Historians of science may complain that the three preceding chapters contain very little science as they understand it; they may remark also that earlier chapters contained much more — and wonder. These two observations are correct. The Homeric age was one of the greatest literary ages in the whole past, but it was not a scientific age; there was in it a strong interest in the decorative arts, which help to make life more beautiful, and in the practical arts, which help to make it prosperous, but we can hardly detect an interest in knowledge for its own sake. The comparison of Homeric culture with the Oriental cultures that preceded it is not quite fair, however. The Homeric age lasted only a few centuries, while the development of (pre-Homeric) Egyptian or Babylonian culture lasted ten times as long. As a matter of fact, that age was only the literary preface to the age of Greek science.

We have used the word “miracle” when we spoke of the sudden emergence of masterpieces like the Iliad and the Odyssey, as perfect and complete as Athene herself springing out of Zeus’s head, fully armed, with a great shout.⁴⁰⁵ The emergence and development of Greek science in the space of three centuries is not easier to explain, and hence we might use the word miracle⁴⁰⁶ again to express our admiration and our puzzlement. Indeed, during that short period (sixth to fourth century) so many scientific deeds were accomplished, deeds so varied and unexpected and of such pregnancy, that we must devote to them the remainder of this volume.

This and the following chapter will deal with the birth of Greek science in the sixth century in Ionia (Fig. 42). The reader will remember that the Iliad was written in a dialect close to Ionian and that it reflected the manners and customs characteristic of the decline of the Minoan period. The connection between Ionia and the land of Minos was not accidental. The early Ionians were to a large extent settlers from Crete.⁴⁰⁷ We described the Homeric age as a revival of the Mycenaean one; in the same way we might say that the Ionian philosophy, of which we shall speak in a moment, was the flowering of a long series of efforts, not only Greek but Minoan.

In other words, Ionian philosophy, as well as Homeric poetry, should be, or at least might be, considered as a climax rather than a beginning, but we need not quarrel about that, for in the first place every climax is a beginning, and in the second place, take it as you please, the fundamental query remains the same. How did it come to pass that Greek science was born in Ionia? Geographic explanations are not sufficient, for the environment is very much the same on both sides of the Aegean sea. Racial explanations are not more satisfactory, for the same people or the same mixture of people might be found in various parts of that area. I shall venture to offer two social explanations. The first is that the Ionian colonists were a selected group of people living in new political surroundings which were largely of their own making, that is, of their own liking; they were likely to be brave, resourceful, spontaneous, and relatively free from restrictions. Their success is comparable to that of other colonists of a much later time, the Pilgrim Fathers who settled in New England in 1620, and can be explained partly in the same way, The Ionian pilgrims founded a New Crete on the western coast of Asia; that New Crete was to be the cradle of the New Greece. The second is that the western coast of Anatolia was an excellent place for the mixture of ideas and cultures and the resulting stimulation. As long as people stagnate in their ancestral villages they do not ask themselves many questions, for every query has been asked and answered a number of times and it is no use worrying about it any longer. On the contrary, when people of different races and with different traditions come together it must sooner or later occur to the most intelligent of them that there is more than one way of looking at things and of solving problems. If they are intelligent enough, they must even wonder whether their own traditional solutions are the right ones, or they may realize that things which they had never thought of questioning are questionable. The Ionian harbors were the terminals not only of Greek, Phoenician, and Egyptian sea lines but also of Anatolian caravan roads, connecting them step by step with the whole of Asia. Thus the conditions were exceedingly favorable for the development of science; all that was needed was people with enough native genius to improve them; the Ionians were such people; they had already proved their genius in poetry, the time had now come, at the end of the seventh century, to prove it again in a new field, natural philosophy, or, as they called it, “physiology,”⁴⁰⁸ and they did so.

Fig. 42. Map of Ionia. [Borrowed with permission from the Loeb Classical Library edition of Herodotos, with English translation by Alfred Denis Godley (vol. 1, 1931).]

Their success, material and intellectual, was so great that for a long time the “Barbarians” (meaning the non-Greek-speaking peoples) used the word Ionian to designate all the Greeks, even as the Muslims later called the Latin Christians “Franks,” and the South Americans called their northern neighbors “Yankees.”


Before examining the Ionian achievements, it is well to glance over the world as it was in this period, say the seventh and sixth centuries. We have already introduced to our readers the little Ionian world, as well as the Aegean, the Egyptian, the Babylonian, and others. All these worlds were different in many ways, yet none was absolutely different from the others. The phrase “one world” is not Wendell Willkie’s invention. The whole world has already been one world to the extent that communications existed between the parts; ⁴⁰⁹ in those days the communications were already fairly well organized in many directions (and had been for centuries or millennia), yet there were many differences. To use a physical comparison, the one world was not isotropic to social relations (it is not now and never will be). The speed and ease of communications were not by any means the same in every direction; thus some parts held closer together than others, and all kinds of groups and subgroups or multiple groups were naturally constituted.

It is thus well to ask ourselves what was happening in other parts of the world during the incubation of Greek science in Ionia. Let us first remark that the Mediterranean world is but a very small part of the world (look at a terrestrial globe) and that Ionia is but a very small fraction of that small part (on the globe it is reduced almost to nothing). We shall come back often enough to Ionia and to the Mediterranean later on; at present let us look around. The Egyptian and Babylonian moods have already been sketched, but there was a country, closer to Ionia than either Egypt or Mesopotamia, that was as foreign to the Greeks as either of these, if not more so — the land of Canaan, or Palestine. By the end of the seventh century many of the prophetic books of our Bible had already been composed: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Hezekiah, Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Nahum, Habakhuk; the Pentateuch (or Torah), and the books of Samuel were already completed. We shall come back to Samuel later; let us consider now only the Prophets and the Torah, and compare them with the Homeric writings. The difference between the respective languages, Hebrew and Greek, is small as compared with that between ways of thought. The Hebrew prophet was a seer; ⁴¹⁰ the rhapsodist, a poet and storyteller. The latter referred sometimes to the gods and the heroes just as he referred to ordinary mortals, but the former spoke in God’s name, in the name of the one God and of eternal justice. The contrast is so great that communication between the Hebrews and the Ionians was probably reduced to a minimum.

Among the caravans reaching Miletos or the boat parties floating down the lower reaches of the Maiandros river there must have been merchants who came from farther East or who had come across other merchants of the Halys region or the regions of the upper Euphrates and the upper Tigris and beyond. Some information may have thus percolated to them from Iran. There was (or had been) a great prophet in Iran, Zarathushtra (him whom the Greeks called later Zoroaster). Zarathushtra preached a monotheism different from the Hebrew one, yet as deeply impregnated with morality. The god of the Iranians, as well as the god of the Jews, was the personification, or rather the hypostasis, of goodness, justice, and purity. It is probable that the Ionians, even if they did receive his message (which is doubtful), did not pay more attention to it than to the Jewish one. They were not interested in it at that time. This does not mean that whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report did not touch them, but they looked at those things from another angle.

Communication with India could be accomplished in various ways, the simplest one being along the Persian Gulf and the Euphrates. Two great prophets appeared in India in the sixth century, the Buddha and Mahavira, both of whom explained profound doctrines concerning the life of good men. Within the same period two more prophets appeared farther east, in China, Lao Tz ⁴¹¹ and Confucius. It must suffice here to indicate these astounding simultaneities, for it would be impossible to do justice to Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, or Confucianism in a few paragraphs. It is better to invite the reader to explore those subjects elsewhere as much as they deserve and as he desires.⁴¹² The main point is that in the very period when “physiology” was developed in Ionia, prophets and seers, moral educators, were at work in Palestine, Iran, India, and China. Their territory was infinitely greater than that of the early physiologists, but their success was equal. All of them, the prophets and the early scientists, were working together (though they knew it not) to lift mankind up to a higher level, nearer to the gods, further away from the beasts.

The extent of the communication that may have obtained between the prophets of Asia and the Greeks was very small, and reduced at best to hints. Those hints are revealed to us in the form of words or phrases that have passed from one literature into another (for example, Egyptian images in the Psalms) or decorative motifs in the fine arts (for example, Egyptian motifs in the ivories of Samaria or in the Achaemenian monuments of Pasargada).⁴¹³ Some of the hints included in the Greek fragments will be mentioned below, when there is a special reason for mentioning them. They are not really needed for our argument. The only point to bear in mind is that Ionia was a great center of communications between East and West and that the Cretan colonizers of that Asiatic shore found there excellent conditions not only for their material prosperity but also for thought stimulation. Catalysts need not be bulky and their action is out of all proportion with their own mass; in Ionia the Greek genius was catalyzed by Egyptian and Asiatic ferments. Progress is always the result of a compromise between tradition and adventure, In Ionia the Aegean traditions were revitalized with outre-mer novelties, new freedoms, and new restraints.


Let us now focus our attention on the main harbor and the richest market of Ionia, Miletos.⁴¹⁴ It had been colonized by Cretans, for it was named after an earlier Miletos, situated on the northeastern coast of Crete.⁴¹⁵ The “new” Miletos stood on a triangular limestone promontory between two gulfs not far from the mouth of the Maiandros river. In the course of time that river has deposited a prodigious amount of silt around its variable lower reaches and changed those gulfs into swamps; the present bed of the river almost surrounds the site of the ancient city. It is the old site with which we are concerned, however, and that site was excellent for navigation and trade; the city, jutting out into the sea like an enormous ship, was well protected by various islets and rocky ridges; it had four harbors, one or another of which could be conveniently entered by the boats sailing in from Rhodes or farther south, Phoenicia and Egypt, or from the west, across the Cyclades and the Sporades, or from Chios, Lesbos, and the Hellespont. Land communications, it is true, were less easy, but the sea trade boosted the Miletos market so much that caravans would find a way to it, at whatever risk or cost. Moreover, the agricultural resources of the neighboring fields and orchards were sufficient to feed the city and to permit, if not exportation of much food, at least the victualing of outgoing parties. The oil ⁴¹⁶ and fig trades were probably important. Flax and wool were available at no great distance and the wool trade developed so well that it became famous. A Milesian type of pottery was already established in the seventh century.

The main caravan road did not terminate in Miletos, for it passed through Sardis, the outstanding market in the immediate hinterland, and from Sardis it was easier to proceed to other harbors — such as Cyme, Phocaia, Smyrna, or Ephesos, Miletos being a little too much to the south. Sardis, the capital of Lydia, had prospered so much that the wealth of one of her kings, the last one, Croesus, had become legendary and is still now.⁴¹⁷ Some of the wares reaching Sardis from Babylonia and Persia were deflected to Miletos.

