Ancient History & Civilisation

III. THE MORALS OF DECAY

The failure of the city-state accelerated the decay of the orthodox religion; the gods of the city had proved helpless to defend it, and had forfeited belief. The population was intermingled with foreign merchants who had no share in the city’s civic or religious life, and whose amused skepticism spread among the citizens. The mythology of the ancient local gods survived among the peasantry and the simple townsfolk, and in the official rites; the educated used it for poetry and art, the half-liberated attacked it bitterly, the upper classes supported it as an aid to order, and discountenanced open atheism as bad taste. The growth of large states brought on a sympolity of the gods and made for a vague monotheism, while philosophers strove to formulate pantheism for the literate in a manner not too obviously incompatible with orthodox belief. About 300 Euhemerus of Messana in Sicily published his Hiera Anagrapha (literally Holy Scriptures, or Records), in which he argued that the gods were either personified powers of nature, or, more often, human heroes deified by popular imagination or gratitude for their benefits to mankind; that myths were allegories, and that religious ceremonies were originally exercises in commemoration of the dead. So Zeus was a conqueror who had died in Crete, Aphrodite was the founder and patroness of prostitution, and the story of Cronus eating his children was only a way of saying that cannibalism had once existed on the earth. The book had a sharply atheistic effect in third-century Greece.*23a

Skepticism, however, is uncomfortable; it leaves the common heart and imagination empty, and the vacuum soon draws in some new and encouraging creed. The victories of philosophy and Alexander cleared the way for novel cults. Athens in the third century was so disturbed by exotic faiths, nearly all of them promising heaven and threatening hell, that Epicurus, like Lucretius in first-century Rome, felt called upon to denounce religion as hostile to peace of mind and joy of life. The new temples, even in Athens, were now usually dedicated to Isis, Serapis, Bendis, Adonis, or some other alien deity. The Eleusinian mysteries flourished, and were imitated in Egypt, Italy, Sicily, and Crete; Dionysus Eleutherios—the Liberator—remained popular until he was absorbed into Christ; Orphism won fresh devotees as it renewed contact with the Eastern faiths from which it had sprung. The old religion had been aristocratic, and had excluded foreigners and slaves; the new Oriental cults accepted all men and women, alien or bond or free, and held out to all classes the promise of eternal life.

Superstition spread while science reached its apogee. Theophrastus’ portrait of the Superstitious Man reveals how frail was the film of culture even in the capital of enlightenment and philosophy. The number seven was unspeakably holy; there were seven planets, seven days of the week, seven Wonders, seven Ages of Man, seven heavens, seven gates of hell. Astrology was rejuvenated by commerce with Babylonia; people took it for granted that the stars were gods who ruled in detail the destinies of individuals and states; character, even thought, was determined by the star or planet under which one had been born, and would therefore be jovial, or mercurial, or saturnine; even the Jews, the least superstitious of all peoples, expressed good wishes by saying Mazzol-tov—“May your planet be favorable.”24 Astronomy fought for its life against astrology, but finally succumbed in the second century A.D. And everywhere the Hellenistic world worshiped Tyche, the great god Chance.

Only an act of persistent imagination, or a gift for observation, can enable us to realize what it means to a nation to have its traditional religion die. Classic Greek civilization had been built upon a patriotic devotion to the city-state, and classic morality, though rooted in folkways rather than in faith, had been powerfully reinforced by supernatural belief. But now neither faith nor patriotism survived in the educated Greek; civic frontiers had been erased by empires; and the growth of knowledge had secularized morals, marriage, parentage, and law. For a time the Periclean Enlightenment helped morality, as in modern Europe; humanitarian feelings were developed, and aroused—ineffectually—a keener resentment against war; arbitration grew among cities and men. Manners were more polished, argument more urbane; courtesy trickled down, as in our Middle Ages, from the courts of the kings, where it was a matter of personal safety and royal prestige; when the Romans came Greece was amazed at their bad manners and blunt ways. Life was more refined; women moved about in it more freely, and stimulated the males to unwonted elegance. Men shaved now, especially in Byzantium and Rhodes, where the laws forbade it as effeminate.25 But the pursuit of pleasure consumed the adult life of the upper classes. The old problem of ethics and morals—to reconcile the natural epicureanism of the individual with the necessary stoicism of the state—found no solution in religion, statesmanship, or philosophy.

