The eight preceding chapters represent a long series of centuries — indeed, many millennia — and many countries — the whole of the ancient world. The rest of this volume, some two-thirds of it, deals with only two centuries, and the narrative is centered upon a single country, a very small one, Attica, or rather upon its main city, Athens.

That city existed long before the sixth century, and we have already referred to it; yet it was one of the last city-states to appear in Greek history, and it might be considered a kind of upstart, for example, by the men of Sparta, where the Dorian type and tradition had preserved their greatest purity.⁵⁴¹ At any rate, Athens developed rapidly, and within little more than a century it had become eminent and strong enough to be the protagonist of the Hellenic world in its life-and-death struggle against Persia; after the victory it was for half a century the leading nation in that world, but what is far more important, it has remained ever since the best symbol of Hellenic culture. When we think of that culture we are thinking most of the time of Athens, and the words Athens and Greece are almost interchangeable in our grateful reminiscences.

These things require a bit of explanation. By the end of the sixth century the Achaimenian empire⁵⁴² dominated the best part of the known world. It included the whole of Western Asia (except Arabia) and even Egypt.⁵⁴³ Persian trade was well organized and ramified in many directions; the competition with Greek settlements was especially intense in the Black Sea, the straits leading to it, and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Persians were able to combine the extensive caravan trade of Asia and North Africa with the sea trade of the Phoenicians. In their rivalry with Greece and their growing hatred of her, the Phoenicians were the natural allies of Persia. Now Phoenician colonies extended from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Thanks to them, Persian trade covered the whole sea, as is witnessed by the discovery of golden darics (Persian coins) in many places around it. The Greek colonies were numerous and still flourishing, but were everywhere outflanked or encircled by Persian or Phoenician outposts. That situation was ominous, though perhaps less so for the contemporary Greeks, who could not measure its gravity as easily as we can when we contemplate the excellent maps that we owe to the accumulated efforts of many investigators.⁵⁴⁴

The pressure was especially severe in the Ionian colonies, whose hinterland was under Persian control and where border incidents were bound to occur repeatedly and to cause mutinies and repressions. The Ionian rebellion began in 499. In the following year Sardis (capital of the satrapy of Lydia) was taken by surprise and destroyed by the Greeks, who were duly punished on their return march, near Ephesos. The revolt spread to other colonies in Cyprus and Asia. Its main center was in the illustrious city of Miletos, which was captured by the Persians “in the sixth year of the revolt” (494) and utterly ruined. In 493 Chios, Lesbos, Tenedos were overrun. The situation was becoming dangerous, and Themistocles (c. 514–c. 460), one of the first Athenian statesmen to realize its gravity, persuaded his fellow citizens to prepare for defense by the building of a permanent fleet and the establishment of a naval arsenal at the Peiraieus (Athens’ harbor). We need not tell the rest of this story, which is so complex that an intelligible summary of it would take considerable space. It must suffice to recall the heroic deeds of Marathon where the Persian army of Darios was defeated in 490,⁵⁴⁵ the glorious rearguard defense of the pass of the Thermopylae in 480 (Leonidas and his 300 Spartans were annihilated), and the naval victory of Salamis in the same year, where the Persian fleet was completely defeated by the Athenian one; the Persian king, Xerxes, witnessed the tragedy from the throne erected for him on a hill of the Attic shore. In the following spring, the Persians revenged themselves by invading Attica; they sacked Athens and set fire to the Acropolis including the old Parthenon. In the summer, they suffered a new defeat at Plataiai (in Boeotia, near the Attic border) and at about the same time (August 479) another Persian fleet was defeated by the allied Greek fleet off Mycale (on the Ionian coast, opposite Samos). The independence of Greece was now secured.

The importance of that conflict between Asia and Europe can hardly be exaggerated; it is one of the greatest conflicts in the history of the whole world and one of the most pregnant; the final victory of the Greeks determined the future. (If the Persians had won, the future would have been very different; it is not possible, nor would it be profitable, to imagine what might have happened.) To call it a conflict between Asia and Europe, however, or between East and West, however true on the surface, is misleading. Many of the Greeks had lived for generations in Asia or Egypt, and on the other hand the Phoenicians, the naval allies of Persia, were scattered all over the Mediterranean and could threaten the Greeks from the west. Neither was it a conflict between Aryans and Semites, for the Persians were as Aryan as the most Aryan Greeks, while their allies, the Phoenicians, were Semites. The Achaemenian empire was a conglomeration of all the races and nations of Western Asia, which had been blended repeatedly for millennia. The main language of the empire was Aramaic, a Semitic language. It is more correct to consider the conflict one between Asiatic despotism and Greek democracy; democracy was vindicated, and though that first attempt did not last very long, it remained an example that the world never forgot.