It was the sea-borne trade, however, that was the spring of Miletos’ wealth and greatness, and that trade was activated by the existence of many Milesian colonies along the shores of the Propontis and the Euxine (that is, the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea) (Fig. 43). Some of those colonies dated from the eighth and seventh centuries. The city of Naucratis in the Nile Delta was also originally a Milesian colony; it may date back to the seventh century, but it did not assume much importance until its reorganization during the rule of the fifth king of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, Ahmose II (Amasis of the Greeks) who ruled from 569 to 525. The Milesian merchants who had factories in Naucratis gathered all kinds of Egyptian and African wares, many of which were shipped to Miletos for further distribution. We shall come back to that presently.

Let us first complete our brief account of Milesian history. After Cyrus’ defeat of Croesus (546) and conquest of Lydia, Ionia fell under Persian domination. Miletos received a more favorable treatment than the other cities and was allowed to keep a modicum of independence. We understand these matters very well in the light of events in recent European history. The Persians expected better results from the “free” collaboration of Miletos than could be obtained from its submission; it was more advantageous to milk the old city than to kill it. As a matter of fact, Milesian prosperity continued for a while during the Persian regime, but it is easy enough to imagine the growing impatience of the Greek merchants with their Persian masters. An Ionian revolt led by Miletos was crushed in 494 and the city was then destroyed. It was liberated at Mycale (North of the Maiandros river) in 479 when the Persian fleet was defeated by the Greeks, but it never recovered its former glory.⁴¹⁸

Let us return to the middle of the sixth century, to the time before the Persian conquest, when Miletos was the richest emporium of the Eastern Aegean and the main distributing center of goods between Ionia and the Greek islands, Phoenicia, Egypt, the Black Sea, and to a lesser extent Mesopotamia and the countries farther east. Milesian pottery of the seventh and sixth centuries has been found in Egypt, in the islands, in Anatolia, in South Russia.

The Milesian sailors and merchants must have obtained considerable knowledge of the parts of the world to which their business extended. They must have become familiar with a great variety of lands, peoples, religions, languages, and customs. A perfect stage was set and the actors were ready. Being what they were, Cretans or Greeks (call them as you please), keen, imaginative, and curious, as we know from Homer, it is not surprising that they asked themselves many questions; but in addition, they began to collect and classify the answers and were thus led to undertake new research in many fields — astronomy, physics, mathematics, geography, cartography, anthropology, biology, and medicine.

Fig. 43. Map showing the Milesian colonies in the Propontis and the Euxine. [Borrowed with kind permission from Adelaide Glynn Dunham, The history of Miletos (London: University of London Press, 1915), map 4.]

Fig. 44. Title page of the first (?) Greek edition of the Sayings of the Seven Wise Men (Paris, 1554); see note 19. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.] That edition is not mentioned, nor is any other book covering the same ground mentioned in the Bibliographie hellénique . . . aux XVe et XVIe siècles (4 vols.; Paris, 1885-1908 ) and the Bibliographie ionienne (2 vols.; Paris, 1910) of Emile Legrand (1841–1903).

Our knowledge of those beginnings is naturally vague and uncertain. No treatises of the early physiologists have come down to us, only traditions, sometimes late and obscure ones. In that regard the contrast with Egypt and Babylonia is great, for our knowledge of science in those countries is derived from authentic, contemporary documents, papyri or clay tablets, that are immediately available to us. There is nothing we can do about that, except make the most of whatever information has filtered down. All the ancient sayings concerning Ionian thought, as well as all the direct or indirect quotations from their lost writings, have been assembled and criticized. In what follows, the doxography will be used and quoted from as far as necessary, and sometimes the nature and date of the traditions will be indicated (when it can be done briefly), but a criticism of the sources could not be offered to our readers without lengthening our survey far beyond the limitations of our space and of their patience.⁴¹⁹

Excavations have been conducted at Miletos since 1899 by the Berlin Academy, under the leadership of Theodor Wiegand (1864–1936), and many reports have been published since 1906.⁴²⁰


Many of the traditions relative to early Ionian science were legendary at the very start. A good illustration is the legend of the Seven Wise Men, which appealed to the popular imagination and, like every successful legend, occurs in many forms (Fig. 44). Let us quote one form of it. There were flourishing about the beginning of the sixth century seven men renowned for their wisdom in philosophy or politics (hoi hepta sophoi — Thales of Miletos, Cleobulos of Rhodes, Bias of Priene, Pittacos of Mytilene, Solon of Athens, Periandros, tyrant of Corinth, and Chilon of Lacedaimon (Fig. 45). Note that this list contains four men of the Asiatic coast or islands (the first four in my enumeration) against three of the Greek mainland. The list varies from author to author; ⁴²¹it is always restricted to seven names, but only four seem to be constantly included, Thales, Bias, Pittacos, and Solon, that is, three Easterners against one Western.⁴²² Among the names included in other lists we notice the Scythian prince Anacharsis and the Cretan Epimenides, the Rip van Winkle of that age. Both are chronologically plausible, but other lists include men who lived at another time, like Epicharmos of Cos (540–450) of Anaxagoras (500–428), or mythical beings like Orpheus. As the seven Wise Men, whoever they were, were supposed to represent ancient wisdom, and as the pomular sayings (gn mai, apophthegmata, sententiae) represented that wisdom in a different way, several of those sayings were early credited to them. Thus Thales was supposed to have invented the maxim “Know thyself” (gn thi sauton), Solon, “Nothing too much” (m den agan), Pittacos, “Seize the opportunigy (cairon gn thi); and so on.⁴²³ Other traditions, reported by Herodotos,⁴²⁴ connect some of the sages with Croesus, which does not fit with the chronology (Croesus belonged to the second third of the century) but is characteristic of the popular fancy; it was natural to bring the wisest men into the presence of the greatest king.⁴²⁵

Fig. 45. Pages from the first Latin edition of the Dicta septem sapientum Graeciae (Cologne: Johann Guldenschaff, c. 1477–1487); see note 19. [Courtesy of the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.] The pages selected are the two final ones containing the sayings of Thales and those of Chilon of Lacedaimon (fl. 560–556), who died of joy when his son gained a prize at the Olympic games. Plato was the first to include Chilon among the Seven Wise Men.

One member of the group — we might call him a charter member, for he is never omitted and he generally heads the list — Thales of Miletos, is of very great interest to us, for he is the first of the Greek “physiologists,” ⁴²⁶ and we might perhaps say the first in the history of the world.


Two of the wise men, Thales and Bias, sensing the danger to which the growing power of Persia was exposing their country, advised the Ionian cities to stand together and establish a general council in Teos. That story and others suggest that Thales was a practical man, a kind of early Franklin. He was said to be of Phoenician origin and that is not implausible, but we have only Herodotos’ word for it.⁴²⁷ He was born c. 624 and lived until 548 or 545, that is, he may have lived long enough to be obliged to witness the Persian conquest that he had tried to avert.

He might have obtained some of his knowledge and genius from his Phoenician ancestry; he could have obtained it as well from the Ionians, who were by this time a wealthy and sophisticated nation, familiar with many crafts, but probably lacking in unity. What could these prosperous and disunited people do against their totalitarian and warlike neighbors? There was already much to learn in Miletos, but that was not enough for the eager youth, who traveled to Egypt, where his attention was drawn to new astronomical and mathematical ideas.

His popularity must have been great, for he was considered one of the Seven Wise Men; his name was included in every list of them, and it was generally the first to be mentioned. Strangely enough, his fame rested mainly on an achievement that we are now obliged to discredit, though its genuineness was accepted as a cast-iron belief almost until our own day.

A legend that is almost indestructible (it is bound to reappear from time to time in uncritical books) deserves to be told. Indeed, it must be told, because we cannot scotch it before telling it first. It has a very old tradition and the first account of it occurs in Herodotos.⁴²⁸ The Lydians and Persians had been at war for a long time, with ups and downs on both sides but no decisive victory on either. The two armies stood challenging each other in 585 when a solar eclipse, which Thales had predicted, came to pass (28 May) and the two kings were so impressed by it that they ceased fighting. Thanks to the efforts of two peacemakers, Syennesis the Cilician and Labynetos the Babylonian, the two kings were persuaded to conclude a sworn agreement and an exchange of wedlock between them. It is said that Thales was proclaimed a wise man by the oracle of Delphi in 582; that honor may have been due to the eclipse prediction credited to him.

That is a pretty legend, but it has become impossible to give credence to it. The theory was that the old Babylonians had discovered the saros, a period that enabled them to predict eclipses. Thales had heard of that in Egypt and might even have witnessed the Egyptian eclipse of 603 or been told of it. A new eclipse would then occur, or at least might occur, 223 synodic months or 18 years 11 days later, that is, in 585. As we explained above (p. 119), it is now agreed by historians of ancient astronomy that the Babylonians could not have discovered that period before the fifth or the fourth century. Hence, Thales could not have learned it from them. We must remember, however, that the Babylonian observations and perhaps the Egyptian ones also had been repeated for a very long period of time. Thales may have made a lucky guess? Even that can hardly be admitted. Herodotos’ account is very sober: “Thales of Miletos had foretold this loss of daylight to the Ionians, fixing it within the year in which the change did indeed happen.” Does this mean that Thales could determine only the year of the eclipse and not the day? But then the psychologic effect of his prediction would have been lost.

We must conclude that Thales did not predict the solar eclipse of 28 May 585, because he lacked the necessary knowledge, but he himself may have alleged that he had predicted it, or his companions may have been led to believe that he had. It is foolish for us now to claim that he predicted it; it is even more foolish to say that he understood the phenomenon. The explanation with which we are familiar would have been incomprehensible to him, for he conceived the earth as a disk floating upon the ocean.

I return to the initial comparison of Thales with Franklin. Both were living in a stimulating environment, and both responded to it with open mind and natural genius. Both were inquisitive, quick to learn, ready to apply their knowledge to practical aims. Thales’ journey to Egypt is like Franklin’s to England; both observed eagerly what was done in the Old World and brought back the notions that they deemed useful. Franklin brought back a knowledge of electricity and Thales that of astronomy. That is not a slight achievement after all.

Thales was the first Greek mathematician as well as the first Greek astronomer. He learned in Egypt not only the periodic recurrence of eclipses but also a number of geometric facts. Practical as he was, he got hold of the facts and forgot the hocus-pocus, and then he tried to use the facts, that is, to solve such problems as how to measure the height of a building or the distance of a ship from the shore. We do not know exactly how he solved those problems, for various solutions are possible all of which involve the comparison of similar triangles. What is more noteworthy, Thales did not stop there but, being rationally minded as well as practical, he wanted to explain his solutions and this led him to the discovery of geometric principles, and of the science of geometry.