Education spread, but spread thin; as in all intellectual ages it stressed knowledge more than character, and produced masses of half-educated people who, uprooted from labor and the land, moved about in unplaced discontent like loosened cargo in the ship of state. Some cities, like Miletus and Rhodes, established public—i.e., government-supported—schools; at Teos and Chios boys and girls were educated together, with an impartiality that only Sparta had shown26 The gymnasium developed into a high school or college, with classrooms, lecture hall, and library. The palaestra flourished, and proved popular in the East; but public games had degenerated into professional contests, chiefly boxing, in which strength counted for more than skill; the Greeks, who had once been a nation of athletes, became now a nation of spectators, content to witness rather than to do.

Sexual morality was relaxed even beyond the loose standards of the Periclean age. Homosexualism remained popular; the youth Delphis “is in love,” says Theocritus’ Simaetha, “but whether for a woman or for a man I cannot say.”27 The courtesan still reigned: Demetrius Poliorcetes levied a tax of two hundred and fifty talents ($750,000) upon the Athenians, and then gave it to his mistress Lamia on the ground that she needed it for soap; which led the angry Athenians to remark how unclean the lady must be.28 Dances of naked women were accepted as part of the mores, and were performed before a Macedonian king.29 Athenian life was portrayed in Menander’s plays as a round of triviality, seduction, and adultery.

Greek women participated actively in the cultural pursuits of the time, and contributed to letters, science, philosophy, and art. Aristodama of Smyrna gave recitals of her poetry throughout Greece, and received many honors. Some philosophers, like Epicurus, did not hesitate to admit women into their schools. Literature began to stress the physical loveliness of woman rather than her worth and charm as a mother; the literary cult of feminine beauty arose in this period alongside the poetry and fiction of romantic love. The partial emancipation of woman was accompanied by a revolt against wholesale maternity, and the limitation of the family became the outstanding social phenomenon of the age. Abortion was punishable only if practiced by a woman against the wish of her husband, or at the instigation of her seducer. When a child came it was in many cases exposed. Only one family in a hundred, in the old Greek cities, reared more than one daughter: “Even a rich man,” reports Poseidippus, “always exposes a daughter.” Sisters were a rarity. Families with no child, or only one, were numerous. Inscriptions enable us to trace the fertility of seventy-nine families in Miletus about 200 B.C.: thirty-two had one child, thirty-one had two; altogether they had one hundred and eighteen sons and twenty-eight daughters.30 At Eretria only one family in twelve had two sons; hardly any had two daughters. Philosophers condoned infanticide as reducing the pressure of population; but when the lower classes took up the practice on a large scale, the death rate overtook the birth rate. Religion, which had once frightened men into fertility lest their dead souls be untended, no longer had the power to outweigh considerations of comfort and cost. In the colonies immigration replaced the old families; in Attica and the Peloponnesus immigration trickled down to a negligible figure, and population declined. In Macedonia Philip V forbade the limitation of the family, and in thirty years raised the man power of the country fifty per cent;31 we may judge from this how widespread the practice of limitation had become, even in half-primitive Macedon. “In our time,” wrote Polybius about 150 B.C.,

the whole of Greece has been subject to a low birth rate and a general decrease of the population, owing to which cities have become deserted and the land has ceased to yield fruit. . . . For as men had fallen into such a state of luxury, avarice, and indolence that they did not wish to marry, or, if they married, to rear the children born to them, or at most but one or two of them, so as to leave these in affluence and bring them up to waste their substance—the evil insensibly but rapidly grew. For in cases where, of one or two children, the one was carried off by war and the other by sickness, it was evident that the houses must have been left empty . . . and by small degrees cities became resourceless and feeble.32

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