difficult to obtain a general assembly or a general concurrence of the people; nay, differences had often sprung up between the tribes, which had been adjusted, not as among common citizens, by law, but as among jealous enemies, by arms and bloodshed. It was the master policy of Theseus to unite these petty commonwealths in one state. He applied in person, and by all the arte of persuasion, to each tribe: the poor he found ready enough to listen to an invitation which promised them the shelter of a city, and the protection of a single government from the outrage of many tyrants: the rich and the powerful were more jealous of their independent, scattered, and, as it were, feudal life. But these he sought to conciliate by promises that could not but flatter that very prejudice of liberty which naturally at first induced them to oppose his designs. He pledged his faith to a constitution which should leave the power in the hands of the many. He himself, as monarch, desired only the command in war, and in peace the guardianship of laws he was equally bound to obey. Some were induced by his persuasions, others by the fear of his power, until at length he obtained his object. By common consent he dissolved the towns'-corporations and councils in each separate town, and built in Athens one common prytaneum or council-hall, existent still in the time of Plutarch. He united the scattered streets and houses of the citadel, and the new town that had grown up along the plain, by the common name of "Athens," and instituted the festival of the Panathenaea, in honour of the guardian goddess of the city, and as a memorial of the confederacy. Adhering then to his promises, he set strict and narrow limits to the regal power, created, under the name of eupatrids or well-born, an hereditary nobility, and divided into two orders (the husbandmen and mechanics) the remainder of the people. The care of religion, the explanation of the laws, and the situations of magistrates, were the privilege of the nobles. He thus laid the foundation of a free, though aristocratic constitution—according to Aristotle, the first who surrendered the absolute sway of royalty, and receiving from the rhetorical Isocrates the praise that it was a contest which should give most, the people of power, or the king of freedom. As an extensive population was necessary to a powerful state, so Theseus invited to Athens all strangers willing to share in the benefits of its protection, granting them equal security of life and law; and he set a demarcation to the territory of the state by the boundary of a pillar erected in the Isthmus, dividing Ionia from Peloponnesus. The Isthmian games in honour of Neptune were also the invention of Theseus.

VIII. Such are the accounts of the legislative enactments of Theseus. But of these we must reject much. We may believe from the account of Thucydides that jealousies among some Attic towns—which might either possess, or pretend to, an independence never completely annihilated by Cecrops and his successors, and which the settlement of foreigners of various tribes and habits would have served to increase—were so far terminated as to induce submission to the acknowledged supremacy of Athens as the Attic capital; and that the right of justice, and even of legislation, which had before been the prerogative of each separate town (to the evident weakening of the supreme and regal authority), was now concentrated in the common council-house of Athens. To Athens, as to a capital, the eupatrids of Attica would repair as a general residence [93]. The city increased in population and importance, and from this period Thucydides dates the enlargement of the ancient city, by the addition of the Lower Town. That Theseus voluntarily lessened the royal power, it is not necessary to believe. In the heroic age a warlike race had sprung up, whom no Grecian monarch appears to have attempted to govern arbitrarily in peace, though they yielded implicitly to his authority in war. Himself on a newly-won and uncertain throne, it was the necessity as well as the policy of Theseus to conciliate the most powerful of his subjects. It may also be conceded, that he more strictly defined the distinctions between the nobles and the remaining classes, whether yeomen or husbandmen, mechanics or strangers; and it is recorded that the honours and the business of legislation were the province of the eupatrids. It is possible that the people might be occasionally convened—but it is clear that they had little, if any, share in the government of the state. But the mere establishment and confirmation of a powerful aristocracy, and the mere collection of the population into a capital, were sufficient to prepare the way for far more democratic institutions than Theseus himself contemplated or designed. For centuries afterward an oligarchy ruled in Athens; but, free itself, that oligarchy preserved in its monopoly the principles of liberty, expanding in their influence with the progress of society. The democracy of Athens was not an ancient, yet not a sudden, constitution. It developed itself slowly, unconsciously, continuously—passing the allotted orbit of royalty, oligarchy, aristocracy, timocracy, tyranny, till at length it arrived at its dazzling zenith, blazed—waned—and disappeared.