A number of geometric propositions are ascribed to him: (1) a circle is bisected by its diameter; (2) the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal; (3) if two straight lines cut each other, the opposite angles are equal; (4) the angle inscribed in a semicircle is a right angle; (5) the sides of similar triangles are proportional; (6) two triangles are congruent if they have two angles and a side respectively equal. Did Thales know all and each of these propositions, or propositions equivalent to them? Was he able to prove them, and if not, how did he know them? There is no certainty on these points but we may perhaps say that Thales was the first man in any country to conceive the need of geometric propositions. This involves a kind of paradox, for we have insisted that Thales was, like Franklin, a practical man, and yet his chief intellectual merit was his recognition that it is not enough to solve problems, one must rationalize the solutions. The paradox is easy to remove. Thales was intelligent enough to realize that methods are more valuable than individual solutions, and methods imply principles or, as we say in geometry, theorems.

Another inexhaustible subject of discussion is this: Was Thales really the first geometer (in the scientific sense) or did the Egyptians anticipate him? The discussion involves too many uncertainties to be profitable; we do not know really how the Egyptians or how the Ionians thought out their geometric problems. The one thing clear is this. Greek tradition ascribed the earliest geometric propositions to Thales. By his time the Egyptian achievements had long been completed. His work, derived from theirs, opened new possibilities of development which led gradually to theElements of Euclid and to all the marvelous geometric fruits of our own day.

According to Aristotle,⁴²⁹ Thales said “that the magnet has a soul in it because it moves the iron.” If that tradition is right, Thales knew one of the properties of the loadstone. He may thus be called the founder of magnetism. The tradition that would make of him a founder of electricity is weaker and we prefer to omit it.

Thales’ practical successes in the fields of astronomy, geometry, and magnetism may have increased his intellectual ambition. The first man of science in the Western world, he already anticipated the exaggerated optimism of the Victorian physicists. It was not encugh for him to rationalize geometric practice; he wanted to explain the world itself, not as his childish predecessors had done by means of myths, but in concrete verifiable terms. Would it not be possible, he thought, to determine the nature (physis) or substance of the world? What is the material world made of?

His conclusion that water is the original substance may seem fantastic on the surface, but it becomes far more plausible if one examines it more closely. Water is the only substance that is known to man without any difficulty in the three states, solid, liquid, and gaseous. It is easy to recognize that the steam boiling out of a kettle is the same substance as the water that gradually disappears from the kettle; that the ice or snow found in the mountains changes into water if brought into a warmer place; it is not difficult to connect clouds, fogs, dew, rain, hail, with the water of sea and rivers. Water seems to occur everywhere in one state or another; would it be overbold to imagine that it may occur also in hidden forms? Moreover, without water no life is possible, but as soon as water appears there may be life, an abundance of it. People living in moist climates may remain unconscious of the biological necessity of water, but along the Mediterranean shores, where everything dries up in the summer and where desert or semidesert conditions are familiar enough, the first merciful rains ⁴³⁰ create something like a resurrection of nature, the spectacle of which is awful and unforgettable. Finally, many old traditions led to the same conclusion. Thales, like Homer, thought of the earth as surrounded by the ocean; his physical views did not conflict with the oceanic myth or with Egyptian cosmology. He might conceive himself as rationalizing and explaining those ancient myths. There is also a possibility that he was influenced by the Babylonians, who regarded water as the uncreated first principle; the word chosen by them to represent water meant originally voice, loud cry (this suggests a comparison with the Greek logos, but we must not anticipate).⁴³¹

While the Jews were postulating the moral unity of the cosmos, Ionian “physiologists” — of whom Thales was the first — were postulating its material unity. Thales’ induction that its original substance was water was premature, but it was neither wild nor irresponsible. After having considered all the facts, Thales had concluded that if there was an original substance, ubiquitous and life-giving water was the best guess.

Philosophically minded historians will note with interest that a similar conclusion was reached more than twelve centuries later by the Muslim Prophet. Indeed God revealed to him, “We have made of water everything living.” ⁴³² It is not impossible that the Thalesian conceit had percolated into Muhammad’s head, but it is not at all necessary to assume such a transmission. The Prophet had had at least as many opportunities as Thales of witnessing desert sterility on one day, and life abundant after a rain on the morrow. Both men concluded in a similar way, but they expressed their conclusions differently according to their temperaments; Muhammad was a seer and a prophet (like his Jewish predecessors), Thales, on the contrary, was a man of science. It is typical of the Greek genius that though the second man was twelve centuries older than the first, he is much closer to us.

A final tradition is best quoted in Aristotle’s own words:

Thales knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletos, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest-time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sorts.⁴³³

Aristotle told the story as well as he could to exonerate his predecessor, but I do not like the idea of a philosopher who gets rich just to show that he can do it. That seems a little foolish and disingenuous. Is it not simpler to suppose that Thales took so much trouble because he wanted money, and became rich because that was his heart’s desire? That was very Ionian, by the way, and very Greek. Judging from the other specimens, as well as from Thales, the “wise men” of the ancient Greeks were not otherworldly saints but rather practical and clever people. The Greeks have generally loved money and many of them have gathered large amounts of it and been very generous with it.⁴³⁴ Aristotle’s story describes Thales’ greed but makes no mention of his generosity; that is why it fails to convince us. We might have loved him better if he had been more disinterested, but we should try to see him as he was.


Anaximandros (c. 610–545), son of Praxiades, was a fellow citizen and companion (polit s cai etairos) of Thales. He has been called the latter’s disciple, but that can be understood only in a loose sense. We are not aware that Thales did any formal teaching, but Anaximandros, being some fifteen years younger, received from him some guidance and stimulation. As we shall see presently, their particular views were different, yet they had in common, as against the other citizens of Miletos, a deep curiosity and strong desire to explain the nature of things. In that sense, but in that sense only, it is true that Anaximandros continued Thales’ work. Toward the end of his life he wrote a treatise peri physe s (de natura rerum), the first treatise on natural philosophy in the history of mankind; it was still available in the time of Apollodoros of Athens (II–2 B.C.), but only very few lines of it have come down to us. Before discussing his philosophy or general physiology, it is pertinent to explain the more concrete achievements to which his life was devoted.

His best scientific work was done in the field of astronomy, by means of a single instrument, the gnomon. That instrument had been invented in Babylonia and in Egypt, but it is so simple that Thales or Anaximandros, or even earlier Greeks, may have reinvented it. It is simply a stick or a pole planted vertically in the ground, or one might use a column built for that purpose or for any other; the Egyptian obelisks would have been perfect gnomons if sufficiently isolated from other buildings. Any intelligent person, having driven his spear into the sand, might have noticed that its shadow turned around during the day and that it varied in length as it turned. The gnomon in its simplest form was the systematization of that casual experiment. Instead of a spear, a measured stick was established solidly in a vertical position in the middle of a horizontal plane, well smoothed out and unobstructed all around in order that the shadow could be seen clearly from sunup to sundown.⁴³⁵ The astronomer (the systematic user of the gnomon deserves that name) observing the shadow throughout the year would see that it reached a minimum every day (real noon), and that that minimum varied from day to day, being shortest at one time of the year (summer solstice) and longest six months later (winter solstice). Moreover, the direction of the shadow turned around fron West to East during each day, describing a fan the amplitude of which varied throughout the year.

Anaximandros, or any other astronomer, Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Greek, making such observations day after day, must have asked himself many questions. Why does the noon shadow grow in six months’ time from its shortest length to its longest and then reverse the process, and so on, year after year? And how do the azimuths of the shadows compare with their length? He observed that the extreme directions at sunrise (or sunset) correspond to the shortest and longest noon shadows (that is, to solstitial times). The extreme westward positions of the sunrise shadow at the two solstices could be marked, the middle position between those two extremes (due west) corresponding to the equinoxes. Similar observations could be made at sunset and would lead to similar conclusions, confirming the previous one. The direction of the sunset shadow at the time of the equinoxes would be collinear with, but opposite to, that of the sunrise shadow at the same times.

In short, the gnomon enabled the astronomer to determine the lengths of the year and of the day, the cardinal points, the meridian, real noon, the solstices, and later, the equinoxes and the length of the seasons (Fig. 46). A relatively large amount of precise information could thus be obtained with the simplest kind of tool. It requires some imagination to appreciate what could be done, and what could not be done, with a gnomon in Anaximandros’ day. Indeed, our minds are so conditioned from childhood that we see ourselves standing on a sphere, our erect body pointing to the zenith and making a definite angle with the equatorial plane. Thus we see readily ⁴³⁶ that the gnomon would enable us to determine that angle (the latitude), but Anaximandros could not possibly have thought of that. He conceived the earth as a flat disk or tambourine (thickness about one-third of the diameter), suspended in space, surrounded by the ocean and by great anchor rings (solar, lunar, stellar).

The idea of (terrestrial) latitude could not have occurred to him, but he was able to adumbrate our concept of the obliquity of the ecliptic. Indeed, he could observe that the Sun moved each day in a plane, and described a semicircle from east to west, culminating in the meridian at noon; the inclination of that plane to the horizon varied from day to day, being smallest at the winter solstice (when the noon shadow of the gnomon was longest) and largest at the summer solstice (when the noon shadow was shortest); the plane reached its half-way position at the times of the equinoxes (when the Sun rose due east and set due west). The angle between the two extreme positions of the solar plane (ecliptic) is twice as large as the one that we call the obliquity of the ecliptic. Anaximandros could possibly have measured that angle, but it would be highly misleading to say that he discovered the obliquity of the ecliptic (that is, the angle between the ecliptic and the equator), because he could not conceive the equator any more than the latitude.

Anaximandros apparently did not travel like Thales; at any rate, the traditions do not mention any travel of his. Yet he is said to have created the first mappa mundi (pinax). The Greek world was in the center of the map, other parts of Europe and Asia around it, and the Ocean formed the outside boundary.⁴³⁷ It was probably to that map that Suidas (X–2) referred with the words “outline of geometry” (geõmetrias hypotypõsis) which were wrongly interpreted as a treatise on geometry (in the usual sense). We must beware of the Greek terms adopted in our language; for example, the words geography and geometry are etymologically close but represent two very different fields. Anaximandros’ map might have been called perhaps a first attempt in geodesy, but it was unavoidably a very poor one.