The freedom of Greece had not been defended by all the Greek nations but only by a few of them, primarily the Ionian colonies, Athens and Sparta (remember that the martyrs of Thermopylae were Spartans). Athens emerged as the leader. How shall we account for that? Were the Athenians a special and superior race of Greeks? At the beginning, they were mainly or seemed to be autochthonous and they wore a golden cicada in their hair to proclaim that fact,⁵⁴⁶ yet the location of Attica on the easternmost part of the Greek peninsula was extremely favorable to every kind of commerce, especially with the colonies of Ionia and the Aegaean islands. Ionians streamed into Athens, and Athenian culture was very strongly influenced by Ionian models. To my mind, that is the main explanation of the Athenian supremacy — Ionian intelligence and versatility grafted upon the old Attic stock (history gives many examples of such graftings and of their fruitfulness). Moreover, Attica beckoned other foreigners, and they came to her from many places and races and were gradually amalgamated. The very language of the Athenians betrayed their cosmopolitanism,⁵⁴⁷ and that language in its turn was another means of cultural unity. The national prestige of Athens was already recognized before the end of the sixth century, in spite of the fact that other cities were more powerful. After Salamis this prestige increased considerably; Athens became the leading city, and its goddess, Pallas Athene, the best symbol of Hellenism. Athens was the main political, commercial, and cultural center, but not by any means the only one. Others flourished in Thebes, Corinth, Sicyon, Megara, even in Macedonia, Ionia, Cyrenaica, Italy, and Sicily. The Greek world was very wide and diversified, and in the course of time every corner of it produced great men of its own. Yet more and more of these men, if they were not born in Athens, were impelled to come to her for their education, or to accomplish their purpose, exert their influence, and obtain the final consecration of their merit.


During the fifty years between Salamis and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, the supremacy of Athens increased considerably and seemed to be established for ever. Athens was the head of the Ionian league, which was gradually transformed into her own maritime empire. The Athenian and Attic festivals were the most famous and the most popular of Greece. In spite of its national eminence and its cosmopolitanism, the Athenian culture remained original and spontaneous. It was animated by pride in the present and faith in the future, naive patriotism, and a good deal of self-conceit, mitigated by the love of discussion, such as is possible in times of peace and prosperity. Those fifty years were the golden age of Athens; we might compare them with the Elizabethan age of England, a period of about equal length (45 years, 1558–1603) and of equal enthusiasm. The last thirty years of that period were dominated by the personality of a great statesman, Pericles (499–429), and therefore it is sometimes called the Periclean age. It is better not to do so, however, for the Periclean age was not the whole of the golden age; it was the most fastuous part and perhaps the most creative, yet the original gold was already beginning to tarnish; spontaneity was being replaced by sophistication, naïve conceit by skepticism, and dark clouds were gathering in the offing.

The outstanding political fact is the creation of the Ionian (maritime) league and the Athenian hegemony. For a time Athens ruled the world and Athenian culture dominated all the other Greek cultures. Maritime power was the only kind of power that could unite the amphibian Hellenic states; the use of it was a tremendous stimulus to international commerce; whether that commerce dealt with material goods or with ideas. At the beginning, the center and the treasury of the Ionian league were in Delos (the smallest of the Cyclades in the Aegaean sea), the most holy place for the worship of Apollo. The island was so well protected by its sanctity that the Persian sailors on their way to Salamis did not venture to loot it. As the Athenian domination increased, the treasury of the league had been transferred from Delos to Athens, but on the other hand every precaution was taken to increase the sanctity of that holy place. For example, all human and animal remains were taken out, and efforts were made to prevent its pollution by the occurrence of births and deaths. It is sad to have to record that in later times the sanctity of Delos was polluted in a deeper way. The festivals in Apollo’s honor and the Delian games attracted crowds of people, and in between the games and festivals there came the sacred embassy (the ria) sent by Athens every year, and there came also a good many pilgrims from every part of the Greek world. Like every other sanctuary, Delos was a great market place — no harm in that, but it also became a slave market, the greatest of its kind in that age. Fancy combining religious festivals with the slave trade! Delos was severely punished for that incredible degradation during the Mithridatic war against Rome; one of the generals of Mithridates⁵⁴⁸ took Delos in 84 B.C. and butchered the men, but permitted the women and children to live in slavery.

Let us glance for a moment at another part of the Greek world which was also helping to accomplish Hellenic unity, Delphi in Phocis, a sanctuary established in an admirable and awful site, on the slope of Mount Parnassos. It was supposed to be the navel (omphalos) of the earth. Zeus had determined the position of that “navel” by releasing two eagles, one at the western and the other at the eastern end of the world. They flew with equal speed and met at Delphi. A pretty story, yet a bit primitive! A marble stone (navel stone) was set up in the middle of the temple.⁵⁴⁹ That sanctuary was very ancient; the first temple, having been burnt as early as 548, was rebuilt with greater splendor by means of contributions obtained from every part of Greece and even from the Greek colonies in Egypt. The Pythian games were celebrated at Delphi, but the overwhelming attraction of the place was the chasm (chasma) through which intoxicating vapors rose from the underworld. A prophetess, the Pythia,⁵⁵⁰ sat on a tripod over the chasm, fell into a trance, and gave oracles to which superstitious reverence was paid by almost every person, whether educated or not. The Delphic oracle was one of the formative elements in the development of Greek culture,⁵⁵¹ At the religious festivals orations were delivered, which sometimes took the nature of political speeches and eulogies of the leaders.⁵⁵² The power of Athens was based largely upon the financial contributions of her allies, but also, to an extent that we cannot measure but that must have been considerable, upon the skillful use of all the resources that such places as Delos and Delphi offered for general persuasion and the strengthening of national unity.

