Ancient History & Civilisation

VI. RETROSPECT

Looking back upon the multifarious civilization whose peaks have been sketched in the foregoing pages, we begin to understand what the Greeks were fighting for at Marathon. We picture the Aegean as a beehive of busy, quarrelsome, alert, inventive Greeks, establishing themselves obstinately in every port, developing their economy from tillage to industry and trade, and already creating great literature, philosophy, and art. It is amazing how quickly and widely this new culture matured, laying in the sixth century all the foundations for the achievements of the fifth. It was a civilization in certain respects finer than that of the Periclean period—superior in epic and lyric poetry, enlivened and adorned by the greater freedom and mental activity of women, and in some ways better governed than in the later and more democratic age. But even of democracy the bases had been prepared; by the end of the century the dictatorships had taught Greece enough order to make possible Greek liberty.

The realization of self-government was something new in the world; life without kings had not yet been dared by any great society. Out of this proud sense of independence, individual and collective, came a powerful stimulus to every enterprise of the Greeks; it was their liberty that inspired them to incredible accomplishments in arts and letters, in science and philosophy It is true that a large part of the people, then as always, harbored and loved superstitions, mysteries, and myths; men must be consoled. Despite this, Greek life had become unprecedentedly secular; politics, law, literature, and speculation had one by one been separated and liberated from ecclesiastical power. Philosophy had begun to build a naturalistic interpretation of the world and man, of body and soul. Science, almost unknown before, had made its first bold formulations; the elements of Euclid were established; clarity and order and honesty of thought had become the ideal of a saving minority of men. A heroic effort of flesh and spirit rescued these achievements, and the promise they held, from the dead hand of alien despotism and the darkness of the Mysteries, and won for European civilization the trying privilege of freedom.

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