We now come to the feature that occupies most place in the histories of Greek philosophy — his conception of the world. We have kept it for the end in order to emphasize the concreteness of his thought. We should imagine him as an astronomer trying his best to solve definite problems, succeeding sometimes and failing at other times, as is the fate of every honest scientist. Yet he wanted to go beyond that, to extrapolate his experience and knowledge and give his views on the universe. He explained those views in the treatise that he wrote at the age of sixty-four. He was probably stimulated in this by the example of his older contemporary, Thales. Thales’ idea that water was the primary substance had much to commend itself (as we have shown above), yet it had obvious shortcomings. How could we understand the transformation of water into earth, or wood, or iron? What other principle could one suggest? It is clear that if one had to choose among the kinds of matter familiar to one’s senses, ubiquitous and protean water was incomparably the best. Water was the best, yet it would not do.

Fig. 46. The gnomon.

Anaximandros saved himself from that corner by taking refuge in an abstraction, in a word. Philosophers, and even a few scientists, have repeated that performance over and over again, to their satisfaction and apparently to the satisfaction of their readers. Anaximandros did not abandon the Thalesian idea of the substantial unity of nature, but since no tangible substance could serve as prime substance (arch ),⁴³⁸ he imagined one that was intangible and called it apeiron. There has been much discussion ever since as to the nature of apeiron; the word means infinite or indefinite, undetermined; it may also mean unexperienced.

Before giving our own guess, let us explain the main traits of Anaximandros’ cosmology. We need not be very precise in our terminology; so little of his book is available and that little is so unclear and ambiguous that to explain his views with exact terms would be like weighing dirt with a balance of precision. Anaximandros conceived the world as a system in rotation, wherein the heaviest objects, rocks and earth, would fall to the lowest place, lighter ones like water would remain a little higher, fumes and vapors still higher. That circular motion is eternal and the source of universal power, creation and destruction. The primary substance apeiron is undetermined because it is potentially everything. The universe is of infinite duration in a boundless space. Anaximandros seems to have made a distinction between determination (as that of a definite substance) and indetermination, which is like nothing we know, or cannot be distinguished from anything else. For example, we know the difference between cold and hot, dry and wet, but where is the limit? When does a thing cease to be cold or dry, and become warm or damp? He seems to have been able also to distinguish between infinity and endlessness; one may never be able to reach the end of a thing because it has no end or because it comes back into itself, like a closed curve. He seems to consider time infinite but space boundless (in the second sense, like the surface of a sphere). It is futile to discuss his thoughts more elaborately, for we cannot discuss them without giving the few fragments that have come to us meanings more definite and more precise than they can possibly have without the lost context.

We must still say a few words of Anaximandros’ theory of life. He thought that the first animals were created in water and were then surrounded by a kind of husk (phloios); later these animals found a new abode upon dry land, dropped their shells, and adapted themselves to the new circumstances (he had perhaps in mind the insects that issue from marine larvae). Man must derive from other animals, because his own period of immaturity is too long and too frail. In short, he had conceived not only a general cosmology but a theory of organic evolution. He was a distant forerunner (very distant indeed) of Darwin as well as of Laplace!

That such thoughts found utterance as early as the sixth century is almost incredible, yet the general meaning of the texts that have come to us is unmistakable. Scientists may object that gratuitous assertions, or assertions based on such flimsy evidence, cannot be considered scientific achievements, and should be abandoned to metaphysicians or to poets. To be sure, such assertions would not be permissible today, but we must remember that Anaximandros made them before the purpose and methods of science had been formulated. His thoughts helped to prepare that formulation. He was neither a scientist nor a metaphysician in the modern sense of those terms; he was a philosopher or a physiologist in the Greek sense. He was the first to state some of the fundamental problems of science; his answers were too bald and premature, but not in their own background irrational.


The Milesian tradition — the search for a first principle or a primary substance — had been somewhat deviated by Anaximandros, but it was redressed by the latter’s fellow citizen and successor, Anaximenes. This Anaximenes, son of Eurystratos, flourished about the end of Anaximandros’ life and he died in the sixty-third Olympiad (528–525). No writings of his have reached us except three short fragments, and the doxography concerning him extends to only a few pages, yet Theophrastos attached so much importance to his thought that he had devoted a special treatise to him.

Anaximandros’ expedient, his metaphysical conception of the prime substance, his escape from reality, was not to the taste of Anaximenes, who tried to reintroduce a physical principle. Water would not do because it was too tangible, too determinate. But what of wind or air, permeating everything?⁴³⁹ Air (pneuma) is tangible enough (does one not feel a blast of wind?), and yet it can easily become almost intangible. It has biological properties, for men and animals cannot live without breathing, and what is breath but air? Moreover, air can be compressed or it can indefinitely expand. Air is material enough, yet it tends to become immaterial, and even spiritual. According to dictionaries, the spiritual meaning of pneuma is not older than the Septuagint,⁴⁴⁰ yet it must have occurred to any thinking man long before that time, for the semantic passage from air to breath, hence to life and spirit, was a very natural one.

Air is the primary substance, but it may take all kinds of appearances by condensation or thickening (pycn sis) or by rarefaction or thinning (man sis). Anaximenes associated these qualitative changes with changes in temperature. He had persuaded himself with a crude experiment that rarefaction increased the temperature while compression decreased it: when we blow with open mouth, the air that we breathe out is warm; when we blow with the lips almost closed, the air is cool.⁴⁴¹ His assimilation of air with the breath of life was the occasion of his comparing the whole world with a single living organism, say a man. Breath is to the latter what wind is to the former. This introduced the concept of the little world versus the big world,⁴⁴² which was to play so large a role in medieval philosophy and is still misleading uncritical minds today.

Anaximenes still conceived the earth and other planets (including Sun and Moon) as disks supported by the air, but he was first among the Greeks to think of the stars as situated on a rotating sphere. This preserved the eternal rotation of Anaximandros. The planets are freely suspended, but the stars are attached to the sphere like nails. He rejected the (Egyptian) idea that the stars and planets pass under the earth, but claimed that they turned around like a cap around the head; they disappear from our view when they pass behind mountains at the edge of the world.

The essentials of Anaximenes’ thought were a restatement of the material unity of nature, his choice of air as the primary substance, and his explanation of all the accidents of nature by rarefactions and condensations of that substance. The great rhythm of the cosmos was somewhat like the respiratory rhythm of our own life.

It is typical of the Milesian spirit of “natural philosophy” that Anaximenes’ hypotheses were preferred to those of Anaximandros and that his views were considered as the climax of previous speculations. These fell gradually into oblivion and Milesian philosophy came to mean the philosophy of Anaximenes. We shall come back to that when we deal with a later Ionian, the last one, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (V B.C.).


We may now leave the physiologists of Miletos, and even leave Miletos itself, but we must remain close to the Asiatic coast. Thales, Anaximandros, Anaximenes were all interested in astronomy. That interest might have been spontaneous, for the phenomena to be observed every night in the sky are too obvious and too impressive not to challenge the curiosity of thoughtful men. It is very probable, however, that their curiosity received further stimulation from Oriental sources. The sailors and merchants who reached Miletos brought with them Babylonian and Egyptian ideas. A few examples of such transmission have already been mentioned; here are two additional ones.

Cleostratos flourished not in Miletos but in Tenedos, a little island off Troas, near the mouth of the Hellespont. According to one tradition, Thales died in Tenedos, and hence Cleostratos might have obtained the Milesian doctrines in his own island home, either from the first teacher or from one of his disciples; of course, it would not have been very difficult for him to obtain them even if that tradition is false, for Tenedos was not far away from Ionia and must have been familiar to Milesian travelers en route to the Propontis. We have seen that Anaximandros had some understanding of what we call the obliquity of the ecliptic. Pliny tells us ⁴⁴³ that Anaximandros discovered it in the fifty-eighth Olympiad (548–545), that is, toward the end of his life. Thales lived until about the same time and the discovery of the obliquity of the ecliptic might be considered as the climax of the early Ionian astronomy. Some time afterward (say c. 520), Cleostratos, who was making astronomical observations in Tenedos and tried to determine the exact time of a solstice, recognized the signs of the zodiac, especially those of the Ram and the Archer. Now the zodiac, an imaginary belt in the heavens on both sides of the ecliptic,⁴⁴⁴ had been distinguished by Babylonian astronomers a thousand years earlier. Indeed, it was impossible to observe the trajectories of moon and planets for any length of time without realizing that those celestial bodies travel in a relatively narrow belt and are never very distant in latitude from the Sun (or, as we would have put it, from the ecliptic). What Cleostratos did then was probably to recognize the constellations through which the Sun, Moon, and planets pass during the year, and perhaps to divide those constellations into twelve equal lengths of the ecliptic, the twelve “signs” of the zodiac.⁴⁴⁵ These constellations, and perhaps others, may have been described, their risings and settings indicated, in his lost poem on the stars (astrologia).

Another invention is ascribed to him, namely, that of an eight-year cycle (octaet ris) of intercalations, a period containing an exact number of days, lunar months, and solar years:

365¼ × 8 = 2922 days = 99 months.

Now such a cycle was also known to the Babylonians, and Cleostratos may have borrowed it from them, or their determinations of months and years may have enabled him to rediscover it for himself. This was but the first of various other cycles introduced from to time by Greek astronomers to serve calendrical purposes.

We can never be certain in such matters, but the balance of probabilities favors the hypothesis that the astronomy of the Ionians in general, and that of Cleostratos in particular, was stimulated by the reception of Babylonian knowledge. This does not decrease the value of Cleostratos’ achievements; he was one of the founders of Greek astronomy.

J. K. Fotheringham, “Cleostratus,” J. Hellenic Studies 39, 164–184 (1919); 40, 208-209 (1920) [ Isis 5, 203 (1923)]. E. J. Webb, “Cleostratus redivivus,” J. Hellenic Studies 41, 70–85 (1921) [Isis 5, 490 (1923)].


The city of Colophon, where Xenophanes was brought up, was one of the twelve Ionian cities; it was an opulent market town but had often been sacked by foreign invaders or by pirates. When Cyrus conquered it, Xenophanes preferred to leave and he spent the rest of his life wandering; he is said to have traveled for sixty-seven years. He may have visited Egypt and this would help to account for some of his ideas, but the traditions refer only to his journey westward to Sicily. He visited Zancle (= Messina) and Catania, and settled for a time in Elea, on the western coast of Lucania.⁴⁴⁶ Note that he thus helps us to cross two barriers — we pass with him from the sixth to the fifth century (he lived with the period 570–470) and from the Aegean sea to the Tyrrhenian, or from the Eastern to the Western Mediterranean.