The supremacy of Athens might have lasted a long time but for the festering jealousies of her rivals, especially of Sparta. It was clearer every year that the unity of Greece was artificial; it had lasted as long as the Persian danger existed; in spite of the festivals and games it could not last much longer. All the Greeks were united against the barbarians, but when those barbarians had been discouraged and the danger removed, unity yielded to suspicion and antagonism. The growing tension led to the civil wars (431–404), to which we shall come back presently.

Our main task in this chapter is to illustrate the beauty and nobility of the Athenian golden age (480–431); the following chapters will be devoted to the philosophic and scientific achievements; in this one we must speak, however briefly, of the literary and artistic creations, which are more obvious and help us better than any others to appreciate the glory of Athens.


The earliest aspect of that glory is given to us by the lyric poets, who appeared even before the Persian Wars and were the first after the Homeric and Hesiodic ages to voice the highest aspirations of Hellas. The best of those poets were really the mouthpieces, or one may call them the interpreters and “commentators,” of the whole public; the national games and panegyrics afforded them excellent opportunities of singing the joys and the pride of the Greek-speaking people, of uttering the unformulated conclusions of the public conscience, of expressing the purest thoughts in words so well chosen, so harmonious, that they would easily fly from mouth to mouth, be treasured in the people’s hearts, and be endlessly repeated. Such winged words were more effective than the vulgar headlines of our newspapers.

Poetry was not yet dissociated from music; the poet was also the composer; poetic and musical composition occurred together in his mind and excited one another. Prosody and melody were combined; the poet’s recitation or psalmody was accented with the accompaniment played by himself on a lyre or by somebody else on a flute.

The lyric poems were of many kinds: religious hymns, songs to accompany processions or ritual dances, odes celebrating the winners of national games, poems recited at the end of a banquet to thank the host, eulogies (enc mion) of notable men, elegies or dirges (thr nos), epigrams and epitaphs, not to speak of the more personal pieces expressing the poet’s own passions. The poet was not explaining facts, though he might refer to them; his purpose was rather to express the emotions of his brothers. He did it well; sometimes he did supremely well.

The outstanding examples are Simonides (556–467) of Ceos (one of the Cyclades), his nephew Bacchylides of Ceos, and above all the Theban, Pindar (c. 518–438). Note that the three of them, though born in the sixth century, cover a good part of the century that is at present engaging our attention.

Our readers may have been shocked by our references to divination and to oracles. What? Those Greek people, who we are told were so wise, allowed themselves to be bamboozled by soothsayers and hysterical women! The Greeks were guided also by poets who were oracles of another kind. In the darkness that surrounded them, emotional words had the power of swaying their minds, words that seemed divine either because of the extraordinary conditions of their utterance (for example, in the Pythian chasm) or because of their unusual cadence and beauty. Great poets are the best and not the least mysterious of the soothsayers.

Simonides was brought up in Athens, but he traveled in Thessaly and other parts of Greece, and even as far as Magna Graecia, and his fame was such that King Hieron⁵⁵³ invited him to come to Sicily and treated him with munificence. Let me just quote a short fragment of his, to give an idea (necessarily very incomplete) of his poetry; it is an extract from his ode on Thermopylae.

Of those who at Thermopylae were slain,

Glorious the doom, and beautiful the lot;

Their tomb an altar: men from tears refrain

To honor them, and praise, but mourn them not.

Such sepulchre, nor drear decay

Nor all-destroying time shall waste; this right have they.

Within their grave the home-bred glory

Of Greece was laid: this witness gives

Leonidas the Spartan, in whose story

A wreath of famous virtue ever lives.⁵⁵⁴

According to a fragment preserved by Plutarch, Simonides considered a hundred or even a thousand years as only a point or a prick (stigm ) between two infinite lines, the past and the future.