After the successful issue of his legislative attempts, we next hear of Theseus less as the monarch of history than as the hero of song. On these later traditions, which belong to fable, it is not necessary to dwell. Our own Coeur de Lion suggests no improbable resemblance to a spirit cast in times yet more wild and enterprising, and without seeking interpretations, after the fashion of allegory or system, of each legend, it is the most simple hypothesis, that Theseus really departed in quest of adventure from a dominion that afforded no scope for a desultory and eager ambition; and that something of truth lurks beneath many of the rich embellishments which his wanderings and exploits received from the exuberant poetry and the rude credibility of the age. During his absence, Menestheus, of the royal race of Attica, who, Plutarch simply tells us, was the first of mankind that undertook the profession of a demagogue, ingratiated himself with the people, or rather with the nobles. The absence of a king is always the nurse of seditions, and Menestheus succeeded in raising so powerful a faction against the hero, that on his return Theseus was unable to preserve himself in the government, and, pouring forth a solemn curse on the Athenians, departed to Scyros, where he either fell by accident from a precipice, or was thrown down by the king. His death at first was but little regarded; in after-times, to appease his ghost and expiate his curse, divine honours were awarded to his memory; and in the most polished age of his descendants, his supposed remains, indicated by an eagle in the skeleton of a man of giant stature, with a lance of brass and a sword by his side, were brought to Athens in the galley of Cimon, hailed by the shouts of a joyous multitude, "as if the living Theseus were come again."

X. I have not altogether discarded, while I have abridged, the legends relating to a hero who undoubtedly exercised considerable influence over his country and his time, because in those legends we trace, better than we could do by dull interpretations equally unsatisfactory though more prosaic, the effigy of the heroic age—not unillustrative of the poetry and the romance which at once formed and indicated important features in the character of the Athenians. Much of the national spirit of every people, even in its most civilized epochs, is to be traced to the influence of that age which may be called the heroic. The wild adventurers of the early Greece tended to humanize even in their excesses. It is true that there are many instances of their sternness, ferocity, and revenge;—they were insolent from the consciousness of surpassing strength;—often cruel from that contempt of life common to the warlike. But the darker side of their character is far less commonly presented to us than the brighter—they seem to have been alive to generous emotions more readily than any other race so warlike in an age so rude—their affections were fervid as their hatreds—their friendships more remarkable than their feuds. Even their ferocity was not, as with the Scandinavian heroes, a virtue and a boast—their public opinion honoured the compassionate and the clement. Thus Hercules is said first to have introduced the custom of surrendering to the enemy the corpses of their slain; and mildness, justice, and courtesy are no less his attributes than invincible strength and undaunted courage. Traversing various lands, these paladins of an elder chivalry acquired an experience of different governments and customs, which assisted on their return to polish and refine the admiring tribes which their achievements had adorned. Like the knights of a Northern mythus, their duty was to punish the oppressor and redress the wronged, and they thus fixed in the wild elements of unsettled opinion a recognised standard of generosity and of justice. Their deeds became the theme of the poets, who sought to embellish their virtues and extenuate their offences. Thus, certain models, not indeed wholly pure or excellent, but bright with many of those qualities which ennoble a national character, were set before the emulation of the aspiring and the young:—and the traditional fame of a Hercules or a Theseus assisted to inspire the souls of those who, ages afterward, broke the Mede at Marathon, and arrested the Persian might in the Pass of Thermopylae. For, as the spirit of a poet has its influence on the destiny and character of nations, so TIME itself hath his own poetry, preceding and calling forth the poetry of the human genius, and breathing inspirations, imaginative and imperishable, from the great deeds and gigantic images of an ancestral and traditionary age.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16     Next Part
Home - Random Browse