The most curious of his ideas was a kind of monotheism or pantheism that may well have been of Egyptian origin. At any rate, such sayings of his as, “A single God and the greatest among gods and men,” “God is one and is all,” “God is the cause of motion,” suggest a new theosophy essentially different from Milesian physiology and its relative positivism. Xenophanes had been duly influenced by his Milesian neighbors, however, and this appears in the most remarkable of the fragments ascribed to him. It is worth while to quote it in full:

And Xenophanes is of opinion that there had been a mixture of the earth with the sea, and that in the process of time it was disengaged from the moisture, alleging that he could produce such proofs as the following: that in the midst of earth and in mountains shells are discovered; and also in Syracuse he affirms was found in the quarries the print of a fish and of seals, and in Paros the print of an anchovy in the bottom of a stone, and in Malta parts of all sorts of marine animals. And he says that these were generated when all things were originally embedded in mud, and that an impression of them was dried in the mud, but that all men had perished when the earth, precipitated into the sea, was converted into mud; then again that it originated generation, and that this overthrow occurred to all worlds.⁴⁴⁷

This is astounding. On the basis of it we may call Xenophanes the earliest geologist and the earliest paleontologist. Should one object that the extract is known only by a very late quotation and that its genuineness is thus far from certain, there is little that one could say in defense of it. Yet why should Hippolytos have invented it? There was nothing to be gained in that. Moreover, the statement would be even more astounding in the third century after Christ than it was at the turn of the sixth century before Christ, for that century had been, in Ionia at least, an age of unusual freedom and adventure, a golden age. In Xenophanes’ mouth such words were astonishing, to be sure, but not more so than many others ascribed to Thales, Anaximandros, and Anaximenes. Along the coast of Asia Minor Greek science had begun in a wonderful manner. The Ionian physiologists were the worthy descendants of the Homeridae.


An effort has been made in the previous sections of this chapter to explain the birth of Greek science in Ionia. The speed of my narrative should not deceive the reader. The development of what might be called the school of Miletos (or of Ionia) took well over a century; Thales and Anaximandros were born in the last quarter of the seventh century, Xenophanes died in the first third of the fifth century. The men dealt with were concerned with physiology, that is, physics, biology, astronomy, “philosophy of nature.” Before explaining another remarkable feature of Milesian science — the development of geographic thought — we should return for a moment to Egypt and move backward a century or so to the beginning of the period of this chapter.

The Twenty-fifth (or Aethiopian) Dynasty of Egypt, having lasted barely half a century, came to an end in 663.⁴⁴⁸ The last Aethiopian king was defeated by Ashur-bani-pal (king of Assyria, 668–626), and the whole of Egypt was then for a few months an Assyrian province. One of the native governors of that province, Psametik, son of Necho (Nekaw) of Sais, succeeded in reorganizing a kind of national unity and with the help of Greek and Carian mercenaries ”in brazen armor“⁴⁴⁹ he delivered his country from Assyrian bondage and founded the Twenty-sixth (or Saitic) Dynasty. He was a strong and able ruler, and his dynasty, the last national one, was truly a period of renaissance. He looked back for his models (in religion, art, epigraphy) to the classic periods of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, when the glory of Egypt had reached its climax. That renaissance did not last very long (only 138 years, hardly more than four or five generations) because it was artificial. Psametik could evoke prosperity, but such as it was, it was dependent on the protection of foreign mercenaries and the trading abilities of foreign merchants. Then (even as today) intense nationalism was strangely combined with military impotence. In spite of its glorious aspect, the Saitic kingdom was essentially unstable and it fell like a house of cards as soon as Cambyses appeared at the gates of Pelusium ⁴⁵⁰ in 525.

It had been Psametik’s mistake — a generous one — to place culture above strength and to devote all his efforts to the development of the arts of peace under the noses of aggressive and greedy neighbors. He repaired the irrigation works of the Delta, favored the establishment of Greek colonies, revived trade not only with Greek people of many origins, but also with Carians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Israelites. There were Greek and Carian quarters in Memphis. Psametik had established his capital in his own birthplace, Sais, on the (western) Rosetta branch of the Nile, and the Delta became the dominant part of Egypt.

Thanks to Psametik’s archaeological and patriotic enthusiasm, the arts were revived. Our museums contain many gracious objects of the Saitic period, especially in bronze and fayence, but no large monuments have survived.⁴⁵¹ The lords of the Delta built probably with mud, not with stone, and their dwellings vanished. Psametik and his successors encouraged the scribes to copy the old books of their nation and many such copies have come down to us, written in a new and faster kind of hand, a “streamlined” form of the hieratic cursive, known to us as demotic (popular). It was not possible to resuscitate all the old gods, but Osiris and Isis became the favorites, and Imhotep was deified. The influence of the Greeks upon Egypt was commercial and material; on the contrary, that of Egypt upon Greece was spiritual. The Greek interest in the gods of Egypt, and especially in those that we have just named, dates largely from this time when the opportunities for Greek-Egyptian anastomosis were frequent. A curious little example of Egyptian prestige is given us by the tyrant of Corinth, Periandros (ruled (625–585), who gave his nephew and successor the name Psammetichos (or Psammis, Greek forms of the Egyptian name Psametik). Periandros, it may be remembered, was one of the Seven Wise Men. This homage to Egypt is particularly significant in his mouth.

To return to the original Psametik, his son Necho succeeded him in 609 and was probably so much impressed by the grandeur and beauty of the kingdom which he had fallen heir to that he did not imagine its essential weakness and precariousness. The Assyrians were then involved in a deadly struggle against the Babylonians and the Medes. Taking advantage of their great peril and of the strength of his Greek mercenaries, Necho invaded Palestine in 609, defeated and slew Josiah (king of Judah, 638–609) at the battle of Megiddo. Four years later he was himself defeated at Carchemish on the Euphrates by Nebuchadrezzar (king of Babylon 604–562) and then lost all the territories that he had conquered in Asia.⁴⁵² After Megiddo, Necho sent to the Branchidai⁴⁵³ near Miletos and there dedicated to Apollo the garments in which he had won that victory. Thus we remain close to that city after all. The Egyptians paid homage to Greek gods, while the Greeks worshiped Isis and Osiris.

What we have said of Necho is already sufficient to arrest the attention of the historian of ideas, for did he not establish bonds of union between Egypt, Greece, Israel, Chaldea? Yet we have more direct reasons to be interested in him — two great achievements of which the historian of geography must take notice.

In the first place, he continued the digging of a canal connecting the Nile with the Red Sea. A canal had been built during the Middle Kingdom (2160–1788) between Bubastis on the Tanitic arm of the Nile and Lake Timsah. Necho reëx-cavated it and continued it to the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf of Suez (bahr al-qulzum). It was dug wide enough for two triremes to pass each other and its length (from Bubastis, I take it) was four days’ sailing. Herodotos, to whom we owe most of our information on this subject, tells us that 120,000 Egyptians perished in the undertaking, which had to be abandoned before completion.⁴⁵⁴ Why was it abandoned? According to Herodotos, because of an oracle foreboding evil from the barbarians (that is, the foreigners; that evil was realized in the following century); according to Diodoros of Sicily (1–2 B.C.), because Necho’s engineers discovered that the Red Sea was higher than the Delta and feared to flood Egypt with salt water; the decisive reason may have been the increasing difficulty of raising laborers and supplies. The canal was completed a century later by Darius (king of Persia and Egypt, 521–486). Necho deserves praise for having understood the need of a communication between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, which, if he had been fortunate enough to complete it, would have enhanced the prosperity of his kingdom. Alas! that would not have saved it but would have increased the greed of its neighbors and its own mortal danger.

In the second place, being anxious to promote foreign trade, Necho ordered Phoenician ships to sail around Libya (Africa). The idea was a natural one, at any rate to Greek minds, because of their belief in an ocean surrounding the earth, yet it required unusual imagination and courage to implement it as Necho did. Herodotos’ account of this achievement is so clear and withal so short that we cannot do better than to reproduce it:

For Libya shows clearly that it is encompassed by the sea, save only where it borders on Asia; and this was proved first (as far as we know) by Necos king of Egypt. He, when he had made an end of digging the canal which leads from the Nile to the Arabian Gulf, sent Phoenicians in ships, charging them to sail on their return voyage e past the Pillars of Heracles till they should come into the northern sea and so to Egypt. So the Phoenicians set out from the Red Sea and sailed the southern sea; whenever autumn came they would put in and sow the land, to whatever part of Libya they might come, and there await the harvest; then, having gathered in the crop, they sailed on, so that after two years had passed, it was in the third that they rounded the Pillars of Heracles and came to Egypt. There they said (what some may believe, though I do not) that in sailing round Libya they had the sun on their right hand.⁴⁵⁵

It is a pity that Herodotos does not go into more detail but such as it is his account inspires confidence. The very fact which he could not believe confirms the story, for when the Phoenicians sailed westward around the Cape of Good Hope the sun was always in the north, that is, on their right.⁴⁵⁶

Necho was in many respects a great king. We have seen that Periandros admired his father; he himself was admired by another of the wise men, and more famous one, Solon of Athens (VI B.C.). When the latter visited Egypt he studied Necho’s laws, and after his return introduced some of them into the new Athenian code. The essential weakness of the Saitic kingdom increased, but Necho could stave off the coming storm. The last king but one of his dynasty, Ahmose II, has already been mentioned. During his rule (569–525), the Greek merchants had obtained so much power that they were allowed to build, or to reorganize, the city of Naucratis,⁴⁵⁷ on the Canopic branch of the Nile, not very far west of the capital, Sais. That city became the main center of Greek commerce in Egypt (somewhat like Alexandria in later Ptolemaic days). Its main sanctuary, appropriately called Hellenion,⁴⁵⁸ was decorated with the offerings of many Ionian, Dorian, and Aeolian cities; in addition, some cities, like Miletos, had temples of their own. Ahmose sent liberal gifts to the Greek temples of Europe and Asia, and he had formed an alliance with the powerful tyrant, Polycrates of Samos. This is the Polycrates whose good luck was legendary, yet who was crucified in 522. In the meantime the peril increased considerably, for a new power had appeared in the East, Cyros, founder of the Persian empire. Cyros had defeated Croesus in 546 and the Babylonians in 539; he died in 529. Ahmose lived until 525, but his son Psametik III was vanquished in the same year by Cyros’ son, Cambyses. This was the end of an independent Egypt, but in a sense it had already lost its independence, for the Saitic kingdom was already Greek in many ways and the dynasty of Psametik (663–525) was a kind of anticipation of the Ptolemaic one a few centuries later (332–30).