Simonides’ nephew Bacchylides, who was about forty years younger, followed his example, traveling all over Greece and writing odes and other lyrics for the people who welcomed him. He spent some time in the Peloponnesos and also at Hieron’s court. Until the end of the last century we knew very little of his poetry, but then nineteen poems of his were discovered in a papyrus. Instead of a hundred lines we had now some 1400 lines, and it was possible to appreciate his genius. This is a good example of the progress of knowledge due to modern scholars. One would think that our history of ancient Greek literature would be complete, yet until 1897 one of the greatest poets was very imperfectly known.⁵⁵⁵

Pindar (518–438), who came halfway between the two poets of Ceos,⁵⁵⁶ surpassed them both and all others. According to Quintilian (1–2), ”Of the nine lyric poets Pindar is by far the greatest,“⁵⁵⁷ and he has remained to this day the symbol of lyric poetry in the golden age. He did not invent any new form of poetry, but he did better what others had done before him, and he did it on a larger scale; his genius was of a higher potential and more fruitful. He came from the vicinity of Thebes and was educated in Athens (this confirms that Athens was already a literary center at the beginning of the century). At the time of Marathon he was almost thirty and hence the years of his maturity coincided with the national exaltation which he was able to express in the most adequate language; his words are at once splendid and solemn, swift and sound. He had traveled even more than his rivals, for we find him not only in his native Thebes, in Athens, and in other cities of Greece proper, but also in Macedonia, in Cyrene, and in Sicily.

These lyric poets represent a kind of pan-Hellenic preface to the Athenian culture. Their restlessness took them all over the Greek countries, and though they owed much to Athens, they considered themselves not Athenians but Hellenes. They wrote and sang poems for the courts or communities that received them. It has been said of Simonides that he was the first to accept payment for his work. Such a statement is difficult to understand, for we know that the ancient rhapsodists, who also wandered from one end of Greece to the other, were rewarded for their pains and feasted by their hosts. It may be that the reference is to payment in money as contrasted with payment in kind, but if so, it only expresses a change in economic conditions. Simonides was perhaps one of the first poets to be paid in money, because there was more money in circulation in his day and people were more ready to use it rather than to barter their talent for other goods.

Simonides and Bacchylides came from Ceos, Pindar from Thebes; all rambled across the Greek-speaking lands; Simonides died in Syracuse, Pindar in Argos (in the Peloponnesos). The most famous odes of Pindar dealt with Pythic victories, and hence his glory began in Delphi and echoed all over Greece together with other Delphic memories. His own utterances were Delphic in their somber greatness.

At the end of his ode in honor of a young athlete, Aristomenes of Aegina, who won the wrestling match in 446, he exclaimed:

Short is the space of time in which the happiness of mortal men groweth up, and even so, doth it fall on the ground, when stricken down by adverse doom. Creatures of a day, what is any one? what is he not? Man is but a dream of a shadow; but, when a gleam of sunshine cometh as a gift of heaven, a radiant light resteth on men, aye and a gentle life.⁵⁵⁸

Thanks to his genius, and partly also to his association with the “navel” of the earth, Pindar’s fame was already great within his lifetime, and he became a classic very soon after his death.

The pan-Hellenism of all these poets is increased by the fact that they did not write in their own dialect, but in a kind of artificial language, a literary Dorian dialect, hardly used except by themselves.⁵⁵⁹ They symbolize the natural unity of Hellenes, created by their Homeric traditions, by their mysteries and national games, the panegyrics, theories, and pilgrimages — a unity older than the political unity of the Ionian league or of the Athenian empire, and superior to it.


The development of lyric poetry was to a large extent independent of empire and prosperity, because it did not cause any large expenditures. The poets took part in the public and private festivals and the only additional cost that their presence entailed was the cost of their own entertainment and of the royal gifts that they deserved (but did not necessarily receive). It is true that their genius was partly induced by public enthusiasm; we express the same thing when we say that they were the spokesmen of the people, and hence they were bound to sing louder and more beautifully in days of triumph and expansion. The building of temples and of other public monuments was, on the contrary, very expensive. In the case of sanctuaries, like Delos, Delphi, Eleusis, the necessary funds were brought by the pilgrims or solicited by their faithful congregations from everywhere. When Athens became the center of the Ionian league, she received contributions from her allies and her financial resources increased with her trade. Moreover, silver mines of the Laurion (in Southern Attica) were state property, farmed out to capitalists and worked by slaves. The silver that was extracted from those mines was used at first (upon Themistocles’ advice) to strengthen the navy; later a substantial part was appropriated for the rebuilding of Athens and its adornment with glorious monuments.

The outstanding artistic creations were due to the initiative of Pericles and of his assistant Pheidias (born in the year of Marathon, 490; died in prison, 432). The latter was not simply the greatest sculptor of his age (and one of the greatest of all ages) but he had been entrusted by Pericles with the general direction of all his artistic undertakings. His main works as a sculptor, the gigantic chryselephantine statues of Pallas Athene in Athens and of Zeus in Olympia, are lost, but much remains of the decoration of the main buildings of the Acropolis, a part of the Propylaia and the Parthenon. To most people the glory of Greece is the glory of Athens during a couple of centuries, and the glory of Athens is symbolized by the new Parthenon, which was completed during the years 447–434. That monument associates three great men in its pure splendor, Pericles the master mind, Ictinos the architect, and Pheidias the sculptor. The people made no mistake about it; it is really the best symbol of Greek culture, and like other works of art (as against literary and scientific achievements) it can be appreciated by any person worthy of it in a single intuition. The best literary expression of the Parthenon’s greatness was given by Ernest Renan in his “Prière sur l’Acropole quand je fus arrive a en comprendre la parfaite beauté,” itself one of the masterpieces of French prose.⁵⁶⁰

Greek sculpture was already well developed in the sixth century, and some of the most admired statues date from that time. In the first half of the fifth century, Ageladas of Argos, whose own work is lost, instructed three famous pupils, Pheidias, Myron, and Polycleitos. These three men represent the maturity of Greek sculpture; many people today prefer the less mature, more naive, production of the previous century, but we may accept the Greek verdict which was united in its praise of Pheidias and Pindar.

