THE first men the gods created were the race of the Men of Gold. As long as Cronus (Saturn) ruled the heavens, they lived free of care and untouched by toil or sorrow, almost like the gods themselves. Nor did they ever grow old. Their hands and feet retained their young strength. Lithe of limb, unvexed by ills, they rejoiced in feasting and gaiety, and the immortals loved them and gave them plentiful harvests and stately herds. When their time came to die, they slipped into untroubled sleep, but while they lived they had many desirable things. Earth yielded them her fruits of her own accord and in great abundance. Rich in all they had need of, they lived out their days in calm serenity. When Destiny decreed that they pass from the earth, they became benevolent patron deities, who pace the length and breadth of the land garmented in cloud, grant gifts, uphold justice, and avenge wrongs.
Then the gods created a second race, the race of the Men of Silver. These were very different from the first, both in appearance and spirit. Their sons remained boys for a full hundred years, immature in their ways, tended and indulged by their mothers. And when such a child at last grew to young manhood, only a brief span of life was left him. Reckless actions plunged these new men into disaster, for they could not check their passions. They were savage and proud, sinned against one another, and no longer paid homage to the gods by bringing fitting sacrifice to their altars. Zeus was so displeased at this lack of reverence for the immortals that he removed this race from the earth. But even the silver race was not so devoid of all virtues that certain honors were not accorded them, for when they had ceased to live as human beings, they were permitted to roam the earth as demons.
And now Father Zeus created a third race, the race of the Men of Bronze. These, in turn, were utterly unlike the silver, cruel and violent, concerned only with wars, and always eager to hurt one another. They disdained the fruits of the field and fed on the flesh of animals. Their stubborn will was hard as the diamond. From their enormous shoulders grew massive arms which none ventured to brave. They wore armor of bronze, dwelt in houses of bronze, and worked with brazen tools, for at that time there was no iron. But though they were mighty of build and terrible and fought one another incessantly, they were powerless against death. And when they left the clear and radiant atmosphere of earth, they descended into the murky night of the underworld.
When this race too had died out, Zeus, the son of Cronus, produced a fourth race, to live on the nourishing earth. These new men were nobler and more just than those before them. They were the heroes whom Antiquity calls “demigods.” But in the end they too fell in feuds and wars, some before the seven gates of Thebes, where they were fighting for the realm of King Oedipus, others on the field of Troy, where they had come in ships for the sake of beautiful Helen. When their existence on earth had ended in battle and disaster, Zeus assigned them a region at the very rim of the universe, on the Islands of the Blest gleaming in the dark sea. Here they lead a tranquil and happy life after death, and three times a year the rich earth grants them a harvest of honey-sweet fruits.
The old poet Hesiod, who tells the legend of the ages of man, ends with a sigh of regret: “Ah, if only I did not belong to the fifth age of men which is now come. Had I but died earlier, or come into the world later! For this is the iron age. These men are utterly corrupt. By day and by night they labor and fret, and the gods send them more and more gnawing cares. But they bring their greatest trouble upon themselves. The father does not love his son, nor the son his father. Guest hates host, and friend hates friend. Even brothers do not cherish each other with a whole heart, as in times gone by, and the grey hair of parents commands no reverence. The aged must listen to shameful language and suffer blows. O ruthless men! Have you forgotten the judgment the gods will pass, that you deny your old parents thanks for the care they had of you? Everywhere the right of might prevails, and city destroys its neighbor city. Whoever is true to his oath and is good and just finds no favor, while the evildoer and the hardhearted blasphemer are heaped with honors. Fairness and moderation are no longer esteemed. The wicked are allowed to harm the noble, to lie, and to swear false oaths. And that is why these men are so unhappy. Discordant and malicious envies pursue them and cast gloom upon their brows. The goddesses of virtue and awe, who until now have frequented the earth, sadly veil their lovely limbs in robes of white and flee from men, back to the gathering of the eternal gods. Nothing but misery is left to mortals, and no end of this mournful state is yet in sight.”