During that period (seventh to sixth centuries) the Near East was submitted to a deep, unceasing turmoil. Its various elements — Greek, Asiatic, African — were repeatedly mixed. The main ferment was Ionian, but that ferment was excited by Egyptian and Babylonian examples. Physical contacts do not suffice without sympathy and understanding. There was enough sympathy between the Egyptians and the Greeks to bring results in both nations; unfortunately, the Egyptian influence, extensive as it was (the necessary contacts were abundant enough), could not reach very deep, for the demotic writings were even less legible and more forbidding than the hieroglyphics. Greeks and Jews must have met in Palestine and elsewhere but there was not enough sympathy between them to cause mutual admiration and emulation. We can detect plenty of Egyptian traces in Greek art,⁴⁵⁹ letters, and knowledge, but hardly any Jewish. The best of the Jews and the best of the Greeks were pursuing their own purposes independently; they could not yet come together in Miletos or in Naucratis, as they would two or three centuries later in Alexandria.


If Necho’s circumnavigation of Africa was accomplished, the news of that almost incredible event must have spread among the Phoenicians and have passed from them to the Milesians, either directly, or indirectly through Egyptian officers of the Saitic court. Even if that event did not actually happen, we may be sure that other stories were told by the Phoenician and Greek sailors. Milesian ships were often sailing around the Mediterranean and the Euxine, and collecting wares and news of every kind. No information was more likely to be treasured than what we would call the geographic in the broadest sense (géographie humaine). A place like Miletos in the sixth century was of necessity a geographic clearing house, even as a Portuguese harbor would be twenty centuries later. To be sure, information is not safely preserved, classified, standardized, unless a man of outstanding ability makes himself responsible for doing so. The success of Sagres was due to the genius and the devotion of Henry the Navigator; in the same way, the opportunities for geographic and anthropologic knowledge that were available in Miletos were capitalized and exploited by Hecataios.

Hecataios, son of Hegesandros, belonged to an ancient family of Miletos and was born about the middle of the century, that is, about the time of the Persian conquest. Thus he was brought up as a Persian subject; his family was probably ready to “collaborate” with the Persians and share their prosperity, but the common people were less easy to deal with and by the end of the century the air was rife with thoughts of insurrection. Hecataios tried in vain to avoid the rebellion and when war had become inevitable he realized that only a very bold strategy would save his countrymen. His advice was rejected in both cases, being considered too timid in the first, and too adventurous in the second. It all ended with the sack of Miletos in 494; Hecataios lived long enough to witness the battle of Mycale (479) and the liberation of his country; ⁴⁶⁰ he died c. 475.

He is said to have traveled extensively and his travels probably occurred toward the end of the century when his presence at home was obnoxious to the people. According to Herodotos, he not only visited Egypt but traveled as far south as Thebes. Such a visit would have been facilitated by the fact that after 525 Egypt was a Persian province. Hecataios was a Persian subject traveling from one province of the empire to another.

Two works have been ascribed to him, a historical one called Geneaologies and a geographical one entitled Periodos g s, “description of the earth” or “descriptive geography.” Both works are lost, and are known to us only by some 380 fragments, most of which are very short. The first of these books is less known and less important to us than the other, but we may pause a moment to consider its incipit, preserved by the famous Demetrios Phalereys: ⁴⁶¹“Hecataios of Miletos speaks thus. I have written these things because they seem true to me. The narrations of the Greeks are many and, in my opinion, foolish.”⁴⁶² These words, we should remember, replaced the title, and perhaps they were meant also to replace the jacket blurb of an enterprising publisher and to challenge the reader’s attention at the very outset; we should not judge them too severely.

The great majority of the 331 extracts from Hecataios’ geography are culled from Hermolaos’ epitome of the geographic dictionary of Stephanos of Byzantium (VI—1); hence they are very short indeed, as dictionary quotations are (often less than five words), yet they are sufficient to illustrate the general scope of the work. When Hecataeos was growing up in Miletos, he must have heard discussions concerning the views of the great physiologists, Thales, Anaximandros, and Anaximenes. What was really the main substance of the universe? Knowing the Greek temperament, we can easily imagine those discussions which were of their nature endless and sterile. They may have discouraged a young man whose ambition was humbler and more tangible. Hecataios may have said to himself (as any true scientist would), “Before settling the enigma of the universe, let us take careful stock of the things around us.” One of the most obvious and alluring tasks was to collect the scraps of geographic and anthropologic information that were brought home continually by sailors and merchants and to put them in good order, together with the observations and reminiscences of his own travels. This was the first attempt of its kind and because of it its author deserves to be called “the father of geography.” His Periodos was divided into two main parts, Europe and Asia (the latter including Libya). Look at the schematic map which shows that division and justifies it (Fig. 47). The flat earth was conceived as round, surrounded by the Ocean, and roughly divided by the Mediterranean, the Euxine, and the Caspian into two halves — the upper or northern one being Europe, and the low or southern one Asia and Africa.⁴⁶³ The map makes it unnecessary to describe other features. Note that the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, and the Nile all connect with the circumambient Ocean; that was natural enough for the first three, but wrong as regards the fourth. We shall come back to the Nile presently. Hecataios’ survey was very largely restricted to the coasts, which is not surprising for his information was received from merchants and sailors, and the Milesian and other Greek colonies were generally restricted to harbors with little if any hinterland. He was interested not only in cities, but in peoples and even in animals; according to Porphyry (III—2), Herodotos’ descriptions of the phoenix, the hippopotamus, and the hunting of crocodiles were taken from Hecataios.⁴⁶⁴

Fig. 47. Schematic map illustrating Hecataios’ general view of the flat world. [Reproduced with kind permission from H. F. Tozer, History of ancient geography (Cambridge: University Press, ed. 2, 1935), map II. A more elaborate map, including many more Hecataian names, is appended to R. H. Klausen, Hecataei Milesii fragmenta (Berlin, 1831). Klausen’s book contains a geographic index to Hecatios; in Müller’s edition that index is mixed up with many others.]

Did Hecataios actually draw a map? That is quite possible and it is even said that he improved Anaximandros’ map. A statement of Herodotos may be taken to mean that many maps had been made; ⁴⁶⁵ another one unmistakably refers to a map.⁴⁶⁶ At the time when Miletos was in great jeopardy, its tyrant Aristagoras went to Sparta to beseech the help of King Cleomenes; ⁴⁶⁷ “he brought with him a bronze tablet on which the map of all the earth was engraved, and all the sea and all the rivers.” This happened in Hecataios’ time and he may have seen that bronze map — in fact, he might well have been the author of it.

A word about the Nile. The Greeks visiting Egypt could not help asking themselves questions concerning the greatest wonder of that country, the river Nile. The lonians would certainly notice one important feature, the formation of the immense delta, because of their own experience on a much smaller scale, for example, the alluvia of the Maiandros. Other features were harder to understand. How came it that the Nile flooded the country in the summer, when the Greek rivers were drying up? Herodotos, who is our guide in this as in many other matters, explains various Greek opinions on the subject.⁴⁶⁸ The first opinion, probably Thales’, was that the river was caused to rise by the Etesian winds⁴⁶⁹ which prevented its flowing out to the sea; according to the second opinion, probably Hecataios’, the increase of the river was due to its connection with the Ocean;⁴⁷⁰ according to the third opinion, Anaxagoras’, the river rose because snow melted in the mountains of Libya. This last-named opinion came much nearer to the truth, yet Herodotos rejected it as well as the others to give his own worthless one.⁴⁷¹ Hecataios’ explanation of the Nile floods is interesting in spite of its gross erroneousness; it shows how his mind was dominated by the Homeric Ocean.

This general view, let us remark, was on the whole a correct one. The continents, we now know, are large islands surrounded by seas. Geographers give separate names to those seas according to their location, but all those seas are but parts of one ocean. If one restricts oneself to the Old World, the Homeric concept is even truer. For Europe-Asia-Africa constitute as it were a single continent surrounded by a single ocean. The Homeric-Hecataian view was essentially true, but the ancient Greeks could not possibly have realized the extent of that continent north, east, and south.

Hecataios was a poor theorist (there is no trace of mathematical geography in his work, or none has come to us ) , but his effort to put together and to organize the available knowledge of the tangible world was a good step in the right direction. He is one of the founders of geography.

The bestedition of what remains of Hecataios’ work is included in the Fragmenta hfstoricorum Graecorum, edited by Charles and Theodore Müller of Paris (Paris, 1841), vol. 1, pp. ix-xvi, 1-31, with Latin translation. Our knowledge of ancient geography has so much increased since 1841 that a new edition is very desirable.


Much of our knowledge of Greek technology in the sixth century is of a legendary nature, but the core of those legends is generally substantiated by indirect information and sometimes by monuments. The collateral information is chiefly Egyptian; technical processes practiced in Egypt would draw the attention of the Greek colonists established in Naucratis or roaming across the country and would be imported into the Greek islands almost as easily as the objects that they had helped to create. In most cases, however, it is hardly possible to say whether a Greek method is an invention or an importation from Egypt or elsewhere. The line between imitation and invention is hardly visible; from servile imitation to pure invention there are numberless intermediate steps.

The legendary history of inventions in Greece introduces a very curious personality, the Scythian prince Anacharsis, who came to Athens c. 594. His intelligence, gentleness, and good humor, as well as the simplicity of his manners, won him the approval and sympathy of his neighbors. He became a disciple and friend of Solon, and was counted as one of the “seven wise men” (not in the most common lists, however). Various wise sayings were ascribed to him as they were to the other “sages.” For example, he compared the laws to spiderwebs which catch small insects but let the larger ones pass through. When he returned to his native country he brought back with him Greek customs and religion,⁴⁷² and because of that impiety was killed by his brother Saulios, king of the Scythians. This Anacharsis is doubly interesting to us, first because of his origin, second because he established himself in Athens. This suggests that the legend is of relatively late formation, for it would have been more natural in 594 for a Scythian “inventor” to go to Miletos than to Athens. For one thing, Milesian ships would have brought him to Ionia rather than to Attica. Be that as it may, he has the distinction of being the first Athenian in the history of science as well as the first Scythian. To put it otherwise, it is remarkable that the first Athenian in our quest, next to Solon, should be a Scythian, or — in modern language, with a bit of stretching — a Russian!

Many inventions were credited to him: a two-armed anchor, bellows, potter’s wheel.⁴⁷³ These particular inventions are certainly earlier than the sixth century, much earlier, and were probably made in more than one place. Anacharsis may have imported them from Egypt or elsewhere, or he may have reinvented them independently, or he may have improved them in various ways.