At about the same time as Ageladas the painter Polygnotos flourished. He was born in Thasos (an island just south of the Thracian coast) but came early to Athens. The three great sculptors were also living in Athens, except when commissions obliged them to establish themselves temporarily in other places. The most famous of Polygnotos’ wall paintings were to be seen in the lesche⁵⁶¹ of Delphi; they represented the Sack of Troy and Ulysses in the Underworld, and as far as we can judge from early descriptions they were colored very simply, without any play of light and shade, and without landscapes in the background; yet they were impressive in their austerity and dignity. These paintings are lost, but we are given some idea of the graphic ability of Polygnotos’ contemporaries by the fairly abundant drawings preserved on the Greek vases (Attic vases of the fifth century are characterized by the so-called red-figure style).


We have not yet spoken of the most significant feature of Athenian life in the fifth century — throughout that century but with growing emphasis — the drama. This was a novelty, yet the continuation and amplification of an old tradition. The people love to dance and sing, they love to listen to the recitation of poems. That love went back to Homeric days and the lyric poets of the sixth to the fifth century had given a new form to it; on the other hand, religious mysteries and other ceremonies had introduced dramatic performances. According to popular legend, the inventor of the tragedy proper was Thespis⁵⁶² (fl. 560–535) of Icaria (near Marathon), who came to Athens and planted his seeds in the most fertile ground. The great victories over the Persians and the national exaltation that followed increased the need not only for lyric poetry but for dramatic poetry — the solemn utterance of people’s emotions, the pooling of their ebullient feelings. The tragedy was a sort of public rite, the highest form of rite that any nation ever celebrated.

Tragic poetry developed in such an astounding manner because of the social mood, which favored it, and the miraculous occurrence of three men of genius. It gradually replaced lyric poetry, because it served the same needs more completely. To lyric poetry and music it added choral recitation and dramatic exchanges of views. It was lyric poetry dramatized and multiplied, combined with religious mysteries and transformed into a public performance that was self-contained. The early tragedies were extremely simple, even naïve in their grandeur; toward the end of the century they became more sophisticated even as the people witnessing them (pure lyricism was gradually subordinated to the drama), yet they fulfilled the same purpose. The theater was a school of decorum, earnestness, and piety; it helped ordinary men to share the common triumphs and humiliations with dignity, and to think nobly. That is of course what lyric poets like Pindar were doing, but the playwrights could do it more effectively, and they could reach a larger audience.

Our readers are familiar wth these masterpieces, but it is well to evoke briefly the three creators, Aischylos, Sophocles, and Euripides. All three were connected with Salamis (480), where the new Greece had awakened to freedom and glory. The oldest, Aischylos, was then forty-five and he actually took part in the battle. Sophocles, a very handsome boy of fifteen, was selected as the coryphaios of the youthful chorus celebrating the triumph; he walked naked ahead of it holding a lyre and singing the paean. Euripides’ part was more passive, but auspicious; he was born on the very day of the victory.

Aischylos was born in Eleusis, the most sacred place of Attica, about 525. He took part in the two immortal battles, Marathon and Salamis. His epitaph records his part in the first battle, and his first tragedy, The Persians (472), was a celebration of the second. Only seven plays of his (out of some 80) remain, and they are all very austere and solemn; the drama is still on the Thespian level of simplicity, and lyricism dominates. He reminds one of Pindar. The fundamental idea of his plays is fatality lurking in the darkness, then revealing itself slowly; human greatness causes divine jealousy, the pride of men (hybris) is soon followed by their delusion (at ) — the gods reduce to madness and blindness those who are too proud.⁵⁶³ The display of pride and its punishment is the main event; but it is so awful that it takes a religious aspect. Lyricism is as natural here as it would be in a sacred hymn. The play is, as it were, a vision which unfolds itself gradually before our eyes like a ritual action or mystery. The vision is unfolded by the chorus and sometimes interrupted by the dialogue; the dialogue helps to explain what is happening, and at the same time breaks the rhythm and suspense which might become unbearable. Though Aischylos necessarily spent most of his life in Athens, he went thrice to Sicily and was at one time the guest of the tyrant Hieron; he died at Gela, on the southern coast of Sicily, in 456.