Fig. 48. Title page of volume 1 of the first quarto edition of the Voyage du jeune Anacharsis. [From the copy in the Harvard College Library.] When the work was first published in 1788 it was offered in two editions, one in four volumes quarto, the other in six volumes octavo. To each edition was added a “Recueil de cartes géo-graphiques, plans, vues et médailles de l’ancienne Grèce, relatifs au voyage du jeune Anarcharsis,” edited by Jean Denis Barbié du Bocage (1780–1825). The second and third editions (Paris 1789, 1790) appeared also in two sizes, octavo and duodecimo, and the sixth (Paris, 1799) in two sizes, quarto and octavo, like the first. Barthélemy revised every edition down to that sixth one, called the fourth, which was. edited posthumously by his nephew, Barthélemy de Courcay, and included many additions and corrections. Later editions generally reproduced that of 1799.

The reader may allow here a little digression which is not irrelevant to our general purpose. The most important work for the diffusion of Hellenism in France at the very end of the seventeenth century was Fénelon’s Télémaque; in the same manner, the best vehicle of Hellenism a century later was Le voyage du jeune Anacharsis, by the abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy (Fig. 48).⁴⁷⁴ The title of the book was certainly inspired by the wise Anacharsis of whom we have just spoken, for its hero is a Scythian, but Barthélemy placed the story in the middle of the fourth century, because he wanted to give a survey of Greece during that golden age.⁴⁷⁵e spent more than thirty years preparing it, and when the book finally appeared (Paris, 1788) its success was prodigious.⁴⁷⁶The first edition was followed by a good many others, complete or abridged. Before the end of the century it had been translated into German, Italian, English, and Danish; within the first twenty years of the nineteenth century it was translated into Dutch, Spanish, and Greek; in 1847 it was translated into Armenian; the last French reprint appeared as late as 1893; abridgments were still published after that date. In every large library Anacharsis needs many shelves for his accommodation.

The popularity of Télémaque may be difficult to understand to our contemporaries, whose taste is hopelessly corrupted by the radio and the movies, but that of Anacharsis is truly incomprehensible. This is indeed a heavy manual of Greek archaeology, complete with an atlas of maps and plates; a feeble narrative is but the pretext for an endless series of dissertations on the landscapes and monuments of Greece, its public and private antiquities, arts, literature, philosophy, religion.⁴⁷⁷ The French readers who had absorbed the Encyclopédie and Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (a great many had actually read those works volume by volume as they appeared) had truly a great appetite for learning, and their interest in Greece had steadily increased during the second half of the eighteenth century, reaching a climax in 1770 and a new one in the revolutionary period.⁴⁷⁸ The success of Barthélemy’s book was largely due to its timeliness.

To return to Ionia in the sixth century. The invention of the art of soldering iron (sid ru coll sis) was ascribed to Glaucos of Chios, and that of various tools needed in the art of building — level, square, lathe, key — to Theodoros of Samos. This Theodoros, son of Telecles, is rather a mysterious personality; he was a technician, architect, brassfounder, goldsmith, gem engraver,⁴⁷⁹ and flourished c. 550–530. He invented ways of polishing precious stones and brought the art of bronze casting from Egypt to Greece (that art was much practiced during the Saitic dynasty). All these inventions would call for remarks similar to those offered above concerning the bellows and the potter’s wheel, and the history of each would take us too far out of our path. Let us say a few words of the level. The instrument “invented” by Theodoros was probably the diab t s⁴⁸⁰ mentioned in inscriptions (Lesbos). The principle of it is as simple as it is ingenious (Fig. 49). In the triangle ABC, probably made of wood, the distances AB and AB′ are respectively equal to AC and AC’. The middle point O of B′C′ is marked, and a plummet (staphyl ) is hung from A. If one stands the diabetes vertically on a stone and the plumb line is opposite O, then the lines BC′, BC, and the stone are horizontal. Such an instrument and others involving the same idea (the determination of the horizontal with a plumb line) were used by the Egyptians for astronomic purposes. Not only do we know that, but an exemplar of it has been found in a Theban tomb of the Twentieth Dynasty, and is preserved in the Cairo museum. ⁴⁸¹

Fig. 49. The diab t s.

The inventiveness of the Greeks or their readiness to make the best use of foreign inventions must have been greatly stimulated in the sixth century by rising architectural and engineering needs, which had to be satisfied. Necessity is the mother of invention. One of the most ambitious creations of that age was the building, or rebuilding, of the Artemision of Ephesos. Ephesos, one of the outstanding Ionian cities, was the center of a cult to the Asiatic nature goddess whom the Greeks called Artemis; in the sixth century that cult had become exceedingly popular and a gigantic temple was planned for the celebration of its rites.⁴⁸² Its building called for the solution of many difficulties. Theodoros of Samos is sometimes quoted as the chief architect and it is said that he found means of establishing solid foundations on marshy ground. It is a fact that that fundamental problem had to be solved in the marshes of Ephesos; it is equally certain that it was solved, for otherwise the temple would have fallen; yet it stood for centuries. About the same time, say the middle of the century, a Cretan, Chersiphron of Cnossos, came to assist Theodoros in the realization of that immense project. Chersiphron invented a method of moving huge columns; his son Metagenes continued his father’s activities and improved his methods.⁴⁸³

The island of Samos, not very far northwest of Miletos, was one of the most important Ionian colonies, and many of its sons or adopted citizens enjoyed fame as architects and engineers. We have already named Theodoros of Samos, but the greatest of all was Eupalinos. Says Herodotos:

I have written thus at length of the Samians, because they are the makers of the three greatest works to be seen in any Greek land. First of these is the double-mouthed channel pierced for an hundred and fifty fathoms through the base of a high hill; the whole channel is seven furlongs long, eight feet high and eight feet wide; and throughout the whole of its length there runs another channel twenty cubits deep and three feet wide, wherethrough the water coming from an abundant spring is carried by its pipes to the city of Samos. The designer of this work was Eupalinos son of Naustrophos, a Megarian. This is one of the three works; the second is a mole in the sea enclosing the harbor, sunk full twenty fathoms, and more than two furlongs in length. The third Samian work is the temple, which is the greatest that I have seen; its first builder was Rhoicos son of Philes, a Samian. It is for this cause that I have written at length more than ordinary of Samos.⁴⁸⁴

Eupalinos was of Megara but is immortalized by the water conduits that he built in Samos, probably during the rule of Polycrates (c. 530–522). The remains of the tunnel described by Herodotos were found in 1882; it is about 1000 m long and 1.75 m high and wide; at the bottom of the tunnel there is a trench, about 60 cm wide and reaching at the south end a depth of 8.3 m, wherein the clay pipes were embedded.

This was indeed a great achievement but not the earliest of its kind. Not to speak of Egyptian and Cretan water supplies, a very remarkable one had been established in Jerusalem under Hezekiah (VIII B.C.), king of Judah from 719 to 690. Its main feature was the tunnel of Siloam, in the village of that name, outside Jerusalem near the southeast corner of that city. It is an underground aqueduct more than 500 m long and of semicircular shape.⁴⁸⁵ The Siloam and the Samos tunnels were started at both ends; we can be sure of this for the place of junction can be observed in both cases. Indeed, the junction was imperfect, more so even in the Samos tunnel than in the one built in Jerusalem almost two centuries earlier. How did Hezekiah’s engineer and Eupalinos solve the mathematical problems involved? We can only guess; did they have instruments to measure azimuths and differences of levels? The problem involved was solved theoretically for the first time in the treatise on dioptra by Heron of Alexandria (1–2).⁴⁸⁶

As Hezekiah’s engineer is unknown, Eupalinos may be called the first known civil engineer in history.

Now let us say something of the first known bridgemaker, another son of Samos, Mandrocles, who flourished about 514, that is, a generation later than Eupalinos. Here again Herodotos is our source,⁴⁸⁷ but his text is too long to be quoted verbatim. When Darius I (King of Persia, 521–485) made his expedition against the Scythians (c. 514 or before) he ordered Mandrocles to build a bridge across the Bosporos to enable his immense army to pass into Europe. Mandrocles was able to satisfy him, for, as Herodotos put it, “Darius, being well content with his bridge of boats, made to Mandrocles the Samian a gift of ten of every kind.⁴⁸⁸

The number of men mentioned in this section is remarkable, especially when one considers that the majority of engineers and other technicians worked anonymously, or at any rate that their personalities were lost in their achievements. Those whom we have been able to name represent a host of forgotten ones. It is equally remarkable that they originate in many places — Scythia, Chios, Crete, Samos, Megara. Scythia was outlandish, but the other places were natural enough, for they were centers of Aegean and Ionian culture. The main localities where those men were employed, Ephesos and Samos, were both in Ionia.


Cadmos, son of Pandion, is often called the earliest Greek historian. His fellow citizen, Hecataios, of whom we have already spoken in our account of Milesian geography, was also a historian but a little younger than he. Indeed, Cadmos was already active about the middle of the century (or c. 540), when Hecataios was born. His Phoenician name is typical of the mixed Milesian culture.

By the middle of the century the achievements of the Ionians, and particularly of the Milesians, were already sufficiently considerable to suggest the value of records. Local pride may have felt the need of such records more keenly after the Persian conquest (546). The Milesians were naturally anxious to show to their conquerors the greatness of their own nation. Cadmos accomplished their purpose, writing in prose an account of the foundation of Miletos (ctisis Mil tu), and of the history of Ionia. His work must have been of some size, for it was divided into four books, yet hardly anything remains of it.

A similar task was done a little later (c. 510) by Eugeon of Samos, who wrote the annals of his native island (h roi Sami n).⁴⁸⁹

Thus we may say that Greek historiography was born in Ionia, as well as natural philosophy, or otherwise that Ionia was (for the Greeks) the cradle of human history, as well as that of natural history. The Ionians laid the foundations of Greek science in the fullest sense.

We should bear in mind that the Greeks were not alone in composing annals of their past. Not to go farther east, it will suffice to remember that their relatively close neighbors, the Jews, were engaged in similar activities. The Book of Judges and the Books of Kings may have been composed about the sixth century, and the Books of Samuel were somewhat earlier.


At the end of this, our first, chapter devoted to Greek science, the reader should be reminded that then, as at every other time, the number of scientists and scholars was very small as compared with the total number of citizens or inhabitants, whose main business was agriculture, trade, this or that craft or profession. There were farmers, merchants, sailors, public officers of many kinds, priests and servants of the temples, poets, artists, men of science. The last named constituted the smallest group. The reader should be warned also of the great importance of religious beliefs. Then as now, those beliefs were the substance of life, and then as now they ran the whole gamut from the highest and purest kind of faith and symbolism to the crassest kind of superstition.

The second warning is especially necessary because the Greeks are often praised for their rationalism, which is just as foolish as if the Christians were praised for their sanctity. Indeed, there have always been among the latter a few, very few, saints; even so, a few, very few, Greeks were the founders of rationalism and of science. The people as a whole are as good as circumstances permit, and their behavior is very largely irrational. Rationalism and religion, it should be recalled, are not mutually exclusive; rationalism and superstition are, but it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between superstition and religion.