The second playwright, Sophocles, was born near Athens in 495, a full generation later than his exemplar. He was even more industrious than the latter, for it is said that he composed no fewer than 130 plays. We should not think of him, however, as an infant prodigy; Greek moderation, mixed with irony, was not as easily fooled as we are by precocious deeds; it realized that promises of youth may be as beguiling as the double blossoms of some trees, which bear no fruit. Sophocles began to write early, but his success was relatively late; some 81 of his plays were written after his fifty-third year. Only seven of his plays remain, all of which belong to that late period of his life; the earliest of the extant plays, Antigone, dates from 442.

It is often claimed that Sophocles improved the tragedy; it is more prudent to say that he increased its complexity. The most obvious changes were the introduction of a third actor, the increase of the chorus from twelve men to fifteen, and the use of painted scenery in the back of the stage (sc nographia). More profound were the changes in the play itself: the sufferers are no longer the victims of inexorable destiny, their fate is partly determined by their own moderation (s phrosyn ) or lack of it. The play, therefore, becomes more nearly human; it is closer to our sensibility; The dramatic psychology is more complex than in Aischylos. The part of lyric poetry is reduced, for more room is needed for the dialogue.

Sophocles seems to have spent the whole of his life in Athens, sharing with his fellow citizens the joys of the golden age and the anxieties and miseries of the iron one; he drank these to the bitter end, for he lived until 406; yet he left the memory of a happy man.

In point of time Euripides is twice as near to Sophocles as the latter is to Aischylos, but the moral distance is much greater. Euripides was a child of Salamis (480), hence fifteen years younger than Sophocles, yet they died in the same year, 406. One essential difference between them was reported by Sophocles himself, “who said that he drew men as they ought to be, and Euripides, as they were.”⁵⁶⁴ The plays of Sophocles were more human than those of Aischylos, but those of Euripides were more human still; human passions have become his main interest; his view of men is more realistic than that of his predecessors, yet equally grim. As the tragic events become more intense and more complex, the chorus is no longer subordinated to the dialogue; it has ceased to have any dramatic importance and is included simply as a lyric accessory and in obedience to tradition. The gods are still there, however, not in the center of the stage as in Aischylos, yet around it; indeed, one of Euripides’ weaknesses was the excessive use of divine intervention (theos apo m chan s, deus ex machina) to untie difficult knots and end the play.

Euripides was more sophisticated than either Aischylos or Sophocles; it is significant that he was one of the first Athenians to boast a library of his own; he did not take part in public affairs but was simply a student, a man of letters and somewhat of a philosopher; he had been influenced by Heracleitos and Anaxagoras and was a friend of Herodotos and of Socrates. His knowledge of things and of men was vaster than that of Sophocles but he paid dearly for that advantage; his life was unhappy, he was disillusioned and restless, less loyal to Athens, less religious in the old sense. He had more versatility and imagination than Sophocles, and was more lively, more brilliant, sometimes even more gracious; on the other hand, he was less discreet and reverent and occasionally he scandalized his audience with strange philosophic ideas. He wrote fewer plays than Sophocles and even than Aischylos; yet we know his work much better than theirs, for a quarter of it (eighteen plays out of seventy-five) has come down to us; we have more plays from him alone than from the two others together. Toward the end of his life, he left Athens and went to Magnesia in Thessaly, and later to Macedonia, where he was warmly received by Archelaos,⁵⁶⁵ king of that country; he died there in 406.

It is very instructive to compare these three men. In spite of their differences, which were tangible but partly due to their differences of age, they had many qualities in common: grandeur, soundness, and moderation. How did it happen that these three men were contemporaries and formed a constellation unique in the history of letters? One is almost tempted to conclude with Goethe⁵⁶⁶ that their genius was, in part at least, the genius of their time and place. It is futile to try to classify them and to say, this one is the greatest, and so on. Let us leave that idle game to schoolmasters and pedants. Each was great in his own way, and his own environment. The oldest, Aischylos, is more solemn, he makes one think of the Hebrew prophets; Sophocles, the middle one in time, represents also the middle point in human and dramatic qualities; Euripides is more concerned with individual psychology, he is more pathetic and more modern. Sophocles is certainly the best symbol of Athenian moderation of the golden age; we would place him close to Pindar and to Pheidias; of the three tragedians he was the most completely loyal to Athens. Aischylos fought in Marathon and Salamis and was fortunate enough to die in the middle of the golden age; Sophocles and Euripides witnessed the glory of that age but also the political decadence and the downfall that followed. Sophocles managed to preserve his serenity, while Euripides became a sadder if not a wiser man. Sophocles remained in his native land and held public offices even during the gloomy days of confusion and defeat. The two others abandoned their mother Athens and ended their lives in exile, Aischylos in Sicily and Euripides in Macedonia.