The main difference between Greece and, say, Palestine is that the Greeks had no sacred writings comparable to the Old Testament, no definite dogmas to which subservience or at least acquiescence was required. The nearest things to Scriptures were the Homeric poems, and these were definitely lay scriptures, not sacred ones. To be sure, Homer often referred to the gods, but that was incidental and he did it with a poet’s license. Nevertheless, the Iliad and the Odyssey exerted a deep influence on Greek religion, for they helped to standardize the myths and to popularize them. Moreover, they humanized the gods and the heroes, sometimes to a degree that may scandalize the modern reader, but did not disturb the Greek listener. The latter knew that the gods were extremely powerful but he did not expect them to be perfect. Such as they were, Homer and Hesiod did not invent them but made them more familiar, consecrated their existence and their peculiarities. The Homeric epithets were easy to remember and were soon engraved on every heart.

The historian of Greek thought is constantly aware of two contradictory tendencies — the poetic or mythopoeic one and the rationalistic one. The intensity and popularity of the former can be judged from the bewildering richness of Greek mythology. The second was far less popular, though not by any means restricted to men of science; the Greek merchants, we may be sure, were sufficiently matter-of-fact and did not mythologize their business. The two tendencies occurred together and not necessarily in different groups. Men of science might accept the myths as poetical descriptions of things that were not susceptible of scientific explanation.

The religious life of the Greeks was not rigid, but it was exceedingly complex and varied. It is perhaps that very complexity that saved them from dogmatism and from religious tyranny. At the beginning there were local gods in every city and every state, gods for every phenomenon and for every occasion. In the course of time some of those gods acquired more importance.⁴⁹⁰ The diocese of each god might increase or decrease as the political domains of his servants waxed or waned, or for many other reasons. Sanctuaries might grow in popularity and eventually acquire national, even international, ascendency. It is almost impossible to disentangle the mixed motives that led to the abandonment of certain gods, or the success of others. The caprice of little men might have as much power in the end as the political schemes of the great. Moreover, as the gods obtained national stature, there was an opposite propensity to reindividualize them and to attach different degrees of prestige to each of their avatars or of their sanctuaries.⁴⁹¹ There was thus a kind of rhythmic growth and decrease of the gods, an ebb and flow in their power and their scope.

The Greeks had an abundance of gods, yet such was their ardor for worship and their love of mystery that they were irresistibly attracted by foreign gods — Isis and Osiris of Egypt, the Magna Mater of Phrygia, the Phoenician Astarte, and many others. Greek mythology is permeated with Egyptian and Asiatic elements. We can easily imagine that the Greek colonists in Asia and Africa contributed not a little to that religious diffusion. Everything conspired to perfect the syncretism — their own fears and hopes, their love of the unknown and the occult, their desire to conciliate foreign associates, the frank proselytism of their neighbors. Being unrestricted and unprotected by any clear orthodoxy (as were the Jews) they saw no reason why they should not honor the exotic gods and sacrifice in their temples.

The love of magic was apparently strong in their hearts, or at any rate not weaker than it is in the hearts of men, even thinking men, all over the world. They knew well enough the awful powers of nature in all their manifestations (sun and moon, winds, rain, thunder, earthquakes) and were anxious to propitiate them with suitable rites and exorcisms. Special ceremonies were invented to promote fertility, health, longevity, communion with the immortal gods, salvation. The monotony of their lives was periodically relaxed by holidays in their own temples, athletic or musical contests, quiet festivals or orgiastic ones.

Their hospitable religion did not amalgamate only foreign cults; here as elsewhere it appropriated all the local folklore, the beliefs in sacred stones, caves, springs, trees, even animals. The cult of animals was never as popular or as intense as in Egypt or India, but it existed nevertheless; witness the owl of Athene, the eagle of Zeus, the snakes of Asclepios, the bear dances of Athenian girls, and chiefly the Black Demeter of Phigalia (in Arcadia), she who was represented with a horse’s head. Greek mythology is a fantastic hodgepodge of every kind of irrationality, but the wiser men did not take it except with plenty of salt. While the physiologists of Miletos were earnestly trying to explain natural phenomena in rational terms, their neighbors, that is to say, the overwhelming mass of the people, were content to mythologize them and to invent new sacrifices of propitiation or deprecation, rites for the conservation of good things and for the destruction of bad ones, blessings and curses.

We have already come across two great religious centers, Didyma and Ephesos, both in Ionia, but there were many others, the most famous being Delos in the Cyclades, and Delphi, so close to the center of Greece that it was believed to be the navel (omphalos) of the world.⁴⁹²

The existence of those sanctuaries was due to the innate desire of holiness and salvation, and, on the other hand, it helped to strengthen that desire and to spread it. The Greeks loved sanctity as they loved beauty, and they soon developed a rich casuistry relative to the causes of losing it, the means of restoring it, the rites of purification, the ways of interrogating the gods and interpreting their answers. Their love of beauty, of pageantry, of the drama inspired the organization of festivals and games, some of which had already acquired national fame in the sixth century. The Panath naia⁴⁹³ were celebrated in Athens from very early times, the Olympia in Olympia from 776 on, the Pythia near Delphi from 586, the Isthmia in Corinth since 582, the Nemeia in Argos.since 573. The dates given, which are traditional, are probably too early, because people like to deepen the antiquity of their institutions, or to count the age of those institutions from too meager a beginning; but after all, is not every birth modest and obscure and is not every baby very small? These festivals included not only athletic contests, but musical and dancing ones as well. There were competitions in playing the lyre and the flute, in singing to the accompaniment of those instruments, in composing music in a definite mode (for example, the Pythian mode, pythicos nomos) and in reciting Homeric poems (rhaps de ). Finally, there were dramatic festivals, especially those dedicated to Dionysos, which are of great literary significance, because they were the cradles of Greek tragedy. In many sacred places, oracles were rendered in various ways, for example, the oracle of Zeus in Dodona (near the lake and town of Ioannina, Epiros) by the wind rustling through the leaves of oaks or beech trees; the oracle of Apollo in Delphi, by the frenzy of a female medium, the Pythian prophetess. ⁴⁹⁴ These oracles were regulated by the servants of the temples; their administration might imply a certain amount of conscious or unconscious fraud, especially when political questions were involved, but perhaps less than most people imagine. It is foolish to think that everybody believed in divination, except the priests whose business it was to prophesy or to interpret. There were probably a few cynical and skeptical priests, greedy and corruptible; the majority were faithful and honest, otherwise the institution that they served could not have functioned as long or as well as it did.⁴⁹⁵ The oracles helped to standardize the rites and customs; they often were a kind of moral arbitration, as by an impartial and superior conscience, and hence they might strengthen private and public morality.

The most impressive rites were the mysteries (myst ria), secret ceremonies of initiation and progressive edification. The purpose of those elaborate ceremonies, taking place in a hidden part of the temple (for example, the telest rion at Eleusis), was to establish in the mind of the initiated a state of awe, religious fervor, and enthusiasm.⁴⁹⁶ The national festivals generally included mysteries; or rather they were public forms of rejoicing of which the local mysteries were the occasion (just as Christian pilgrimages are focused upon special Masses). For example, in Delphi Apollo overcame the dragon Python and that victory was celebrated periodically in the Pythia.⁴⁹⁷ It was a kind of sacred drama the celebration of which in a magnificent and awful landscape must have stirred religious emotion to the highest pitch.

Among other mysteries it will suffice to mention the Orphica, dedicated to the Thracian hero, poet, and musician, Orpheus, and solemnized in many places; those dedicated to the Pelasgic Cabiri (cabeiria)⁴⁹⁸ in the island of Samothrace; those connected with Demeter and celebrated in Attica, the Thesmophoria by women only and the Eleusinia by men and women alike in Eleusis at the seashore not far from Athens. The Eleusinian mysteries are perhaps the best known to educated readers who are not students of mythology. Those complicated mysteries relative to Demeter, Persephone, and Triptolemos are really nature myths concerned with fertility and immortality; they had been introduced from Crete by the “wise man” Epimenides in 596. The Eleusinian and other mysteries contain an abundance of Pelasgic, Thracian, Asiatic, and Egyptian ideas. It is as if all the beliefs and religions that had grown up in the countries surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean had been put in a crucible for centuries and millennia; the most sacred rites of Hellas were like the residue and the quintessence of that alchemy.

At their best the mysteries emphasized the sanctity of life, and they enhanced a man’s deepest religion, his feeling of partnership with his fellow men in the secret purpose of nature. They were a combination of poetry and drama with pantheism and with the cult of individual gods and heroes. They did no harm to the wise men and women, and sanctified them in the same way as the Mass exalts and strengthens the faithful members of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Nor was participation in the mysteries necessarily incompatible with the search for the truth and the love of science. On the other hand, their influence on simple people was a mixture of good and evil; they helped them to be virtuous, yet increased their superstitious tendencies. The Greek mysteries, like all the religious mysteries, helped good people to be better by exalting their good nature, but made the bad people worse, by adding self-righteousness and hypocrisy to their other vices.

In short, the Greeks were more inclined to poetic myths than to theology; they had no sacred writings and no dogmas, yet were intensely religious; most of them attended the festivals whenever they could, and many celebrated the mysteries with genuine fervor. A few men managed to combine rationalism with “enthusiasm” (and why not?) ; the great mass was abandoned to divination and superstitions of every kind.

The final paradox is this: the ancient Greeks did not have any kind of systematic theology, yet they created the logical instruments that were needed for the development of the three dogmatic religions of the West — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In each of these religions there is a woof of scripture and tradition, but the warp is Greek. The ancient Greeks had no theology of their own, but they were the founders of theology.


Paul Tannery (1843–1904), Pour l’histoire de la science Hellène (Paris, 1887); rev. ed. by A. Dies (Paris, 1930). The revision was very insufficient, but much of the old text retains its importance.

— — Recherches sur l‘histoire de l’astronomie ancienne (Paris, 1893).

John Burnet (1883-1928), Early Greek philosophy (London, 1892; ed. 2, 1908; ed. 3, 1920).

Theodor Gomperz (1832–1912), Griechische Denker (3 vols.; Leipzig, 1896–1909); Greek thinkers (4 vols.; London, 1901–1912).

Hermann Diels (1848–1922), Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin, 1903; ed. 3, 3 vols., 1912–1922; ed. 4, anastatic reprint, 1922; ed. 5, Berlin, 1934–35).

Kathleen Freeman, The pre-Socratic philosophers (500 pp.; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1946). This is derived from Diels, the chapters being numbered as in Diels’ fifth edition. All in English!

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