The story of the Athenian drama, which we have told in three sections — Aischylos, Sophocles, Euripides — must be completed with a fourth section dealing not with the tragedy but with the comedy. This is not a new story, however, but a continuation of the preceding one. The comedy is as old as the tragedy, for they stem out of the same cycle of popular entertainments; Dionysiac rites gave birth to both. The comedy sprang out of the rustic festivals of harvest and vintage, thanksgiving holidays, merry processions in honor of the gods of fertility, to whom men owe the good things of life. Though tragedy and comedy grew in the same cradle, the second developed much later.⁵⁶⁷ This was probably because tragic festivals needed some direction to be as solemn and stately as they should be, while the merry entertainments could more easily take care of themselves. At any rate, the only representative of the “ancient comedy” whose works have come to us did not make his appearance until the last quarter of the century: Aristophanes the Athenian (448-386). With him we are already moving into the fourth century, yet it is proper to speak of him now. Of his forty-four plays (eleven of which are extant), most were written in the fifth century.

Aischylos, Sophocles, and Euripides were contemporaries, and so were Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, but the lapse of time between the last two (of the four) was as great as that between the first two.⁵⁶⁸ Each of these men influenced his followers, but we must bear in mind that that process was sometimes reversed, for younger men challenge their elders. Thus, Euripides exerted some influence upon Sophocles, and Aristophanes upon Euripides. There were irreducible dissimilarities, however, between the two last named. It has been claimed that Euripides was the father of comedy, because his subtle analyses of character sometimes verged on satire, but what an immense difference in purpose there is between them. Both were Atticists and primarily men of letters; yet in spite of his greater sophistication Euripides is still a follower of Sophocles. Aristophanes, on the contrary, started something radically new. He is an aggressive critic of men and manners, sparing nobody, not even the most powerful and the most respectable men of the city. He attacks the warmongers, the statesmen, the politicians, the sophists, the communists, above all, the flatterers of the people, and the stupid people itself (d mos) which allows itself to be flattered and tricked by the demagogues. He attacks not only public men like Cimon and Pericles, but poets like Euripides and philosophers like Socrates. Beyond the men he even attacks the institutions — the senate and assembly, the tribunals and magistracies. His satires are bold and exaggerated like those of a cartoonist, because he realized that the only way to get them across was to simplify and amplify as the cartoonist does; his style is blunt and strong to the point of vulgarity and obscenity; yet it was not offensive (except perhaps to the victims), because its roughness was redeemed by good humor, buffoonery, and ready wit. Political instinct was natural to him as it was to every educated Athenian, but he had no prepossessions; he was guided not by anyparti pris but by his robust common sense and his sense of fun; he wanted the people to laugh with him and be on its guard against its would-be deceivers and its own foolishness. Like every good satirist he was abreast of the times, sensitive to everything that happened around him, somewhat cynical and skeptical. Sometimes he would praise the good old days in order to bring out the miseries of his own; thus, strangely enough, he defended Aischylos against Sophocles. He was neither religious nor antireligious but was less concerned about religion than about justice and peace. His plays combine incredible fantasies with realism and truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit); however grotesque his characters, there is always enough verisimilitude in them to attract and retain the attention, and to prove his point. He had a strong feeling of nature and of humanity in the raw. Some of his verses were derived from popular ditties; his language was familiar ⁵⁶⁹ and racy, intensely alive; it was the most telling kind of language for his own audience, but the modern reader should know Greek exceedingly well (in a living way) if he would appreciate its niceties.

Aristophanes was the first specimen in world literature of the comic satirist, the distant ancestor of such men as Erasmus, Molière, Voltaire, and Anatole France. He criticized democracy, because it was his privilege to live in the midst of the first that ever existed and because it was his misfortune to witness a period of infinite tragedy and anarchy, when democratic ideals were tried beyond endurance. He saw the evil and corruption of his time and attacked boldly the political and spiritual leaders who must bear the responsibilities as well as the honors. Such criticism as his was healthy in spite of its violence, and it afforded the best proof of the validity and genuineness of the Athenian democracy. Democracy cannot exist without self-criticism; excessive criticism is better than none.

We will understand better the value of Aristophanes’ work in his time, if we ask ourselves a few questions. Could one conceive the possibility of such criticism as his in contemporary Sparta or in Persia? Or to come closer to us, would it have been possible to produce a play in Berlin, say in 1941 (and have it crowned!) making fun of Hitler’s messianism and showing up the divinely inspired leader who guides his people to the abyss? And what about a play in Washington in the same year, accusing the president and his secretaries of being warmongers and clamoring for peace? Would it have been possible to produce in Moscow, in 1951, a play “debunking” Stalin?

These very things were possible in Athens during the anxieties of the Peloponnesian Wars. Glory to Athens and to Aristophanes! On account of his poetic sincerity and his courage, he deserves the epitaph composed in his honor (it is said by Plato): “The Charites,⁵⁷⁰ trying to find an imperishable temple, have chosen Aristophanes’ soul.”


In this brief account of the artistic and literary achievements of the golden age — achievements that have never been repeated or equaled anywhere in any other century — the reader may have noticed references to the terrible events that replaced enthusiasm and hope with misfortune and disillusionment and all but destroyed the majesty and the glory of Athens. We must say a few more words about that without entering into details which are not in themselves very interesting. For a while — from a long distance, it now seems such a short while — Greece has been magnificently united under Athenian hegemony. Unfortunately, the Greeks are jealous people; that was then, it has always been, and it is now their main weakness. Older cities than Athens found it hard to be subordinated to her; for one city in particular — proud Sparta — this was well-nigh unbearable. Spartan jealousy was increased by profound differences in outlook, differences that could not be compensated or bridged in any way. Athens was a democracy, Sparta’s outlook was aristocratic and totalitarian; the difference between the two cities in the fifth century was as great as the difference between London and Berlin in 1940. In both cases no solution was possible except war, and war came with all its horrors. It is not necessary to describe the Peloponnesian War, or rather the two wars, which devastated the Greek world between 431 and 421 and again after a short armistice between 414 and 404 and ended with the complete victory of Sparta. These civil wars had become world wars comparable in their relative size and intensity and the pregnancy of their consequences to the Persian Wars out of which united Greece had emerged so full of hope at the beginning of the century, comparable to the two world wars that have darkened our own days.

To the miseries of the war were added for five long years (430–425) the unspeakable agonies and fears of the plague. Well might the Athenians feel that the end of the world was near; truly enough their own gay world had come to an end, never to return. And yet, throughout those frightful years, the cultural life was never completely stopped, and in particular the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides and the grim comedies of Aristophanes continued to be played — new plays each year, which were submitted to competition as usual, the best being crowned.

The year 404 was the year of final humiliation. Athens was obliged to surrender. The walls of the Peiraieus (her harbor and naval arsenal) and the long walls between the city and the harbor were demolished; the democratic government was overthrown and its power yielded to the Thirty Tyrants. We need not describe these atrocious deeds, which seemed to put an end to the noble city for ever. Yet, Athens revived, as we shall see, and it assumed a new kind of glory and spiritual hegemony. It remained a great city, one of the great cities of the ancient world; Greece revived also, but it never recovered its unity, nor its peace, nor the innocent buoyancy of its first golden age.

In the course of time, a new Atticism conquered the ancient world — the Atticism of Plato and Aristotle, which is living to this day. That new Atticism was more international than that of the fifth century and more self-conscious, but it was less pure. The immense difference between the first golden age and the second is revealed at once by the contrast between the work of Pheidias on the one hand and that of Scopas and Praxiteles on the other — but we must not anticipate.

To return to the fifth century, when we consider it from the height of our own time, across twenty-five centuries, we realize that it was itself like an Aischylean tragedy, beginning with so great a pride that the gods were jealous and angry; it ended with their vengeance and the Athenians’ folly and ruin.“⁵⁷¹


This chapter must end with a warning. We speak of the glory of Athens, but we should not forget that this was but one side, the brilliant and happy side, of the medal; the obverse was not so nice. Our general impressions of the past are necessarily one-sided: we remember only the greatness and the beauty, the things that deserve to be remembered or rather that need no remembrance at all, because they have never ceased to exist; we forget the things that were evil, ugly, mean, transitory, perishable, for why on earth should we burden our memory with them?

It cannot have been very pleasant to live in Athens during the Peloponnesian Wars, and even before their outbreak periods of unadulterated peace were brief and few. We should always bear that in mind when we compare the past with the present (as we may and should). We are sometimeslaudatores temporis acti and unjust to our own contemporaries, because the horrors and mediocrities of today are very obvious to us — we suffer from them — while the horrors of the past are forgotten, or else they have lost their sting.

Should we try to recall the sad and seamy side of the fifth century? Certainly not in detail, for what would be the good of that? why should we allow ourselves to be distracted by evils long past? The evils of today are sufficient. It is well to know, however, that men and women have experienced all kinds of misery, everywhere and always, with but brief intermezzi of peace and happiness. The consciousness that a certain amount of evil and pain has always obtained, even in the most glorious periods of the past, should help us to bear the evils of today with more equanimity.

Our duty is to discern as clearly as possible the evils of our own day in order that we may be able to cure or remove them; there is no need of seeing as well the evils of the past, for they are no longer curable and Father Time has already removed them. Yet we must remember them in a general way, and our praise of the past should always be tempered with that remembrance, for the sake of fairness.

It must always be clear to us that what we admire in the past (and we could not admire it too much) is not by any means the whole of the past, but only a small part, the best, of it. We should not idealize the past as Renan did in his “Prière sur l’Acropole,” but see it whole, and admire only that which was so good that it never died. We do not love the past except that part of it which is not past and never will be.

Obviously, not all of the Athenians were on the spiritual level of the Parthenon and only the best of them could appreciate Sophocles and Pheidias. Yet those few were the leaven, and it is because of the encouragement of those few as well as their own genius that great men like Pheidias and Sophocles have been able to create their masterpieces. Those great men have survived while the rest died away; they alone remain to symbolize the eternal values of a golden age.

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